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100 Years On – 100 Days Offensive

After stopping the Germans at the Second Battle of the Marne and pushing them back, the Allies unleashed the final offensive on the Western Front, the 100 Days.  Starting on August 8, 1918, British, French, and American divisions threw themselves at German lines, tearing wide breaches in long-held trench lines and capturing thousands of prisoners and hundreds of guns.

The first battle, Amiens, opened with 30,000 German casualties on its first day, compared to about 6,500 for the Allied forces.  German forces were pushed back and began to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line, giving up the gains they had made in the spring.

Other titanic battles met with similar success, causing the veritable collapse of German forces in France and Belgium.

Over the coming weeks, German lines slowly drew back, until the final climax of the Armistice on November 11.  By then, over a million men on the Allied side were killed, wounded, or missing, while the Germans lost almost 1.2 million, in the final onslaught on the Western Front.

100 Years On – End of the Romanovs

On the night of 16 to 17 July, 1918, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who had abdicated his throne following the first Russian revolution in 1917, was executed by Communist forces in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg. Additionally, his wife, children, and several servants were also shot, clubbed, and stabbed to death by their Communist guards.  Their bodies were looted, stripped, disfigured, and buried in a concealed grave.

Since his abdication, Romanov and his family had been kept in increasingly harsh and isolated conditions.  In the end, their world had shrunk to several rooms and a small courtyard.  Under constant guard, they were even forbidden to speak with their guards or look out the window.

Communist Red Army leaders feared that the Romanovs would be a rallying point for opposing White Forces in the burgeoning Russian Civil War.  At the time of the execution, White elements were drawing near to Ekaterinburg, and the Communists moved to prevent the Tsar’s liberation.

After consulting with authorities in Moscow, including Lenin and Dzerzhinsky, the local Communist leader replaced the guards surrounding the Romanovs with men who swore to kill the tsar, if ordered.   A site outside the city was carefully prepared so that the family’s remains could be hidden.

The Romanovs were taken to small cellar room, were informed of the decision to execute them, and killed.  After the family was murdered, their bodies were burned and buried.  At first, the Communists announced only that Nicholas was dead, leaving many to hope that the rest of his family, including his son, had survived.  Soviet leaders suppressed any discussion of the Romanovs for decades.  It was not until the 1970’s that their bodies were discovered, and not until afte the turn of the next century that they were given a decent burial.

The death of Nicholas and his heirs brought the end of a 300 year dynasty.  It was only one of the first atrocities committed by the Soviets, but it is a stain on their history that will live forever.

100 Years On – Second Marne

On July 15, 1918, the German Army in France began its final offensive of the war.  In two major pushes against British, American, and French forces, the Germans were able to establish a bridgehead across the Marne, but met stiff resistance by Allied defenders.

Combined Allied action, including the use of tanks, bombers, and several fresh American divisions, stopped the German offense.  Both sides had learned lessons in the years of fighting.  French defenses in the first hours of the attack were arrayed so that their soldiers were not open to German bombardment in the front lines.  In the counterattack, the Allies were able to coordinate their plans and movements in a concerted effort to throw the Germans back.

By early August, the Germans were pushed back across the Marne and back to their original positions.  This action was followed by the final Allied offensives of the war, which saw the Germans begin to slowly lose the territory they had held since 1914.

100 Years On – Belleau Wood

Alternate Title – “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”

In early June, 1918, elements of the American Expeditionary Force, including the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments,  halted an attack by several German divisions that threatened to cross the Marne River and threaten Paris.  By the end of the month, at a cost of almost 2000 dead, the Marines had cleared the Germans out of Belleau Wood.

Fighting was close, vicious, and intense.  On multiple occasions, combat was reduced to fists and bayonets.  In one instance, an American attack went the wrong way in fog, got cut to pieces by German defenders, yet still managed to wreck the units opposing them.  Several American units lost most, if not all, of their officers and sergeants, yet the soldiers and Marines fought on.

On June 26, Belleau Wood was finally cleared of German resistance, ending a protracted, bloody battle.  Allied casualties came to almost 10,000 dead and wounded, while total German casualties are not known.

 

100 Years On – First Flu Victims

On March 11, 1918, Private Albert Gitchell, a cook at Fort Riley, Kansas, was diagnosed with what later became known as the “Spanish Flu“, the first of hundreds to fall ill at the isolated post, and the first of millions to suffer in the United States.  In both training camps on the plains of North America and the trenches of Flanders and France, cramped quarters, bad sanitation, and poor nutrition conspired to create a perfect environment for a pandemic.  Some believe that the flu may have even helped to tip World War I toward the Allies in its last months, as German and Austrian soldiers and civilians were hit with the epidemic earlier than their opponents.

Whether the disease, which would impact billions of people worldwide as sick soldiers returned home from World War I, originated in the United States or in Europe is a matter of controversy.   What is not controversial is the number of people that the flu sickened and killed.  Scientists estimate that between 50 and 100 million people worldwide perished due to influenza or secondary infections like pneumonia in 1918 and 1919.

The first wave, which hit in the spring of 1918, was mild compared to what would come later.  How different societies reacted to having thousands of people, especially the young and strong, die, is an interesting study for those who realize that such things will happen again.

100 Years On – Armistice in the East

On December 15, 1917, a general armistice between the Russian Communist government and the Central Powers went into effect.  Effectively, Russian participation in the war was over.  Negotiations toward a peace treaty began, and would conclude in March of 1918 with the Russians ceding vast tracts of land to Germany, Austria, and the other members of the Central Powers.

The Bolsheviks had swept into power with a promise to end the war, and their almost abject surrender of the western portion of their country in order to fulfill it gave Germany an opportunity to move men and weapons to the Western Front for the fighting of 1918.

100 Years On – October Revolution

On the 7th of November, 1917, Communist forces in the Russian capital of Saint Petersburg seized critical infrastructure and government buildings.   The following day, the Winter Palace, which housed the government installed after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II earlier that year, fell to the Communists.  Within weeks, the Bolshevik arm of the Communist Party had taken over control of the government, including the military, and the Russian Civil War was underway.  Fighting would continue until  1922, leaving the Bolsheviks in control of the new USSR.  It would be almost 70 years until the USSR and the nations it came to dominate would shake off

Over a century of revolution, oppression, and genocide, more than 100 million people worldwide would fall victim to the quest to establish and support Communism.  Words like ‘gulag‘, ‘holodomor‘, ‘killing fields,’ and ‘cultural revolution‘ have come into our lexicon.  Productive regions of our world have been turned from breadbaskets into basketcases, all in the name of seeking the perfect Communist state.  Over a billion people still live under the yoke of Communism.

I am hard pressed to name a movement that has caused such widespread human misery. We are still haunted by the consequences of the October Revolution, and I am afraid that our children and grandchildren will still have to deal with them.

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.

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