Friday, 23 December 2016

End of 1916 position 2: Russia, Middle East and Naval matters

The funeral of Emperor Franz Joseph
in Vienna. Late 1916
Germany’s peace gambit, already described (see Post 19th December), was the dominant feature across the world as the tumultuous year of 1916 drew to a close, but major events were happening elsewhere that would shape the course of the war into 1917 and beyond. 
The world was split into belligerents and neutrals. Belligerents on all sides were weary and hard pressed. But even for neutrals, tensions were high and they ran risks of damage, or even worse, of being sucked into the war.

Pressure was building, and events were unfolding towards the 1917 cataclysm that would cast a long shadow over 20th and 21st centuries. Despite Pokrovsky’s patriotic rebuttal in the Duma in December of the German peace proposal, the Tsar’s popularity was at rock bottom, and his position precarious. 1916 had brought a third year massive Russian losses, relieved only by the early successes of the Brusilov offensive (see Post 15th May). Away from the front, starvation, inflation and droves of refugees ensured misery for the people. The Tsar, increasingly, was held responsible.
Pavel Miliukov. Although a moderate
compared to those that followed, his
speech fatally undermined the Tsar
The Russian parliament, the Duma, had been allowed to re-convene by the Tsar between February and June, but then suspended again. Strikes and popular protests increased, and in November the Duma re-convened in a very different atmosphere. The Tsar’s stooge government, led by Boris Sturmer found itself at the mercy of a more coordinated and effective opposition of leftist parties. Both Kerensky and Miliukov led anti-Tsarist groups, and on 1st November, both attacked the leadership bitterly. Miliukov made his famous rhetorical speech, invoking a number of government and military blunders, “Is this stupidity or treason?” , whereas Kerensky called the Government ministers “assassins and cowards” and accused them of being manipulated by the dark
 and mystic monk Rasputin (who was popularly believed to be the lover of the Tsarina Alexandra). As the year closed, the Duma was warning the Tsar that it would no longer support him, and on 30th December – in an intriguingly complex drama – Royalists, who feared his malign influence on the Tsar’s fortunes, murdered Rasputin.

2. Greece
Venizelos in 1916, flanked by his
army and navy commanders
The events in Greece at the end of 1916 would have been farcical, if they had not led to such bloodshed and disaster, continuing for several years after the 1918 Armistice. During and ever since Gallipoli, Greece had been pressured to declare on the side of the Allies. This eventually led to an open split between the Anglophile Premier, Venizelos, and the officially neutral (but strongly pro-German) king, Constantine. As Venizelos shuttled from arrest for treason to reinstatement as Prime Minister, the neutral country – caught between the Balkans and the Ottoman empire – descended towards civil war. In early December, after many weeks of claim and counter claim, public unrest and gunboat diplomacy, Constantine’s government demanded the withdrawal of Allied ships lying off Piraeus; and then sent its own troops to menace Sarrail’s garrison at Salonika. This was too much for the Allies, above all for the French Imperial reputation in the eastern Mediterranean - already badly damaged. Constantine accepted an Allied ultimatum demanding a withdrawal of Greek troops from around Salonika. Within days, Venizelos was reconfirmed as premier, but not before senior French naval officers off Piraeus had decided to put ashore some brigades of marines to ‘restore order’. In the ensuing bloodshed, as the marines marched on parliament in ‘neutral’ Athens, dozens of people were killed. Crisis talks in London, holding up the conference to respond to Germany’s peace offer, created a route to cessation of violence.
It had been an trying episode – most damaging to French prestige – from which nobody emerged with any credit. The German propaganda machinery made the most of it.

3. The Middle East
Sir Frederick Stanley Maude.
An old Etonian, who led the capture
of Baghdad in 1917, only to die
later of cholera
Disaster at Gallipoli and faintly embarrassing stalemate at Salonika summed up the European end of the middle eastern region. However, not so far to the east and south, things were starting to look better for the Allies. The siege and fall of Kut earlier in the year (see Posts 3rd November 2015 and 1st February 2106) had been a serious blow to British prestige in the middle east, and more importantly in the Indian sub-continent. There was a real worry that German and Turkish advances through Persia and beyond would provoke sedition and Muslim unrest in India itself. The British were determined to re-establish dominance in Mesopotamia, and through the year they built up forces, communications and infrastructure. On 13th December, under a new commander General Maude, the British launched a new offensive to recapture Kut. Their aim was to move on to take Baghdad. Apart from the reputational gain, this would increase the possibility of linking with Russian forces attempting to move into northern Persia from the Caucasus.
Almost parallel to the Mesopotamian thrust but close to the Mediterranean, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, under Sir Archibald Murray was moving from its strengthened base in Cairo into Sinai and towards Palestine. On 21st December, El Arish just south of Gaza was taken. These dual thrusts by the British would continue into 1917, contributing importantly to the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and to the emergence of a certain TE Lawrence.

4. The War at Sea
The spectre of unrestricted submarine warfare hovered beneath the oceans. The Germans were incensed by the continuing success of the Royal Naval blockade of the North Sea. Their High Seas Fleet had not challenged the British Home Fleet seriously since Jutland, but U-boat attacks were increasing. Portugal, who had entered the war in March 1916 found her Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores surrounded by watery graveyards by the end of the year.

The stock of the Royal Navy with the British public had not really recovered from the anti-climactic outcome of the Battle of Jutland, and on 4th December, Admiral of the Fleet Jellicoe was booted upstairs to become First Sea Lord at the Admiralty. His successor was the odiously ambitious David Beatty. Having dodged, or shifted, blame for his several severe failings during the Battle of Jutland, Beatty now found himself in charge of the British Grand Fleet. Ironically the only significant action of this alleged ‘dasher’ in his new role was to receive the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet in November 1918.

Monday, 19 December 2016

End of 1916 position 1: The German Peace Proposal

Bethmann-Hollweg addresses to Reichstag 5th December 1916
Ever since the dramatic five weeks of diplomatic frenzy between the Sarajevo assassination and the outbreak of war, both sides had made efforts to undermine or split their opponents by employing diplomatic feelers. They also both sought to gain favour from the most powerful of the neutral nations, the USA - led by the determinedly neutral and moralistic Woodrow Wilson.  Although he felt no sympathy for the German cause, he was not a supporter of the imperialist philosophy of the nations ranged against the Central Powers. The majority of Americans were more sympathetic to the Allied cause, and German prestige had not recovered from the scandal of the Lusitania sinking in May 1915. Washington, New York and Chicago were hotbeds of intrigue and factions advancing the cause of different nations.  The delivery of the German peace proposals on 12th December marked a dramatic escalation of these diplomatic and covert games of cat and mouse.

On that day, identical notes were delivered to the USA Embassies in Berlin, Vienna, Sofia and Constantinople. The note stated that in view of Germany's invincibility on the battlefield, and her possession of Belgium, NE France, and large parts of Russia and Roumania, she was prepared to negotiate peace on the basis of the pre-war borders (although no specific terms for peace were offered). There was no expectation that the Allies would, or could, accept this proposal as a basis for peace. Rather, the move was a cynical ploy to take the moral high ground over the Allies, easing the way to declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare - the only way Germany could now envisage outright victory. Writing after his speech to the Reichstag on 5th December Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was clear: "Should our enemies refuse to enter peace negotiations - and we have to assume this will be the case - the odium of continuing the war will fall on them. War weariness will then grow and generate new support for the elements that are pushing for peace..... The rejection of our peace offer, the knowledge that the continuation of the struggle is inevitable thanks alone to our enemies, would be an effective means of spurring our people to utmost exertion and sacrifice for a victorious end to the war."(  

The document was thus carefully crafted with regard to its home audience - the war weary German people who were prepared to believe that the Allies were responsible for the war - but it had no chance of duping the Allies, and little chance of impressing the neutrals. However, the note did give the American President a problem. Wilson had ambitions to be a leading statesman and peacemaker on the world stage. Driven by his wish to keep the USA out of the war, he had been considering putting out peace feelers of his own. Now, with the unsubtle German ploy practically inviting him to be the peace broker, an openly positive response to the notes delivered to his embassies round Europe would risk the wrath of the Allies.
Woodrow Wilson
There had already been angry rebuttals from Russia and France. So Wilson followed up the German proposal with a finessed proposal of his own – inviting both sides to publish their own terms for peace, and pleading his good faith in the matter. Diplomatic eggshells were strewn everywhere. Briand, the French Premier, and Nikolai Pokrovsky, the new Russian Minister for Foreign affairs made the angry denunciations in their respective parliaments on the 15th. Wilson’s note reached all parties on the 18th. The Allies agreed to convene for a more measured response and Britain assumed the role of co-ordinator. Lloyd George, only one week in office, faced a tricky task to keep his government and the allies united, and to avoid offending Wilson. At the time a British peer, Viscount Lansdowne, was drumming up support for peace proposals of his own, arguing that the war risked destroying humanity and that the slaughter must be stopped. Balfour, the new Foreign Secretary, was indisposed and his Deputy, the under Secretary of State
 Lord Cecil, assumed a key role in the process. He was strongly opposed to peace proposals. Lloyd George realised that were Britain to reject the proposals outright, they risked playing into German hands. 

Sir Cecil Spring Rice
Consummate Diplomat and one
of Britain's unsung war heros
Following days of feverish activity in London and Washington, in which the Ambassador to the USA, Sir Cecil Spring Rice (probably best known for penning the poem I vow to thee my country, set to the music of Holst’s Jupiter) played a brilliant diplomatic hand, Lloyd George formulated his response. On December 19th he delivered a consummate speech to the House of Commons, before convening the conference of Allies in London over Christmas. Their work was interrupted for nearly two days by the crisis in Greece (see Part 2 of this blog) and they continued throughout the 25th and 26th to reach an agreed position. On 30th December the French Government communicated to the USA Ambassador in Paris a formal answer, signed by Russia, France, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, Serbia, Montenegro, Portugal and Roumania. 

The statement included: “A suggestion without any conditions for initiating negotiations is not an offer of peace. The so called proposal, devoid of substance and precision, circulated abroad by the Imperial Government appears less an offer of peace than a maneuver (sic) of war. It is based upon a systematic disregard of the nature of the struggle of the past, present and future”.

The cynical proposal was thrown out. The declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare and the entry of the USA into the war – two of 1917’s more dramatic developments – were one step closer.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Verdun 7 - Tables are turned

Gen. Mangin  (3rd L) at the front with some of
his commanders in late 1916
We last visited Verdun on 6th April (Verdun 6. France holds - "Ils ne passerons"), covering the great July assault of the Germans on the east bank, and the destruction of Fleury. Extraordinary to think that during all the time of the significant events covered since then - Jutland; Italy; Brusilov; Somme and Roumania) - the fighting and carnage at Verdun continued unabated. From July to late August, the same pattern of German attacks - sudden violent attacks testing the French lines at different points on both banks of the Meuse - were fought off with heavy losses to both sides, and were followed by intermittent counter-attacks to no great advantage. By late August the relentless pressure from British and French attacks on the Somme were weakening the German reserves, and more men had to be shifted north to that battle field. And with this, the tide began slowly to turn more in France's favour, and further initiatives would come from the French, not the Germans. This stage is referred to by the Michelin Guide to the Western Front as "Phase 4 - retreat and stabilisation".

As an artillery Colonel, Robert Nivelle had distinguished himself in the French defensive victories at the Marne and the Aisne in 1914. He was promoted to replace Petain as Commander of the Second Army in late April 1916, as Petain was promoted to command of the Army Central Group (Soissons to Verdun). He had led the July attacks with great verve, and was intent on further attacks to push the Germans back from the high ground they had gained in the earlier stages of the battle. Further progress in August saw the ruined but symbolic village of Fleury back in French control, and by September it was becoming clear that the Germans were going to have to consolidate.
The French assaults in this stage were restricted to the right bank of the Meuse (as had been the case with the German first assault in February).With Nivelle commanding the broader battle zone of the French 2nd Army from the Argonne to Lorraine, his right had man - Charles Mangin - became the key commander for the two main advances of October and December. Like Nivelle, Mangin had come to notice from his actions in previous battles of the Marne and Aisne, and was another General moved from the preparations at the Somme to Verdun in early 1916. He was 50, full of energy and a determination to vanquish the Germans from the Verdun battlefield. He intended to make his first move in early October, but his planning and preparation was so meticulous that the date was pushed back by 2-3 weeks. Troops were withdrawn from the front for special training in mocked up battle fronts (as happened pre Somme attacks). Light railways were built to speed up the supply chain to the front; and more artillery – heavy and field – was procured for the attack. Buchan gives a vivid description of the relevant sector: “From Fort Souville, looking north, the eye saw nothing but desert, pitted and hummocked as by the eruption of gigantic earthworms……. Only the naked ridges of Douaumont, Froideterre and Vaux were left of what had once been a pleasantly diversified countryside. But in every square yard of that landscape lay France’s dead.”*
Although charismatic, and capable of inspiring his poilus for the fight, Mangin did not share Petain’s concerns for their welfare. He was quite prepared to reverse Falkenhayn’s cynical tactic of ‘bleeding the enemy white’ provided German losses exceeded French. As at the Somme, the German first lines were strongly fortified; so once again high casualties were inevitable.
The now familiar massive bombardment began on 21st October. On 23rd, three Divisions of assault troops moved up to the front line to relieve those who were wearied from carrying out the preparations, and on the morning of 24th October they went over the top.
The recapture of Douaumont and Vaux forts -
first assault October 1916

Joffre, Nivelle and Petain had travelled to Mangin’s headquarters in the expectation of good news, and by late afternoon’s dusk they had it. All three divisions had achieved their objectives, some with comparative ease. Nearly 5000 German prisoners had been taken. On the left (west) of Mangin’s attack, the heavily fortified Haudromont quarry and the important heights of Ravin de la Dame and Couleuvre had been won. In the centre the French advanced rapidly from Fleury and carried Thiaumont and Douaumont villages. Then in late afternoon came the great prize – the recapture of Fort Douaumont by two battalions of Moroccan troops.  It was on the right (east) of their advance that progress was slowest. Strong German fortifications plus the difficulty of the terrain made for fierce fighting and heavy losses on both sides. In fact it took a further week of thrust and counter-thrust to take complete control of the Vaux hillsides and the fort itself. By 4th November the Germans had been driven off the north eastern plateau to the plain beyond Damloup. In ten days, Mangin’s forces had pushed the Germans back in this sector to the lines they held at the start of the battle in February.
Flushed with success, Mangin argued for a second and larger assault to push the Germans off the high ground north of Douaumont, between Bezonvaux and Louvemont. Similar preparations took place, and by early December he was ready to advance again, this time with four Divisions (but against five German divisions, with four more in reserve).
The second successful, but costly, advance to the
north, December 1916
The bombardment began on 11th December, but the whole operation was more difficult this time, hampered as it was by fog, rain and short daylight hours. On the morning of 15th, the French attacked, wheeling to the north west, so that the left (west) flank had only one mile to gain, whereas the right (east) had to gain double the ground. As before, success came, but with slower progress on the right. Fierce fighting continued to the 18th, with both sides sustaining heavy losses yet again. Exhaustion set in, but the French had achieved their aim of regaining all high ground on the right bank of the Meuse. The Verdun front was now more or less stabilised until the 1917 Franco-American and the 1918 American campaigns. 

Although continuing officially until February 1917, the worst carnage of the Battle of Verdun was over. Around 300,000 men died, and injured and missing brought the casualties total to almost 1 million. German casualties accounted for nearly half the total. They had committed nearly one million troops to the battle, negating Falkenhayn’s initial plans. France had held on to Verdun, and her national pride, but at tremendous cost. Another Pyrrhic victory.
Mangin’s December victory immediately had two wider implications. December 15th was the day Nivelle succeeded Joffre as military chief, and the successes of his deputy greatly strengthened his hand for the 1917 strategy discussions. It was also the day after Germany had published its disingenuous peace proposals (of which more in the next post) - Mangin thereby producing a robust response on behalf of the Allies.

*Buchan J. A History of the Great War (Vol III) p295