Monday, 13 November 2017


Strangely, the increasing toll taken on both sides meant that the decisive 12th Battle of the Isonzo, better known as Caporetto, was completely different to the preceding eleven. The results of the artillery barrages of 10 and 11 had put the Italians across the Isonzo in the south, and on to the plains of Bainsizza and the Carso. But the efforts had exhausted the Italian armies, while the Austrian army under Borosevic was so weakened that he believed his only chance lay in a last desperate counter offensive.
Italians rounded up as prisoners
at Caporetto
In fact, Caporetto presaged the strategic change on the Western Front. In Isonzo 1-11 (as in every major Western Front action from Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 to Third Ypres)the pattern had been of Allied bombardment followed by the infantry throwing themselves against the well formed defences of the Central Powers. Ludendorff soon recognised the opportunity, provided by the collapse of the Russian front, to change the game. A combination of innovation in tactics and technology, linked with the weakness and exhaustion of the combatants made it possible. Much of the German army’s activity in the summer of 1917 was focused on the tactics – those of shock troops supported by rapid deployment of reserves; of gas attacks rather than prolonged opening bombardments. In summary, surprise rather than pulverisation. They were often known as ‘Hutier tactics’, after the General who first employed them in the capture of Riga in September 917, but he could not claim to have invented them.
Ludendorff, apparently the source of the ‘shackled to a corpse’ disparagement of Austria in 1915, was not keen to launch his new tactics in an Austrian cause, but on this occasion Hindenburg overruled him, and resolved to give German support to Austria’s hopes to knock Italy out of the war.

In October 1917 Italy was in a precarious state – economically, politically and militarily. Her population was worn down by the heavy losses – and hungry. In several cities there was unrest, particularly in Turin, the centre of armaments production. Sedition and propaganda caused a turmoil with riots in August 1917, superficially over bread shortages, but for much deeper reasons. Turin was declared a warzone under martial law, and many of the able bodied men were conscripted into battalions and sent, with no training, to the front near….... Caporetto.
The Italian government was struggling to retain its authority as a loose coalition. Its pacifist sections had been strengthened by a widely issued peace note from the Vatican in 1917 – much more influential in Italy than in other belligerent country. The Prime Minister Boselli was under attack from all sides, and would not survive the initial shock reactions to Caporetto.
The Italian army was exhausted and depleted. The Isonzo front was held mostly by Capello’s shattered 2nd army, with d’Aosta’s 3rd holding the southern section from the Carso to the sea (See Post 16/9/2017). Italian casualties from the 10th Isonzo battle outnumbered the total for first nine, and losses in the 11th were even worse than the 10th. The situation was desperate, but Cadorna, the Commander-in-Chief, accommodate miles behind the front line, continued his merciless approach, which was to do little more than issue strident orders, blaming his officers and men for every failure. He was hated, and the men’s morale was at rock bottom.

German preparations, carried out with their customary efficiency and stealth, brought several Divisions trained in Hutier tactics and two Divisions of crack Alpine troops. More importantly they took over military command of operations. General Otto von Below was moved from the western Front to take control from the Austrian High Command (including the wretched von Hotzendorf). Below planned for surprise by selecting the upper Isonzo as his breakthrough point, rather than south of Tolmino nearer to the plains.
Italian intelligence was weak, and consequently their preparations were poor. Some rumours of German involvement reached Cadorna but he felt it more likely they would head for the Trentino region than the Isonzo. He kept most of his artillery in the south Isonzo front, leaving the upper reaches more vulnerable to attack.
The Caporetto Disaster. Everything between the Isonzo front in the East and the River Piave to
the West was conceded to the Austrians (with a little help form the Germans).

(Modified from Liddell Hart's 'History of the First World War) 
The onslaught began on 24th October 1917. Below ordered initial infantry attacks along the whole 60 miles front, but he was concentrating on three sites between Tolmino and Saga in the mountains to make his breakthrough. The town of Caporetto was the middle of these, and it was the first to give way. Stunned and terrified by the speed of advance and the gas attacks, the Italians in Caporetto panicked, and either surrendered or fled in huge numbers. Within hours, thousands of Below’s men had poured through the widening gap and were surrounding defenders on the higher ground positions west of the river. Within two days the crucial Monte Maggiore defensive line had been passed, and Capello’s army was in full retreat on the plains to Udine, pursued by, among others, a certain Erwin Rommel.
On 28th came the crisis that reverberated throughout the allied countries. Von Below had taken Udine and was heading across the plain to the River Tagliamento the next great natural barrier (see Map). Up to this point, the Duke d’Aosta’s 3rd army had performed well, and held its positions on the plains east of Gorizia. But Below’s rapid progress towards the Tagliamento brought the risk of isolation beyond communication lines. An urgent retreat to the Tagliamento was begun, and on that day Gorizia, so hard won, was abandoned. Somehow, the nightmare retreat was managed. Buchan’s graphic account “For a moment it seemed that the Duke of Aosta would share the fate of Capello. A million of men were retreating along the western highways, encumbered with batteries and hospitals and transport, while by every choked route peasants and townsmen fled for refuge from the Austrian cavalry. Units lost discipline, orders miscarried, roads were blocked for hours, and all the while down from the north came the menace of Below, swooping southward to cut off all retreat. There had been nothing like it before in the campaign, not even in the Russian debacle of 1915, for then there had been great open spaces to move in.” The 3rd army (most of it) just won the race to its river crossings. By 31st October they had crossed to support the temporary line of the 2nd army, strung out northwards on the right bank of the Tagliamento. D’Aosta’s rear-guard troops and masses of equipment were cut off and captured.
The first news of the Caporetto breakthrough had reached the Allies on 26th October, and the British and French governments at once agreed to send five Divisions each to support the defence of Italy’s front. The British force would be led by Plumer, their best general, but it would take time to get there.
Cadorna realised that the Tagliamento line could not be held, and that a more extensive withdrawal would be necessary. The best defensive positions were to be found behind the River Adige, nearly one hundred miles back, but such a move would concede Venice and with it control of the north Adriatic Sea. Instead, the right bank of the River Piave, 30-50 miles back, was selected. Here the upper reaches were vulnerable, and it would be necessary to pull back the 4th Army of de Robilant to the line of the river, so it would form a link between the remnants of the 2nd army on its right, and the 1st army, currently facing the Austrians on the Asiago plateau, on its left (see Map, and post 3/11/2016).
Through early November the plan was executed with determination and skill. On 7th November final positions on the Tagliamento were relinquished, and by 10th a new line had been achieved. This retrenchment, allied to the actions of a new Government, led by Vittorio Orlando, restored some pride and a new sense of national unity. This was timely, as serious attempts were being made by the Austrians to break the new line. In this critical phase many gallant defensive actions were fought, upstream from the important town of Montello and the high ground of Monte Grappa between the Piave and Brenta rivers (see Map). De Robilant led his troops brilliantly, even though many of them were raw reserves or new recruits. Attempts further south by Borosevic to break through to Venice were repulsed.
Vittorio Orlando
The new PM helped turn around
Italy's prospects in late 1917.
Cadorna was finally sacked, being replaced by Diaz, and in early December a significant conference took place in Rapallo, northern Italy. The senior leaders there - Lloyd George and the new French and Italian Prime Ministers (Painlevé and Orlando) - took firm steps towards creation of the Allied Council at Versailles and a unified military command (Ferdinand Foch, who would be the first supreme commander, was also present).
In December, the British and French Divisions took their place alongside the Italian 4th Army in the Montello sector. Von Below and his senior officers were recalled to the Western Front for planning purposes, and the immediate danger had passed.

So, from the disaster – desertion and humiliation – at Caporetto arose a new national unity in response, and a magnificent defence of the new line under its new Command. Italy’s losses were officially estimated at 800,000 ‘effectives’ (10,000 dead; 30,000 wounded; 265,00 prisoners; 350,000 missing and deserters, and 150,000 sick). She had all but collapsed, which might haver brought a premature overall defeat for the Allies. A close run thing.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Czech Legion 1

Europe 1919 - the new order
One of the reasons that WW1 has always absorbed me is the influence of its outcomes on the map of the world that we live in today (let alone their direct causation of WW2). The dismantling of four of the six great empires involved – German; Austro-Hungarian; Ottoman and Russian – created numerous new states. The list is a long one – countries of the Middle East, Ukraine, Poland, Yugoslavia and Turkey included – but of all of them Czechoslovakia provides some of the most fascinating stories.
Rewind to 1914, before the Sarajevo assassination. The Habsburg Empire, constituted as the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary since 1867, had been crumbling for years, at a pace almost as fast as its historic rival, the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, the need to strike against the multiple disaffected ethnic groups and grumbling nationalist movements was one of the main drivers for Austria’s determination to declare war against Serbia. Austria’s own representative (and toothless) parliament, the Reichsrat (Imperial Council) had been disrupted for several years by the tactics of the various nationalist groups. Foremost among them were the Bohemian (Czech) nationalists. During the July crisis of 1914 the Reichsrat was suspended and would not reconvene for over three years. The Czech nationalists pursued their cause through different routes, and they would be indebted to two men in particular: Thomas Masaryk - later Founding President of Czechoslovakia - and Edvard Benes - later first Foreign Minister and successor as President to Masaryk. But, on suspension of the Reichsrat statehood for Czechoslovakia (and their own roles) were but distant dreams.

Masaryk - extraordinary man,
incredible life
Thomas Masaryk (Tomàš Garrigue Masaryk 1850-1937) was a truly remarkable man. Born in Bohemia, he studied at Vienna University, gaining a PhD in 1879 on the epidemiology of suicide (surely an enlightened topic for the time). He pursued a dual career, academic and political, and used both to great advantage. He became a Professor of Philosophy at Charles University, Prague, aged only 32. He served two terms as a member of the Reichsrat before its suspension, the second as leader of the Realist Party, which he had founded some years earlier.
When war broke out, Masaryk concluded rapidly that his nationalist sedition would have better chances from exile. In December 1914 he narrowly avoided arrest, and escaped with his eldest daughter from his home in Prague, leaving his long-suffering wife (an American national) to look after the rest of the family. He made his way to Rome, then Geneva, then London via Paris. In London he made a base, but travelled extensively, particularly to North America, building up political support and networks, often under cover of academic lecture tours. He gained a professorship at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London. On his visits to the USA he galvanised the support of large numbers of Czech and Slovak immigrants (reckoned to number as many as 1.5millions) concentrated in Chicago and the Eastern seaboard cities. He won the support of an influential Chicago industrialist, Charles Crane, employer of large numbers of Czechs. Crane would, in time, open the door to Washington for Masaryk.

When WW1 opened in 1914, large numbers of ethnic Czechs and Slovaks were living on the Russian side of Austria-Hungary’s northern border. As Masaryk began his tour in exile, those Czech and Slovak representatives petitioned the Russian Duma to support their cause for an independent state. An offer of voluntary Czech units to fight alongside the Russian army evidenced their sincerity. Their offer was rapidly accepted by the Stavka (military HQ) and a small unit known as the Ceska Druzina (‘Czech companions’ - compare with the ‘Pals’ battalions in England in 1914) was formed and assigned to the 3rd Russian Army. Masaryk, when he learned of this, saw immediately the political potential to gain support from the Allies for his cause. He urged the Druzina leaders to expand as much as possible, particularly by gaining permission to recruit from the many Czechs among the Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war. Initially, the Russian authorities gave permission, but shortly afterwards withdrew it, for ill defined political reasons. The Druzina numbers thus stayed at around 2,500 through 1915-1916, although they established a good reputation for courage and discipline (the latter began to falter badly in the wider Russian army in the latter stages of 1916). They were restructured as the 1st Czech Rifle Regiment during this time.
Edvard Benes, second only
to Masaryk in Czechoslovakia

All the while, Masaryk was promoting the cause through networks of overt political activities and by covert diplomacy and espionage. Benes created an anti-Austrian resistance movement in Bohemia, the Maffia (sic), before going into exile himself in 1915. He was a constant presence in Paris from 1916-18, where he was secretary of the Czechoslovak National Council – the Czech Government in waiting. Unhappily for him and Masaryk, there was a rival pro-Russian, Tsarist, anti-independence group in Petrograd- the Czech and Slovak National Council, led by Josef Durich, vying for influence within the Druzina.

The February 1917 Revolution in Petrograd changed the situation dramatically. The instability throughout Russia and the Eastern Front had a mixed impact on Masaryk’s cause. On the positive side the new Provisional Government (see Post 23/2/2017) abolished Durich’s Council. Milyukov, one of the PG’s ministers, called for an independent Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, the disintegration of the Eastern Front threatened a German crushing of his fledgling national army. He had already moved to Paris to support Benes and to persuade the French of the desirability of his forces fighting alongside the French Army on the Western Front. He needed to back a winning horse, and at that moment the Western Allies were looking stronger. On learning of events in Petrograd, Masaryk resolved to go there as soon as possible to influence actions. His first attempt to travel was foiled when his transport steamer was torpedoed and sunk en route to
Milan Stefanyk.
Slovaks comprised
around 10% of the
Czech Legion
France. He was forced to kick his heels in London for a couple of months, leaving behind Benes and his Slovak counterpart Milan Stefanyk. In May 1917 he left London with a forged British passport in the name of Thomas George Marsden, taking a boat to the remote north of Sweden where he entered Russian Finland via the border town of Haparanda.

Masaryk had spent much time in pre-war Russia and had many well placed contacts there. He found himself in a chaotic and confused environment, but was able to make progress with the Provisional Government on the subject of recruiting prisoners of war for the Druzina. Shortly came the time for the Kerensky offensive of July 1917 (see Post 27/8/2017) – the last throw of the dice for the beaten Russian army. In the overall disaster, the Druzina had its finest moment in the Battle of Zborov, near Lemberg. A force of around 5,000 Czechs overran the trenches and positions of the much greater strength Austro-Hungarian forces (including, ironically, two Bohemian regiments). Set against the other adverse outcomes, this victory strengthened Masaryk’s negotiating position with a now desperate Kerensky, who authorised further recruitment of Czech and Slovak PoWs. He also agreed that Brusilov (now his Chief of Staff) could define the military relationship with Masaryk. Remarkably, “Brusilov agreed to Masaryk’s plans to transform the Druzina into an independent CzechoSlovak corps that would remain militarily under Russian control, but politically under the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris. He agreed to their departure to France, and to Masaryk’s demand that his men maintain neutrality inside Russia”*. Masaryk followed up this breath-taking stroke with a hectic tour of the battlefronts and PoW camps to maximise recruitment to what was now named the ‘Czech Legion’.
Equally breath-taking were the plans for transfer of the Legion from the Eastern to the Western Front. By means of the Trans-Siberian Railway, they were to be transported to Vladivostok; thence by sea to Vancouver; across Canada, and then across the Atlantic to France. Needless to say this ambitious plan encountered a number of logistical and political challenges, but these will have to wait until next year. Suffice to say the Czech Legion found itself drawn into the last stages of WW1 in the East; the murders of the Tsar and his family, and the Russian Civil War.

*Dreams of a Great Small Nation. Kevin McNamara p132

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Russian Revolution 4: - Lenin's October Revolution

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov -
Lenin, undisguised
The previous post on Russia (See 27/8/2017) described how the public mood lurched from one extreme to the other during the chaos of the July days; and how violence, looting and anarchy threatened society across Russia in different ways. Kerensky remained Prime Minister of a shaky Provisional Government (PG) and was still a threat to those who would wish to usurp him. Kornilov’s military coup had been snuffed out, and he had been succeeded as head of the Stavka (army) by the more dependable Alexeev.  Across the border in Finland, Lenin was hiding away from the warrant for his arrest issued by Kerensky. He was nevertheless attempting to orchestrate the overthrow of the PG, knowing that this would likely provoke civil war across Russia – something he felt was necessary for a true proletarian revolution to succeed. The more democratically minded Bolsheviks in the Petrograd Soviet, led by Kamenev and Zinoviev, were strongly opposed to such an uprising, mainly for fear of being destroyed by an overwhelming counter-revolution (as had happened to the communards in Paris in 1871).
In late August, the Petrograd Soviet passed the Bolshevik resolution “On Power” (including Lenin’s slogan “All power to the Soviets”) as tensions increased in the frail partnership between PG and Soviet. The Moscow Soviet backed this a few days later, and by mid-September more than 80 Soviets in large towns and cities had backed the call, and the slogan. In most of these Bolsheviks were outnumbered by Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and their factions; Mensheviks and others. However, the Bolsheviks tended to be the most vocal and influential, and often gained themselves majority positions on executive groups. Overall there was a strong consensus supporting the Petrograd Soviet’s call for an All-Russia Congress of Soviets to establish a position on national government. Nevertheless, as the weeks passed uncertainly, there was a growing political awareness and militancy among the workers (influenced more by the touring Trotsky than the exiled Lenin). Violence, looting and pogroms were widespread and it seemed anarchy would replace democracy. The conditions were turning in Lenin’s favour.

Still the leadership of the Soviet did not react to the changing positions, and take the opportunity to challenge the PG’s weak position. Kamenev issued a call for the All-Russia Soviets congress to take place in Petrograd on October 20th (2nd November Gregorian*), at which the coalition of revolutionary groups would determine their position regarding national government. Lenin, presumably seething with frustration, risked a return to Russia, to Vyborg 80 miles north of Petrograd, to communicate better with his erstwhile colleagues. From there, he harangued Kamenev and others with letters urging an uprising before the Congress. He was convinced the Bolsheviks had to lead, rather than be a minority partner in a Soviet leftist coalition. His demands became more strident, and he was obliged to drop his “all power to the soviets” slogan. His absence from the hub of activity at this time clearly impacted on his influence.
Kamenev (r) and Zinoviev. Men of principle
but not equal to the resolve of Lenin.
Without his input, a ‘Democratic conference’ was held on 14th September to guide the Petrograd Soviet’s stance in negotiating with Kerensky about his new PG. In practical terms this was a disaster. No firm conclusion were drawn as, again, the intellectuals of the movement argued over principles and dogma. Kerensky was left free to reshuffle his PG giving even less influence to the Soviet than in the previous version. Lenin’s best support at this time came from Trotsky, whose recent conversion to Bolshevism allied to his brilliant rhetoric was influencing the proletariat that Lenin wanted to arouse. At the end of September Lenin went public with his letters, openly denouncing the Soviet leadership as “miserable traitors to the proletarian cause”. Kamenev called for Lenin’s arrest, and re-issued his decision that no precipitate moves should be planned pending the Congress on 20th October.
The fuse for John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World” ** was now lit. On 10th October, Lenin returned to Petrograd disguised as a pastor, and took a room in a party worker’s apartment. From there he convened a secret meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee (ironically in the house of a prominent Menshevik whose wife was a devotee of Lenin). Only twelve of the 21 members of the committee were able to attend to hear Lenin’s urging for an uprising before the Congress. However, they supported it by 10 votes to 2. The dissenters were Kamenev and Zinoviev. They had been upstaged, but no date for the action had been set, and the full committee would decide.
Lenin’s plan was for the ‘northern’ Soviet’s pre-Congress meeting, scheduled for 11-13th October in Petrograd to provide the vote for the uprising. He thought he had them in his pocket (he had not been wasting his time in the north), but Kamenev attended and struck back with a resolution that passed – namely that Congress should decide on 20th October, and not before.
On 16th October (29th Gregorian) the same drama played out at the Bolshevik Central Committee, housed in Smolny Palace. This time Lenin was present and his influence carried the day. A majority of the full committee backed his proposal. Kamelev resigned amid bitterness and rancour, and he now went public with his grievances. The Soviet leadership, alarmed by the development, postponed the Congress by five days in order to bring in more of their own (non-Bolshevik) members from distant Soviets.
The Smolny Institute. Formerly an
institution for daughters of the rich,
a hotbed of Bolshevik politics in
late 1917
But Lenin’s proletarian revolution now had the momentum and he was able to use the additional time to prepare his actions in Petrograd. He put Trotsky in charge of the local Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC), ostensibly as a protective move for the Soviet (in fact it was a purely Bolshevik vehicle). Kerensky’s erratic response was to declare war on the Bolsheviks, and to order the Petrograd garrison to the war front 100 miles away (the latter because he doubted their loyalty and was considering moving the PG to Moscow). His move backfired badly. The garrison refused to leave the city and fell straight into the arms of the MRC. This, on 21st October (3rd Nov Gregorian), was the first act of the insurrection. By 23rd they had occupied the St Peter and Paul Fortress, and thereby control of the artillery overlooking the home of the PG – the Winter Palace.
By the time the fabled (and delayed) All-Russia Soviets Congress started on the morning of 25th (8th  November Gregorian) the PG was locked in the Winter Palace, surrounded and defenceless. Key buildings and services had been taken over. Lenin's power seizure was at hand. Like the Democratic conference in September, the Congress proved to be a shambles, working perfectly in Lenin’s favour. The Mensheviks, SRs and some of the moderate Bolsheviks walked out of the meeting in protest at Lenin’s coup, foregoing a final chance to argue the position round to a coalition Soviet government. Lenin had the initiative. Where most people expected him to lead a Soviet government ahead of an elected Constitutional Assembly (still the holy grail since the February Revolution), Lenin instead created a Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom). All fifteen of its members were Bolsheviks.
The Sovnarkom announced Constitutional Assembly elections for January 1918, and these duly took place with nearly 50 million people voting. The results were both fascinating and meaningless. Fascinating, in that approximate results were: SRs 38%; Bolsheviks 23%; Kadets 5%; Mensheviks 4%; and nationalist non-Russian parties 17%. Meaningless, because in the intervening three months Lenin’s Bolsheviks had gone a long way to establishing a one-party state by seizing control of national institutions and local Soviets; and by fomenting violence, looting, repression and revenge.

At its convocation in January 1918, the Bolsheviks, signalling their intention to defend what they had seized, immediately closed the Constituent Assembly, and civil war became inevitable. By conviction, determination, improvisation and strength of character Lenin had become the most significant revolutionary leader in history. Russia’s experiment with democracy was over. The October Revolution had seized power with even less bloodshed than the February event. But what followed – in mob violence, the ‘Red Terror’ and a prolonged civil war – was far worse.

* NB Russia still used the Julian Calendar until the following year. Its dates run 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar
**  Communist and Journalist John Reed's eye witness account of those momentous events conveys powerfully the confusion and volatility of the time.