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

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Three years in - 3rd August 1917

The spark for the global conflagration was the assassination in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914. Sequentially, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28th July; August 1st Germany ordered general mobilisation and declared war on Russia; August 3rd Germany declared war on France; on August 4th Germany declared war on Belgium, and Britain did so on Germany. But not until 6th August did Austria-Hungary declare against Russia, and it was 12th August before Great Britain and France declared war on Austria-Hungary. It is not easy to pick a date to mark the 3rd anniversary of onset of the greatest conflict in history. So I've plumped for August 3rd - the date on which the two greatest armies in the world were irrevocably set against each other, and in the mid range of those other declarations.
The Prinzregent Luitpold. Cooped up in Wilhelms-
haven, her frustrated crew mutinied on 3/8/1917
As it happened no seismic events happened on that 3rd anniversary. There was a mutiny on board the German battleship Prinzregent Luitpold in Wilhelmshaven, where frustrated and war-weary sailors demanded an end to the war; and in the Bukovina, Rumania the Germans re-occupied some territory taken in the brief Rumanian assault of late 1916. But through July and August 1917 a range of events demonstrated how the old world order was continuing to change as the war ground on. The first year had seen desperate struggles that only confirmed the foolishness of experts' predictions of a short decisive war. The second year clarified matters so that by the end of 1916 it seemed only a matter of time before the British Naval blockade and the combined strengths of the Allies would eventually wear down the German people, or their military machine. By 3rd August 1917 all bets were off, in fact it looked like Germany as the more likely outright victor. Two major factors had brought about this turnaround - the Russian February Revolution, and the declaration of unrestricted U-boat warfare on the high seas. The latter had triggered a third significant factor - the entry of USA to the war on the side of the Allies.

All this had changed the two major constants of the war to date. Firstly that Germany had no choice but to pursue war on two major fronts - the Eastern and the Western. The February Revolution in St. Petersburg caused a short term collapse in the discipline and organisation of the Russian Army. Above all, uncertainty regarding the outcomes affected the balance of the Allies strategy. The planned advance through the Caucasus into Persia to link with the British faltered. By August there was a supportive provisional Russian government headed by the young Kerenski, but the outlook remained bleak. The prospect of Germany being awarded almost a free hand to attack in the West was a chilling one. Secondly, the post Jutland status quo at sea, whereby the German High Seas Fleet remained bottled up in port, and the British Grand Fleet continued its blockade of German imports, was reversed by the dramatic early effects of the German unrestricted U-boat warfare declaration in January 1917. By April, the monthly losses in merchant shipping tonnage really did pose a threat to the viability of the British war effort, although by August 3rd it seemed that the worst might be past.  
The very welcome counter to these two reverses was the entry of the USA into the war. Initially this was more of a psychological boost than a military one. However, now that the shackles of a sham neutrality had been cast off, the full economic and material resources of the USA could be committed to the cause, and there was strong cause for optimism if the present dangers could be overcome.
Initially Woodrow Wilson focused on building capacity, by voting funding and selective conscription through Congress in order to enlist 1.5 million men within four months. He supported Britain's naval blockade by banning certain exports to neutral countries. One result of this was that in July and August 1917 alone, neutral China, Siam, Liberia and several South American countries followed the USA's lead in declaring war on Germany. 

Losers? By August 1917, what had been the most significant failures of the war to date?
  • Austria's plans to annihilate Serbia - instead a humiliating defeat only put right by German intervention in 1915 that truly did the annihilation.
  • the Schlieffen master plan to end the war in three months - reversed at the Battle of the Marne
  • the Russian French agreement to crush Germany from east and west, crushed instead by the German victory over Russia at Tannenberg 1914
  • Joffre's elan-fuelled offensives in Champagne and Artois through 1915
  • Churchill's and Kitchener's strategic gamble at Gallipoli
  • Falkenhayn's Verdun plan, which backfired and ended his time as German C-in-C
  • Nivelle's shooting star career as French supremo, ending in mutiny of his own armies in May 1917
  • Russia's aims for Galicia and Hungary, so bright in late 1914 but destroyed by the German advances into Russia following the Gorlice-Tarnow breakthrough in 1915
  • Germany's first U boat blockade attempt, which was ended by the diplomatic own goal of the Lusitania sinking in 1915
  • At sea, the 'definitive' Battle of Jutland met neither side's aim, but it was the German High Seas Fleet that remained bottled up in its ports until its surrender in 1918
  • Roumania's ill judged entry to the war on the side of the Allies, which was crushed within months
  • the German political leadership had lost control of the agenda to Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Bethmann-Hollweg, an ever present as Chancellor since 1909, resigned on 14th July 1917. He was followed a day later by his inept Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, whose crass telegram had finally provoked Woodrow Wilson to war. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II was now no more than a political figurehead.
  • Civilian populations almost everywhere suffered, but more so in occupied and blockaded countries
  • Armies - losses in first three years stood at around 6 million
And what had prospered?
  • the German military machine was undefeated. It had made huge initial gains, been forced by weight of opposition to establish strong defensive positions and concede some ground, but nowhere was it defending on German soil
  • Turkey - everybody's favourite for an early crushing, either by allied forces or 'neutral' Balkan enemies. In fact the new secular Turkish leadership had worked effectively with Germany and gained notable successes, particularly against the British at Gallipoli and Kut. Nevertheless, three years in, its crumbling Ottoman Empire was under increasing pressure from all sides. 
  • the Royal Navy, despite its outdated customs and leadership, had retained control of the high seas, and the blockade of Germany that slowly drained the lifeblood of the country. (It was below the surface that the U boat menace tipped the balance towards fatal merchant shipping losses.)
  • the Italian army - commanded by Cadorna, who had managed his armies well in a ping-pong series of battles with Austria along the line of the Isonzo river. At this point he was holding his own, and looking like an attractive partner for the allies to join in knocking Austria out of the war. 
  • USA neutrality, lasting for nearly three years of all out war, undoubtedly brought financial gains to the country through loans and armament sales. This would strengthen the position of the USA greatly in the post-war world. In contrast, all of the combatant nations were in severe economic difficulties by this time.
Who had been and gone? Of the dramatis personae, many of the original key players were dead or discarded
  • Sir John French - first C-in-C of the BEF, sacked in 1915.
  • Kitchener - War Minister 1914-16. A watery grave in June 1916.
  • Churchill - First Lord of the Admiralty until the Gallipoli disaster. Back in the Government as munitions minster 1917
  • Herbert Asquith (PM) and Edward Grey (Foreign Minister) - left office in 1916 with the fall of the British coalition government.
  • Joffre, French C-in-C - eventually paid the price for the terrible attritional failures of 1915
  • Moltke, Falkenhayn as German military supremos: Moltke for the Marne, Falkenhayn for Verdun.
  • Grand Duke Nicholas  -  uncle of the Tsar. A career soldier, and a good one, unlike his nephew who sacked him and then took over from him. He was made scapegoat for the defeats of 1915 
  • the Tsar, Nicholas II. A dead man walking. Deluded, incompetent, insensitive - by August 1917 he was under house arrest with months to live 
  • Conrad von Hotzendorf, Austrian Chief of Staff since 1909. He was one of the few individuals who could reasonably be accused of causing WW1. Despite humiliations and a string of poor performances at the head of the Austrian army, he retained office until March 1917, when Charles I, Austria's new Emperor fired him. Too little, too late.
Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Wilson,
carriers of the Allied hopes going into the fourth year of war

As the war entered its fourth year, Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George were perhaps the Allies most prominent statesmen. Haig was in command of the British Army, but with lukewarm support from his government. In France, Petain was C-in-C and Clemenceau was the most influential politician, though the latter had declined to join the latest short lived government of national unity. People in the west hoped (in vain) that some order and stability might come from Russia, keeping them as a potent ally. Kerenski's star was in the ascendancy, but would not be for long. In Germany, Ludendorff (with, to a lesser extent, the people's hero Hindenburg) was running the show. His military single mindedness meant further misery and suffering for the German civilian population, now desperate for the war to end.

In fact, all combatant nations - civilians, soldiers, sailors, politicians - were desperate for the war to end. But nobody yet had the answers.



Monday, 31 July 2017

Third Battle of Ypres - Part 1: 31st July 1917

The attack had to grind seven miles east-
wards from the salient to Passchendaele
The two most infamous British battles of WW1 were undoubtedly the Somme and the third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele. They were fought out one year apart. Both lasted from July until November; both are filled with harrowing memories and misery and are viewed as tragic attritional campaigns. In one respect they were completely different. The first day of the Somme was a disaster - the worst single day in the history of the British army. The first day of Ypres 3 was, by the standards of the Western Front, a tactical triumph.
From the high (literal and metaphorical) of the Messines assault in June (see Post 6/6/2017) seven long weeks were to pass before the launch of the next stage of Haig’s grand plan. Surely, with the disarray amongst the German command resulting from that cataclysm they would be vulnerable to a breakthrough on their positions to the north of the Menin Road before they had time to reorganise? In retrospect the delay seems unaccountable, and unforgiveable.
However there were three main reasons. Firstly, there was the logistical issue of providing sufficient supplies, men and reserves for another major campaign. One of Haig’s main justifications for his plan was the parlous state of the French army after Nivelle’s offensive. He had to negotiate with Petain for French occupation of the Arras area, in order to bring more of his own troops north from France. Along with the very practical issues of moving and supplying these troops in war torn country, the discussions with the French took time and they, ironically, did not want to be left out of the battle completely.   Secondly, the German defences were not in complete disarray – in fact they had long prepared the muddy terrain involved with redoubts and pill boxes, many of them hidden. Haig wanted some time for air reconnaissance and raids to inform his preparations. Thirdly, and most tellingly were the strategic and political aspects. Lloyd George and most of his government were highly sceptical of Haig’s proposals. They wanted to avoid another Somme; felt that even with the capture of Passchendaele Haig had little chance of moving beyond, through Klerken to the coast; and were getting advice that even the capture of Zeebrugge and Ostend would not necessarily blunt the effectiveness of Germany’s U-boat campaign (Haig’s other main argument). With the CIGS (Sir William Robertson) as his only strong ally in Government, Haig had to wait until mid July before gaining grudging permission to go ahead from Lloyd George, who was far more interested in a switch of emphasis to the Italian Front.
With the Germans re-doubling their defensive preparations – and adding new troops from the Russian front all the time - Ypres 3 became another race against time that was lost conclusively by the British.

The front for this battle was an 8 miles portion of the salient stretching from the northern limit of the Messines offensive near Bellewaerde. At it’s northern end was Boesinghe, and Anthoine’s French 1st Army would take up this flank. The land in between was a gradual climb of battle scarred earth, rising through a series of small ridges to the highest ridge of Passchendaele and its village, seven miles to the east. To make the best of summer conditions (sic) Haig needed to reach Passchendaele within two weeks, before moving onwards north east to the coast. Most of this ground was already a mass of mud, and so the Germans built their redoubts and pill boxes rather than attempt to entrench themselves. Their new flexible style of defence was to concede first lines early and then counter attack from these redoubts. Each pill box contained 20-40 men and bristled with machine guns. Buchan describes the defences as “highly elastic rather than the cast iron of the Siegfried line”.
Only the British 3rd Army remained in France (now under Byng, since Allenby had been sent to Cairo – see previous post). The redistribution of forces left Gough’s 5th Army with the main responsibility for the battle. With Anthoine on his left flank and elements on Plumer’s victorious 2nd army on his right. Rawlinson’s 4th Army wheeled round to the north of Anthoine, replacing the small Belgian army there, and planning for the breakthrough to the coast. Plumer’s orders were to push south eastwards towards Lille from Hollebeke to draw off German artillery from the main thrust.


Hubert de la Poer Gough.
Frustrated by commanding the reserve
at the Somme, he was centre stage this
time
Still fuming at the tardy support for his mission, Haig sent increasingly urgent orders to Gough in the second half of July to prepare for the launch. Continuous bombardments covered raiding parties and attempts at aerial surveillance, although the cloudy weather made the latter difficult. After more problems and delays, zero hour was settled as 3.50am on 31st July. Gough had four army corps at his disposal (see map) and his spearhead was expected to occupy Passchendaele within two weeks. Like the Somme the objectives were wildly optimistic, although the day one targets proved achievable. From the jump off at 3.50, all of the German first positions along the designated front were taken within a few hours. At the northern end, Anthoine’s troops advanced to take Steenstraat. Southwards: the shattered village of Pilkem (but more importantly Pilkem ridge); the village of St. Julien (epicentre of the 1915 poison gas battle); Verloerenhoek; and the village and ridge of Fresenburg were all conceded to the 5th Army vanguards. The formidable Pommern redoubt north of Frezenberg was taken by Lancashire Territorials, and by noon many of the units were beyond their day one objectives. Progress was most difficult at the southern end of Gough’s line. Sanctuary Wood (what remained of it) was taken, and after a bitter struggle so was the fortification known as Stirling Castle. But beyond that the German defence was very strong, and through the afternoon from here up to St. Julien they launched their planned counter-attacks. Some of the British gains had to be conceded but by nightfall they remained in good positions. From the Pilkem ridge round to Frezenberg (although just short of St. Julien at its centre) Gough’s divisions had reach the crest of the first ridgeline. To the north of St Julien, the troops had moved beyond Pilkem towards Langemarck, and on the right flank to the south, Plumer’s forces had taken Hollebeke with relative ease. In the course of the day over 6000 German prisoners had been taken, but in a taste of things to come, British casualties had been heavy, particularly from the afternoon counter-attacks that enfiladed fire on to newly taken positions. Where the British had had to pull back the ground was littered with corpses.

Most significantly the rain – the legendary rain of the third battle of Ypres – had started during the afternoon. A great low pressure system originating in the mid-Atlantic had swept up the Channel and arrived in Belgium, where it proceeded to dump its contents. In her superb book ‘They called it Passchendaele’, Lyn Macdonald gives this graphic description of the the rain that created a quagmire in which men, horses, supplies and ammunition sunk without trace; and that turned the tiny Sonnebeek stream (a first day objective) into an impassable torrent: “It went on raining as if some malevolent deity had opened a tap in the heavens. It rained in sheets, in torrents, in cataracts. It rained as no man since Noah had remembered it raining before. It rained without stopping for four days and four nights.” It would be a further two weeks before the 5th Army could resume its mission before Passchendaele. Whatever may be said about Haig, it cannot be said he was lucky with the weather.