Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Balkans in 1915

The Balkans in 2015
In 1915 the Balkans were (and remain to this day - see opposite) a labyrinth of nationalist, religious and ethnic tensions. The Balkan peninsula comprised south western Hungary, mainly Transylvania; Romania; Bulgaria; Macedonia; Albania; Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina; Croatia, and Greece (furthest south with the most coastal access). While  Bosnia-Herzegovina (only since 1908) and Transylvania were reluctant members of the Austria-Hungary empire,  the rest of the peninsula had been under the Ottoman yoke for more than 400 years. To the north lay Russia, whose religious and territorial interests set her at constant odds with the Ottomans e.g. the Crimean war of 1853-6. With gradual weakening of the Ottoman grip through the 19th century, the main players in the region all revived nationalist ambitions dating back to former glorious eras.

The Treaty of Berlin in 1878 followed the Russo Turkish war of 1877 - which highlighted the plight of the Bulgarians under Ottoman rule - and effectively fired the starting gun for a series of negotiations, battles and wars in the Balkans culminating in the complexities of 1915. The Treaty was a classic ‘balance of power’ carve up by the great powers of Europe with the Ottomans. The autonomy of Bulgaria was recognised, as were sovereign states of Serbia, Montenegro and Romania. Turkey kept eastern Bulgaria (Rumelia) and Macedonia.
This was hardly a treaty likely to bring long term stability. Russia was respected by Bulgaria, but feared for her longstanding ambitions re Constantinople. Germany was feared by all for her eastern ambitions. Austria was hated by Serbia, disliked by Romania on account of Transylvania, and alternately wooed and disliked by Bulgaria. Greece was troubled by Russian ambitions for Mediterranean access and distrusted all the other Balkan groups. Finally Macedonia was the multi-ethnic powder keg sitting between the other states and providing the best access to the Aegean sea from the north. The only factor that united these players was their hatred of Turkey.

The Balkan Patchwork of 1915, caught between the
Ottoman Empire (Turkey) to the east and Austria-
Hungary to the west and north
(Adapted from The Great War. Vol 2, p743. WS Churchill)

From such a set of tensions arose the 1st Balkan (1912) and 2nd (1913) Balkan wars, and then of course the assassination at Sarajevo in June 1914 that triggered the whole global conflict.
So by this point in 1915, ‘the Balkans’ was not just about a continuation of the  Austria v Serbia war that had started in July 1914. Once Turkey declared for the Central Powers in late 1914, the Balkans stood between them, frustrating German access to the Black Sea and middle east. The desperate position of Russia on the eastern front increased Allied anxieties. Most of all they feared that Bulgaria would make an opportunist declaration of war in order to gain Serbian territory. Strong diplomatic efforts were made through July, led by Sir Edward Grey, to extract concessions to Bulgaria from Serbia – to cede uncontested areas of Macedonia - and from Greece – to cede the Aegean port of Kavala. Serbia was obdurate, and the Allies worst fears were realised.
Bulgaria entered formally into the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary on 5th October, following several weeks of increasing tension, denials and brinkmanship. In fact they signed a treaty of alliance and friendship with Germany in Sofia on 6th September, but attempted to conceal this. Further events during September came to the notice of the Allies - a treaty signed between Turkey and Bulgaria; and Bulgarian mobilisation - but they were too willing to accept the Bulgarian line that these were purely defensive moves. Bulgarian forces then began to assemble near to the Serbian border, and it seemed inevitable they would declare war. Serbia appealed to the Allies for support in a pre-emptive strike across the Bulgarian border, but Grey would not agree - a fateful decision. According to Buchan "we crowned our diplomatic error of the summer by a grave error in military judgement". Although there was some belated response, including mobilisation by Greece, and the landing of French and British forces at Salonika, Bulgaria was now in the war, and poised to take part in the annihilation of Serbia.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

August 15th 1915

For Britain, 1915 was a year dominated by Gallipoli, and to a lesser extent by its actions on the Western Front at Ypres, Neuve Chapelle and Loos. In general, it was the year that the conflicts contained within the Western (Belgium and France) and Eastern (Prussia, Galicia and Russian Poland) theatres of 1914 became global, and every continent became involved. Even the USA, whose resolve to remain neutral would hold until 1917, was a hotbed of diplomatic activity, covert actions and subterfuge.
What follows is a snapshot of events around the world exactly one hundred years ago, just over twelve months after the outbreak.

Sir Ian Hamilton's final assault on the peninsula had begun at Suvla Bay on 6th, and the 15th marked the closure of attempts to continue with landing of forces and equipment. Action on land continued with an attempt to push the Turks back on Kiretch Tepe ridge to the north of Suvla Bay - another 2,000 casualties were incurred in this particular lost cause. Furthermore by mid August huge numbers of soldiers had been  evacuated on health grounds - for example nearly 50% of the South Australian 10th Battalion with diarrhoeal illnesses. There was to be one final battle on 21st August before the Gallipoli campaign began to move towards its dismal end - withdrawal.

Predictably, the Balkan peninsula remained a region of instability, mistrust and ethnic tensions. Bulgaria was a key player, and was tending to view German overtures regarding territories in Macedonia and Serbia more attractive than her natural affinity with Russia.
At this stage, Serbia was looking more vulnerable than at any point in the war so far. Success on the Russian front enabled Germany to plan invasion in force, and annihilate Serbia as a military entity. All the other Balkan states observed this scenario through the lens of their self-interest.

Middle East
The Mesopotamia campaign had been unfolding for several months. Its strategic purpose was to protect British interests in Persia against the expansionist ambitions of Germany in that region,   typified by the Berlin to Baghdad railroad plan, and increasing since the entry of Turkey to the war. British forces (mainly comprised of Indian troops) led by Townshend had landed in the south and were making their advance via Basra in the south through difficult terrain towards Baghdad in the north - sound familiar?

Western Front 
Learning little from the high costs of failed attempts in Neuve Chapelle in March, and in Champagne and Artois, the allies - led by Joffre - were preparing for their next assaults in the same area. Joffre was under pressure to release troops for the middle east, but insisted on the primacy of Western Front requirements. The autumn battles of Champagne and Loos would follow, with........ no significant gains.

Eastern Front.
The need for the Russian centre armies to retreat eastwards became inevitable with the loss of Warsaw on 5th August. Both northern and southern flanks of their front were being pushed back rapidly, particularly in the south following Mackensen's triumph at Gorlice-Tarnow. By 15th, a skilful retreat had been conducted as far as Brest-Litovsk (later to be the site of Russo-German peace treaty in 1917). To the north, the great fortress of Kovno (today Kaunas in Lithuania) had all but fallen by the 15th opening the main routes to Petrograd for the Germans.

Baltic Sea
SMS Nassau in 1915
Apart from submarine campaigns, the relative inactivity of the German Fleet made them itchy to achieve success comparable to the armies of the east. As Hindenburg's northern flank pushed deeper and deeper into today's Baltic states, the possibility arose of a naval action via the Gulf of Riga that would enable a landing of further German forces to link with them, thereby strangling Russian communications with Petrograd. Several attempts were made by the Germans with their most powerful 'Nassau' battleships to establish dominance over the Gulf, by forcing the southernmost entrance. These were indecisive, and the landings did not happen.

Home Front
The National Registration Act had been passed by Parliament in July, and was enacted on this day. It was an enabler for conscription, which would come in the following year, but also was there to assist manpower and other planning. The act required that all men and women between the ages of 15 and 65years register at their residential location on 15th August 1915.

The oafish Austrian
charge d'affaires in New York,
Konstantin Dumba
Tensions over USA neutrality had been growing steadily since German submarine warfare had been declared, and particularly since the sinking of the Lusitania. From mid August onwards the public became increasingly aware of undercover and nefarious German moves to damage American security and industrial productivity.
The 'Dumba Affair' at this time, a risible prototype for a James Bond movie, exposed German and Austrian diplomats fomenting civil unrest and industrial action in order to undermine American stability. Matters were smoothed over by diplomatic resignations, including the hapless Dumba, but a significant shift took place in American public opinion with respect to America's stance in the war.

Africa. The huge continent suffered modest casualties compared to the scale of the main theatres (although more men were lost to infectious diseases), but saw major strategic campaigns across great distances. Allied forces had captured Windhoek, capital of German SW Africa by late July, and German-provoked actions to attack Egypt from both east and west had been rebuffed. At this point in August, British and French forces were preparing for a major action against German held areas in the Cameroon in West Africa. There was an ongoing German guerrilla style campaign in East Africa, attempting to divert allied resources away from the Western Front.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Gallipoli 7. Suvla Bay

West Beach, Suvla Bay 1915
After a break, we return to Gallipoli, and 100 years ago today began the Allied (and Hamilton's) final desperate assault to achieve a significant hold on the Gallipoli peninsula, with the landings at Suvla Bay. Like its predecessors this foray was to be marked by misjudgements, abysmal communications, futile bravery and eventual failure. The version below is based on the near contemporaneous accounts of Churchill and Buchan. Other more recent sources including the excellent books by Hart and by Travers are much more critical of the High Command in general and certain individuals in particular. John Masefield's classic account "Gallipoli", written in 1916 for an American audience, and to counter the German propaganda highlighting British failures, is an unashamedly patriotic and one sided view, but contains some vivid passages. 
It would seem that much uncertainty persists about who was responsible for many of the failings, even 100 years on. There was a good deal of collusion amongst senior figures and creating of scapegoats in the early years after the war, prompted by the Dardanelles Inquiry . 
Depending on your viewpoint Suvla Bay was the crux of an ingenious Hamilton plan to take control of high ground in the centre of the Peninsula; or a longer term landing base to support and follow up the definitive break out to the high ground from the ANZAC beach head. It seems that Kitchener pushed for a large breakout assault from ANZAC early in July, but yet again delays in arrival of new Divisions of troops led to modification and Hamilton's version. His plan was wrapped in secrecy (because of the need to surprise the Turks) and intricate, with many separate actions requiring carefully timed co-ordination. In other words, doomed to fail, particularly so as many of the officers and all of the men were not let in on the secret of the cunning plan, and were understandably confused. They were also inexperienced; led by inexperienced or ailing commanders; and short of munitions - artillery in particular - and supplies. The shortage of drinking water in the deadly heat of August may be the most significant factor in their failure to consolidate the Suvla landings.

Nevertheless, this was Hamilton’s all or nothing opportunity to take control of the peninsula and he developed his typically ambitious and optimistic plan. He aimed to wrest control from the Turks by occupying the ground between ANZAC Cove and Suvla Bay on the west, and Maidos on the eastern shore, including the highest points on the Sari Bair ridge. He devised four separate actions:

  • Two diversionary actions; one in the Gulf of Saros to the north, and yet another attack on Krithia, north of Cape Helles, to ensure Turkish defences there were kept fully occupied.
  • A breakout attack from ANZAC to the west of Sari Bair mountain from Koja Chemen
  • A landing at Suvla Bay by IX Corps to cross the Suvla Plain and occupy the Anafarta ridge prior to an assault on the northern aspect of Sari Bair, linking to the ANZACs.

The opposing sides were each able to muster around 120,000 men for the actions, although approx. 30,000 of the Turks were on the Asian shore near Kum Kale, and unable to contribute in the short term. The British forces included three 'new' Divisions contributing to a a new Army Corps, the 9th.
The Helles diversionary attack lasted a week, and again was a bitter and costly stalemate.
On 6th August, an ANZAC attack on Lone Pine hill began, as a feint to occupy the heavily defended Turks. It was another bloody battle, in which the now battle hardened Australians distinguished themselves in hand to hand combat. Seven of 9 Victoria Crosses won at Gallipoli in August were won here. While they were so engaged, on their left, 16,000 men launched the main ANZAC advanced towards Sari Bair. However, they had underestimated again the tenacity of the Turkish defenders, and by the 8th had still not been able to reach Sari Bair. Worse, they had revealed their intentions and the Turks were able to bring up strong reinforcements.
The main source of the disaster however was at Suvla Bay, where the new 10th and 11th Divisions comprising 9 corps landed variously at Beaches A B and C with little problem, in newly designed landing craft known as ‘Beetles’. Their objectives were to capture Lala Baba Hill and Hill 10 situated either side of the salt lake that fills in much of the west end of the plain inland from the beach. From there they were to move on quickly to the higher ground of the Anafarta hills. Predictably, their plans were over ambitious and foundered against redoubtable Turkish defence. To the south, approaching Lala Baba, it was as much the incompetence of the British commanders as the strength of the Turks that limited the advance. In fact the Turkish defence was down to a few hundred ‘gendarmes’ holding their line against the invaders, and von Sandars was unable to get reinforcements there to counter attack for 2-3 days. It was at this point that he put the entire Turkish defence in the Anafarta area under the inspirational control of Mustapha Kemal Bey (later Ataturk).
After a day’s regrouping, the Gurkhas, British and ANZACs resumed their attacks on the summits of Chunuk Bair and Sari Bair. The NZ troops of the Wellington battalion had the most success and were able to entrench themselves on the ridge of Chunuk Bair, but overall it was the familiar story of Turkish re-supply and reinforcements making timely interventions, while the British and ANZACs struggled on with neither. One group of ghurkas actually made it to the top of Sari Bair, where they had a perfect view of the ANZACs below; the failing Suvla Bay attacks to the west, and Maidos and the Straits to the east. No-one could join to support them, and tragically they were blown off the summit by friendly fire from the naval bombardment.
Gen Frederick
In the overall disaster of the Suvla Bay attacks, much opprobrium has been heaped on Lt. General Frederick Stopford, Commander of IX Corps, who showed no sense of urgency to press on to the hills while von Sandars was fretting about his flimsy lines of defence. Two vital days were lost after the successful landing on 6-7th – just one more example in the litany of incompetence and indecision that marked the whole campaign. On receiving news of this from his staff on the spot, Hamilton rushed to Suvla himself, to try to inject some urgency into the attacks, but the forces were unready and dispersed. Not until the 9th could the assault begin, by which time Kemal, courtesy of von Sandars’ decisions, had three times the resources he would have had only 24 hours earlier. It was another costly failure – 8,000 men were killed or wounded at Suvla Bay in the unsuccessful attacks of 9th and 10th. Following this successful defence, Kemal then launched his own costly counter-attack on the ANZAC Cove positions. One thousand North Lancs and Wiltshire Rifles were wiped out in the first stages of this attack, but the Turks lost more than 3,000 men when they hit the lower defences, and the ANZACs held firm.

Two further forlorn attempts were made by Hamilton on 15th and then 21st August to establish significant positions on high ground, but both were nullified by strengthened Turkish defences. The action of the 21st was, in fact, the largest action fought in the whole Gallipoli campaign, but it was destined to be the last. In those three weeks of August the Allies had 40,000 casualties, 30,000 of them in the period 6-10th - a higher rate of loss that at Ypres 1 or 2.
Hamilton’s response was to plead for another 50,000 men for reinforcements, but this time his voice would not be heeded. A painful end to the campaign was now unavoidable.