Sunday, 10 December 2017

End of 1917 position: Part 1

With 100 years of hindsight it is
relatively easy to see how global events of 1917 were building towards the denouement of 1918. But imagine how difficult it must have been for the people of the belligerent nations. All were under pressure. All still held out hopes for a victory of some sort, and each could point to some indicators in support of their hopes, while at the same time there were reasons to fear defeat. The continuing slaughter on the battlefields showed little sign of easing for the coming year. 1917 had seen carnage at the Aisne; Arras; Ypres, Caporetto and in Kerensky's last stand on the Eastern Front. Armies, except for the Russian, battled on resolutely in gruelling conditions. Politicians stumbled to find new approaches, accords, policies to sustain their people and create a break through. Civilians everywhere were depressed, malnourished and most of them were bereaved. It seemed the light at the end of the tunnel had been switched off until further notice. Another bleak new year approached, and the widespread celebrations over the outbreak of war in August 1914 were a distant memory. And yet, in less than twelve months the nightmare would be over. This post and the next review the status of the combatant nations at the close of 1917. 

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.

10.2 France
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.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Allenby's Advance to Jerusalem

Edmund Allenby 1861-1936.
Also known as the 'Bloody Bull' he
moved from attritional angst in France
to glory in Palestine
The previous post on the Arab Revolt (see Post 23/7/2017) described how the many tribal factions in the Arabian peninsula and the Hejaz were led (loosely) by the Hashemite King Sharif Hussein acting as a vassal of the Ottomans in Mecca. Hussein took exception to the secular ‘Turkification’ program of the Young Turks rule, and he signalled the opening of the Arab Revolt in June 1916. This was operationalised by his son Feisal’s capture of Wejh and, subsequently Aqaba in early 1917. That threatened the Turks main rail supply line, the Hejaz railway, to Medina. Feisal’s meeting and partnership with TE Lawrence had brought the Arab cause in line with the British strategy for Palestine, and their spoiling tactics against the railway forced the Turks to pull back north to Medina. However, the Arab ambitions did not stop there. Lawrence was to prove a crucial link with the British HQ and their plans for an advance through Palestine to Jerusalem and Damascus. The Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) C-in-C Murray was stymied by defeat at Gaza and lost his command. The previous blog ended with the move of Sir Edmund Allenby from the Battle of Arras in April 1917 to take command of the EEF.

On arrival in Cairo in June 1917, Allenby took to Lawrence at their first meeting, and recognised the potential for the Arab forces to stretch Turkey on his own right flank; and also to bridge the gap between his EEF and Maude’s army in Mesopotamia, which was advancing north from Baghdad and Ramadie (See Post 12/7/2017). Thus, the Turks were coming under gradual pressure on a wide front to withdraw towards Anatolia. The original British goal of reaching Constantinople and knocking Turkey out of the war had not really changed since 1915 (and the abortive Gallipoli campaign).  The Germans were reluctant to allow Turkish withdrawals, and Falkenhayn was moved from Roumania to Aleppo in Syria to supervise defence and counter moves. He planned first to cut off Maude’s continued push to Mosul near the Turkish border. Fortunately for him, Maude’s sudden death from cholera at Tikrit brought British operations to a temporary halt. Allenby’s arrival now presented him with greater dangers to the south in Palestine.
To some extent, Allenby’s position resembled Maude’s. The British were on top, but needed to keep moving forward to have real impact on strategy. But Allenby’s hand was stronger. His communication lines were well founded in rail links from Sinai; on his left flank he could be supported by naval bombardment from the eastern Mediterranean, whereas on his right flank he could encourage, via Lawrence, the support of Feisal’s Arab forces.
He strengthened his EEF by adding two Divisions (10th and 60th) from Salonika, and decided on a campaign to capture Jerusalem. Like Murray before him, he needed to attack both ends of his current front line, Gaza and Beersheba, but he planned to strike north from both, rather than only along the coast beyond Gaza. With Falkenhayn directing defensive operations 500 miles away in Aleppo, he would have to break through stronger forces than had faced Murray. By late October, Allenby had completed his preparations. In the early hours of 31st, his infantry and three cavalry divisions (yes, cavalry) were in place south of Beersheba and as day broke they attacked, following a short bombardment. Through the day they encircled the town by taking the two roads and important higher ground to the northeast. By the end of the day Beersheba had been taken and and Turkish garrison of 2000 men taken prisoner. Near the coast, the attack on Gaza had been designed only to keep the Turks and their reserves in place, but once Beersheba was taken the third and final battle for Gaza unfolded. Once the Scots of the 53rd Division had taken Umbrella Hill - the coastal high point overlooking the city - the Turks began to withdraw, and Gaza was taken with relative ease.
Palestine 1917 - Allenby's
advance to Jerusalem

Now the two pronged attack on Jerusalem could begin. The eastern flank was the more difficult, moving north from the town of Beersheba towards the railway town of Sheria, and further northeast to Hebron. The terrain was unforgiving, and water wells were scarce – when not destroyed by retreating Turks. The supply lines for men, horses and equipment were longer and more difficult. Nevertheless, Allenby was determined and, over four days, extended his advance to Abu Irgeig and Towal Abu Jehwal (see Map). To his right he was able even to employ the Imperial Camel Corps of some 3000 beasts, to push the Turks back to Hebron. But the main battle was for Sheria (see Map), and there were many fierce local actions, including a twentieth century 'Charge of the Light Brigade' (by the 4th Light Horse Brigade), before Sheria was captured on 7th November. It had been much harder than Allenby had expected, and he had lost vital time. Once Gaza had fallen, the advance along the coast was somewhat easier, as predicted. The 52nd Division soon took over the ancient town of Ashkelon (last British occupant Richard the Lionheart) and pushed on towards Jaffa. For this phase, Allenby’s target was the Junction Station, inland at Wadi es Sara, where Jerusalem’s only railway supply line, from the north, could be cut, isolating the Jerusalem garrison as his forces pressed. This was achieved on 13th, and Allenby now held a crescent shaped front of about thirty miles - from almost due south of Jerusalem to due west. His report summarised his gains: “In fifteen days our force had advanced sixty miles on its right and about forty on its left. It had driven a Turkish army of nine infantry divisions and one cavalry division out of a position in which it had been entrenched for six months, and had pursued it, giving battle whenever it attempted to stand, and inflicting on it losses amounting to, probably, two thirds of the enemy’s original effectives.”
It was clear to all that Jerusalem now was ‘directly threatened’. Enver Pasha travelled from Constantinople to do some threatening of his own to the Turkish generals; and Falkenhayn came from Aleppo to stiffen resolve. Neither stayed for long. From Junction Station and from Jaffa (which they had now taken) the British moved east into the well defended Judaean Hills. There was only one west-east main road, alongside the railway, and progress through the hilly land would be hard going. Likewise there was a single main north-south road out of Jerusalem (to Nablus) and this had to be breached  to complete the isolation of the city – Allenby wanted take the city by siege rather than bombardment. By 20th November his foremost troops were within 5miles of the Nablus road, but they were coming under heavy counter attack. Allenby paused to bring the 53rd Division on his right flank (rested from their earlier exertions) north from Hebron to spread his attacks on the Turkish defences. From 4-7th December the 53rd made good progress before being halted by three days of heavy rain. The resistance to the British attacks remained strong, but gradually as the sounds of gunfire in the hills penetrated to central Jerusalem, nerves started to crack. An exodus of Turkish civilians and military staff began. By 10th, Turkish troops were pouring back from the western positions and joining the withdrawals to the east. The British were now able to cross the Nablus road, and on that day the mayor sent out a note of surrender, and British troops entered the city.
The famous image of Allenby entering
Jerusalem on foot, 11th December 1917.
The following day, 11th December, Allenby entered Jerusalem on foot, fully aware of the historic and symbolic steps he was taking. He issued a firm but conciliatory proclamation, and declared British Martial Law to replace hundreds of years of Ottoman rule.
Like Baghdad, the capture of Jerusalem was great for morale and prestige, and for propaganda purposes. But it was not as important strategically as Allenby’s next objective - Damascus.

The Arab role in this phase had been limited to diversionary actions along the Hejaz railway to the east. They had destroyed the station at Bir-el-Shadia in October, and attacked the Tel Shehab bridge and trains in November, to no great effect. They were in Azrak for the winter when Lawrence was summoned to fly to Allenby’s HQ. He was invited to join Allenby’s party as it entered Jerusalem – a great thrill for him, but he would beat even that at Damascus.

Monday, 20 November 2017


A German map of the Cambrai battlefield
Among the war weary belligerents of late 1917 there was an eager search for new approaches, different tactics, breakthrough – above all for surprise. The Germans had taken advantage on the chaos on the eastern Front to develop their ‘Hutier’ tactics. For those unaware of the first success of these at the capture of Riga in September, the news now reaching the Allies of the Italian collapse at Caporetto, brought the first evidence (see previous post 13/11/2017). At the same time the very worst example of relentless slaughter by attrition was continuing at Ypres, as the Empire troops inched their way towards Passchendaele.
On 29th October, Lloyd George addressed the British Parliament on the need for such a breakthrough, just as news from Caporetto was arriving alongside Haig’s exaggerated claims of progress in Flanders. Yet, only a week before Haig himself had approved a plan demonstrating Britain’s willingness to innovate. Sir Julian Byng, now C-in-C of the 3rd Army at the southern end of the British sector (and successor to Allenby who had been transferred to the Middle East (see Post 23/7/2017)) had submitted a bold plan to Haig in September. Byng had done well in the Battle of Arras, culminating in the Canadians capture of Vimy Ridge. He wanted the British to capitalise on the favourable terrain they now held in order to use the British equivalent to ‘Hutier tactics’ – the tank. Now, the tank’s record to date was not unblemished. After a striking debut in the Somme battles (some said too little, too soon – see post 18/8/2016) the tanks had proved mechanically unreliable, and currently were underperforming in the muddy morass of Flanders. Byng argued that the latest, improved tanks deserved a chance over better terrain. He proposed an attack on Cambrai*, a town that had come into play since the German strategic withdrawal to the Siegfried Line (see Post 18/4/2017). He argued the following in support: the advance to the Siegfried Line had allowed some ground cover for the British line, particularly in the trees of Havrincourt Wood where tank build up could be concealed; the ground to be attacked was open and relatively dry; the German defences although strong were (relatively) undermanned, and Cambrai itself was an important hub for German movement of forces behind their front line.

Thus, a novel proposal to break the new German defensive line. However, the consent from Haig, when it came, was rather predictable. As usual he overestimated the possibilities, and revived his dream of a cavalry breakthrough to open country behind the lines.  He preferred to push north of Cambrai to high ground. This, despite the knowledge that his reserves were weak – many of them still bogged down at Ypres – and his men must necessarily come under strong counter-attacks within 2-3 days when German reinforcements arrived. Haig was becoming Micawber like in his desperation for a break through.

Byng prepared his assault along a six mile front from just north of the Bapaume (Roman) road south-eastwards to Gonnelieu and Vendhuille (see map). He had six infantry Divisions and nearly 500 tanks. He hid the latter wherever he could find suitable shelter, with the majority in the welcome cover of Havrincourt Wood (On the Somme battlefields barely a tree stump remained, but this area had not yet been torn to shreds). Secrecy was essential, and British air superiority and misty autumn weather helped to preserve it to a remarkable degree. The plan was for the tanks to cut through the intimidating barbed wire barriers – no less than 50m wide on any part of the 6 miles – with the infantry following close behind, all of them being protected by a creeping artillery barrage. The 115,00 men of Byng’s divisions outnumbered the defenders by nearly two to one, but even after the barbed wire they would still have to overcome the Siegfried line and a second line that was heavily tunneled.
Communication trench to the
front line - Cambrai 1917
At 6.20am on 20th November came a solitary shot that was the signal for the advance. There had been no pre-bombardment, but the creeping barrage started within minutes. The surprise element prospered. Within four hours the central section had overwhelmed the Siegfried line and was battling in the tunnels of the second line. Flesquières and Ribaucourt were taken by the stars of the day the 62nd Division. Just to the south, Marcoing and Neuf Wood fell to the tanks of the 29th Division; pushing through a gap created by the first wave. Even the Cavalry got in on the act, and were pushing north ahead of the infantry to capture Anneux and Cantaing. Unfortunately they could not get across the canal at Masnières, a vital crossing. However, the advance of the British on that first day was their greatest in a single day of the war to date. When news reached London, church bells were rung across the country for the first time since 1914. On the 21st the cavalry were still in play, but the essential targets of the Bourlon ridge in the north, and the canal crossings in the centre at Rumilly and Crevecoeur could not be forced.
Tanks made life easier for the Infantry on Day 1
By the third day, all effects of surprise were gone, as had the chances for a cavalry coup. Inevitably, German reinforcements were pouring into the area. Haig faced a decision to order Byng to press on, or pull back to a defensible position. Inevitably, he chose the former, and most of the battle’s 45,000 British casualties occurred in the next few days of brutal combat. By the 27th, one week in, the British had captured some 10,000 prisoners of war, and nearly 150 heavy guns. They had gained ground over a rectangular salient ten miles wide and six miles deep. But the men were exhausted, and vulnerable to counter attacks.
On 29th Marwitz, C-in-C of the German II Army, issued a rallying cry to his men to reverse the gains and “turn their embryonic victory into a defeat by an encircling attack”. The next morning at 7.30am the Germans surged on to both flanks of the British salient, employing storm troopers and gas attacks and overwhelming the improvised British defences. It was only a heroic defensive action in the centre by men of the 29th Division (who had also performed with distinction at Gallipoli and at the Somme) that prevented a rout. By the evening the 29th had managed a staged withdrawal from Masnières to la Vacqerie, linking with the British line on either side to form some sort of defensive front. Both sides were now exhausted, and after two further days of inconclusive local actions Haig bowed to the inevitable and shortened his line by drawing back from the Bourlon ridge areas, for which the men had fought so hard.
By 7th December the withdrawal had been achieved and the battle for Cambrai was over. The British held around one quarter of the area they had gained on days 1-3 – on a line from Flesquières to Ribecourt. At the northern end they were back at their starting point, and to the south of Gonnelieu they had actually been pushed back beyond their starting line by up to a mile.
The Battle of Cambrai was over by 8th December. Militarily it must be judged a score draw. Both sides had around 45.000 casualties. The British tanks had demonstrated their ability to break through the enemy’s strongest defence lines. But their  lack of reserves and follow up resources (the cavalry were not quite up to it) enabled the Germans to respond devastatingly with their own innovations. It was a bittersweet ending to the last major action on the Western Front in 1917. The church bells had rung, but not for long.

* Cambrai was a historically important junction. A Roman road to the west linked to Bapaume 16 miles away (the strategic aim of the Somme campaign) and another to the east to Le Cateau (15 miles), the place of 2 Corps heroic stand on the Great Retreat in 1914)