State of the War: End of 1916
The static Western Front, November 1914 - December 1916. Most of the ground gained by the Germans around Verdun (red shading) was recaptured by the French by the end of the year. The Eastern Front saw much more dramatic outcomes this year, with the success of Russia’s Brusilov Offensive and the swift defeat of the newest member of the Allies, Romania.
1916 was a year marked by major battles on all fronts, which each of the belligerents hoped would be decisive. Ultimately, despite extreme casualties, they rarely were. The Western Front saw the huge battles at Verdun and on the Somme, where little land changed hands and neither side gained a huge advantage in the continuing attrition. Italy took Gorizia at last, but progressed no further. Brusilov’s offensive in the east made huge gains, but failed to knock Austria out of the war. By the end of the year mounting Russian casualties and Romania’s entry and defeat left Russia weakened.
The Western Front:
Unlike the more limited battles of 1915, the Western Front was defined by the two huge offensives at Verdun and on the Somme, with the resulting battles lasting for months. The Germans attacked at Verdun in February, quickly seizing positions on the east bank of the Meuse. The renowned Fort Douaumont fell in the first days of the assault to a single company of Germans. However, the advance was soon subject to enfilading fire from the west bank of the Meuse, necessitating an offensive there as well. The battle raged for months with fierce attacks and counterattacks on both sides; ultimately the Germans failed to either take Verdun or inflict significantly more casualties on the French than they had suffered themselves. German attacks wound down after the Allies attacked on the Somme, but fighting continued; in the fall the French retook most of the ground they had lost in the spring, though at considerably higher cost.
The British and French launched their joint offensive on the Somme on July 1, though the French contribution was significantly reduced due to the fighting at Verdun. The first day of the battle saw the British suffer over 50,000 casualties, while making no progress except on the extreme southern end of their line, where their artillery could fire from multiple directions into a German salient, or where they had support from the French. Despite this initial failure, the Allies pressed on with a combination of scattered small-scale attacks and larger, more organized offensives, into the fall. In September, the British first deployed tanks; although they were occasionally quite useful, the early models had flaws and they were not present in sufficient numbers to make a difference. By the time the offensive came to a close in November, the Allies had only gained about three miles and had not broken the German army as hoped.
The year also saw changes in leadership at the highest level among the Western Allies. Lord Kitchener, the famous British War Secretary, was killed when his transport to Russia was sunk by a German mine in June. He was replaced by Lloyd George, who then became Prime Minister in December, forcing out Asquith by making a deal with leading Conservatives. In France, the failures at Verdun and on the Somme forced the government to change out its military leadership. General Joffre was promoted to Marshal but lost his overall command of French troops, being replaced in that role by the meteorically-rising General Nivelle, one of the victors of Verdun.
The Eastern Front and Romania:
A major offensive by the Russians in March around Lake Naroch failed miserably, despite great superiority in men and guns; most Russian generals then despaired of future attacks. One of the few dissenters, General Brusilov, launched his own offensive in June. He used multiple tactical and strategic innovations: attacking in multiple places along broad fronts, preventing a concentration of artillery fire or enemy reserves; extensive sapping, to reduce the amount of time spent in no man’s land; and better coordination of artillery. Thanks to these methods, and poor coordination among the Central Powers, Brusilov gained dozens of miles along the southern half of the Russian Front, captured hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and essentially destroyed Austria-Hungary’s capacity for independent warmaking. The offensive eventually outstripped its supply lines and ran into tougher resistance, but it was still the largest Allied victory of the year, though this came at the cost of extensive casualties.
Impressed by Brusilov’s success and hoping to claim parts of Hungary for its own, Romania entered the war in late August. This was seen as a great diplomatic coup for the Allies by both sides, as Romania’s large army could tip the balance on the Eastern Front and push into Austria-Hungary’s undefended southern frontier. Romania’s entry caused the dismissal of Falkenhayn and his replacement by Hindenburg & Ludendorff as the supreme commanders of the Central Powers. However, Romania’s army was underequipped and had not learned the lessons of the first two years of the war; although they made some initial gains in Transylvania, they soon found themselves outflanked by a combined Central Powers army under Mackensen massing in Bulgaria. In November, Mackensen pushed north and German forces under Falkenhayn moved south, cutting off much of Wallachia and capturing the capital of Bucharest in early December. By the end of the year, Romania had lost most of its army and its country; its northern third was saved only by the intervention of Russian reinforcements.
The last Allied troops on Gallipoli left early in January, suffering no casualties during the evacuation. The troops were diverted elsewhere–some to the Western Front, some to Egypt, and some to the growing Allied lines around Salonika.
In January, the Austrians invaded and conquered Montenegro in a quick campaign, resulting in its capitulation. Montenegrin independence would not be truly restored until 2006. The remnants of the Serbian army were evacuated to Corfu early in the year, just ahead of the Austrian army advancing into Albania. By the summer, the Serbian army had reestablished itself at Salonika.
Bulgarian forces attacked the Allies around Salonika in August. Although they made little progress when attacking the Allies directly, they also occupied portions of northern Greece that the Allies had not fortified, capturing Greek war materiel and Greek soldiers (who had not resisted) as prisoners of war, to the consternation of many in Greece. The resulting political crisis caused a schism in Greece, with former PM Venizelos setting up his own pro-Allied government in Salonika. When the Allies attempted to strongarm concessions out of the government in Athens to make up for what was captured by the Bulgarians, Allied and Greek troops started shooting each other in the streets of the capital, followed by reprisals against known Venizelists.
In September, the multinational Allied force at Salonika launched its own offensive against the Bulgarians, resulting in the capture of Monastir in November–the first liberation of Serbian territory. It did not, however, knock Bulgaria out of the war or provide significant relief to the beleaguered Romanians; after they collapsed, the offensive was called off.
A fifth offensive along the Isonzo, designed (along with the Russian offensive at Lake Naroch) to relieve pressure on Verdun in March, made no significant gains.
In May, the Austrians attacked, despite a distinct lack of German cooperation, from the South Tyrol. Although they made large gains, including Asiago, they were forced to call the offensive off and relinquish some of them after Brusilov’s Offensive threatened disaster in the east. The early successes did force a change in the Italian government, however.
In August, a well-prepared offensive along the Isonzo finally captured Gorizia, which had been one of their objectives for the first weeks of the war. The Austrians were able to stabilize their lines and prevent a general collapse, however. Further attacks in September, October, and November made little progress, though on multiple occasions the Austrians were saved by the actions of single determined junior officers.
The Near East:
A Russian offensive in the Caucasus captured the major fortress of Erzurum in February, Trebizond in April, and Erzincan in July, threatening Anatolia. A counteroffensive by Mustafa Kemal in August forced the Russians to stop their advance, but did not force them to relinquish their gains.
In Mesopotamia, British attempts to relieve the Siege of Kut failed, and the garrison surrendered at the end of April–the largest British defeat of the war. A tentative Russian cavalry advance into Mesopotamia from Persia was vigorously pushed back, with Turkish forces reaching as far as Hamadan by the end of the summer. A new British offensive along the Tigris began in December, though it had yet to dislodge the Turks from their well-ensconced positions on the north bank by the end of the year.
In Sinai, German and Turkish forces attempted another attack on the Suez canal, but they were repulsed before reaching it in early August. The British began constructing a railway and water pipeline across the Sinai. By the end of the year, they had secured most of the peninsula, and were preparing for an attack on Rafah, on the border with Palestine.
The Hashemite Sharif of Mecca rebelled against Turkish rule, capturing Mecca, Jeddah, and Taif by the end of the summer, with British naval and aerial support. Medina, however, remained securely in Turkish hands.
The Senussi threat to Egypt was largely defeated in February, though they continued to have free rein in Italian Libya. Senussi and Tuareg forces besieged French soldiers in Niger in December, threatening French control of the Sahara. An ill-timed revolt by the Sultan of Darfur was swiftly crushed by the British, who incorporated his territory into the Sudan.
The last German forces in Cameroon surrendered or escaped to neutral Spanish colonies by the end of February.
A South African-led offensive into German East Africa began in February, and by October had taken the Central Railway, the whole coastline, and the northern two-thirds of the colony. German forces had largely escaped intact, however, and remained holed up in the inaccessible mountains and jungles of the south of the colony.
Portugal entered the war against the Central Powers in March; their contribution to the war effort so far was essentially limited to the capture of a town on the border between German East Africa and Mozambique.
The main German and British fleets clashed for the first and only time in the war at the Battle of Jutland at the end of May. The British had the worse of the initial engagements, losing several battlecruisers in dramatic fashion. However, with the arrival of the main body of the Grand Fleet, the Germans were outmatched and almost found themselves cut off from friendly ports. Although they did escape and the battle was inconclusive, the German High Seas Fleet would largely remain inactive for the remainder of the war.
An attempt to resume extensive submarine warfare in the spring was swiftly cancelled due to American protests, though it continued in the Mediterranean, and, under prize rules, in northern waters. Although most German leaders were in support of unrestricted submarine warfare by the end of the year, Chancellor Bethmann remained a stalwart opponent, and the Kaiser had yet to be won over.
The United States and Peace Prospects:
With the war entering its third year, many began to consider a negotiated peace. This was especially true in Austria-Hungary, fighting on three fronts and suffering major defeats at the hands of the Russians during the summer. They pushed strongly for a peace deal, which was given new impetus after Emperor Franz Joseph died and was replaced by Charles, who began his own secret initiatives.
Germany offered peace in December, though they did not provide terms; some war leaders in Germany saw this as cover for an eventual resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. One war aim was revealed in November, when Germany and Austria guaranteed their support to the independence of Poland (captured from Russia in 1915) after the war.
America had spent much of the year distracted by problems in Mexico, sending armed forces on a fruitless chase of Pancho Villa after his forces raided Columbus, NM in March. Outright war with Mexico was avoided, however. With Germany’s submarines leashed, the United States seemed likely to remain out of the war in Europe. The largest work of German sabotage during the war, the Black Tom explosion, destroying large quantities of munitions, killing several, and damaging the Statue of Liberty, was thought at the time to be an accident. In November, Wilson narrowly won re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war.”
Six days later after the German peace “offer”, Wilson attempted to elicit war aims from both sides, as a path towards a negotiated peace and a future league of nations protecting peace in Europe; reaction from the belligerent governments was tepid, at best.
EDIT: Somehow, I forgot the Easter Rising in all of this. On Easter Monday, Irish revolutionaries seized large portions of Dublin, overwhelming most of the small British garrison there. Reinforcements crushed the revolutionaries within a week, however. In Britain, this was viewed as an act of wartime treason, especially since the Germans had tried to send arms to the Irish. In Ireland, the excessive number of summary executions after the Rising only increased resentments there, even among those who had not sympathized with or supported it to begin with.