Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Czech Legion: Part 2

The Trans Siberian Railway - completed only a few years
before WW1.

We left the story in late 1917, when the remarkable Thomas Masaryk had take advantage of the political turmoil in Russia to persuade Kerensky’s commander-in chief (Brusilov) to create the Czech Legion as an army corps under the control of the French Army (See Post 11/6/2017). 
The size of the corps was increased significantly when the Russians gave permission to the Czechoslovak National Council (Chairman being Masaryk) to recruit Czech and Slovak volunteers from the Austria-Hungary prisoner of war camps, creating the ‘First Division of the Czechoslovak Corps in Russia’, otherwise known as the Czech Legion (CL). By early 1918 numbers had swollen from a few thousand to nearly 40,000. Their stated aim – to travel via Siberia and Canada, thence to the western Front to join the French forces there - became a massive, complex logistical exercise. The complexity was increased by the events of late 1917. The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks did not merely give Masaryk a new set of leaders to negotiate with. The commencement of peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk led by Trotsky (See Post 22/1/2018) risked the overwhelming of the nascent CL (mostly in Ukraine at this time) before it could even start its marathon journey. To the south, the descent of Austria-Hungary to political disarray strengthened the independence case for Czechoslovakia. However, this was outweighed by the military disaster at Caporetto (See Post 13/11/2017). Its outcome was that the entire eastern and southern fronts had effectively been silenced. The only place now for the Czechs to make a military contribution in order to strengthen Allied support for their cause was the Western Front. So, despite the many obstacles, the CL began to assemble for its 13,000 miles odyssey.

Looking at a map of the world - which confirms the Eastern Front to have been a mere 150 miles from the Western – it seems incredible that the CL’s only option was the Trans Siberian Railway (TSR) to Vladivostok (see map). Negotiations for its safe passage to Voronezh and Penza at the western end of the TSR took until mid February. The Bolsheviks feared that the CL might be persuaded to join their counter-revolutionary opponents. By the time they agreed to Masaryk’s requests, Trotsky’s own filibustering efforts at Brest-Litovsk had come to an end, and the Germans had resumed their incursions into Ukraine, launching operation Fist Strike (Faustschlag). They nearly cut off the CL’s escape route, but in fierce fighting from 5-13th March, the legionnaires successfully resisted them at the Battle of Baklmach. Their difficulties had barely started. Their erstwhile supporters – the Allies - triggered a new development. So concerned by the Russian collapse, and its likely impact on the entire war, the French and British decided that the CL should bolster the Allied supply route for supporting Russia’s continuation in the war – the northern port of Archangel. They issued orders to this effect, against the wishes of Masaryk. Ironically, support for the CL came from an unexpected source. The Soviet Commissar for national affairs (one Joseph Stalin) had no wish to fall in with orders from imperialists, and declared that the CL’s journey to Vladivostok was “just and fully acceptable”*. However, the price of his support was high. In what became known as the ‘Penza Agreement’, the CL was to surrender all but a handful of its weapons to the Bolsheviks, and was to accept onboard a Penza Soviet Commissar in every train in the convoy. If the latter was intended to smooth the passage of the trains through each of the stopping points along the railway, it failed. When the first trains reached Samara, on the Volga towards the Ural Mountains, they ran into a different Soviet – unaware of, or dismissive of, the Penza Soviet’s agreement. They demanded the remainder of the CL’s arms, and generally were as obstructive as they could be. In the confused anarchy of revolutionary Russia, similar scenes played out in dozens of stations along the railway’s path.
On 14th May, at Chelyabinsk, east of the Urals, a confrontation took place between Hungarian prisoners of war and Czech legionnaires that led to the Revolt of the Legions. On learning of the clash Trotsky (now Minister of War) ordered the arrest and disarmament of the CL. A few days later, an army congress was convened in Chelyabinsk, where the Czechs refused to disarm, even resisting the pleas from Masaryk to comply.
Gen. Mikhail Diterikhs. Escaped the
Bolsheviks in Ukraine to become
Chief of Staff to the Czech Legion.
Fighting broke out between the Czechs and the Red Army at the various stations along the TSR. Generally the Czechs were far superior to the fledgling Red Army, and in the weeks from May to July they took possession of the whole of the TSR, effectively taking control of all of Siberia – one sixth of the world’s land mass! The Legionnaires, under command of a white Russian, General Mikhail Diterikhs, managed to overthrow the Bolshevik Soviet of Vladivostok and on 6th July, in an extraordinary turn of events, declared Vladivostok to be an Allied protectorate. They used it as a base to send back trains to support their comrades struggling on the long west to east passage.
By early September they had claimed control of the entire TSR. The emerging public stories of the Legionnaires’ achievements stirred the world. President Wilson abandoned his opposition to any American intervention in Russia, agreeing that American and Japanese troops should be sent to Vladivostok to help with the rescue of the CL. By the time they arrived, the Czechs were already in control of the port city. The feats of the CL brought more political support for the Czech cause, and for the government-in-waiting in Paris.
There was an earth shattering sideshow to this drama on 16th July 1918. The advance of the CL and its imminent takeover of the city of Yekaterinburg pressured Lenin into ordering the executions of the Tsar and his family and close friends, being held captive just outside the city.

Winston Churchill employed his flair for historic awareness in recording  “The pages of history recall scarcely any parallel episode at once so romantic in character and so extensive in scale. Thus through a treacherous breach of faith, by a series of accidents and chances which no one in the world had foreseen, the whole of Russia from the Volga to the Pacific Ocean, a region almost as large as the continent of Africa, had passed by magic into the control of the Allies”.

In October a Mid-European Union conference involving representatives of eleven countries was held in Philadelphia USA to discuss progress towards President Wilson’s fourteen points (See Post 13/1/2018). It was a testy affair, but on 26th October, Masaryk himself announced the Union’s Declaration of Common Aims, which included government by consent and self-determination, with civil rights for all civilians.
Masaryk had all but achieved his dream of an independent Czech nation, and the dazzling efforts of the Czech Legion had helped significantly to get him over the line.

*Dreams of a Great Small Nation. McNamara Kevin J. p198

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Kaiserschlacht 6: The Battle of the Lys Part 2

'Backs to the Wall" time. The alarming
advance made by Operation Georgette.  

The end of the first week of Operation Georgette saw both sides’ fate hanging in the balance. The Germans had to pause to re-group and to supply their troops. For the British, Bethune and Hazebrouck were still at risk, and the Germans were now pressurising  the full range of Flanders hills west of Ypres, from Mont des Cats behind Bailleul to Mount Kemmel.  Not only Ypres, but the route to the coastal ports was opening.

It was at this stage, on 11th April that the dour Haig, unable to persuade Foch to release more reserves from further south, issued his most famous and Nelsonian order of the day: “There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man; there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justness of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment”. Things would get worse before they got better. On 14th Bailleul fell, and on 16th so too did Wytschaete and Spanbroekmoelen. By the 18th the Germans were ready to advance on Mount Kemmel from the south and west. Success here would all but cut off Ypres, prompting an Allied retreat to the channel, and necessitating flooding of the coastal plain.

Ludendorff’s revision of Georgette now had two immediate objectives: the capture of Bethune, and the isolation of Ypres by taking Mount Kemmel. Hazebrouck and a retreat to the coast would then follow as a matter of course.
To increase the pressure on Ypres, Ludendorff authorised Operation Tannenberg (an emotive choice recalling the great pincer like German victory of 1914 see Post…). This was to be a huge movement with Kemmel in the south, the coastal route in the north, and the beleaguered Ypres caught in the pincers. The crucial engagements took place on 17th and 18th April. Firstly the Belgian forces were successful in rebuffing the coastal movement. Strong counter attacks rapidly reversed some initial German gains, and the right hand pincer ground to a halt almost before it had started. The left hand pincer was also rebuffed in several places, but made sufficient progress to take the southern and western aspects of Kemmel, and took all of Wytschaete. It was now able to overlook the remains of Ypres, almost one year after it had been driven from the ridge.

South of the Lys, von Quast made his assault towards Bethune along his whole section from Givenchy to Merville. To capture Bethune he had to get across the La Bassée canal. Despite reaching the eastern bank along much its length, his attempts to cross all ended in costly failure. The defence put up by 4 Division of Horne’s Army fully met the demands of Haig’s order of the day. Holding Givenchy proved the key to the defence of Bethune.

This was the beginning of the end of the Battle of the Lys. The German machine had been comprehensively repulsed in the north of Belgium, and severely damaged in its failure to cross the La Bassée canal in front of Bethune. Only in the centre, at Mount Kemmel, could Ludendorff hope to gain Ypres, and this would prove to be the final act of the battle*. Sporadic action continued but for the next week both sides prepared for this decisive moment. By now Foch was taking the lead on tactics, and he brought in French reserve divisions to strengthen the Kemmel defences.
The bleak view of Mount Kemmel in April 1918. Hardly
Himalayan, but at 500 feet, it dominated the views
over Ypres and to the coast
The attack came on 25th April, following an opening bombardment from Meeteren (west of Kemmel) to the Ypres-Comine canal. The fighting of the next four days matched any of the war for its fierceness, with thousands of British, French and German casualties. As in OM, the Germans almost made all of their objectives, but fell just short before losing ground to counter-attacks. They did reach the highest point of Kemmel, and the road from Ypres to Poperinge but, exhausted, by the end of April they were contained by Allied reinforcements. A final attempt to break through on the coastal route north of Ypres had again been successfully beaten off by the Belgian forces. By the end of May, Ludendorff’s focus had shifted again, this time for his final gambit of the Kaiserschlacht – against Paris from the Aisne.

The battle of the Lys was a turning phase of the war. The Germans won tactical victories but failed strategically. Their armies were showing fallibility, and the innovative shock tactics were regressing to attritional warfare as a result of the high casualties they were suffering. Foch was growing into his role as Allied supremo, and had acted decisively and with resolve in the later stages of the battle.
At the close of Operations Michael and Georgette the Germans retained their numerical superiority on the Western Front – 208 Divisions ranged against 168 – but they had been badly damaged, and many of their best units had been sacrificed. Most worryingly for Ludendorff he now had nowhere to look for reinforcements from the East, whereas from the West, American troops were beginning to arrive in numbers. His Kaiserschlacht was to have one more roll of the dice.

* The battle of Kemmelberg, as a distinct departure from Operation Georgette's original conception, is also frequently known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres 

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Kaiserschlacht 5: The Battle of the Lys Part 1

General Sixt von Armin. Led defence
at Passchendaele, led attack for the Lys
From 21st March to 10th April 1918 the armies of von Below and Marwitz in the north and von Hutier’s 18th army in the south had punched themselves out in Operation Michael (OM). Von Below’s subsidiary operation Mars, against Vimy Ridge and Arras had been gallantly rebuffed by Byng’s 3rd Army. Von Hutier had gained the most ground, against Gough’s wounded 5th Army, and he was nearly at Amiens. But his lines were extended and his men were tired. His left flank, close to Montdidier, was vulnerable (see previous post) and Ludendorff decided to switch his main attack to Flanders. He hoped not only to break through the British lines there, but also to draw Foch’s reserves away from the Montdidier and Amiens areas.
An offensive through Flanders towards the coast (and codenamed Operation George) had been one of Ludendorff’s preferred Kaiserschlacht options before settling on Michael. Now, downgraded to Operation Georgette, it became the focus of the next month. Although known to posterity as the Battle of the Lys, it became a series of actions on a wider front than the valley course of that small but significant river. As the month wore on, rather like the mission creep of OM, it became an oversized pincer movement, codenamed Tannenberg, to snuff out the Ypres salient, well to the north of the Lys. This included an action along the coast between Nieuport and Langemarck. This was held off so successfully by the modest Belgian forces now holding that sector that it provided more evidence of the German military machine faltering from its invincibility of 1914 and 1915.

The early incursion south of the Lys, heroically
resisted at Givenchy on German lef

The revised Operation Georgette initially would throw only nine Divisions against Horne’s 1st army (compared with 39 Divisions active on day 1 of OM).
Ludendorff’s aim was to break through in French Flanders between La Bassée and Armentieres (both held by the British since the early fierce actions of the Race to the Sea in 1914 (See post 1/1/2015). He planned to establish a line on the Aire-La Bassee canal, whence he could advance and take control of Bethune and Hazebrouck, paralyzing British communications, and leading to a retreat to the Channel Ports. The marshy ground on either side of the Lys (and its tributary the Lawe) made for difficult conditions – the main reason OM had been preferred as the first strike. Nevertheless, Divisions of the 6th Army under von Quast’s command, and the 4th Army under Sixt von Armin (the former south of the Lys, the latter north of it) prepared their attack with customary efficiency. The whole section was defended by the British 1st (Horne) and 2nd (Plumer) armies, with two important exceptions. At the very northern end, the Belgian army now defended from Nieuport on the coast to Langemarck. Stationed in the centre of the British line were the two Portuguese Divisions. Late into the war they had seen little actions to date and were reluctant participants at this vital stage. In fact one of them had been withdrawn to the reserves just before Georgette, but the 2nd Division was placed right in the path of Quast’s stormtroopers.
The battle commenced on the evening of 7th April with an intense bombardment of gas shells. Unlike the short burst of OM, this continued for a full 36 hours, before the storm troopers charged early on the morning of 9th. Within two hours the Portuguese line was broken and the Germans were pouring through the gap. This caused turning of the defence lines on both sides of the gap, and a day of chaotic and fierce fighting at close quarters. By the end of the day, advance units of von Quast’s infantry were well on their way to Bethune.
Ferdinand von Quast - another of
Ludendorff's veteran Prussian Generals.
Like von Armin he had fought in the
Franco-Prussian war of 1870
However, as in OM it was good progress but not sufficient to meet Ludendorff’s demanding timetable. Further, as a result of the unyielding defence on the British right, especially at Givenchy by the Lancashire Division, Quast found his advanced infantry to be in a long, narrow salient. Desperate fighting through the night saw both sides seeking to stabilise their positions.
Next, Sixt von Armin’s infantry pressured on the right flank towards Armentieres and upwards towards the Messines Ridge – held by the British since the famous victory there in June 1917  (see Post 6/6/2017). Armentieres they had held since 1914, but by the night of the 10th had been compelled to withdraw from the pulverised town. It seemed that between Givenchy at the southern end and Messines to the north the Germans were certain to break through. They renewed their attack the next day, making greater advances in the north, so that Messines was conceded and the British line moved back to Wytschaete (how demoralising that must have been). There was now a bulge in the British line that threatened the rear of Ypres. This unplanned success away from his original targets led Ludendorff to throw his reserves into a new action towards Ypres (reminiscent of his actions in the southern zone in OM, where Amiens had replaced Arras as his key strategic objective). It would prove to be a fatal error in the long run, but the British crisis was far from over*. Although still some way distant, both Bethune and Hazebrouck were threatened; while Plumer was forced to move troops down from Passchendaele to support the defenders south west of Ypres. The Germans continued to have greater success north of the River Lys, pushing towards Bailleul, a key British administration centre and a major obstacle en route to Hazebrouck.

*”Blindness seemed to have fallen for the moment on the German High Command – a blindness born of too confident pride. It all but destroyed the British Army; but it saved the Allied front, and in the long run gave them victory” Buchan. A History of the Great War. Vol IV p225  

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

"Kaiserschlacht" 4: The March Retreat

Ferdinand Foch.
Good man in a crisis
The scale of the German attack on 21st March had been unprecedented. A look at the map shows that the area captured in two weeks was many times greater than the entire Allied gains of the five months Somme campaign in 1916 (shaded area). Seemingly a major German victory? In terms of ground gained, perhaps. But in other ways the gains were inadequate. Firstly, Ludendorff’s objectives for day one had not been met (he was as guilty as Haig of overoptimistic planning). Secondly, a look at the map and the triangular shape of the final gains, shows much greater success in the southern half of the sector. However, it was in the north that Ludendorff needed greater progress to roll up the British army in Flanders; and it was in the north where Byng’s 3rd Army defences were much stronger than Gough’s 5th Army. As Operation Michael progressed it was natural that the Germans would want to exploit the breakthrough at the Crozat Canal (see previous post 21/3/2018), but here they would have to travel further west to block the French routes fro reinforcement to the British – and greater distances meant longer lines of communication. Von Hutier’s demands for men and supplies began to outweigh those of von Below and von Marwitz.

The 22nd April began badly for Gough’s army in the south, and deterioration continued for several days. Tergnier was captured by mid morning at the southern limit of Gough’s section, and by early afternoon all of his men were on their rear most defensive lines, from east of Peronne down to Tergnier (see map).  

Byng’s army was holding firm in the north, but by the evening this distortion of the line was leading to dangerous gaps between divisions. The Germans were exploiting these, and desperate efforts at plugging them with reserves (including some French companies arriving be bus) were barely adequate. The northernmost Corps of Gough’s army, below the Flesquieres salient, led by General Ivor Maxse, pulled back to the Somme at Peronne to support those on his right. This of course, created a gap between the 5th and 3rd Armies, and Byng was obliged to withdraw behind the Canal du Nord to align. He also lost some ground in front of Arras including Bullecourt, but thereafter held firm.
All through the night into the 23rd the 5th army pulled back, under severe pressure. Gough was soon faced with withdrawal across the Somme to avoid complete destructionHe began this on the morning, and all bridges and crossings were blown as soon as the men could be got across. Buchan refers to Saturday 23rd as “possibly the most difficult day in the annals of the British Army”. Fierce rearguard actions continued all day between Tergnier and Peronne, and north of the latter the Germans, by then end of the day, had reached the furthest points of the Allied gains in November 1916. On this day, significant efforts were made by RAF aircraft harrying German advances and supporting British withdrawals.
In a separate action on this momentous day Ludendorff agreed to launch ‘Mars’ – a subsidiary operation to ‘Michael’, attacking the British line north of Arras. However, Byng was alert to the danger, and had withdrawn his men out of range of the German field artillery. The Germans were frustrated and decided to wait until they could bring up heavy artillery.
Taking stock after three hard days of rearguard actions, Petain agreed to Haig’s request to take over Gough’s section south of Peronne. British units still remaining there now came under the French command of General Fayolle (French Sixth Army). The days of 25th and 26th became a managed retreat, with fierce fighting, heavy casualties and heroics. In particular, the artillery, cavalry and RAF earned great credit for the support of the hard pressed and exhausted infantry. On the old Somme battleground of Combles and Lesboeufs (see post 30/8/2016) the valiant actions of the South African Brigade (recalling ironically its amazing actions at nearby Delville Wood two years earlier) resulted in its destruction, but enabled Byng’s right flank to retreat and consolidate a line.
Ivor Maxse. Stout
resistance. Made his
reputation in tactical
training for the final
By now the right and centre of Byng’s army and the left of Gough’s were virtually back to the Somme front line of 1/7/1916, whereas Maxse’s Corps was still clinging on near the Somme south of Peronne. All were in weak and makeshift defences. Continued pressure pushed the lines back beyond the Ancre, and to the south between the Somme and the Oise, making Maxse’s position untenable. The Germans reached the important town of Noyon. French reinforcements began to arrive in numbers, but the Germans punched a gap in the line at Nesle, enabling rapid further progress and a check on the French move towards Roye (see map).
The crisis was at hand. Haig had requested the CIGS (Sir Henry Wilson) presence on site, and Lloyd George also sent Lord Milner, Secretary of the War Cabinet. On 26th they met with Petain, Foch and Clemenceau at Compiegnes. They agreed that the emergency called for unified action, directed by a military supremo. The 66 years old Marshall Ferdinand Foch was in the right place at the right time, and late on that day became the Supreme Allied Forces Commander. He inherited a parlous position. The route to Amiens was almost open, and the British and French armies in danger of separation. Greatly to their credit, Gough and his staff (removed from the front line action) organised a good defensive line to the east of Amiens. This would hold and keep the two sides connected. After 26th the line north of Albert stabilized, thanks to the arrival of reinforcements including a new generation of smaller, more mobile tanks. There were also some signs that the German juggernaut was running out of steam, through exhaustion and extended communications. To the south, the Germans continued to make gains, pushing south and west of Nesle, and heading towards Montdidier to block French movements. Von Hutier’s most strenuous efforts took him within range of Montdidier, but he was dangerously extended.
March 28th proved another tumultuous day. The Germans made their final concerted effort to break through to Amiens. Although Ludendorff’s original plan had been stymied, he still hoped that by taking the more southerly route, particularly capturing Amiens and Montdidier, he could isolate the British army. To the north he re-launched Operation Mars against Arras and Vimy Ridge with heavy artillery in support. Magnificent defence and counter-offensive by 3rd army ensured that this gambit failed completely to break through. Also, this day spelt then end for Gough’s brave, shattered army. They were take completely out of the line, to be replaced by Rawlinson’s 4th army. Rawlinson was ordered to hold a seven miles section of the new front, south of the Somme (compare this with 5th Army’s 42 miles section on 21st March).
The French now felt the force of von Hutier’s thrusts to break through between Roye and Montreuil. After a two day lull, he made his final small gains on 4th April. By 6th April, Operation Michael was at an end. Amiens was safe, and the line held there at Villers Bretonneux. The Noyons/Montdidier/Montreuil line was held by the French. The Germans, in this sector, were punched out.
Nevertheless, the map showed extraordinary German gains, and there was consternation in London. Gough was scapegoated. It was an undoubted defeat, but out of this disaster came two indicators of a shift in fortunes. Firstly, Foch in his new role as Generalissimo was able to achieve rapid transfer of colonial forces to reinforce Montdidier, holding off von Hutier; second was the repulse of von Below’s forces at Arras and Vimy Ridge. Ludendorff’s memoirs record that action as the point he realised the spirit of his army was cracking.

Thus, it was a defeat that showed the way to victory. The  British suffered 300,000 casualties (German losses were similar). The 5th Army had barely a chance – its ‘rout’ was epic nonetheless, and helped the armies either side of it to foil the German plans. Byng’s 3rd army had blunted the sharpest weapons the Germans could throw at them. Ludendorff still had other places to look for his next attempt at the killer breakthrough, but time was not on his side.