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.

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