Monday, 25 January 2016

Eastern Front actions

The debating chamber of the State Duma 1916
Russia started the year in better shape than for most of 1915. With greatly shortened lines and winter respite the Russian armies had opportunities to recover and to strengthen both men and materiel. However, there was general discontent and a deep unhappiness with the war among the populace. The gaps between the ruler and his people; between the senior commanders and their troops were dangerously wide. Tsar Nicholas had stifled a popular uprising in 1905 but had not embraced reform. He was now in supreme, but not highly competent,  command of the army. Many of his senior generals were at odds with each other.  The ill fated pre-revolutionary parliament, the Duma, reopened in February 1916, and for the first time in his life the Tsar visited it, and his vulnerability showed. 
The leadership made several efforts to counter the 1915 German gains, and launched a major offensive from the Caucasus into Anatolia. In concert with France and Britain they planned a major assault for the summer to match the expected push either side of the River Somme.

Eastern Front. In the early weeks, Russki’s army to the northern end of the front was still vulnerable, and German prospects for further progress into the Dvinsk salient looked good. From there they would be able to push further towards the Gulf of Riga allowing another attempt to link up with the naval presence there. There would be a two weeks window when the western approaches to the Gulf would be possible and the countering Russian navy access would still be ice-bound. However, here was where the Russians were planning an action of their own against the very salient created by Germany’s advance to Dvinsk. They attacked in late March, and had some success, holding up the German plans. At the far end of the front in the south, they also counter-attacked and occupied the important high ground of Usciezko (today in Western Ukraine) above the river Dniester. However the main action of early 1916 was fought by Evert’s central army against Hindenburg’s right centre, in the area of Lake Narotch, approximately 70 miles due east of Vilnius. It was launched a good deal earlier than the Russians would have liked, but in urgent response to French pleas to create some sort of diversionary pressure away from Verdun. Evert’s forces launched eight attacks between mid March and mid April. For the first time they had strong artillery for pre-bombardment, and their infantry was able to follow up effectively to take ground. By 15th April the Russians had gained over a mile, and a breakthrough to the main route to Vilnius was possible. Inexplicably, at this point the Russian staff decided to move the heavy artillery and spotter planes (both in short supply) to another area of the front. Hindenburg brought in reinforcements to close the gap, and on 28th April launched a massive counter-attack that in less than a day reclaimed all the ground they had lost in a month. Nevertheless, as a diversionary action it was a success, and also demonstrated (with the usual high cost in lives) that with proper artillery support the Russians could match the Germans.

The invasion of Anatolia. Since being removed from the Eastern Front to command the forces in the Caucasus, the Grand Duke Nicholas had been preparing an offensive into Turkish Anatolia. However, the plains of western Anatolia leading on to the Bosphorus and Constantinople could only be approached from the Caucasus via the hostile mountain territory of eastern Anatolia.
Erzerum - the remote lofty eastern gateway
to the plains of western Anatolia

The key fortress town in the east was Erzerum, 6,000 feet high in the mountains, which guarded the only feasible routes through to the west - barring a sea landing across the Black Sea. Indeed, Russian naval actions in that area had effectively isolated Erzerum to two long and difficult access roads, as the shorter route from the coastal city of Trebizond was blockaded. The Grand Duke was building up his forces for a springtime offensive against the 100,000 garrison of Erzerum. As with the Eastern front, the attack had to be brought forward. On this occasion it was because the final evacuation of Gallipoli in January 1916 enabled the transfer of significant resources to Erzerum and to Mesopotamia, pressuring Nicholas to act before they could influence the outcome. He moved fast and started his advance in the teeth of severe winter conditions on 11th January. His men fought their way along narrow roads and passes and on 18th took a crucial junction village only 33 miles from Erzerum. 

Russians with captured Turkish guns at the edge
of Erzerum, February 1916
In another week they had reached the outer defences of Erzerum, but then paused to bring up supplies and artillery from the rear. In the same period, the navy advanced westwards along the Black Sea coast and took Trebizond. On 16th February, Cossacks rode into Erzerum, and the city surrendered. It had been one of the most impressive campaigns of the war so far, but it could not make a significant impact on Turkey until further advances were made to western Anatolia. By 18th April the army had advanced to link up with the naval forces in Trebizond  and, on a line approximately due south, the strongholds of Erzingium and Diarbekr. This left them in mid Anatolia, but still not far enough to divert the forces in Mesopotamia, including those besieging the British trapped in Kut.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Home Fronts January - June 1916

Germany's preparation for war in the years leading up to July 1914 had been formidable and purposeful. By contrast most of Britain's early military reverses could be explained by a combination of unpreparedness, inexperience, and insufficiency. It took a long time to catch up. By early 1916, the British public morale was somewhat better than one year earlier – the opposite to Germany - which might seem strange given their relative performances in 1915. Although events in the middle east were setbacks, after Gallipoli little faith was placed in that theatre as the route to victory, and the performance of the French at Verdun lifted spirits. At home, approval of the government’s actions was increasing; there was better parliamentary debate about the realities faced, and the public could see that the great deficit in arms and weaponry vis à vis Germany was being rapidly closed. 

Political changes took place in most combatant countries. In Russia, a new Prime Minister and War Minister were appointed to run the newly re-opened (though still toothless) parliament, the Duma. The Tsar and his senior advisers appointed men who would be more likely to toe the senior party line rather than press for reform. They were simply postponing the inevitable, and instead of reform they ended up with revolution.
General Joseph Gallieni.
French hero, and one of few
with the status and character
to stand up to Joffre.

In May, France was shocked by the death of General Gallieni, recently made War Minister and the hero of Paris in 1914. He had comparable status to Joffre, whose own prestige and unchallenged authority was waning. Gallieni was mourned deeply by the country.

In Germany continued a political struggle whose fulcrum was the wavering neutrality of the USA. Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg wished to stop unrestricted U Boat warfare to placate the USA and preserve the status quo. At the other extreme, the strident Tirpitz led the unrestricted warfare faction. Surprisingly, it was Tirpitz who had to resign, being replaced as Commander in Chief of Navy by his subordinate von Capelle. Bethmann was more hawkish in his public pronouncements, and the sinking of the civilian ship Sussex in March prompted another crisis with the USA. Many Americans were among the dead, and President Wilson responded with his strongest denunciation yet of German aggression, and what amounted to an ultimatum. Germany backed down, and the departure of Tirpitz was an inevitable part of this.

On February 10th the Military Services Act came into law. It opened the way to full conscription, although this was several months in coming. Initially, regional tribunals sat in judgement on reserved occupation and conscientious objector claims - the latter a very emotional and controversial issue. There was also the legacy of promises made by Lord Derby in the 1915 National Registration campaign that no married men would be conscripted before all single men had enlisted. These complexities were eventually sorted out, and from 24th June every British male between the ages of 18 and 41 was deemed enlisted in the regular army for the duration of the war. By this point, voluntary enlistment had reached over 5 million men (compared with the 1914 army of around 250,000) although more than half were still in Britain, and the great majority had not yet seen action.
On 4th April, the Chancellor McKenna presented the 1916 budget to parliament. He revealed the unprecedented national debt of £1.2 billion created by the previous year’s war costs, against a turnover of around one third of that. The debt was covered by Government bonds and Anglo-French American loans, but he predicted an even greater debt for the year to come. The whole country really began to worry about the economic consequences of a long war, and it was little consolation that Germany was, if anything, in a worse position.

Roger Casement
The budget was shortly followed by the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. For a number of reasons, this rose acutely out of the long term controversy of home rule. The cause of Irish Nationalism, which had been growing stronger pre-war, was backed by Germany as a distraction to London, and a means of weakening the British army in the fields of Flanders. Sinn Fein, founded in 1905, was a political and academic movement promoting self government and Irish culture. It became persuaded to a more virulent anti-British stance. Most notable was the role of Sir Roger Casement. Casement was a patriotic Irishman who had served for years in the British colonial service – indeed had been knighted for his humanitarian efforts in Peru – and had fought in the Boer War. He became deeply disaffected with British imperialism, and aligned himself with the Irish nationalist cause. When war broke out he moved to Germany, and intrigued there to gain financial and military support for the cause. The Germans used him, unsuccessfully, to persuade Irish PoWs to the German cause. They then pushed him into an ill-fated gun running episode (one that Casement believed would fail, but which he was unable to stop) to arm the nationalists in Ireland. British Intelligence operating from Room 40 in the MoD had learnt of all this by intercepting German messages from Washington. On 21st April, Good Friday, a gun-laden disguised German vessel was intercepted off the Kerry coast, and Casement was arrested in the same area shortly afterwards - landing from a German U boat. He was transported to London, held in the Tower, and later tried for high treason. His arrest triggered desperate activity by the rebels, and on Easter Monday 24th, armed groups seized several buildings in central Dublin, including the Post Office. The violence lasted for a week. Army reinforcements came from England, and the ruthless repression of the rising caused rancour that persists today. Casement was hung on 3rd August, in a blaze of publicity.

As Buchan viewed it all at the time:

            “This tragic episode had small bearing on the war” (as the Germans had
            hoped it would)

but it had a large bearing on the post-war, right through to the end of the 20th century.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

General Situation in early 1916

"Look at the Map!" Germany emphasised her
territorial domination in west, east and
south-east areas
There was no denying that 1915 had been a bad year for the allied cause. Territorially, the map of Europe and western Asia showed that Germany had consolidated widespread gains: 

  • on the western front (north eastern France and 90% of Belgium); 
  • on the eastern front (all of Russian Poland and much of today's Ukraine and Belarus); 
  • and east along the Danube deep into the Balkan peninsula to the Bosphorus and beyond.  
German propaganda repeatedly invited the Allies to look at the maps and negotiate a peace. Despite this there was a perceptible shift in the preparedness and determination of the Allies, particularly Britain and France to see the war through to a finish, and one that would see them prevail. The year 1916 was to contain three major campaigns - two on the Western Front, at Verdun and the Somme; and one at sea, off Jutland. None of these was decisive in terms of outright victory at the time, but viewed through the retrospectoscope, all were decisive in sealing Germany's ultimate defeat.

There were five war fronts as 1916 began. The Eastern and Western fronts, in varying states of flux, remained the major theatres. The Italo-Austrian front was at a stalemate. The Turks faced the Allies at three main lines: defensively in the Caucasus; and more offensively in Mesopotamia and Sinai. There was also the Allies’ foothold at Salonika facing the Balkans, which were now controlled by the Central Powers. 
The "birdcage" of Salonika, viewed from an
off shore British battleship.

The Salonika front had been created hastily and fortuitously, given further impact by the arrival of Sarrail with his French Divisions. Here, the boot was on the other foot. The British and French were entrenched on north facing slopes, protected by several miles of swampy land. They would be difficult to dislodge, and were happy to sit on the defensive for the present. For the German strategy, the Turkish fronts (post Gallipoli) offered more options. They now had good rail links (almost – there were a few gaps) between Berlin, through central Europe, the Balkans and now Turkey to Baghdad. Germany could try for gains in this region, but success would not likely produce a knock out blow against the main enemies, the triple Entente.
Roumania was a more obvious prize that would weaken further the Russian front, and offer much needed supplies of foodstuffs and fuel. Roumania had doggedly maintained her neutrality throughout 1915, but in the final weeks of the year, all the factors influencing her to maintain good relations with the Allies had been blown away. With the entry of Bulgaria into the war, Roumania was now surrounded by belligerents, and more vulnerable than ever. 
Only Roumania stood between the Central Powers
and complete control of the Danube basin

In considering these eastern options Falkenhayn, now in supreme control of German strategy, rejected them. He was re-running the 'east or west' arguments with Hindenburg and Ludendorff of early 1915. Ironically, his being overruled by the Kaiser at that time had led to his greatest triumph at Gorlice-Tarnow. In 1916 he was not overruled, and he ruled in favour of a campaign against Verdun (see later posts). The re-focusing of his forces to the west relieved the pressure on the ailing Russians, and left Austria with nearly all the covering duties on the Eastern front – in hindsight, a disastrous decision.
After a brief post-Gallipoli euphoria, the Turks faced difficulties of their own. Germany was unpopular with most of the population, and began withdrawing troops and resources for Falkenhayn’s Verdun venture. Russian gains in the Caucasus continued and Erzerum was captured (see later post). Added to the consolidation of the Nile basin and in Africa achieved by the British and French in late 1915 and early 1916, this stabilised matters from the Allied viewpoint, and added focus to developments on the Western front.