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100 Years On – Cambrai

On November 20, 1917, the British Army began a combined arms attack, including infantry, artillery, tanks, and airplanes, against German forces defending the critical supply point for the Hindenberg Line at Cambrai.

The British were able to penetrate several kilometers into German lines during the first day, losing only about 4000 soldiers.  However, losses of British tanks were heavy due to large numbers of mechanical breakdowns and German resistance, and only half of their tanks were available for use on the second day of the battle.  British advances after this were costly and slow.

On November 30, the German counter-offensive at Cambrai began, with the Germans using new infiltration tactics against the British.  In the end, the Germans were able to push the British off of most of their initial gains, while taking a small bite out of pre-battle British positions.   Casualties were also relatively equal, with each side losing approximately 50,000 men during about two weeks of fighting.

Cambrai was a laboratory for new tactics and equipment on both sides of the lines.  The British demonstrated growing skill at coordinating artillery with infantry attacks, while their use of massed tanks to overcome German obstacles further demonstrated the usefulness of this new weapon.  German techniques to infiltrate enemy lines with groups of specially trained soldiers, as well as their use of anti-tank tactics and weapons, were used to great effect during the last year of the war.

100 Years On – Caporetto

Austrian and Italian forces had been fighting a bloody stalemate along the Isonzo River for several years by the fall of 1917.  This stalemate was broken by the 12th Battle of the Isonzo, more commonly called “Caporetto“, when several German divisions joined the Austrians in pushing the Italians back to the Piave River.

After an initial bombardment with hundreds of gas shells and mortars against the Italian lines, German and Austrian forces attacked the Italian positions along the Isonzo.  These initial successes were relatively easy, as many Italian soldiers had been forced to run from the clouds of poison gas from the initial barrage.  German and Austrian forces did not attack on a broad front, but rather rammed a spearhead of infantry down the center of the Italian positions.  This forced defenders on the flanks to give way as reinforcements were used to try to stem the onslaught.   Eventually, the entire Italian army was in flight, only stopping to take up new defensive positions when they reached the Piave, almost 100 kilometers from their original positions.

German and Austrian forces lost 70,000 men in the attack, while the Italians lost 10,000 dead, 30,000 wounded, and a staggering 265,000 taken prisoner.  In addition, thousands of machine guns and artillery pieces were lost in the headlong retreat.

British and French divisions were dispatched to Italy to bolster the new lines, but played no role in stopping the Germans and Austrians as their offensive reached the limit of its logistical support and petered out in front of the Italians’ new lines.  These units, which were needed for fighting in France and Belgium, stayed in Italy for the rest of the war.

Caporetto sent shockwaves through the political and military leadership of Italy.  For years afterward, recriminations about the debacle continued to dog the Italians.

100 Years On – Passchendaele

In August, 1917, the British 5th Army attacked German positions around Ypres in Belgium.  Initial British objectives were to take critical ground in Flanders to reach the Dutch border, followed up by amphibious assaults on the coast.  They also hoped to draw German units away from French lines further south, giving the French some breathing room after the failed Nivelle Offensive and the mutinies that occurred earlier that year.

Passchendaele was a follow-up to the Battle of Messines, in which multiple British mines, dug underneath higher German positions, were filled with explosives and detonated. This, along with extensive training on how to clear enemy lines while staying just behind a creeping barrage, allowed British and Commonwealth units to clear a salient in the German lines with relatively light casualties. (‘Relatively light’ being a rather flexible term.  Almost 25,000 soldiers were killed or wounded taking Messines Ridge)

British forces had early success at Passchendaele, especially where they employed “bite and hold” tactics, where local objectives were limited to what could be taken and then defended against German counterattacks.  In fact, at some points in the battle, the Germans did indeed consider a general withdrawal from Flanders.  However, unusually wet weather, along with the need to provide troops to help the Italians in the fall, turned the British advance into a slog through mud, gas, and barbed wire.

In the end, Canadian forces took Passchendaele in November, 1917, bringing the battle to a halt, although sporadic fighting continued for several weeks.  The British were able to push the Germans back through several layers of their defensive belt, but were unable to dislodge them from Flanders or reach the Dutch border.

As bad as the battle’s results seemed to the Allies, though, they were disastrous for the Germans.  They could not sustain the casualties the new Allied tactics inflicted upon them, losing between 200,000 and 400,000 dead and wounded, depending on who did the counting.  Estimates of British casualties were higher, but the British Empire had a larger base of manpower to draw from, while the Germans were being forced to supplement or replace Austrian strength more every day.

Passchendaele began a new act on the Western Front, in which the Allies continually attacked the German lines, giving German forces no time to rest between battles or to mass large numbers of troops to repel the Allies.  It also forced German leadership to reconsider their defensive strategy, beginning the road to the titanic battles of 1918.

100 Years On – Kerensky Offensive

After the fall of the Tsar earlier in 1917, the Russian army quickly deteriorated as defeatist and opportunistic political operatives rotted it from the inside.  Alexander Kerensky, one of the leaders of the new Russian regime, attempted to shore up both the military and the domestic political situation with a new offensive against Austrian and German forces.

Beginning on July 1, a massive Russian bombardment, followed up by infantry and cavalry attacks, pushed Austrian troops back.  Their German allies held their ground more effectively, and Russian casualties piled up at a savage rate.

One factor that exacerbated the issues which had plagued the Russians since the start of the war was a new habit of soldiers holding impromptu meetings to discuss whether or not to obey orders.  Literally, as fighting went on, soldiers would stop to debate and vote on their orders.  Even if this ‘democratic’ process ended with an agreement to do as their officers told them, the time needed to come to that conclusion would usually make these orders irrelevant.

The Russian advance crumbled after a few days, and the counter-offensive pushed them back into the Ukraine.  This disastrous loss of both territory and men further weakened the Russian government, contributing to the conditions that would later lead to the Bolshevik takeover. Never again would the Russians go on the offensive in World War I.

100 Years On – Mutiny

By 1917, the French army had absorbed over one million dead soldiers.  Offensive after offensive had promised to end the fighting, or at least get the men out of the trenches, but nothing seemed to work.  After Verdun, the French general Neville thought he had struck upon a way to finally pierce the German lines, and hopes were high among his soldiers as they once again went on the offensive.

A few weeks later, their hope had turned to despair.  Along with agitation by communist and pacifist forces, the lack of any hope of succeeding, and possibly of surviving, had eaten away the confidence of many French infantrymen.

Their answer was to refuse to follow orders.  Beginning on May 3, 1917, 43% of all French divisions saw at least some disruptive behavior, with several entire regiments refusing to attack.  Thankfully, this activity was not hostile toward leadership.  Rather, the soldiers simply refused to go back to the trenches or leave the relative safety of their positions to attack the enemy.

French commanders reacted with a surprisingly gentle solution.  In return for the return of discipline in the ranks, they increased the number and length of leaves for soldiers and promised to not undertake any large offensives until American forces were able to join the line.  Additionally, while there were 3,427 courts martial against mutineers, only 629 men were sentenced to death.  Of these, only 43 soldiers were actually executed.

French commanders kept their offensives and objectives limited for the remainder of 1917, giving their army time to rest and regain its fighting spirit.

100 Years On – Vimy Ridge

From April 9 to April 12, 1917, the Canadian Expeditionary Force conducted its first battle in which all four of its divisions were engaged at once.  As part of the larger Arras offensive, the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge and the surrounding countryside.

Key to this victory was preparation at all levels.  An immense collection of artillery, comprised of almost 1000 guns, mortars, and howitzers, was allotted 1.6 million shells for the battle.  Extensive reconnaissance gave commanders a good picture of the battlefield, which was passed all the way down to platoon leaders.  Canadian soldiers were extensively trained for the battle, and lower-echelon commanders were given information and freedom of command unheard of in other World War I offensives.

The Germans facing the Canadians were outnumbered almost four to one, and their commander had not yet implemented the new “defense in depth” concept the German army had developed the previous year.  Where the Canadians were able to provide relatively safe approaches to the front for their soldiers through the use of extensive tunnels, the Germans kept their reserves 24 miles behind the lines.  While the Germans fought valiantly to defend their positions, lack of resupply and reinforcement contributed to their defeat.

The Canadians reached all of their objectives by the end of April 12, and established control of the high ground at the far left of the Arras battlefield.  This victory cost them 3,598 dead and 7,004 wounded.  While this is a horrid butcher’s bill to our modern sensibilities, it is light when compared to the casualties of other First World War battles, and the Canadians had actually succeeded.

 

100 Years On – Lafayette, We Are Here!

On April 6, 1917, the Congress of the United States declared war against Germany.  President Wilson had asked for the declaration on April 2, and had said that he wished to wage war to “make the world safe for democracy.”

The first small American units arrived in France in June 1917, and were in combat in October of that year.  Eventually, the American Expeditionary Force numbered approximately 2 million men, with the total number of Americans drafted into service coming to 2.8 million.  By the time of the Armistice in 1917, the United States had lost 116,516 men, with 204,002 wounded and 3,350 missing.

American entry into the First World War brought about revolutionary changes not only in training, organization, and command of the American military, but also in the relationship between the American citizen and their government.  Massive propaganda programs, ranging from speeches to pamphlets, to suppression of anti-war sympathizers were instituted in a systematic, nationwide program.

For the first time, the law was used against citizens who disagreed.  The Espionage Act of 1917, passed in June of that year, made it a crime to hinder the war effort or to give moral and material support to the Germans.  It was amended in 1918 to make it a crime to criticize the government, the conduct of the war, or the military.  In 1919, the Supreme Court found that the act, including the amendments that curtailed speech against the government, was constitutional.  Although many of the 1918 amendments were repealed.

The AEF bolstered Allied forces, even though their arrival into the front line was delayed until they were properly trained and could enter combat as discreet units.  General Pershing, their commander, had clashed with his counterparts in the British and French armies, who wished to intermix American units and individual soldiers with their formations. Pershing insisted on American control of American soldiers, a tradition that has persisted to this day.

American units would provide needed manpower in the battles to come in 1917 and 1918.

 

 

100 Years On – Abdication

Russia began 1917 taking staggering steps toward oblivion.  Millions of men had been taken out of her economy to fight against the Germans and Austrians.  Russia’s military had traded hundreds of thousands of dead men for little gain.  Her industrial complex, which had been barely out of its infancy when the war began, creaked along to provide the bare minimums to the military, and provided little to the Russian people.

Leadership in Saint Petersburg had spent the previous few years contributing to the misery of the people it was charged to lead and protect.  The cost of food and other necessities of life quickly rose four-fold or more.  Hunger, never a stranger in the life of the Russian peasant, became a common problem throughout the country.

The situation exploded with food riots in Saint Petersburg in February, 1917.  Units which were sent in to quell the disturbances, , most of them almost bereft of experienced soldiers,  tended to either overreact to the mobs and commit atrocities against them, or they joined in alongside the rioters. Against this backdrop, Tsar Nicholas tried to return to the capitol to provide leadership and try to head off anarchy.

He never made it.  His train was stopped south of Saint Petersburg, and the demands of the new Provisional Government, including his abdication, were given to him. Seeing no alternative, the Tsar bowed to the inevitable.

On March 15, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne his family had occupied for 300 years.  He also abdicated for his son, the Tsarevich Alexei, due to the boy’s failing health.  He named his brother, Michael, as the new leader of Russia, but Michael refused to take the throne unless his ascension was approved by the Russian people.

Nicholas Romanov and his family went into internal exile and were murdered by Communist forces during the ensuing Russian Civil War.

The Provisional Government was quickly recognized by most major nations, and began the work to form a truly representative government in a country that had no history of such things to support it.  It continued to fight the war against Austria and Germany, leaving a lot of the problems that led to its formation in place.  This created an opening for the Communists to stage their own revolution later that year.

 

100 Years On – Zimmermann Telegram

In January, 1917, British intelligence intercepted a telegram from the German foreign ministry to its ambassador in Mexico.  The message, which has come to be known as the “Zimmermann Telegram,” detailed a proposal by the German government to support a Mexican attack on the United States if the U.S. were to declare war on Germany.

Mexico was still smarting from U.S. incursions into its northern borderlands by the United States Army, as well as the seizure of Veracruz in 1914.  German leadership hoped that war with Mexico would delay or reduce the amount of assistance the United States could offer the European allies.  This would improve Germany’s chances of success in 1917 and 1918.

British codebreakers had a conundrum, though.  How to get the telegram into the hands of the Americans without giving away the fact that they were tapping American diplomatic channels?  The Americans, officially neutral in the war and hoping that a negotiated peace could be brokered, allowed German diplomatic traffic to pass over their trans-Atlantic cables.  Normally, this traffic had to be unencrypted, but somehow Germany was able to convince American diplomats to allow this telegram to be sent encoded.  Since the cable ran through British hands, and our cousins across the sea are nobody’s fools, they were making copies of everything that went down that wire.

After a bit of subterfuge on the part of the British, and a bit of bad decision-making on the part of the Germans, the telegram was not only delivered to the Americans, but was publicly confirmed as authentic .  This helped to swell anti-German sentiment in the United States and, along with German resumption of unlimited submarine warfare in February 1917, helped to bring the Americans into the war against Germany.

100 Years On – Somme

On the morning of July 1, 1916, French and British forces stepped off on their part of what was supposed to be a coordinated effort by the Allied armies to attack the Central Powers on all fronts.  French forces, however, had been drained by efforts to stave off the Germans at Verdun.  The British changed the plan so that they would take on a heavier load on the Western Front, principally along the Somme River.

After a lengthy artillery bombardment, 13 British divisions, including what was left of the Regular Army, the Territorials, and the new divisions of the Kitchener Army, left their trenches and advanced in good order. They, along with 11 French divisions, ground into the German lines.  British losses on the first day alone came to 57,470 men, with 19,240 killed.

In 141 days, the British and French pushed German lines back  six miles along a front of sixteen miles.  This was the largest Allied advance since the beginning of the war.

141 days later, over one million men, French, German, and British, were either dead, wounded, or captured.

16 miles by 6 miles is 96 square miles.

146,431 dead Allied soldiers (95,675 British and 50,756 French) divided by 96 square miles comes to about 1525 dead men for each mile gained.  In contrast, the Union side of the American Civil War lost 140,414 men to combat over four years. This was war on a destructive level never before seen.

While British leadership was criticized for the cost of the battle both during and after the war, later historians point to the horrific scale of casualties absorbed by Britain’s French and Russian allies throughout the war and assert that the Somme was Britain’s introduction to truly modern warfare.  Whether the Somme, with its gains, were worth the number of dead and injured, is open to interpretation.

The Battle of the Somme did, however, cause great harm to the German army.  Losses of 465,000 dead, wounded, or missing could not be absorbed without having an impact on the ability of the Germans to continue to defend their gains in France and Belgium. In 1917, they would withdraw to better designed fortifications along the Hindenburg Line.

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