Monday, 28 November 2016

Political changes - Lloyd George reaches Number 10.

An American WW1 food aid poster.
We have seen in the previous post how the political fortunes of Italy and Austria lurched in Autumn 1916, with the former's successes, and the latter's loss of her venerated Emperor, Franz Joseph. Overall, late 1916 was marked by frantic political activity in all combatant nations, although perhaps the highest profile outcome was the resignation of the British Prime minister, Asquith. Small wonder that the upheavals from the great battles and actions of 1916 - Verdun, Trentino, Jutland, Brusilov, Somme and Roumania - led to major political changes.
The civil populations of all involved nations were suffering along with the front line combatants, albeit in insidious or less direct ways. In Russia the build up to the momentous events of 1917 was not yet apparent to the wider world, absorbed as each party was with its own local problems. Starving civilians in the streets of Constantinople fulminated against their leaders and the pact with the hated German overlords. The Ottoman empire, under pressure from every direction seemed only to be surviving because of the incoherence of the Entente powers' plans to destroy it (and of course the German materiel support and expertise so much resented by the Turkish population). Across the Atlantic, President Woodrow Wilson, securely in charge, was nevertheless having to perform a more complex dance to protect his country's neutrality. 
This post looks at the fall of the Government in Britain, and the changes taking place concurrently in France and Germany. There is much more to come later from the Russian and Ottoman Empires.

The German people were entering a winter of hardship that would lead to more desperate actions by their rulers. The 'turnip' winter of 1916-17 started early and ended late. Shortages of food and other commodities worsened steadily as the North Sea blockade tightened after the Battle of Jutland. The Army and Navy leadership clamoured for unrestricted U boat warfare to fight back and impose some starvation on the British people, but the political wing - still led by Bethmann-Hollweg - retained the Kaiser's ear to warn against the near certain consequence of the USA entering the war. Falkenhayn and Mackensen's over-running of Roumania brought a boost to public morale, and also the great hope of copious oil and cereals supplies. In the event, virtually no oil or corn made their way to the civil population of Germany (or Austria). Hindenburg demanded more men and resources to feed the military beast, and large numbers of men were seized from occupied lands, particularly Belgium and Poland, as slave labourers. Instability worsened.

General Robert Nivelle. His men's
recapture of Fort Douaumont at Verdun
in late 1916 made him a hero
France, into the third year of German occupation of its north eastern lands, was a desperately unhappy nation. Briand remained as Prime Minister - more because other candidates had tried and failed than he was viewed as effective. The French had achieved greater gains than the British at the Somme, but still had incurred heavy losses. Verdun was something of a two-edged sword. The continuing defiance and piecemeal victories were a national inspiration, but the unceasing demands of the campaign were wearing down the army and the people.  In summer, Petain had put General Robert Nivelle in charge of the Verdun battle, with General Charles Mangin as his 'vigorous' right hand man. Alternately known as Mangin the Hero and Mangin the Butcher, Mangin was at the reckless end of the courage spectrum. He spared neither himself nor the men under his command.
(see Verdun 7, due next month). Nivelle was an ambitious man and an aggressive tactician, and he was in the right place at the right time to benefit from the dramatic fate of Joffre. After lengthy parliamentary debate, Briand gained support for a smaller war committee, and its surprise first act in mid December was to replace Joffre with Nivelle as supreme commander of the Western Front. Joffre, the greatest presence on the Western Front for the whole of the war to date was already hors de combat following a motor accident in November. His popularity and influence had waned to the point where it was expedient to sideline him - scapegoating him, implicitly, for the failure to break the German lines. Nivelle's aggressive plans for 1917 advances found favour with the new War Committee, and he was promoted over the more conservative Petain to the top job. It would prove to be a bad decision.

In London the parliament was as unhappy as that in Paris. Since the Coalition government formed in mid 1915 there had been party political tensions within it, particularly over the issue of conscription. There had been major tensions in late 1915 between the "pro"  (led by Churchill, Lloyd George and Lord Curzon) and "anti" (Asquith and Kitchener) factions. The compromise had been the Lord Derby plan**. The Derby Scheme did not prevent another manpower crisis developing in the spring, and by now the power of the newspapers was heaping added pressure on the government over this and other war related issues including air raids and rising prices. Churchill, ever willing to use the press for his own arguments, sounds disingenuous in his description of the popular press fight back against government censorship "thus after a brief but total eclipse, the sun of newspaper power began in ... 1915 to glow with unprecedented and ever increasing heat". ......"Lord Northcliff, armed with the solemn  prestige of the Times in the one hand and the ubiquity of the Daily Mail in the other, aspired to exercise a commanding influence on events". 
David Lloyd George. Britain's first
presidential style premier.
At this time the press was critical of the government for interfering with the military conduct of the war, and holding it responsible for the failures of Kut, Gallipoli, Roumania and the high cost of the Somme battle for little gain. Lloyd George took advantage of this to launch his own campaign for leadership, although his aim was to have much greater political control over the Generals. He was incensed that his role on the war committee was limited by the authority of CIGS Sir William Robertson (Kitchener’s successor). He pressurised Asquith to relinquish chairmanship of the war committee in his favour. When Asquith refused, and following further political machinations, Lloyd George resigned on 4th December. With uproar in the press, Asquith himself resigned the next day, recommending to the King that he invite Bonar Law, leader of the Conservatives, to form a government. Bonar Law, in turn, informed the King that in his view only Lloyd George could form a united government to lead the country. This was ironic, since by now Lloyd George’s only senior ally in the Coalition was Churchill – and he was out of office. Nevertheless, on 7th December, David Lloyd George became Prime Minister. His first major task was to form a cohesive cabinet that could retain all party support. To this end he persuaded Bonar Law to become Foreign Secretary, bringing the grudging support of the Conservatives and Unionists behind him. And in this way Herbert Asquith and Edward Grey, the two most senior members of government since 1908, were suddenly gone. Lloyd George would prove to be a Prime Minister like no other to date.

**In this scheme eligible men registered but were not called up until necessary; single men would be called up before married men. Those registered wore armbands so they would not be vilified as objectors or cowards. The scheme was complex to administer, and produced insufficient volunteers for projected needs, and in January 1916 a watered down Conscription bill was passed.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Italy's response

The Isonzo river - red line shows
limits of Italian advance in 1916 
Notwithstanding the Austrian surge and attempted breakthrough from the Trentino salient in May (Blog 3/5/2016), Italy had been busy organising and planning further actions in her series of battles on the river Isonzo through 1916. The River Isonzo at that time marked the Italian Austrian border for 60+ miles from the mountains to the Adriatic. Its lower reaches guarded the passage across a large limestone plateau, the Carso - an opening to the Adriatic Sea and the north west of the Balkan Peninsula. The first four Isonzo Battles in 1915 consisted of Italian assaults, directed by the C-in-C Cadorna, all lasting 2-3 weeks before exhaustion and high losses led to western front style trench warfare. The fifth battle in March 1916 was part of the Allies deal to support Joffre with simultaneous advances to take the pressure off Verdun. The Italian forces were barely ready to go again, and the winter weather was still dreadful. The battle, such as it was lasted for an indeterminate week. Shortly after this Cadorna became aware of Austrian activity in the Trentino and further actions further south on the Isonzo front were put on hold.

Since Cadorna’s announcement on June 3rd that the Austrian invasion had been rebuffed, the Austrians had not given up entirely in their efforts to break out of their Trentino salient towards the main communication lines to Venice and the Isonzo front (see Blog 3/5/16). Throughout June, determined Italian counter-attacks attempted to defeat both the dreadful conditions and the Austrian flanks. On 16th June, Cadorna’s right flank, comprising the elite Alpini troops drove in the north east side of the salient and advanced towards the strategically important town of Asiago. By this time the Austrians were feeling the reverberations of Brusilov’s assault far to the north, and some of their reserves had to be diverted to shore up positions there. Cadorna’s forces entered Asiago on 27th June, and in the next two days won back 50% of the ground they had lost over the preceding two months. The Austrians withdrew further to advantageous defensive positions. These represented some gains from their starting point on 14th May, but Conrad’s strategy had failed completely – and at the cost of weakening his Russian front defences, now being shattered by Brusilov’s generals. The Austrians, already enfeebled were now in a parlous state.
For the Italians, their successful rebuttal of the invasion had the opposite effect. Public opinion was galvanized, and the support for the war increased. Before being so rudely interrupted, Cadorna’s staff had been preparing their own plans for yet another attack along the River Isonzo front. Already there had been five major battles for the contested river and coastal plains, which were the only lowland links between the Italian and Balkan peninsulas.
On this occasion Cadorna planned to push for control of Gorizia (Gorz), where the centre of his front was now held up, and also for the high ground of Mon San Michele, a few miles to the south. Victories here could create a gap wide enough to push south eastwards towards the Adriatic port of Trieste – territory they had long coveted.
Planning for the attack had begun in early 1916, with movement of heavy artillery to the area. Even as fighting continued in the Trentino in late June, Cadorna was moving resources eastwards in readiness. In mid June, a successful raid on Monfalcone, much nearer to the coast had captured enemy trenches and 500 prisoners. It was here that Cadorna planned a diversionary attack to be launched before his main assault between Sabotino and San Michele.

Italian Cavalry entering Gorizia on 9th August.
Despite heavy bombardment of the lines, the
town was not reduced to rubble like so
many others.
By the end of July preparations were completed. On 1st August Cadorna unleashed a bombardment from Sabotino to the sea. This was the most concerted bombardment of the war to date on the Italian front, and it shocked the complacent and poorly prepared Austrian commander Boroevic, who assumed his colleagues in Trentino had crippled Italian capabilities. On 4th August, the feint against Monfalcone was launched, and Boroevic duly obliged by sending reserves from Gorizia to defend it (unsuccessfully). Then two days later Cadorna made his main attack on Gorizia. It was late in the afternoon after a renewed bombardment. Within 48 hours the Italians attained their main objectives the town of Gorizia and the heights of San Michele, inflicting 80,000 Austrian casualties along the main battlefront, and taking 12,000 prisoners. At this euphoric moment Cadorna could scent an even greater victory with a further advance eastwards across the Carso plateau towards Trieste. On the 10th, he began his push, but the high ground along his route was well defended and hampered his progress. After a further week of halting advances Cadorna decided to hold what he had, and consolidated his positions east of Gorizia. The sixth battle of the Isonzo had petered out like the previous five, but this time significant gains had been made (see map). The Italians were uplifted again and the Austrians suffered another crushing below to their morale and self-respect.
Both sides experienced major political consequences. Italy to date had only declared war on Austria and Turkey, and still remained officially at peace with Germany. Emboldened by military success and incensed by Germany’s hostile response to any of their initiatives, the Italian King authorized his government to declare war on Germany on 27th August. One month later Cadorna regrouped his forces for a further push across the Carso plateau – the seventh battle of the Isonzo, but this lasted only 3 days, with some minor gains. The arrival of winter terminated what had been a pretty good 1916 campaign for Italy.

Emperor Charles I
Mission Impossible

Austria lurched from her military nightmare to a constitutional crisis when, November 21st 1916, Francis Joseph died. Aged 85 years, he had been Emperor for 68 years – longer than Victoria’s reign, or even our present Queen Elizabeth II. Most of the Empire’s population had known only him as their sovereign, and his death took away their remaining pillar of stability. His only possible successor was 30 years old Archduke Charles Francis Joseph, son of the younger brother of the assassinated Franz Ferdinand. Charles was well meaning, and held some liberal views, but he inherited an impossible position and he and his Empire were trapped together in a journey to the end of the line.