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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.

100 Years On – Brusilov

On June 4, 1916, the Russian Imperial Army launched a massive attack against Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia, driving them back to the Carpathian mountains and negating them as a credible force on the Eastern Front for the remainder of the war.  The offensive, named for its designer and leader, General Alexei Brusilov, was designed to draw German and Austrian forces away from the fighting in France and Italy, and to some extent, it did.

However, the costs were staggering.  The Russians lost half a million men, with the Germans and Austrians losing a million and a half.  Austria became useless to her ally, Germany, who began to take on more and more responsibility for fighting the war on all fronts.  Russia, on the other hand, was never able to take the offensive on such a scale again, and the loss of so many of her best soldiers gutted her armies.

Europe was bleeding itself white, and there was no end to the carnage in sight.

100 Years On – Jutland

On May 31 to June 1, 1916, the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet faced off in a battle both had been preparing for over the course of a generation.  The naval arms race between the European powers has long been noted as a cause for the First World War, and the Battle of Jutland pitted the cream of the crop on both sides against each other.

The German fleet, with the exception of submarines and commerce raiders, had been a virtual non-entity in the war so far.  The British Navy, on the other hand, was slowly strangling Germany through blockade.  The Germans hoped to lure the British into a smashing defeat at sea.  This would release their grip on the German home front’s throat and allow the Germans to more effectively use their heavy ships to impact the ever-increasing shipment of Allied supplies from North America.

Reading accounts of Jutland show how being prepared, paying attention to all information, not just what you think is important, and having a little luck on your side can sway the critical moments in life.  At any given moment, either side could have smashed the other, or been smashed in its turn. Larger British ships and guns were able to bring more firepower to bear, but better German gunnery effectively countered them.  Commanders on both sides made both mistakes and showed genius.  In the end, the British had greater losses, but it was the British Grand Fleet that held the sea lanes at the end of the battle.

Jutland was the only large sea battle of the war, and while the British came through it with a bloody nose, both in loss of ships and men, the German High Seas Fleet returned to port and stayed there until the end of the war.  The return to the status quo eventually led to mutinies in the High Seas Fleet and the political and social conditions that forced the Germans to the bargaining table in 1918.

100 Years On – Verdun

On the morning of February 21, 1916, German forces attacked the French fortress at Verdun.  The German plan seems to be to have been to maximize French casualties by occupying territory their enemy would have to retake.  While German soldiers sat behind fortifications, the French would impale themselves on the German lines and artillery.  General Falkenhayn, the German high commander, planned to make the French forces “bleed to death.”  He was very nearly successful.

From February to December, two and a half million men in 130 divisions tore at each other over forts, hills, and ridges around Verdun.  Up to one million of them were either killed, captured, or wounded.

In the end, Verdun petered out and was over in December, 1916, with little change to the front lines.  However, the massive casualties and futility of the effort contributed to demoralization on the French side, which would have grave consequences later.  For the Germans, the loss of men and supplies would never be made up.

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