Saturday, 15 October 2016

WW1 - Half time

A murderous image of WW1 - gas and machine gun. The
latter killed far more but the former brought greater revulsion.
Two years and two months in, the war was only just reaching its half way point. That much is apparent to us now, but at the time many people had reached a state of despair that allowed no optimism about an eventual end. Ironic, since at the outset only a few wise heads had predicted a long war, and most belligerents confidently expected a short, if brutal, conflict that would end in their favour. How different were those views by mid 1916. Only some military strategists continued to believe in initiatives that could bring the war to an end in weeks. The war unleashed new weapons and new technologies on a global scale, involving whole populations and not just frontline forces. It involved all the great empires of the world and influenced every nation. Of significant global powers only the USA had stayed (officially) neutral to this point. Japan, following its success in the 1904 war with Russia, had had minimal involvement but was aligned with the Allies. Central and South America was little involved to date, but every other part of the globe was feeling the effects. As blog readers, while we're eating our metaphorical oranges, let's take a half time review of the status of the main players.

With hindsight we can see that Austria Hungary, although one of the main instigators of the conflict, was on a hiding to nothing from the start. Created in 1867 as a compromise reaction to the ascent of Bismarck's unified Germany, it was the final incarnation of the Habsburg dynasty, which had ruled the Holy Roman Empire for hundreds of years until 1806; and then as the Austrian Empire, which was greatly weakened by Bismarck's successes. By the outbreak of WW1 it was really only held together by the status of octogenarian Emperor Franz Joseph, on the throne since 1848. Apart from at its Germanic heart, the empire was a patchwork of nationalities and ethnicities straining for freedom from the Habsburg yoke. As a result, the Austro-Hungarian armies contained large numbers of half hearted (at best) Slavs, Rumanians, Poles and Ruthenians (Ukrainians). Their army was strong in numbers and equipment, but poorly led, particularly by Conrad von Hotzendorf, the C-in-C, whose erratic decision making compounded problems, and led to Ludendorff's famous (perhaps apocryphal) statement that Germany was "shackled to a corpse". From early poor performance against little Serbia and the humiliation at Lemberg and in Galicia (1914), they had rallied a little to hold their parts of the Eastern Front (with German support), but then had collapsed again disastrously against Brusilov's 1916 offensive. Conrad's own prestige-saving advance against Italy in Trentino in early 1916 was close, but did not win the cigar of isolating Italian forces in the east. They were now under pressure in every way, and even in Vienna the population was feeling the effects of food shortages, high casualties and low morale. Things would get worse.

Balkan nations
Only the geography of the Balkan peninsula was a common factor in the internecine struggles it enclosed. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 set conditions for hatred and brutality between combatant nations. At this stage Bulgaria had benefited most from the opportunist moves into war. With Germany in command she had taken her share in the destruction of Serbia, and her armies were holding their own on their southern frontier against the Allied presence around Salonika. We have seen how Roumania's late entry on the side of the Allies backfired disastrously in Autumn 1916, to the extent that the government had retreated to Moldova, and only retained influence in that northern province. Greece was still neutral, but riven with factions, and a continuing stand-off between the pro German King Constantine and the pro British leadership (periodically as prime minister) of Venizelos. The ill defined territories of Macedonia and Thrace were constantly fought over. They provided communication links through the mountainous region, and were of particular importance to the central powers with the links to Turkey. Only little Albania seemed to escape damaging involvement in the conflict.

Overwhelmed by the hammer of the Schlieffen plan in August 1915, Belgium remained almost wholly occupied by Germany at this half way point. The Germans were brutal occupants in their demands for resources and forced labour, and the rape of their country was a constant burden for the Belgian people to bear. A small north western corner of the country remained behind the western front. Nieuport was the focus of the defence and the King, Albert, served in the trenches and inspired his people from his base in the small town of De Panne.

France had probably suffered more than any combatant ( maybe Russia could claim so ). Not only had she to suffer the pain and indignity of occupation of a large north eastern salient of the country, her losses had been enormous. Only the 'miracle' of the Marne' in September 1914 acted as a counter to the demoralisation of occupation and huge casualty lists from futile counter attacks in Artois and Champagne during 1915. True, the carnage at Verdun was shared by the Germans, and the heroic defence of the citadel town was inspiring the nation, but again at huge cost. After the humiliation of withdrawing to Bordeaux in August 1914, the Government had returned to Paris after the Marne victory. Vivian was replaced as Prime Minister by Briand in 1915; Poincare was President throughout the war; but C-in-C Joseph 'Papa' Joffre probably wielded more power than any of them, at least until 1916. By half time his powers were waning, and he was no longer immune to  criticisms about the continuing presence of the Germans on French soil. Oddly, some of the most successful actions of the French army in their share of the Somme campaign in Summer 1916, went by almost unnoticed as the focus was on the British campaign, and on the continuing blood letting at Verdun. Joffre would soon be the victim of a sideways promotion.

The German military machine had won most of the important set battles of the war to date. However, their biggest reverse was at the Marne because it deprived them of the rapid victory over France that they needed to bring the war to an early successful conclusion. Thereafter, they knew that the longer the war ran the more likely they were to succumb to blockade and exhaustion. This did not stop them from strengthening their formidable defence of the western front; breaking through on the Eastern Front at Gorlice-Tarnow and wrapping up all of Poland and large chunks of Russia. High casualties and the shortages at home led to a resolute but unhappy home population, which was to face desperate conditions in the approaching third winter of the war. The Kaiser's popularity had fallen drastically, but by this point he was a token leader, and control of the war had passed to the latest military leadership (Hindenburg and Ludendorff replacing Falkenhayn in 1916, as he had replaced Moltke in 1914 after the failure at the Marne). The politicians and military leaders were at loggerheads over unrestricted U-boat warfare. The latter, increasingly desperate about the blockade of Germany saw this as the only way to defeat Britain and win the war. The former, still led by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, were terrified that unrestricted U boat activity would finally tip the USA into declaring war for the Allies and against Germany.

Great Britain
Asquith - a good man, not
suited to wartime leadership.
For a country that had been determined not to be part of any European war during July 1914, Great Britain had - once committed - shown remarkable application to the cause. The early months of near euphoria had, however, been replaced by a steely resolve that grew with each shattering realisation of the costs  and failures of the Western Front and Gallipoli actions through 1915. The country, and Empire, were now operating on a full war footing, equalling the German machine in output. The munitions scandal of 1915 had triggered a change of government, but also big improvements in munitions production. Asquith was still Prime Minister, albeit of an unhappy and divided government. Kitchener's loss in June 1916 led to a more overtly political control over the war, and Asquith would soon be replaced. High losses abroad and zeppelin air raids at home had pushed the previously unshakeable belief of the British people in their invincibility, but it was the inconclusive outcome of the Battle of Jutland that was the greatest shaker, and the aftershocks would continue long after the war.

Italy had entered the war in May 1915 in a calculated manner, forsaking the triple alliance with Austria Hungary and Germany in the hope of gaining territory at the former's expense. After early encounters along the tortuous mountain border, the struggle had focused on the coastal plains near the River Isonzo, site of numerous attacks and counter-attacks. Then came the Austrian offensive from the Trentino salient in Spring 1916. The Italians had held off this desperate ploy - just. The Italian army was well equipped, but morale was not high, and Cadorna, the C-in-C was unpopular with the rank and file. At the war's mid-point the Italian front was a stalemate.

Ottoman Empire
With boundaries that had stretched in a huge crescent from Libya round to the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire had been in decline for over a century. The loss of territory in Europe following the Crimean War, decreed by the Treaty of Berlin (1878), earned the Empire the title of 'sick man of Europe' and it's demise was predicted repeatedly during episodes of Russian pressure to gain Constantinople, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Almost bounced into war in late 1914 by political intriguing of Russia and Germany, the Empire had fared much better than most would have expected. True it had strong technical and material support from Germany; it had suffered disaster in the Caucasus against the Russians; and its attempts to overcome the British at Suez had failed. However, the humiliation of the British at Gallipoli was unprecedented, and the army had followed this up with the siege and capture of the British forces at Kut in Mesopotamia. Although its connections to northern Persia and Arabia were threatened, and the Armenian genocide worsened its pariah status, the Ottoman leadership was secure as things stood. At its western borders, German, Austrian and Bulgarian strength protected Constantinople from Allied pressure.

Aleksander Samsonov.
The destruction of his army -
the 2nd - led to his suicide.
Russia had honoured her treaty with France in autumn 1914 by attacking Germany and Austria-Hungary. Early success against the Austrians at Lemberg (Lviv) and onwards into Galicia had been cancelled out by the disaster at Tannenberg and the destruction of Samsonov's army. This had been followed by continuing reverses (and steady retreats) through 1914 and 1915. In a typical Russian winter of 1915-16, Russia had taken the opportunity to improve her organisation and to boost her armaments production as a counter to the relentless German advances. This enabled Brusilov's amazing counterstroke in Summer 1916.  However, the relationship of the Russian people with their leaders, especially Tsar Nicholas, was deteriorating amidst the continuing losses and privations, and the clouds of revolution were growing and darkening.

Germany's military successes and territorial gains were unarguable, but all her allies - Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria - were fragile and highly dependent. Her population, promised an early victory by the Kaiser, was disillusioned, hungry and under pressure.
The Allies had suffered massive losses on all fronts but somehow were growing in strength, and the full power of the British Empire was now being harnessed. For all the dreadful losses on land, the future decisions about war at sea - specifically unrestricted U-boat warfare - would be most influential, especially in the role to be played by the one remaining uninvolved major power - the USA.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Rumania's gamble

Roumania 1916, unlike today's familiar 
rectangular shape. The large and disputed region
of Transylvania formed a prominent 
mountainous  salient.
Roumania had spent the war to date sitting on the fence of neutrality. Created as a sovereign nation out of the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, her independence from the Ottoman Empire was still new and tense; her population a mix of religions and ethnicities alongside a Roumanian majority. Bulgaria to the south was fighting with the central powers, and her other borders were with predatory empires – Austria Hungary to the west and north-west, and Russia to the north east. The former was in the form of the disputed Hungarian province of Transylvania with its 3 million ethnic Roumanians. The river Danube marked the southern border to the huge delta entering the Black Sea, with the exception of the Dubroja, a bleak province of land to the south of the delta, of historic importance for its routes to Constantinople and the Caucasus. At the northern border the eastern end of the Carpathian mountain range crossed from north to south west, and then turned sharply west to form the Transylvanian alps – one continuous range of mountain that made Roumania’s western border a prominent salient, not unlike the Adige salient bulging into Italy .

Rich in oil and agricultural resources, Roumania was coveted by both sides in the great struggle. Until 1916 she had managed to maintain what Churchill describes as "ambiguous watchfulness”. In fact, at the beginning of 1916 it looked more likely that she would side with the central powers - like her hostile neighbour, Bulgaria. By mid 1916 the situation had changed. With Falkenhayn’s strategic decision to attack Verdun, and Austria’s assault on Italy, the eastern front was weakened, enabling Brusilov’s offensive to capitalize, and the perceived pressure on Roumania melted away. (See Blogs Verdun 5/2/16; Austria 3/5/16 and Brusilov 15/5/16) 

As news of Brusilov’s rapid advances became known, the pro-French Roumanian King Ferdinand took the opportunist gamble to declare war and seize a vulnerable Transylvania. However, he wasted the opportunity for surprise by protracted covert negotiations with the Allies for their support. He wanted pressure on the Bulgarians to limit their ability to threaten his southern border which, although mostly protected by the width of the Danube, was vulnerable at its eastern end via the Dubroja. He also desperately needed Russian strength to cover the northern aspects of any campaign. Both were agreed in principle but the discussions were complex and the allied commitment was half hearted. Britain and France would have preferred a Roumanian strike south into Bulgaria to help with their attempts to cut the main communications from Vienna to Constantinople. The Russians were willing enough to provide support, but their railway lines ran out a long way short of the border with Roumania’s northern province of Moldavia, and it would take time to build up strength. Eventually, Ferdinand’s bargaining resulted in a undertaking for Sarrail’s Salonika forces to strike north into Bulgaria. This was a massively ambitious undertaking into hostile mountainous country along a single railway line against the fiercely defensive southern Bulgarian forces. In the event Sarrail was able to make little progress, and did not influence actions on Roumania’s southern border. The Russian contribution meant that they had to extend Brusilov’s predominantly south western movement towards the east, thereby testing his already stretching communication lines. Even worse, the two months of delay enabled the Germans to adjust to the pressures on the Western Front, and shore up the damage to the Eastern Front caused by Austria’s collapse against Brusilov.
Ferdinand I, King of Roumania 1914-27.
Francophile, despite his Hohenzollern
blood line

Had Ferdinand struck in July when the Somme battle was raging at its fiercest, Germany would not had had time, or the resources, to switch forces to the east. In fact, it was 27th August before Ferdinand declared and invaded Transylvania, by which time they had blunted Brusilov’s progress and were strengthening the Austrian forces nearer to Roumania. Nevertheless, Roumania’s abrupt actions came as a shock to the German and Austrian public, and were sufficient to seal Falkenhayn’s fate as military supremo. Paying the price for failure at Verdun (and to a lesser extent scapegoat for the Brusilov and Somme offensives) he was replaced by the Eastern Front hero partnership of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. With some irony, this great champion of strategic action on the Western Front was consigned to command of the easternmost section of the Eastern Front – the very army about to do battle with the Roumanian forces invading Transylvania.

King Ferdinand had around half a million men at his disposal, and added reserve forces as rapidly as he could. They were brave and determined fighters, but officers and men were inexperienced and poorly armed. In technology and communications they were way behind other combatants, and with hindsight it is easy to see how their foray into enemy country backfired, turning into a deadly trap of a German pincer movement.
The disposition of Ferdinand's armies, and the
jaws of the German pincer movements.
(Adapted from Churchill. The Great War p931)
Ferdinand organised his forces into four armies; the 3
rd was to cover the Dobruja border with Bulgaria in the south, with some Divisions guarding the Danube crossings further west; and the 1st 2nd, and 4th were assigned the key passes of the Transylvanian salient (see map). For the first few days the planned invasion went well, and news of Roumanian success was received excitedly in Bucharest and the Allied capitals. In a fortnight from 27th August the invaders penetrated fifty miles holding the numerous mountain passes, frontier towns and the main regional railhead. But this was Roumania’s high point, and from here matters unraveled rapidly. The first major blow came from the south. In charge of the German counterstroke that surged into Dubroja was August von Mackensen (see Blog 3/7/15), the brilliant veteran general whose exploits in Russia and the Balkans we have already seen. He was in the Balkans still, and was given command of a German led force that also included Bulgarian and Turkish divisions. With his customary zeal and ruthlessness, he transported his heavy artillery to the Danube; demolished the key fortified crossing point of Turturkai (capturing 25,000 Roumanians) and burst into Dobruja, outflanking the bulk of the 3rd army. Leaving some of his forces to deal with them, and also to supervise transfer of more supplies across the Danube, he pushed on and by the end of September was at Constanza, the main port on the Black Sea.
From the north, Falkenhayn was now pushing back at the 1st and 2nd armies’ bridgehead, and also at the 4th, which had descended west from the Carpathians. In the face of superior forces, the Roumanian resistance was strong and plucky, but the invasion of Dobruja was a crisis that rapidly used up all Ferdinand’s scanty reserves. Angry disagreement ensued between his generals – those in the south demanding withdrawal of troops from the north and west; and those in the north refusing to withdraw from ground they had won. Ferdinand’s inevitable compromise ruling benefited nobody except the Germans, and the jaws of their pincer began to close. Although slowed by resolute defenders, Mackensen broadened his front and threatened Bucharest from south and east. Falkenhayn and some Austrian led forces penetrated the mountain passes and pushed the Romanians back from north and west. They advanced rapidly between the Carpathians and the river Sereth (an enormous northern tributary of the Danube) to threaten encirclement of Bucharest.
On November 26th Mackensen and Falkenhayn linked up to the west of Bucharest, and on 6th December, after fierce fighting they entered the city (Mackensen on a white steed). The remnants of the army and government fought a rearguard action north eastwards, pursued by the Germans in dreadful weather and conditions. With the belated arrival of Russian support to the north, Ferdinand was able to establish a garrison at Jassy close to the Russian border and hold on to their northernmost province of Moldavia.

Another Balkan nation had been eviscerated by the German machine. Despite brave resistance, it was men v boys militarily. Although the Roumanians, under British guidance, were able to scupper most of their oil wells in retreat, the victory won essential resources of oil and grain that helped the Austrian and German populations, and prolonged the war, now into its third agonising winter.