WWI Centenary

Kerensky Halts Offensives, Reinstates Death Penalty at Front

Austrian prisoners captured during the Romanian offensive, whose success was now threatened by the general Russian halt.

July 25 1917, Petrograd–At least nominally, Kerensky had more power than ever, with the collapse of the uprising in Petrograd and his elevation to Prime Minister.  But the ultimate, spectacular failure of the Kerensky Offensive put him in a difficult position, as he had staked so much of his reputation on it.  He was already maneuvering Brusilov to take the blame for it, and in the meantime was trying to make sure the army did not collapse further.

On July 25, he announced that the death penalty would be restored within the Russian Army along the front, along with a more general system of courts martial.  This greatly pleased the generals, especially Kornilov, who felt that a stern hand was needed to restore order.  Within days, Kornilov began shooting deserters en masse.

There was a worry, of course, that such harsh measures would turn the Army against the Provisional Government.  As an ameliorating measure, Kerensky called a complete end to all offensive action.  In most areas, this did not matter; the armies that conducted the Kerensky Offensive were now falling back precipitately along a 150-mile front.  The brief attack near Vilnius had petered out nearly two days prior.

Where this latter order did matter, however, was in Romania, where Russian troops were participating in a offensive alongside their Romanian allies.  On July 25, the Romanians and Russians had continued and expanded their successful advance, pursuing the retreating Germans with cavalry and armored cars.  However, with Kerensky’s order, the Russians had to stop.  The head of the French mission told the Russian commander that if he had received such an order, “I would have simply put it in my pocket.”  But the message had been sent by unencrypted wireless precisely for this reason; in fact, his soldiers knew of it before he did.  The Russians ceased their attacks that evening, and the planned attack by the Romanian First Army along the Siret was called off at the last moment.

Averescu, commanding the Second Army, with little but fleeing Germans ahead of him, was determined to continue the advance, and did so despite orders to the contrary, though even he was forced to stop most of his advance within two days.  A final push by the Romanian 8th Division failed, while nearby Russian units (including some of their elite shock troops) stood by and watched–or even in some cases fell back.

Today in 1916: Russian High Water Mark in the Caucasus
Today in 1915: British Indian Force Captures Nasiriyah
Today in 1914: Serbia Accepts All But One Demand in Austrian Ultimatum

Sources include: Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I; Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy.

Three Years On

Today is the 103rd anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which means I’ve now been doing this for three full years.  Although much has happened in the last year–the tragedy of the Somme, the fall of the Czar in Russia, the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and American entry into the war–its conclusion still seems almost as distant as ever.

Thanks once again to all my readers!  Here are the highlights of the first three years of the war, as chosen by you:

10: British Capture First Fokker with Synchronization Gear (4/8/16)

9:  Mata Hari Arrested (2/13/17)

8:  Deadliest Zeppelin Raid of the War (10/13/15)

7: The Czar Abdicates (3/15/17)

6: Mass Deportations of Armenians Begin (4/8/15)

5: Austrians Attempt to Retake Pelagosa Islands (7/27/15)

4: United States Declares War on Germany (4/6/17)

3: Kirk Douglas Born (12/9/16)

2: Verdun: The First Day (2/21/16)

1: The Only Christmas Truce of 1915 (12/25/15)

Honorable mentions as well to these two posts, which I didn’t include in the list above as they don’t fit the regular mold:

“Bloody April” (April Fools’ Day ‘17)

State of the War: End of 1916 

The Czar Abdicates

Nicholas Romanov, pictured after his abdication, sometime between March and August 1917.

March 15 1917, Pskov–By late on March 1, Russia’s military leaders and even the Czar himself had reached the conclusion that the revolution in Petrograd was a fait accompli; there would be no use in crushing it by force, especially not while they also faced the German threat.  They hoped that if the Czar recognized this and handed over political power to the Duma, that the situation could be salvaged, Nicholas could remain as Czar, and the war against Germany could continue.  Nicholas had been attempting to reach Petrograd himself, but as the direct lines there were clogged with Ivanov’s stalled expedition to the city, on the night of March 1 he found himself in Pskov, along with General Ruzski, commander of the Northern Front.

Overnight, Ruzski was in contact with Mikhail Rodzianko, one of the moderate Duma leaders:

It is obvious that His Majesty and you do not realize what is going on here….The troops are completely demoralized, they not only disobey but kill their officers.  Hatred of Her Majesty has reached extreme limits, and the dynastic question has been raised point-blank….Troops everywhere are joining the Duma and the people and there is a definite, terrible demand for abdication…

Ruzski informed Alexeyev at Stavka of this conversation, who in turn informed the other army and navy leaders.  Ruzski also talked to the Czar, who after some reflection said “If it is necessary, for Russia’s welfare, that I step aside, I am prepared to do so.”

At around 2PM, Ruzski informed the Czar that it was the unanimous opinion of the commanders of the Army Fronts that the Czar would have to step down.  At 2:50 PM, the Czar announced that he would, and drew up a note that he would abdicate in favor of his son, the hemophiliac Alexei.

Later that afternoon, however, he changed his mind; worrying for his son’s health, and not wanting to be parted from him if he was forced to go into exile after abdicating, he decided to leave the throne to his brother Michael, instead.  This was of dubious legality, as the crown was “not the Emperor’s private property nor his patrimony to dispose of according to his will.” A few minutes before midnight, after meeting with representatives from the Duma, he signed a formal letter addressed to Alexeyev (backdated to 3:05 PM), announcing his abdication in favor of his brother, and giving the Duma free reign to establish the principles of the state.

After consulting with the Provisional Government (which was divided on the matter, but largely opposed to his succession), Michael decided the next day to refuse the crown unless offered it by an elected government.  This would never come to pass; the Russian monarchy had come to an end.

Today in 1916: Austria Declares War on Portugal
Today in 1915: Germany To Send Submarines to Austria, Turkey

Sources include: Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy; Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution

To My Brother

Give me your hand, my brother, search my face;
Look in these eyes lest I should think of shame;
For we have made an end of all things base.
We are returning by the road we came.

Your lot is with the ghosts of soldiers dead,
And I am in the field where men must fight.
But in the gloom I see your laurell’d head
And through your victory I shall win the light.


-Siegfried Sassoon

 
First Use of Mustard Gas

July 12 1917, Ypres–The Germans had been using gas warfare since early 1915, with its western debut at Ypres to great effect that April.  Effective countermeasures, largely in the form of gas masks, prevented future breakthroughs solely due to the use of poison gas, though it remained a deadly nuisance for both sides.  Embracing this aspect, the Germans developed and deployed a new weapon whose main purpose was to cause pain to and incapacitate enemy soldiers.

Mustard gas is a blistering agent that would cause few immediate symptoms, but several hours later would result in painful chemical blisters and burns all over the body, eye damage, and lung damage if inhaled.  Gas masks, if worn, would only prevent the latter two effects.  Technically a fine aerosol rather than a gas, it would also eventually fall to the ground and cover surfaces, potentially causing future exposure.  While this made it more difficult to attack areas exposed to mustard gas, this was little problem for a defending army.

On July 12, the Germans used mustard gas for the first time, firing 50,000 rounds of gas shells at the British lines near Ypres, where the Germans had observed a British buildup in progress.  Nearly 2500 British soldiers were gassed; of these, only 87 died, though many others suffered debilitating chemical burns.  The British first called this new weapon “Yellow Cross;” the French, “Yperite.”

Today in 1916: German Merchant Submarine Offloads Cargo in Baltimore
Today in 1915: British Celebrate Destruction of SMS Königsberg
Today in 1914: Final Assassin Apprehended in Montenegro

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It is Christmas time again, and again I will post about The Christmas Truce of 1914, which is completing a hundred years in 2014.
The so called Christmas Truce was a series of unofficial ceasefires between British/French and German troops on the western front. They exchanged headgears, food, swapped prisoners, made burial cerimonies and even played a football.
These unofficial truces were commom during the entire war, but not as big as the Christmas of 1914, due the proximity of the infantrymen of both sides and the heavy losses, many sectors had agreed to let the men out of the trenches to get wounded comrades or not to shoot while the soldiers had to work or exercise in full enemy sight.
By orders from the hight command of both sides, the truces were illegal, but no man has the power to destroy the Christmas spirit :)

Have a great Christmas everyone! Thank you all for the support, specialy for those who help me to correct some wrog info I may post from time to time. I will not be posting too much on the next days, as I’m going on a trip, but I’ll do what I can to keep posting.

August 14, 1916 - “Tanks” on their way to the Western Front

Pictured - With care, to Petrograd.  A destination marked in Russian helped confuse German agents that the first batch of tanks were water carriers being sent to Russia, not combat landships for the Western Front.

Winston Churchill’s brainchild, the Landship Committee, had finally produced an acceptable prototype at the beginning of the year for an armored tractor that could crush barbed wire, cross trenches, and protect men from machine guns.  The winner of this design competition, the caterpillar tracked “Mother”, became the progenitor for the Mark I armored landship, and the modern tank.

Soon after production of Mark I’s began, top-secret orders came to refer to them as “tanks”.   This was done to deceive German spies that the vehicles were armored water-carriers.  As an additional precaution, the first batches of tanks were marked “With care, to Petrograd,” in Russian, to confuse agents about their destination.  On August 13, the first six “tanks” (the name stuck) began their voyage over the ocean, not to the Russian capital, but to the Western Front.

Bolshevik-Inspired Uprising in Petrograd

The scene on the Nevsky Prospekt on July 17 soon after some of the few troops loyal to the Provisional Government fired on the crowd marching on the Tauride Palace.

July 16 1917, Petrograd–The garrison in Petrograd had been the vanguard of the revolution that overthrew the Czar.  Since then, at the Soviet’s insistence, the garrison had remained unchanged; the garrison could be relied upon to defend the revolution from any reaction against it.  The Provisional Government, however, was concerned that these soldiers were too radical and might try to rebel against them, as the sailors at Kronstadt had done.  Using the Kerensky Offensive as an excuse, many radical elements of the garrison now had orders to depart for the front.

Many of these units were determined not to leave, and soon considered armed action against the Provisional Government.  They were encouraged in this by the Bolshevik Military Organization and many Bolshevik-affiliated politicians (like Trotsky).  The top Bolshevik leadership had urged patience, however, at least until the Kerensky Offensive was over–but in early July, Lenin himself was on vacation in Finland and could not provide direction himself.

On the morning of July 16, the soldiers took to the streets, and were soon joined by workers mobilized by the Red Guards.  They congregated mostly around the Tauride Palace, seat of the Petrograd Soviet, hoping to encourage them to take power from the Provisional Government.  The next day, the crowds grew as sailors arrived from Kronstadt.  But the crowds were largely leaderless, and their cries of “All Power to the Soviets!” depended on the Soviets wanting to take power–which, apart from the Bolshevik minority, they were not.

Lenin arrived that day, but could not make up his mind on how to proceed.  He addressed the Kronstadt sailors for a few moments, but did not say much beyond a few platitudes.  As they marched towards the Tauride Palace, shots were fired and order broke down.  The crowd could have easily taken the Palace, defended only by eighteen soldiers (fewer than the number of exterior doors).  The Provisional Government was in hiding or, in the case of Kerensky, had already fled the city (in the guise of departing to inspect the front).  

At around 5PM, it began to rain heavily and much of the crowd dispersed.  However, a more committed core, led by the Kronstadt sailors, remained and began to enter the palace.  They seized one of the leading Socialist Revolutionary members, Victor Chernov, with one man telling him: “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it’s handed to you!”  Again, however, the Bolsheviks backed down, and Trotsky ordered Chernov to be released.  Within an hour, a new regiment of soldiers arrived; they were unclear what they were supposed to do, apart from “defend the revolution.”  With the lack of effective leadership from the Bolsheviks, the Soviet leadership soon persuaded them to serve as guards for the palace.

The uprising fizzled out on the 18th, as troops loyal to the Provisional Government began to arrive in the city.  A warrant was issued for Lenin’s arrest, alleging that he was receiving funds from the Germans; he soon fled the city.

Today in 1916: 50,000 National Guard on Mexican Border
Today in 1915: D’Annunzio Made Official War Chronicler; Maria Luisa Perduca’s The Vigil
Today in 1914: Russians Gain Increasing Evidence of Austrian Plans

Sources include: Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy.

4

Siegfried Sassoon’s WWI Diaries Are Now Available Online

With very good reason, much is being made of the WWI centenary (including of course, on this very Tumblr). It’s a great opportunity to remember, revisit, reconsider, and reflect. Yet, here’s something entirely new. Sassoon’s war experiences formed the basis for the George Sherston trilogy and later, three volumes of autobiography. But here, unfiltered, are Sassoon’s words from the front, freely available for the first time. Each entry is rife with Sassoon’s ever-conflicting sentiments, his unbridled feeling, and incendiary prose. This is worth your time.

“Bloody April”

An enhanced and colorized photo of the aftermath of the crash of Capt. Thistleton’s plane in No Man’s Land.

April 1 1917, Arras–The British were planning an offensive at Arras, to slightly precede Nivelle’s main push along the Aisne.  In the leadup to the offensive, the British greatly increased their use of air power in the area, not only over the front lines but also into German territory, in an attempt to establish air superiority.  It was hoped that this would deny the Germans any aerial reconnaissance of British preparations, and once the offensive began, British planes could provide close air support, artillery spotting, and disrupt the flow of supplies and reinforcements to the front.

However, the Germans had a distinct advantage in the air at this time in the war; while no longer as dominant as they had been during the “Fokker scourge,” the Germans were better trained, better organized, and had better planes.  Despite a large British superiority in numbers, the Germans were able to inflict disproportionate casualties.  As they mounted, the month soon became known as “Bloody April,” with squadrons losing multiple pilots a week, and new pilots often being killed in their first few days.

Even in the lead-up to the offensive, British fliers were suffering inordinate casualties, to the point where some squadrons thought none of them would survive the war.  In a morbid attempt to raise morale, one squadron, led by Capt. Reginald Thistleton, started a tontine, a scheme in which everyone would pay in £50; the last survivor of the squadron would receive all of the money, plus any accrued interest.  

Thistleton himself would not benefit from the scheme; his plane was shot down after no-man’s-land on April 1.  Although he survived the crash, and his batman, William Woodhouse, even attempted a rescue (pictured above), he was killed by a German sniper shortly thereafter.  In revenge, Woodhouse went on a solo trench raid, supposedly killing up to 50 Germans singlehanded before returning to the British lines.  Woodhouse was awarded a Victoria Cross for his efforts.

While casualties were high during “Bloody April,” most members of Thistleton’s squadron did survive the war, and the tontine grew greatly in value.  There were even some suspicions that the members of the squadron were being killled off so the last survivor could collect on the tontine, these proved to be unfounded.  The identity of the last survivor is unknown to this author, though it is known that Lance Corporal Woodhouse was one of the last two survivors.

Today in 1916: Spring 1916: Strategic Overview
Today in 1815: Italian Army Advances on Bologna; Cobbett Urges Peace With France

United States Declares War on Germany

April 6 1917, Washington–After Wilson’s speech on April 2, both houses of Congress voted on the declaration of war against Germany.  In the Senate, where the Armed Ships Bill had died in the previous Congress, La Follette was only able to put off a vote by one day.  Ultimately, only 6 senators (fewer than had filibustered the Armed Ships Bill) would vote against war on April 4, though the few opponents made themselves known.  Senator Norris of Nebraska, although a Republican, would take a very Bryan-esque tone: “We are going into war upon the command of gold….We are about to put the dollar sign upon the American flag.”  Senator Williams of Mississippi retorted by saying “Wall Street and the money power of the capitalists did not sink the Lusitania.”

The House debated the war the next day; here, the vote would be closer, if still lopsided.  This was due in part to the fact that the Majority Leader, Democrat Claude Kitchin, came out at the last minute against the war:

This nation is the last hope of peace on earth, good will toward men.  I am unwilling for my country to…extinguish during the long night of a world-wide war the only remaining star of hope for Christendom….All the demons of humanity will be let loose for a rampage throughout the world….I shall always believe that we could and ought to have kept out of this war.

Also voting no was Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in Congress, who used her first speech in the House to stand against the war.  Ultimately, the declaration of war would pass by a margin of 373-50 in the wee hours of April 6.  The opponents came from both parties, representing all sorts of constituencies, though two-thirds were from the Midwest.

Despite the lop-sided nature of the vote, it was unclear how much popular support the war had among the American people; in fact, many House members stated that they were voting for the war despite the wishes of their constituents.

At 1:18 PM on April 6, President Wilson signed the resolution declaring that “the state of war…which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared.”

Today in 1916: Portuguese Forces Cross into German East Africa
Today in 1915:  New German Force Counterattacks in Carpathians
 

Sources include: Michael Kazin, War Against War.

Romanians Launch Major Offensive

Romanian artillery firing during the Battle of Mărăști.

July 24 1917, Mărăști–The Romanian front had been relatively quiet since January, since the Germans had called off their offensive in late January.  Romania had lost two-thirds of their country and needed time to rebuild their army; their Russian allies were quickly preoccupied with their own internal troubles.  But by the summer, the Romanians were determined to go back on the offensive.  They wanted to retake their country and prove that they were a valuable part of the Allied war effort, even after their disastrous debut.  Plans were made for an offensive in late July, at which point the Central Powers would hopefully be distracted by the Kerensky Offensive to the north.

Of course, by late July, the Kerensky Offensive had petered out and then suffered significant reverses, and cold feet began to abound.  The Romanian PM attempted to call off the offensive only hours after it had started, but was overruled by the King, the Chief of the General Staff, and the ranking Russian general in the area.

At 4 AM on July 24, the Romanian Second Army under Averescu attacked around Mărăști, to the west of the Siret.  The First Army was due to attack across the Siret further east the next day.  Although there had been substantial warning of Romanian preparations, the Austrian and German defenders were confident in their positions and had not sent any reinforcements to the area, which had been steadily stripped of soldiers bound for Italy and Galicia over the course of the year.  This gave the Second Army at least a three-to-one advantage in infantry in many places.

The Russians and the Romanians on the left flank of the attack hit and quickly overwhelmed the German 218th Division.  General Seeckt despaired: “strong is my fear that nothing can be done with this division….It is no longer capable of resistance.”  The division lost 1500 prisoners that day, with the remainder precipitately retreating back.  The Romanian left flank advanced two miles on the first day, exceeding even their initial expectations.  The right flank, without adequate artillery support and attacking into more difficult terrain, had failed to make any progress.  Nevertheless, the day was seen as a great success for Romanian arms, and Averescu was eager to continue the attack the next day.

The Germans, meanwhile, quickly realizing the threat the Romanians posed, had Mackensen hastily draw up plans for a general counteroffensive–but it would be some time before they would be ready.

Today in 1916: United States To Buy Virgin Islands from Denmark
Today in 1915: Secret Service Finds German Spy Files in Briefcase Lost on Train
Today in 1914: Sazonov’s Busy Day

Sources include: Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I.

Mata Hari Arrested

Mata Hari (1876-1917), pictured on the day of her arrest.

February 13 1917, Paris–The Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari  (Margaretha MacLeod née Zelle) was well-known in both Germany and France before the war.  Although her dancing days were largely behind her, both sides hoped she would be useful as an agent, hoping she could seduce her way to military secrets.  In 1916, the French used her intense relationship with a Russian pilot in the Russian Expeditionary Force to pressure her into working for them, only allowing her to see him after he was severely wounded if she agreed to work as a spy.  The French hoped she could seduce Crown Prince Wilhelm, for whom she had danced before the war; Wilhelm was serving as nominal commander of the German forces at Verdun.

She also offered her services to the Germans; whether this was part of a larger plan to serve as a French double agent is unclear.  In November 1916, she was briefly arrested at Falmouth, and was interrogated by Admiral Hall (of Room 40) and his equivalent at Scotland Yard; lacking any real evidence, they let her go.  By the end of the year, however, both the French and Germans seemed to have enough of her; she seemed to be only relaying gossip at best, or betraying both sides, at worst.  The French noticed that the limited information they had given her seemed to have leaked to the Germans.  A German military attaché in Madrid broadcast details of her (supposed) exploits for the Germans in a code that he knew that the French had broken.

On February 13, Mata Hari was arrested in Paris.  They found little in her chambers (apart from, supposedly, supplies of invisible ink).  Whether Mata Hari was actually working for the Germans in earnest, was actually trying to work for France and was framed by the Germans, or whether she was just trying to profit off of both sides, is still unclear.  Regardless, the salacious details of her exploits (real and otherwise) captivated public attention in France in 1917 and beyond.

Today in 1916: First Aerial Attack on Kut; Scurvy Cases on the Rise
Today in 1915: Gurkhas Surprise Turks at Tor

British Take Messines With Largest Mine Explosion of the War

A destroyed German trench at Messines.

June 7 1917, Messines–British sappers had been digging under the German lines in the Flanders clay since 1915, and had been specifically preparing for an attack on Messines since early 1916.  The ridge at Messines (although really more the crest of a gentle slope) dominated the southern flank of the Ypres salient.  By the end of May 1917, the sappers’ work was more than ready, nineteen mines had been placed under the German lines, and the British Second Army was ready to take advantage of the explosion that would result.

At 3:10 AM on June 7, the nineteen mines were detonated within 20 seconds of each other.  Taken together, it was the largest deliberate explosion until Hiroshima, and is the most deadly non-nuclear explosion in history, killing over 10,000 Germans in the front lines.  A German observer recalled that nineteen mushroom clouds

rose up slowly and majestically out of the ground and then split into pieces with a mighty roar, sending up multicolored columns of flame mixed with a mass of earth and splinters into the sky.

The explosion destroyed many of the long-standing landmarks on the battlefield, including Hill 60, site of the first major sapping operation.  The explosion was reportedly heard as far away as Dublin; in Lille, it was mistaken for an earthquake.

A creeping barrage followed to pound whoever survived the explosion into submission.  The British infantry and tanks that followed afterwards were able to seize their objectives of 1-2 miles distant within hours, their largest obstacle often the large craters made by the initial explosion.

The operation was mainly a tactical one; there were no real plans to attempt a major breakthrough. Although Haig was eager to push the attack beyond the initial objectives, commanders on the ground were less sanguine as to their chances, and any opportunity soon slipped by.  The next week saw the usual deadly round of counterattacks, but the British held their ground.

From Haig’s perspective, the victory at Messines was highly important for two reasons.  First, it distracted the Germans from the French mutinies, as Pétain requested of him (though there is no indication the Germans were aware of them).  Secondly, it secured the British right flank at Ypres, where Haig was eager to launch another offensive later in the summer.

Two of the mines laid were never detonated. One was set off by lightning in 1955; thankfully the only casualty was a single cow.  The other still remains unexploded under the battlefield.

Today in 1916: Fort Vaux Surrenders at Verdun
Today in 1915: Inaugural Meeting of UK Dardanelles Committee

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; John Keegan, The First World War; Arthur Banks, Atlas of the First World War; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

“Operation Beach Party”

A German trench mortar unit on the coastal dunes.

July 10 1917, Nieuport [Nieuwpoort]–In recent weeks, the Germans had noticed a buildup along the Belgian coast, the extreme northern end of the Western Front.  British troops had replaced French ones, and Allied artillery fire had picked up.  In fact, the British were preparing for amphibious landings along the Belgian coast just behind the front line, in an attempt use their naval advantage to outflank the Germans and potentially capture the German U-boat ports in Belgium.  The Germans began to make preparations to counter such a move, which included an attack on the British lines near the coast, hoping to forestall any British advance on land.  This attack was called Operation Strandfest; literally “Operation Beach Party.”

The Germans opened with an artillery barrage early in the morning of July 10.  The British positions on the coast were particularly vulnerable.  Located on the east bank of the Yser river, they were quickly cut off when the German artillery destroyed the bridges over the Yser.  The sandy terrain also meant that their fortifications were rudimentary and were quickly destroyed.  Some units took 80% casualties from the bombardment alone.  When the German infantry attacked in the evening, the remaining defenders fought valiantly (two platoons resisting to the last man), but they were quickly overwhelmed; the Germans reached the Yser and captured over 1000 prisoners of war.  From the two battalions closest to the sea, only 68 men escaped, all by swimming the Yser at night.

Today in 1916: Cesare Battisti Captured and Executed by Austrians
Today in 1915: Reaction to the German Lusitania Note in the German-American Press
Today in 1914:  Russian Ambassador To Serbia Dies in the Austrian Embassy

Women in Vanguard of Abortive Russian Offensive on Vilnius

Maria Bochkareva (1889-1920), commander of the Women’s Battalion of Death.

July 21 1917, Vilnius–Despite the now-spectacular failure of the Kerensky Offensive to the south, Kerensky and Brusilov still pressed forward with a planned offensive towards Vilnius in the north.  Closer to the revolutionary hub in Petrograd, the troops here were even less reliable.  Of the six divisions slated to participate on July 21, only two actually left their own trench lines, and one of these at gunpoint.  Some of the attackers did reach and occupy the first German trench lines, but refused to go any further; by nightfall they were back in their own trenches.

One of the few units to distinguish itself was Bochkareva’s Women’s Battalion of Death.  As hoped, their participation (eventually) shamed the units of men on either side to participate in the offensive, if only desultorily.  By late on July 22, the men had gone back to their own trenches, leaving the women exposed when the German counterattacks came.  Despite their best efforts, they were quickly overwhelmed and forced back themselves.

The novelty of an all-women’s unit also quickly brought its own particular problems.  During the offensive, Bochkareva apparently encountered one of her soldiers having sex with one of the men from a neighboring unit in a shell-hole.  Bochkareva had no patience for this, and responded by bayoneting her own soldier; the man escaped.

Today in 1916: Belgians Again Embarrass Germans on their National Day
Today in 1915:  Belgians Celebrate Their National Day Despite German Occupation
Today in 1914:  French President Poincaré’s State Visit to St. Petersburg: Day 2

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; David R. Stone, The Russian Army in the Great War; Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy.

Battles of Vimy Ridge and Arras

Germans (center) surrendering as Canadian reserves advance across Vimy Ridge.

April 9 1917, Arras–Since the beginning of the year, the British had been planning an attack around Arras, to be conducted a week before Nivelle’s major French offensive on the Aisne further south.  The ground had been fought over before; the French had attacked here in May 1915, but had ultimately failed to make substantial gains.  The attack had originally been planned for Easter Sunday, April 8, but had been pushed back a day to April 9 due to inclement weather in the previous week.  There would be two major attacks: the Canadian Corps under Byng at Vimy Ridge, and the British under Allenby further south around Arras.  Both had been meticulously planned; large caves had been excavated to protect the attacking soldiers from any German counter-barrage, and they would proceed up to the first line of trenches by tunnel without exposing themselves to enemy fire.  The infantry, especially those in the Canadian Corps, had been carefully trained, and knew their objectives well, allowing them to keep the offensive going even if their officers were killed or communications broke down.  

Four days of bombardment had cut barbed wire, severed German communications, and destroyed many of the German trenches (if not their more fortified positions).  At 5:30 AM on April 9, the barrage began again, but it lifted and moved back behind the German lines only three minutes later.  Gus Sivertz, a Canadian with the first wave that had already crawled into no-man’s land, recalled:

I looked ahead and saw the German front line crashing into pieces; bits of men, timbers, lumps of chalk were flung through the air and, blending with the shattering wall of fire, were the Hun SOS signals of all colours.  We didn’t dare lift our heads, knowing that the barrage was to come flat over us and then lift in three minutes.

The Canadians seized most of the first line of trenches with little resistance, often securing them well ahead of schedule.  However, the timing of the subsequent barrages, which had been worked out with clockwork precision, prevented the Canadians from advancing before their set timetable.  Even if there were no Germans in front of them, they would be advancing into their own barrage.  This theme would repeat throughout the day, though the Canadians did advance as planned, in places up to four miles.

On the northern end of their advance, the Canadians did run into some difficulties.  One section of the German first line was spared from the barrage by the request of the local CO of the infantry, who wanted the trench intact as defense against German counterattacks; these Germans were only rooted out when flanked on both sides.  Additionally, Vimy Ridge itself had networks of underground tunnels which the artillery could not touch.  In some places, the Germans, realizing they were trapped, surrendered quickly.  In one instance, a Capt. McDowell captured 77 Germans single-handed, pretending to give orders to non-existent troops behind him, then ordering the Germans out in small groups to his waiting men on the surface; he would win a Victoria Cross for his effort.  Elsewhere, the Germans put up more of a fight and it would take many hours to clear them out; the Canadians’ northernmost objective was not taken until that night.

The Germans were not able to recover and counterattack quickly, as they had kept their reserve far away from the front line, up to 15 miles in places.  While this kept them safe from Allied artillery and airplanes, it meant they could not launch a counterattack before the Canadians had secured their positions; unlike in 1915, Vimy Ridge would stay in Allied hands.  The mandated pauses in the advance prevented the Canadians from pushing forward beyond their objectives, however, until late in the afternoon, by which time the first German reserves had arrived, and the commanders on the spot were reluctant to take the initiative.  A tentative effort to break out onto the plains beyond Vimy Ridge with cavalry was quickly beaten back.

The British under Allenby, further to the south, had similar successes.  This attack used more tanks; the few ones allotted to the Canadians got stuck in mud and proved useless.  These tanks proved more useful, but all of them had been knocked out of action by noon.  Advancing several miles, they had opened a four-mile long complete gap in the German lines, but would not make any further advance beyond the occasional patrol that day.

Today in 1916: Massive German Attack on Mort Homme
Today in 1915:  Falkenhayn Agrees to Offensive in East

Sources include: Alexander McKee, Vimy Ridge; John Keegan, The First World War; E.L. Spears, Prelude to Victory; Derek Grout, Thunder in the Skies.