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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.

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.

 

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