Saturday, 16 September 2017

Italy 1917 - Isonzo Battles 10 and 11

The Isonzo Front 1915-1917
(borrowed from the excellent blog 'Things have changed'
Although the Italo-Austrian border snaked for more than 500 miles across the Alps and down to the Adriatic (a distance longer than the Western Front), we have seen in previous posts on Italy (7/7/2015 and 3/11/2016) how the great majority of action occurred along the 60 miles of the River Isonzo front. Only the Austrian gambit from the Trentino region (see Post 3/5/2016) made an incursion into other Italian territory in attempt to cut off the Italian communications to their main front further east. 
The Isonzo front ran from the mountain towns of Plezzo and Bovec in the north down to the Adriatic sea with the river estuary between Montfalcone on the Italian side and the coveted city of Trieste on the Austrian side (see Map). No less than twelve separate battles took place on the Isonzo front from 1915-1917. For the most part they were depressingly 'Groundhog Day' struggles. Following Italian bombardments that grew in intensity with each battle, swathes of infantry would be hurled at Austrian defences that were numerically inferior but strategically placed on mountainous higher ground. Slaughter in these battles was comparable to anything seen on Western and Eastern Fronts. Cadorna, the dominating Italian C-in-C was a good organiser, but his arrogance and pig-headedness resulted in senseless casualties. He sacked hundreds of senior officers for failing to achieve their objectives, or for questioning his tactics. He rarely visited the front, and persisted in his Haig-like belief that one more push would create the breakthrough to open warfare and an advance on Vienna. He treated his troops as fodder, even employing the ancient Roman barbarity of decimation, whereby one in ten troops of a line up post 'failure' were taken out of the line and shot for cowardice in order to stiffen the resolve of the rest. Unbelievable.  
Of the 12 battles, only 6, 11and 12 had strategic impact. The 6th battle resulted in the capture of Gorizia and a toehold on the Carso plain (Post 3/11/2016). The 12th is better known as Caporetto and will be covered separately. Battles 10 and 11 took place in May and August of 1917.

It wasn't as if hostilities ceased and the poor troops got some respite in the winter months. It was that the ferocity of the winter weather - snow, vicious winds, freezing temperatures and avalanches - made mass movements impossible. Men suffered as much (possibly more) as in the major battles, but in localised actions designed to improve defensive positions; create footholds or enhance communications.
In the winter of 1916-17, which saw record snowfalls and dreadful blizzards, both sides made major preparations for the 1917 season of carnage. Boreovic led the Austrian forces in the Isonzo region. Although a Croat rather than Germanic, he was accepted by all as one of Austria's finest generals. Not that that helped his constant appeals for more reserves and equipment. He made the best of his defensive positions lined up, as he was, against greatly superior numbers of Italians. He worked hard to strengthen the new defensive positions he had been forced to take up following the 6th Battle and the loss of Gorizia. Cadorna's larger forces on the front comprised the 2nd Army to the north, led by Capello, and the 3rd Army (south of the Carso plateau to the sea) led by the aristocrat Duke d'Aosta. Capello organised the building of a new road to support the bridgehead east of Gorizia. Cadorna's plan was to blast through beyond this bridgehead, further on to the forbidding Carso plain, drawing the Austrian reserves into that area. Once this was achieved he would launch d'Aosta's 3rd army to take the Monte Hermada heights overlooking the coast and road to Trieste. The town of Kostanjevica was an important target in this move.

Isonzo 10 began on 12th May 1917 with the heaviest bombardment to date, strengthened by British and French artillery. As before, the infantry rush was successful initially. Bridges were constructed across the river, and a broader advance from the Gorizia positions penetrated to the Austrian seond lines 300 metres above the river. In two days Capello's men made incursions into the western end of the Carso and Bainsizza plateaus - physically very different from each other - and both were strategically important. Capello finally took control of Hill 383 (aka Hill of Death to the troops), giving Cadorna a great propaganda prize. So far, so good, despite the predictable counter-attacks from the Austrians that regained some of the lost ground.
Duke d'Aosta - a fine
commander of the 3rd Army
On 23rd May Cadorna ordered phase two, and d'Aosta's 3rd Army swung into action towards Monte Hermada. Supported by over 100 airplanes - an increasing presence in the later battles - they made progress to the foothills and along the coastal marshes but ground to a halt after about two miles. They could not take Kostanjevica.

The 10th battle was judged a success alongside 7, 8 and 9 but all things are relative. The Italian losses for the battle exceeded any other to date. The Austrians also had suffered serious losses, and with their inferior numbers were now stretched very thinly. Boroevic made further appeals to the centre for reinforcements, this time with different and important results. In March 1917, one of the new Emperor Karl's early actions had been to dismiss the vainglorious Austrian Commander in Chief Conrad von Hotzendorf. His replacement was General Arz von Straussenberg, who had considerable experience on the Russian front. He had a constructive relationship with the senior German Military, who had seen Conrad as an irrelevance. Reinforcements that included German equipment were moved from the Russian front and, in early June, strong counter-attacks were launched from the eastern Alpine section of the front, thereby relieving the pressures on Boroevic on the Isonzo. The counter-attacks featured some of the most spectacular and intrepid fighting of the war, involving crack mountain divisions of both sides.
Cadorna's attritional strategy was coming under pressure, not only from these counter-attack on his flank, but from popular and political opinion behind the line. The enormous losses (both sides had lost more than a million men) were sapping the previously strong support for the war. Italy appealed to Britain and France for support in making the 'final' assault across the Carso. Both had major challenges of their own and, despite Lloyd George's enthusiasm to divert from Flanders, could only offer more materiel now, and troops later.
It was, then, with a measure of desperation that Cadorna prepared for what would be his final attempt to lead the breakthrough to the 'road to Vienna'. Whereas Isonzo 10 had focused on two short sections of the front, Isonzo 11 would attack from Plezzo to the sea, seeking for weakness at one of three critical points: Tolmino; Monte San Gabriele, and Monte Herada (see map).
The statutory massive bombardment began on 18th August. By dawn the next day the Italians had secured the river along the whole section and had thrown fourteen bridges across to transport men and equipment. Between Plava and Tolmino two divisions led by General Caviglia scaled the heights of the east bank and made a genuine breakthrough to the Bainsizza plateau. Reinforcements rushed through the gap and in a further three days had taken the ground between Monte Santo and Monte Gabriele. Twenty thousand Austrian prisoners had been taken. Steady but slowing progress was made so that by the twelfth day Cadorna's cavalry was poised to move on to the plateau. But the lengthening supply lines and difficult terrain stymied the cavalry (for the umpteenth time in WW1), and the Austrians held on to sufficient high defensive positions to halt the advance. After a short pause the terrible final phase of Isonzo 11 commenced. Cadorna focused his forces to grind their way along the San Gabriel ridge, a section of about one mile in length, guarding access across the Carso plain and, as a consequence, honeycombed with defensive positions. By 4th September the Italians had taken nearly all of the ridge. Both sides were now desperate. The Austrians rushed in more than thirty battalions to shore up the remaining positions and to launch counter-attacks. The bilateral slaughter continued until mid-September when Cadorna accepted that his famous breakthrough would not be sustained. This phase of the battle had cost over 150,000 casualties, and during 1917 his losses now were approaching three quarters of a million. On the 18th September he informed the Allies that his offensives were at an end.
With heavy irony so typical of WW1 the 11th Battle of the Isonzo reversed the strategy for the two protagonists. Cadorna's armies had been all but smashed on the anvil of mountainous defences, and his own position was precarious. He accepted, at last, the need for defensive positions to hold what he had.
Boreovic - a superb
defensive General
Boroevic, by contrast, now saw that the only chance for his forces (in no better state than the Italians) would be a last chance offensive to force the Italians to retreat. Urgent requests were submitted for German support for such a move.

The French and British leaders failed to appreciate the significance of this shift. Imagining that the Italian front would now go to sleep, they withdrew the reinforcements they had provided reluctantly for battles 10 and 11. In doing so they made their own contributions to one of the Allies biggest defeats in the whole of the war - Caporetto.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Unrestricted submarine warfare 2

The convoy system, belatedly introduced for merchantmen,
averted Britain's looming catastrophe
As recorded in the first part (See Post 16/2/17) the first three months of unrestricted U-boat warfare (UUW) had brought great success to the Germans and induced alarm and crisis activity in Britain. Holzendorff's prescription for the shutting down of Britain's war capability required six months of shipping tonnage at 600,000 tons a month, and the losses for February March and April had averaged more. Perhaps the German optimism was not so fanciful. They had taken the fateful (and ultimately ruinous) decision for UUW in early January. At that point they saw it as the only realistic way for Germany to win outright. They knew about the stretched and exhausted state of their own army, and the low morale and poor physical health of their own population. If they had appreciated fully the parlous state of the Entente powers they might have held off. The French Army was in a worse state than their own; and the Russian effort in the east would shortly cease to exist. The British Empire's resources were keeping the Entente going, but the country itself was on the verge of bankruptcy, and its debts to the USA could not be sustained unless the USA entered the war.  
But now Germany was irrevocably committed to UUW, described by Churchill as ".. one of the most heartshaking episodes of history. It was the greatest conflict ever decided at sea, and almost entirely a duel between Britain and Germany." 

Since their first short period of UUW in 1915, the German strength in U boats had increased greatly. Larger, faster and better armed boats were now capable of making 3-4 weeks patrols. The full complement was now over 150, of which around 70 would be at sea at any one time. Provided the Dover mine barrage could be bypassed (and it could with apparent ease) boats could take the short route from the German and Belgian bases to the vital southern approaches between Ireland and Brittany, and spend 2-3 weeks patrolling in wait for the inbound merchant men. Others took the longer route via the North Sea to patrol the northern approaches round Ireland to the coast of north west England and Scotland.
Once this system was in place, UUW had a rapid and dramatic impact. From a baseline of around 130,000 tons per month in 1916, there had already been a rise late in the year and in January 1917 to more than 250,000 tons sunk. For February the figure was 468,000; for March almost 500,000, and in April it rose to a staggering 869,000 tons. This proved to be the high water mark (sic) for UUW. It still stands as the highest figure ever*. This monthly average actually exceeded Holzendorff's target for strangling Britain in six months, and she was now running out of wheat as well as gold.
Belatedly, the Government and the Admiralty started to get a grip on this dangerous situation. Strenous afforts were made both to improve the protection of merchant shipping and to improve 'seek and destroy' tactics against U-boats. Both were woeful at the start of the year, partly because of the relatively low losses through most of 1916, and the competing pressures for resources to go elsewhere. Arming merchant men to ward off surface attacks from U-boats was the simplest and most obvious measure, but it was a victim of this prioritising - guns were needed everywhere, and only late in 1916 did capacity begin to catch up with demand. In the year 1916 of 600+ merchantmen experiencing surface attack, 76% of those armed escaped, whereas only 22% of those unarmed did so. Q boats (See Post 17/11/2015) were a clever and audacious riposte to surface attacks, although in all of 1915 and 1916 they sunk only 11 U-boats. Perhaps they deterred many more attacks, but by 1917 they were becoming redundant as the Germans were more wary, and were preferring torpedo attacks. Depth charges (still fairly rudimentary) as part of destroyer patrols comprised the other attacking option. There were insufficient destroyers to patrol all of home waters, but at least they were cheaper to build than submarines.
One of Lloyd George's early actions as Prime Minister was to create a new Board of Shipping, merging the offices of Admiralty Chief of Staff and First Sea Lord. Jellicoe was the first holder of this position. The aim was to free up time to focus on improving counter measures. Jellicoe drafted in younger officers to the befuddled Admiralty to deal with this new type of warfare. There were three main areas of focus: better mining; better technology (hydrophones and depth charges); and preparation of convoy plans. The last of these was to be the game changer.
Although convoys had been used for centuries, conventional wisdom held that they were inappropriate for protecting merchant shipping in WW1. This despite the fact that they were in use, successfully, for escorting troopships, and also carrying vital coal supplies across the channel to France**. It was argued that the varying (but slow) speeds and the sheer numbers of merchantmen involved made it too complex an undertaking (wrong). There were insufficient destroyers to protect large numbers of convoys (wrong); and that concentrating ships together would make them an even easier target for U-boats (the reverse proved to be true). Opposition to convoys came from every part of the establishment, the most senior being Jellicoe. Desperation at the position forced a re-think, and production of arguments - mostly from younger officers but also, to his credit, David Beattie, Grand Fleet Commander - to counter the blind logic. Lloyd George and his cabinet were more easily persuade, and prevailed over Jellicoe to insist upon a proper trial. The first experimental convoy left Gibraltar on May 10th 1917, and arrived completely intact. Otherwise overall losses for May remained dangerously high at 600,000 tons. The convoy system was rapidly extended to cover the inbound north and south Atlantic routes. So successful were they over the next three months that the Germans were forced to switch their attacks to un-escorted outbound ships, and gradually these too came under convoy protection (feasible because of the increasing American contributions to destroyer escorts). In October 1917, of 1500 inbound merchant ships only 24 were lost - an astonishing turnaround. Once again the conservative, slow thinking Admiralty had been demonstrably wrong. At Jutland, as Commander of the Grand Fleet, Jellicoe had been prey to this. This time he was the top man at home, but again he shouldered the blame, harshly.
Jellicoe as First Sea Lord.
His disagreement with Lloyd
George cost him his job.
The convoy system all but solved the protection problem and, with increased production from USA involvement, by late 1917 new tonnage far outweighed lost tonnage. The U boat teams were exhausted and many of their best and most audacious leaders had been lost. All possibility of starving Britain to surrender had gone. At the same time the re-invigorated approach to 'seek and destroy' was bearing fruit. Q boats were being replaced by flotillas of submarines that lay in wait for outbound groups of U-boats in the north sea and the channel. The effectiveness of mining tactics improved throughout 1917, particularly in the Channel with the appointment of the dashing Admiral Roger Keys to command of the Dover patrol (see Post 13/9/2015). The previous Dover barrage of 1916 had been ineffective in blocking the Belgian based U-boats from using the Channel route. In the November 1917 reshuffle when Wemyss replaced Jellicoe as First Sea Lord, Keyes replaced Admiral Bacon in the important Dover defensive role. Keyes immediately doubled patrols along the barrier, now laid with the new deep, horned mines, and organised night time illuminations to drive the U boats deeper toward them. This prompted great activity in the Channel, and ultimately closed it off as a route for U-boats.
By early1918, with improving depth charges and listening technology, the U-boats were becoming the hunted rather than the hunters. Britain had ridden out the blockade crisis and the risk of a precipitate defeat.

 * Even Hitler's modern U boat fleets in 1942 at their peak could not match it. 
** France's own coal fields being under German occupation






























Sunday, 27 August 2017

Russia April to September 1917


Kerensky - only 36 in 1917.
Hero to zero in months
What happened in Russia between the February and October revolutions of 1917? Chaos, uncertainty, hesitation, machinations, anarchy, suffering, bloodshed – and in the meantime WW1 continued on the Eastern Front and in the Caucasus. The Tsar was in custody. Efforts by his supporters to find a safe and friendly exile location were rebutted in England and France. Leaders in both were afraid his presence would provoke further revolutionary activity. King George V was obliged virtually to disown his cousin, who – along with his family – was sent away to a family house at Tobolsk in the Urals. The forces that might have come to the Tsar’s rescue were split. Discipline in the bureaucracy and the police had collapsed under the weight of the February rebellions. The church was split between authoritarian orthodoxy and a post-Rasputin move to re-connect with the people. The army was split between the forces of reaction, the progressives and the demoralized majority, and the navy was out of central control. The largest naval garrison was holed up in Kronstadt island in the Baltic sea run by revolutionary zeal, and acting as an independent soviet. Most of all, attempts to govern the country were split – riven by ideological and factional disputes. Grand Duke Michael’s resignation came pending a vote on the future of the monarchy by  a democratically elected constituent assembly. The Provisional Government (PG) was so named for that purpose: created from a Duma of such diversity of views that it was doomed from the start.

Finally there was the geographical split. Almost all of the decision making that counted took place in the tiny north west corner of the vast empire – in Petrograd. Word of the revolution had, of course, spread and around 700 Soviets had sprung up around the empire, replacing zemstvos and urban groupings. However, the primitive communications – even to Moscow – meant that it was impossible for these new soviets to keep up with the tide of events in Petrograd. Throughout Russia, the revolution stumbled on in myriad chaotic ways.

The Duma’s Provisional Government was now tempered by the views and actions of the Petrograd Soviet. The PG contained right wing elements notably Octobrists and Kadets (the latter orchestrating reactionary forces such as the Black Hundred mobs); liberals and socialists. The experienced moderate Prince Lvov was made its first Prime Minister, and it needed all of his diplomatic skills and optimism to make any headway at all. The Soviet contained Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and several other factions. Essentially, all the groupings agreed on the ends but not the means of the Revolution.  Mensheviks and SRs held to Marxist dogma. They looked at the failed revolutions of the mid-19th century and argued that it would require a long period of democracy and capitalism before a workers revolution. The Bolsheviks (very much a minority) wanted to hasten the proletariat revolution by insurrection and the violent seizure of power. Even among themselves though, there were hard divisions. Their leading spokesman in the Petrograd Soviet, Kamenev, wanted to wait for broader mass support because he feared a reactionary counter-revolution. Lenin led the extreme viewpoint – that now was the time for the soviets to take control of government. Back in Russia since March following his famous German assisted return from exile in Zurich, Lenin wanted to make up for lost time. “All power to the soviets” was his slogan, and his voice was powerful in Petrograd, but not in other cities (where Mensheviks were in the majority) or rural areas (where the SRs, led by Chernov, were in a large majority).
Initially it looked as if the PG and Soviet might rub along together in preparation for an election within six months (provided they didn’t discuss controversial issues like the war or the land). Then an early autonomous action by the Soviet spelt disaster for the PG. Aptly titled 'Order Number One', it was dashed off and issued on 14th March (26th March Gregorian) as a list of soldiers’ demands before returning to serve in their units. It made them subject to the rule of the Soviet rather than the Military Supreme Command (the Stavka). And it made the Soviet support for the PG conditional on its acceptance. The PG was snookered, and the already shaky discipline within the army was damaged irreparably. In the medium term this worked perfectly in Lenin’s favour.
However, these were the moments when the shooting star that was the cult of Alexander Kerensky burnt most brightly. As a member of the Trudoviks (a moderate splinter group of the SRs) he was the only person to hold position in both the PG and the Soviet. His barnstorming oratory made him appeal to all sides, and the crowds in the Petrograd streets (with not much precedent to work with) hailed him as a new Tsar. Unfortunately, Kerensky was to prove highly susceptible to flattery and idolatry. As Lvov’s War Minister he campaigned passionately for an offensive on the Eastern Front. This, he argued, would galvanise the army and the people; unify Russia and safeguard the democratic revolution. It was also, of course, music to the ears of Allied Governments. He managed to win over most of the Soviet (except the Bolsheviks) and obtained approval for what would be Russia’s last major military action of WW1. He rushed off to the front to rally the troops, and on his first meeting with Brusilov (fighting on in Poland) he made him Commander in Chief of the Army. Brusilov shared Prince Lvov’s patriotic optimism, and set about planning a breakthrough back to Lemberg, scene of his success in 1914. However, his appointment did not go down well with the top brass at Stavka. When Brusilov visited shortly afterwards, he found cold shoulders, defeatism and indiscipline, and began to realise the scale of his challenge.
Meanwhile the situation in Petrograd was worsening. Increasing industrial unrest (much of it provoked by deserting soldiers) added to news of peasant revolts against country landowners. At the same time, nationalist movements, particularly in Ukraine, Poland Latvia and Finland were seizing on the governmental weakness with demands for independent assemblies. Lenin was busy pushing his “Power to the Soviets” line, but his party was not strong enough to overrule the moderates, who hesitated – again.  
On 18th June (1st July Gregorian) the “Kerensky Offensive” was launched in Galicia. Brusilov’s leading General was the ultra conservative Kornilov, who had scoured the reserves for storm trooper material, and even had a female regiment of fanatics, (Maria) 'Bochkarev’s Battalion of Death', sanctioned by Brusilov. The main attack towards Lemberg in the south had initial success (as did supporting actions to the north and east). Joyous reports reached Petrograd, the mood lightened and a disappointed and exhausted Lenin left town for a recuperation spell in Finland. Had he stayed things might have turned out differently. There was no back up for Kornilov’s initial advances and within two weeks the Kerensky offensive had crumbled to a disaster. Hundreds of thousands of troops died or deserted (to the Germans or to the rear). Petrograd was in turmoil again, Prince Lvov resigned and Kerensky, oblivious to criticism, took his chance to become Prime Minister. He blamed the defeat on German agents and Bolshevik pacifism. There followed the ‘July days’ another feverish period of wildly swinging views, when anarchy and civil war were in the air. Yet again the Soviet leaders were caught between their fear that revolution would be unsustainable and that counter-revolution would destroy them.* Even Lenin missed the opportunity to force the issue. By the time he had returned to Petrograd he must have been as confused as everyone else about what was going on. A mass demonstration by visiting sailors from the Kronstadt soviet threated to invade the White Palace to seize power for the city Soviet. It fizzled out for lack of clear instructions.
Using this as justification, Kerensky now took the upper hand. With sufficient loyal troops to back him, he ordered the arrests of the Soviet leaders. His first trawl did not find Lenin, and he ordered extensive searches of known Bolshevik locations, stirring up wild anti-Bolshevik sentiments. In these raids over 800 Bolsheviks were detained, including Kamenev and Trotsky, but Lenin escaped – again to Finland. He would not be heard again in public until October .
By the end of August with civil unrest growing, Kerensky faced a counter revolution of his own. Kornilov had been persuaded to mount a military putsch, and organised forces to move on Petrograd from the Stavka for a coup d’etat. (all this time the Germans were advancing through Latvia to threaten Petrograd themselves, and Kerensky was considering moving the government to Moscow). Forewarned, Kerensky gave orders to arm the military and para-military groups defending Petrograd’s revolution. This include many who were emerging as Red Guards – the military wing of the Bolsheviks. It helped Kerensky dispose of the immediate threat – Kornilov’s shrinking group was intercepted with ease and he was imprisoned – but it played into Lenin’s hands by arming the proletariat.
In September, Kerensky named his new cabinet. It was a reactionary one, with only token representation for the soviet. Thereafter, he did a passable impression of the Emperor Nero, surrounding himself with sycophants, and indulging a luxurious lifestyle. He did not appreciate that his star had shot. With anarchy and violence bubbling on the streets, his days of leadership were numbered.

*The truth was that none of these men were real ‘leaders’ required by the situation. Intellectual and reasonable, they were used to opposing not leading.
  

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The Balkans 1917

Macedonia - coveted by the Ottomans, Serbia, Bulgaria
and Greece. Still an unresolved bone of contention in 2017.
Compared to the stalemate of the western Front, the unstable patchwork of nations contained within the Balkan Peninsula had seen tremendous movements across frontiers and reversals of fortune. In 1914 the Serbians humiliatingly repulsed Austria’s punitive invasion, and held their own until late 1915 when German intervention crushed their resistance and overwhelmed their country (see Post 29/9/2015). Vengeful Austria, alongside a Bulgarian intervention to the east pushed the remains of the Serbian army and much of the population over the mountains to the Albanian coast. Surviving soldiers were evacuated to Greek islands, to re-appear alongside Allied forces later in the war. Bulgaria’s opportunist entry to the war aimed to regain land she had lost during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. By joining with the Central Powers, Bulgaria had to put aside her claims to Western Turkey, but did take advantage of the pursuit of retreating Serbs to occupy northern Albania in December 1915.
The unfortunate Albania - only recognised as an independent state in 1912 – suffered more than any from the complexity of Balkan politics. Despite neutrality in the main conflict, it was steadily dismantled. Occupied in the north by Bulgarian and Austrian forces, it was invaded from the east by Greece as early as 1914, to support a Greek minority controlled region of Epirus. This, in turn was overtaken by an extension of the French front in Salonika, and an invasion of Italian troops in the south to create an ‘autonomous’ Albanian republic of Korce, which both parties squabbled over. By mid-1916 the small remaining independent central Albania was obliged to declare war on Austria-Hungary and await the outcome.
To the south east, the Greek tragedy continued gradually to unfold.

Like her neighbour Albania, Greece encountered more problems from a bogus neutrality than declaring for one side or the other. We have seen (Post 27/10/2015) how two strong individuals effectively split the country in two. Eleftherios Venizelos had continuously struggled against the Constitutional Monarch to bring Greece into the war on the side of the Allies.
A portrait of Constantine I
of Greece in 1914
King Constantine’s avowed neutral stance belied his Germanophile tendencies and his covert actions in favour of his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Ironically, his friendship with another cousin -  Tsar Nicholas - afforded him a degree of protection against overthrow. By the end of 1916 (see Post 23/12/2016) Greece was, effectively, partitioned, with Venizelos leading a pro-Allied government of national defence in the north, based in Salonika (Thessaloniki today), and the King and anti-Venizelists governing in Athens and the south. The Allied navies were blockading Athens to enforce the King’s promises re neutrality. This situation was not sustainable.
Sarrail’s garrison in Salonika, established in late 1915 as a vague strategic alternative to the failure at Gallipoli, had expanded over time. With Venizelos in close proximity, it was becoming active again in Macedonia - volatile but vitally important for communications in all directions. Unsuccessful initial moves in 1916 to the north east to support Rumania against the Bulgarians (see Post 2/10/2016) culminated in the capture of Monastir (today Bitola) in southern Macedonia in November. In early 1917 an expanded front was held by Sarrail’s forces from Monastir in the south, to the Struma Valley, leading up to Lake Doira, 90 miles north east of Salonika. The right (western) flank of this front was held by British forces, led by General Milne. In April Sarrail announced to his forces that they were going on to the offensive. There seemed no great strategic purpose, other than to join the Allied efforts on the Western Front and the presumed Russian offensive on the Eastern Front (although no-one knew what was really going on there). The French and Italians were to strengthen their positions in Albania and Milne’s forces were to move into Macedonia, pushing the Bulgarians back past the fortress at Doira, near the lake. An all too familiar pattern followed. The initial bombardment on 24th April enabled the Allied forces to gain their first objective almost everywhere. This was followed by slower progress against well prepared mountain defences, and accompanying heavy casualties. Anticipating summer heat, and the high risk of outbreaks of dysentery and malaria, Sarrail soon called off the offensive and consolidated his defences along the paltry new ground he had captured. Before long, large numbers of troops were recalled to northern Greece to monitor the rapidly changing political situation there.

Eleftherios Venizelos 1864-1936
A giant of modern Greek history
From the crisis at the end of 1916, Constantine’s Government in Athens was led by Lambros - under pressure from the allied shipping blockade to act with strict neutrality, and faced by a strengthening Venizelos government and army in the north. Still civil unrest continued, and the King encouraged pro-German propaganda. Lambros resigned, to be replaced by the equally ineffective Zaimis. As Venizelos grew stronger it appeared by the end of May that the King’s days were numbered. He was isolated, and could no longer rely on supportive moves from his cousins. By June the Italians occupied enough of Albania to block his only remaining direct communication route with the Central Powers. On 6th June, Jonnart, a high ranking French diplomat, was landed on the southern Greek coast as the presumptive High Commissioner for an Allied protectorate. He advanced to Athens where, on the 11th, he summoned Prime Minister Zaimis, issuing an ultimatum for a constitutional government that would guarantee the safety of the Allied forces in Salonika. Zaimis resigned in favour of Venizelos, who hurried south to Athens to assume his new role. Constantine was left with no choice but to abdicate, in favour of his son Prince Alexander. Constantine was expelled from Greece, joining a number of exiled monarchs in truly neutral Switzerland.
Venizelos set about uniting his country behind the Allies, and behind the new King. It was a remarkable achievement, and he would become Prime Minister several more times during Greece’s turbulent post-war times. Buchan, in his partial way, waxes lyrical about him: “His work lay in a narrow area, and his problems were on a small scale compared with those that faced his colleagues in Western Europe; but in the mental and moral endowments of the statesman he had no superior, and perhaps no equal, among living men”*


* Buchan: A History of the Great War. Vol 3 p505