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
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.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

The Arab Revolt 1: Its Origins

Ottoman Empire c1700
The symbol of the Ottoman Empire was the crescent and, at its height in the 16th century, the empire enveloped the Mediterranean like a huge misshapen crescent, covering the north African coast all the way round to the western limits of the Balkan peninsula. It continued from the 13th century to the end of WW1, but for its last 100 years and more was in constant difficulties, and seen to be crumbling. In Africa Napoleon and then the British pushed it back from the northern coast and the Horn, in order to control the strategic hub of Cairo. In Europe the Russian and Habsburg Empires, both more advanced militarily, pushed for territory and control of the Black Sea. For example, the Crimean War of 1856 saw Britain and the Ottomans in alliance against the expansionism of Russia (the British of course to protect their own interests, particularly the routes to India). The rise of nationalism put further pressure on the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-language Empire, particularly in the Balkans.
At the onset of WW1, the Ottomans controlled the northern half of the great Arabian peninsula (today predominantly Saudi Arabia). In the centre was the desert of Nefud (An Nafud), sparsely populated by tribes of nomadic Bedouins. To the east lay Mesopotamia, the setting for much WW1 activity already covered. To the west, following the littoral of the Red Sea, lay the coastal region of the Hejaz, the font of the Arab Revolt.

Showing the Hejaz and the vital
Turkish rail link to Medina
The Hejaz was a fertile region along the Red Sea rift, with the sea on its western edge and mountains comprising its eastern border (see map). It was ruled by the Hashemite dynasty that still rules Jordan from Amman today but, containing as it did then the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, it was influential as the birthplace of the religion of Islam, the dominant religion of the Ottoman Empire. In 1914, the Hajaz was a vassal state, ruled from Mecca by Sharif Hussein (great grandfather of the present King of Jordan) but controlled from Constantinople. Hussein was titled Emir of Mecca and King of the Arabs, but the Ottoman leadership relied on the uncontrollable factions and tribes of the Arabs to limit his authority. Following the Young Turks coup of 1908 there was a rejection of the religiously liberal nature of their empire, replaced by an aggressive secular approach of ‘Turkification’. Persecution of, and discrimination against non-Turks was widespread, and by the time war broke out, Arab resentment of their rulers had become a unifying factor.
Sharif Hussein
Hussein held Mecca, but a strong Turkish garrison at Medina guarded the southern limits of the Ottoman Empire. Medina was the railhead of the major supply line from Damascus, 700 miles to the north, and this line would be the target of much of the Revolt’s actions. Hussein was a wily and ambitious man. Although attracted by British blandishments from 1915 onwards regarding Arab independence in exchange for alliance, he played his cards close to his chest, and gained intelligence from Constantinople by keeping his two sons, Feisal and Abdullad, in political positions there. The loss of British prestige from the disastrous campaigns of Gallipoli and Kut added to his caution. However, in June 1916 he made what is seen as the opening move of the Arab Revolt by denouncing the Turkish leadership for its anti-Arab, anti-Islamic policies. Enver Pasha the Turkish leader, after some deliberation with his German allies, resolved to oust Hussein from Mecca. In January 1917 a force left the Medina garrison to take control of Mecca, 200 miles to the south. By now however, the action had been anticipated. Hussein’s son Feisal (recalled from Constantinople) led an assembled force along the coast via Yenbo two hundred miles in the opposite direction, north to Wejh (Al Wajh). They encountered only a small Turkish force that lacked the resolve to challenge them, and Feisal completed a historic capture of Wejh, where he was able to consolidate his forces. This constituted such a threat to the railway link to Medina that the Turks pulled back to their garrison, and looked to strengthen the railway defences.
At this exciting time, and more by luck than judgement, a British officer – in peacetime an archaeologist in Syria – entered the fray. TE Lawrence is such an extraordinary character that he merits a blog post of his own, and this will follow later on in the saga. For the moment, suffice to say in cliché terms that his heart was Arab and his head was English. His love of Arab culture and geography brought an expertise that was harnessed, initially for intelligence purposes by Sir Archibald Murray from the British HQ in Cairo.
From the moment Lawrence and Feisal met they forged a strong partnership – and a strategy of leaving Medina alone as an increasingly isolated garrison. They focused on actions disrupting the railway supply line. Their subsequent aim was to move north and become part of a joint force with the British moving on Palestine, Amman and Damascus.
Lawrence became the chief negotiator in the complex discourse between the British, French and various Arab perspectives. His ambivalence to both his roles – diplomatic and military – is summarised in his own words: “I risked the fraud, on the conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the east, and that better we win and break our word, than lose”*

Meanwhile the main British preparations in Cairo were for an advance across Sinai towards Gaza on the coast and Beersheva inland. From there they would push towards Jerusalem and then Damascus. Having the Arabs on their right flank would help this with supporting disruptive action. Initially things went well for Murray. His forces took the important town of Rafa, on the border of Egypt and Sinai on 9th January 1917, and made steady progress along the coast to Gaza. By March they had reached the most strongly defended Turkish position. This was an entrenched line stretching from Gaza to Beersheva. It was a thirty mile line, but the terrain allowed for only two ways to force it – at either end. Murray opted for Gaza, which not for the first or last time in its history, became the centre of fierce actions. Two battles for the control of Gaza were fought three weeks apart in March and April 1917. Casualties were heavy, more so for the British, and although some coastal objectives were gained, the Turkish garrison held out against both assaults.
Gaza was a serious reverse, as unexpected as Gallipoli. It signalled the end of Murray’s command. He was recalled to London and his replacement, Allenby, was dispatched from France, where he was leading the 3rd Army at the Battle of Arras. One man’s nemesis proved to be the spur for the other’s greatest triumphs.

* TE Lawrence. Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Chapter I

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Maude's advance from Baghdad

The campaigns to break Turkey, hence the central powers: red
Gallipoli (later Salonika) red; Sinai and Palestine blue, and
Mesopotamia yellow. 
The attritional conflict on the Western Front continued (albeit with slightly more success on the Allied part), and the Eastern Front collapsed into uncertainty and chaos as a result of events in Russia. Gradually through 1917 the lesser theatres of war  - Italy and the Middle East - assumed greater strategic importance. Lloyd George in particular found himself increasingly attracted to the Italian front as a means to break the deadlock by destroying the Austrian armies (we will return to that later). In the middle east three Allied prongs were gradually recreating the strategic aim of the abortive Gallipoli campaign of 1915 - namely the destruction of another weakened German ally, Turkey, with its crumbling Ottoman Empire. These were: from the west, activity in Sinai from the now secure base in Cairo; from the south in the Hejaz, the Arab revolt (of which more later also); and to the east the Mesopotamian campaign, subject of this post. There was also still the hope that the Russians would retain sufficient potency to link up with the British forces via the Caucasus to complete the encirclement of Turkey. The coup de grace might then be applied from the European side by Sarrail's expanding beach head at Salonika (see posts 27/10/15, 2/10/16 and 30/12/16). 

We have seen how Maude entered Baghdad in triumph on 11th March 1917 (see Post 3/2/17) having forced his way from the south via Kut. It put him in control of the hub of all important communications in northern Mesopotamia (Iraq). Besides the main waterway, the River Tigris, it included the southern terminus of the Kaiser's pet project - the Berlin to Baghdad railway (see Post 3/11/15). In fact, the track northbound to Turkey had been laid only as far as Samarra, also on the Tigris, 100 miles upstream, making Samarra itself an important railhead. Telegraph lines and decent roads fanned out west, north and east from Baghdad. In particular a major highway ran to the north east following the course of the River Diyala (a large tributary of the Tigris) as it rose to the mountains and the Persian plateau. One hundred or so miles further east lay Hamadan, the advance garrison of the Russian Caucasus army, commanded by General Nikolai Baratov. Baratov was
Nikolai Nikoleivitch
somewhat isolated from the main Russian army and had only one Division and some Cossack cavalry at his disposal. Before the St Petersburg chaos of February (of which he was not fully aware) the strategic aim had been to reinforce him and push into northern Mesopotamia to link with the British. The loss of Kut to the Turks in 1916 had damaged that plan, but now with Maude in Baghdad, the Turks' own defence and lines to the east of the Tigris were under threat and the Russo-British handshake appeared to be back on the agenda, albeit further east than originally planned. Finally, only 40-50 miles west of Baghdad, lay Feludja (today Al-Fallujah) on the River Euphrates, Mesopotamia's other great waterway. Control of this was important to guard against Turkish counter attacks getting south of Baghdad by this route

Part of Maude's famous but slightly disingenuous proclamation.

Thus, far from having time to celebrate and enjoy his new position of authority as ruler of the Baghdad vilayet*, Maude faced intensification of his operations. He contented himself with a diplomatic proclamation, posted throughout the vilayet, portraying his forces as liberators of the Arab peoples to ensure safety of their culture and customs. Trusting that this would keep the local people and factions onside, at least for the time being, Maude set about organising his forces into four separate groups.
The first had the greatest challenge – that of moving north east to link with Baratov. This group comprised two Indian Brigades under command of Maj-General Kearney. Success here might trap the Turkish 13th Corp (6th Army), a strong force that in the heady days post Gallipoli and Kut euphoria not only threatened southern Mesopotamia but also routes through Persia to India. To the west of Baghdad a smaller group rapidly took control of Feludja by 19th March, though just too late to cut off large numbers of troops retreating along the Euphrates. The other two groups were to push northwards to Samarra, one on either bank of the great Tigris river. On 13th April both groups began their advance in scorching heat. They were opposed by the Turkish 18 Corps (6th Army) and fierce fighting ensued. In three days they advanced nearly forty miles on the right (western) bank, though less so on the left.
Kearney’s brigades left Baghdad for the mountains of Jebel Hamrin and the Persian plateau on 15th March. They made good progress and within a week had captured key towns of Buhriz and Baqubah along the river, and had reached Shahraban (today Miqdadiyah), halfway to their rendezvous. Baratov had broken out gamely from his garrison and his cavalry was at one point in Kermanshah, less than 100 miles away. Unknown to him (or the British) the revolution in Russia was resulting in breakdown of discipline, planning and supply lines. Sadly, he could get no further before being forced back. The 13th Turkish corps meantime, sensing a tightening noose, had pulled back and skilfully organised new defences on the higher ground of the Jebel Hamrin hills in front of Kearney’s advance. What followed is sometimes known as the Battle of Mount Hamrin. Sorties raged through the day of 25th March. Both sides lost heavily, the British more so, such that they could not prevail and broke off the action. The Turks conducted a managed retreat to the north to link with other elements of the 6th Army. They had escaped, but would not threaten Persia or Mesopotamia again. Kearney skirted round to the south and continued east, eventually meeting up with some Cossack advance guards on 2nd April. However, once he recognised the reduced state of the Russian forces, and the lack of threat from the Turks, Kearney turned to re-join Maude’s main groups.
A British gunboat on the mighty River Tigris 1917

The Tigris twin prongs of the advance on Samarra were making steady progress. On April 7th, a counter attack came from the east (from some of those withdrawing from Mount Hamrin) and held them up for nearly a week, but on 24th April 1917 Maude’s forces entered and captured Samarra, taking 700 prisoners, large artillery and several locomotives in the process.

Maude's achievements as the Commander of the Mesopotamiam army were considerable. He was regarded by the top brass as something of a plodder, and was give the odd – and unflattering – nickname of ‘Systematic Joe’. It seems to me that he conducted mobile warfare in testing conditions far more effectively than some of the big names on the Western Front. Despite lukewarm support from the CIGS in London, Sir William Robertson (who wanted nothing to detract from Haig’s agenda in Flanders), he continued to make ground with notable victories, taking ground in the west at Ramadi, and to the north at Tikrit. Then suddenly in November he was struck down with cholera, and died – bang, just like that. Ironically he died in the same house as the German Marshal von der Golz, who had died there in occupation eighteen months earlier. Maude is buried in a Baghdad war cemetery, but there is a memorial to him in the Brompton Cemetery in London. I fully intend to seek it out and pay my respects.

*vilayet - an Ottoman administrative district