Category Archives: Eastern Front

23 JUNE, 1918: Britain Invades Russia!

A hundred years ago today the first elements of an Allied invasion force landed at the port of Murmansk, in northwestern Russia.  Their arrival marked a significant uptick in a steadily expanding international campaign against Bolshevism in Russia, and its centenary gives me an excuse to talk about it.

What is usually known as the North Russian Intervention or the Northern Russia Expedition (or three or four other names, none of them any better known) was a complicated, messy and fairly crazy business, entwined with the equally complex and largely shapeless Russian Civil War.  It was geopolitically connected to anti-Bolshevik interventions from Japanese and US forces far to the southeast, around Vladivostok, and to the adventures of the relatively powerful Czech Legion as it marched across Russia in search of safe passage to Allied territory.  I’ve touched on Vladivostok (12 January, 1918: Port In A Storm, Pt.1) and the Czech Legion (31 May, 1918: Fame And Fortune) during the last few weeks, and I’ll be getting back to them sometime soon.  One day I’ll even attempt some kind of overview briefing about the Civil War as a whole, but for now let’s wonder why and how the British came to be invading Russia in mid-1918.

The roots of British military involvement inside Russia lay in the wartime battle for control of Arctic trade routes.  Like convoys and submarine warfare in general, fighting in the Arctic theatre is popularly associated with the Second World War but was an equally significant factor during the First – and for the same reasons.

Russia, like every other state fighting against the Central Powers, expected and received direct aid from its filthy rich ally, Britain. Given the virtual impossibility of Allied shipping reaching Russia via the Baltic, and the regular interruptions to overland trade traffic via neutral Sweden (10 October, 1917: National Stereotypes), supplies had to be shipped across the top of Scandinavia to the Barents Sea port of Murmansk and the smaller White Sea port of Archangelsk.

Nice, simple map – in case you weren’t sure.

Nobody had anticipated this before the War, and neither port was remotely fit for purpose in 1914, so all Russian activity in the region during the conflict’s first months was concerned with expanding their harbour and railway facilities for use as major supply centres for Allied coal and weapons.  The German Navy eventually decided to interfere with the process in June 1915, when an auxiliary cruiser laid 285 mines at the entrances to Archangelsk harbour, and that was enough to trigger an Allied response.

A makeshift minesweeping force, consisting of a few British armed trawlers and 18 Russian boats seconded from the Baltic Fleet, was cobbled together, and a miscellaneous collection of second-line warships was gathered from other theatres for patrol duties in the Arctic Sea.  By the end of 1915 these included two old British cruisers, a Russian submarine and a minelayer transferred from the Far East, while two coastal batteries were established and thirty old naval guns fitted to merchant ships.  German mines meanwhile sank a British minesweeper and twelve merchant ships.

Levels of Allied naval protection for Arctic shipping rose in line with a steady increase in traffic during 1916.  The Russian Navy formed an Arctic Flotilla in February, operating out a new ice-free base at Kola, and the Royal Navy began establishing a larger presence in the theatre during the summer.  The old, pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Glory was stationed in Murmansk from August, and a scratch force based around the light cruiser HMS Askold and a few old destroyers from the Far East was still being formed in the autumn, when six U-boats of the German High Seas Fleet spearheaded a brief but highly effective campaign against Arctic shipping.  In six weeks before winter ice prevented operations, they sank 25 Allied ships, captured two more and damaged several small Allied warships, losing one submarine in the process.

The biggest warship in the region – the old battleship HMS Glory.

In the wider context of a world at war, and in terms of its practical impact on the Eastern Front, the Arctic theatre was still very small beer, and British aid to Russia amounted to only about £20.5 million of war materials in 1916.  Even that was far more than northern Russian ports could handle, and half the year’s imports were still piled up at Archangelsk awaiting rail transport in early 1917.  By that time four British icebreakers and a few more auxiliary craft had reached northern Russian waters, bringing the combined strength of the Anglo-Russian naval presence up to about 40 vessels – but the German Navy had better things to do with its submarines in 1917 and only 21 more Allied ships were sunk in the Arctic before hostilities between Russia and the Central Powers ended in December.

Although the Arctic Flotilla’s Russian units continued to patrol alongside British ships until the Armistice, the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Arctic naval war to an effective end – but it also triggered the outbreak of land warfare in northern Russia.  British theatre commander Admiral Kemp was charged with maintaining Murmansk and Archangelsk, along with the territory in between and transport links to the Russian heartlands.  The vast area involved, along with the arrival of a German army in neighbouring Finland, threats of Finnish incursions across the Murmansk railway, and chronic uncertainty about whether local Bolsheviks were allies, enemies or neutrals fighting their own civil war, prompted Kemp to ask for reinforcement by the Army in April 1918.  Bad timing, what with the BEF’s desperate need for manpower against the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front, and Kemp was told to make do with the marines aboard his ships.

In early May about a hundred marines, supported by Red Guards and naval units, were landed at the small port of Pechenga, about 50km along the coast from Murmansk, to hold off attacks from German-backed, anti-Bolshevik ‘White’ Finns.  Later that month a single German U-boat appeared off Pechenga and sank a few small craft before disappearing, never to return.  Both incidents served to convince strategists in the British Admiralty and War Office that a major German-Finnish attack on northern Russia was in preparation.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of agreements made with the Petrograd regime concerning the Czech Legion’s safe departure from Russia opened up the possibility that half its troops, some 50,000 men, would march to join any Allied forces in northern Russia.  With Petrograd pressurising the Murmansk soviet (more socialist than Bolshevik at this stage) to stop cooperating with the British, and threatening to send Red Army units to commandeer the trove of war materials lying around in Archangelsk, the British War Office finally approved the dispatch of ground troops to the region.

It didn’t approve much.  The Royal Navy sent an extra marine force of some 300 men to Murmansk, including a naval artillery battery and a machine-gun section, while the British Army managed to scrape two detachments together under the codenames ‘Syren’ and ‘Elope’.  Syren amounted to 600 troops, most of them fresh out of basic training, just released from PoW camps or invalided out of France.  Commanded by Major-General Maynard, an officer previously retired as unfit for duty, they were supposed to protect Murmansk.  The 500 men of Elope were British trainees, backed by a few companies of ANZAC and Canadian volunteers.  Under the command of Brigadier-General Finlayson, they were detailed to cross the White Sea from Murmansk to Archangelsk, and its supply mountain, once the winter ice melted.

Assembled in strict secrecy, because the Allies were not at war with Bolshevik Russia, Syren and Elope sailed from Newcastle on 18 June.  After a difficult journey, during which the emerging flu epidemic struck down the transport ship’s Moslem crew (many of whom were malnourished because they were serving during Ramadan in a region without sunsets), the detachments reached Murmansk on 23 June.  Their arrival brought total Allied ground strength in the new theatre up to around 2,500 (largely second-line) troops, including a few French and Serbian soldiers sent as token assistance by their hard-pressed governments.

Overall command of North Russian operations was given to another British officer, Major-General Poole, who had retired in 1914 but was serving as a military attaché in Petrograd, and who had arrived in Murmansk on 24 May.  Poole was expected to protect a very large stretch of land and its port facilities, to recruit and train local anti-Bolshevik or anti-German elements for their own defence, to absorb any Czech forces that happened to show up, and to use these forces to reopen the Eastern Front.

With hindsight, this was a pretty ridiculous fantasy, particularly given that Poole received hardly any funding for the task and that the entire Czech Legion had by then decided to march east towards Vladivostok – but there is an argument for letting British strategists off the hook.  Deep ignorance of the actual situation in Russia, the sheer scale of the crisis involved and Germany’s obvious desire for an eastern empire all conspired to encourage extravagant speculation, and extravagant strategies naturally followed.  On the other hand, there was no good excuse for General Poole’s extreme optimism about military prospects or his unshakable, seemingly authoritative belief that the Bolshevik regime was a shambles on the point of collapse, both of which exerted a powerful influence on Allied strategic thinking.

A cheery chap, very optimistic and good at despising Bolshies – General Poole, and friends.

The Supreme War Council had already agreed to recruit additional troops for northern Russia from other Allied nations, though most were at least as hard-pressed for manpower as Britain, and Poole’s insistence that, with another five thousand or so troops, he could work all the miracles required of him prompted a steady growth of Allied strength in the theatre.  The campaign that followed eventually occupied some 13,000 British imperial troops, 2,000 French (most of them from French colonies), a mixed group of about 1,000 Serbs and Poles, a battalion of former Russian troops recruited from the autonomously inclined Karelian province and, eventually, about 8,000 US troops.

Long before most of them arrived, and once the winter ice melted, Poole was committed to the occupation of Archanglesk and its supplies.  The port’s Bolshevik government was far less sympathetic to British intervention than the Murmansk authority, and Poole spent July organising a coup by local ‘White’ forces, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Elope force and strong naval support. By way of illustrating the disconnects within what is often mistaken for coherent strategic planning at national level, the coup also happened to coincide with the arrival from Petrograd of a British trade mission that had been instructed to seek friendly relations with Lenin’s regime.  Whatever London’s intentions, the success of the coup on 2 August sparked a state of open warfare between the Bolshevik regime and Allied forces in northern Russia, a breakdown cemented by Poole’s subsequent establishment of regional martial law under a puppet, avowedly ‘socialist’ government.

So now the North Russian Intervention really was an invasion.  Like Britain’s accidental advances through Mesopotamia to Baghdad and beyond, it was a product of strategic sloppiness that blurred the line between attack and defence, allowing feral local commanders to dictate imperial policy.  Never remotely capable of achieving the revival of war on the Eastern Front envisaged by Poole and his political supporters in London (including, inevitably, Winston Churchill), it was destined to expand in black comic, bloodstained fashion during the autumn… when I’ll come back to Russia’s Arctic coasts and point the way to its long, slow deflation, a process that lasted well into 1920.

This has been long and late, because I’ve been under heavy distraction, but the landings of Syren and Scope at Murmansk seem to me worth remembering, and not just as an illustration of the military clumsiness still at large within a British war effort down to its last barrel-scrapings.  Feeble, half-hearted examples of gesture strategy at its most absent-minded, those two little detachments – barely fit for manoeuvres let alone combat – turned out to be the straws that broke the hope, once and for all, of friendly relations between Britain and the new USSR.

12 MARCH, 1918: All Quiet On The Eastern Front?

What they used to call the West or the First World, and is now just a moderately influential segment of the planet’s G20 oligarchy, has been obsessed with trench warfare for more than a hundred years. You can see why.  In France, Italy, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Poland, you name it, life in trenches during the First World War was a graphic illustration of Hell, as inflicted upon itself by the proud civilisation of our forebears.  That’s a very nasty skeleton in the West’s cupboard, and we’ve been falling over ourselves ever since to dismiss it as a hideous anomaly, so noisily scratching our navels about it for a century or more has been an important prop for our self-image and for our image to the rest of the world.

The psychological impulse to focus on the ‘madness’ of trench-bound carnage has had its corollary in a tendency to downplay those aspects of the First World War that didn’t fit the image.  A post-War thesis dominated by the concept of pointless stalemate would have struggled to convince if it took full account of all those ways, military and otherwise, in which the First World War was a whirlwind of hugely significant change.  The opposite was true during the War, when the impulse to play down any idea of pointless stalemate required propagandists on all sides to give maximum publicity to the sweeping victories and eye-catching derring-do of ‘sideshow’ campaigns.  That’s one reason why the middle of March 1918 looked like a time of world-shaping geopolitical transformation to contemporaries, while most modern heritage narratives treat it as a logistic and diplomatic interlude, a mere preamble to great battles to come in France and Italy.

From today’s ‘Western’ perspective the Allies appeared becalmed a hundred years ago, but at the time they were perceived – internally and from the outside – as extremely busy with vital work.  Allied propaganda was making plenty of noise about the process of equipping and preparing the American Expeditionary Force, and claims that US participation would finally break the deadlock on the Western Front seemed more convincing than those attached to every spring and autumn offensive since early 1915.  Meanwhile citizens of the British Empire – and to a lesser degree those of France, Italy and the (essentially anti-imperialist) USA – were being serenaded with the siren song of imperial invincibility.

Every success, however small, of the British-led armies in Mesopotamia and Palestine was given a big propaganda fanfare, with plenty of pompous references to the crusades and, for audiences accustomed to applauding advances measured in yards, stress on distances gained.  A century ago today, for instance, General Allenby’s forces were reported as having advanced a relatively massive three miles along the coast of Palestine, and two days earlier they had made headlines for an advance of almost two miles along the road to Nablus.  Unlike the constant stream of small-detail ‘good news’ being transmitted from the main European fronts, these were clear and verifiable achievements, the kind that made a noticeable difference to regional maps, generated optimism about the prospects for the post-War empire and made excellent vicarious prizes for patriots back home.

Wartime prizes like Jerusalem and Baghdad do retain a residual presence in our folk memory despite popular history’s selective amnesia, partly because one way and another the British held onto them for some time afterwards, partly because they did turn out to have immensely important geopolitical effects during the next hundred years, and partly because winners never quite stop talking about their victories.  Losers are a different matter.

The West’s heritage commentators have effectively dismissed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria from the War by March 1918.  Though well reported and well known at the time, the momentous internal meltdown of Habsburg power and the Ottoman Empire’s mad leap into the political cauldron of Transcaucasia long ago disappeared from any popular narrative. Germany, though still part of the narrative, is viewed from a Western perspective that pigeonholes this part of March as a period of intensive preparation for the big, exciting offensive on the Western Front planned for later in the month.  By contrast, newspapers of the day gave plenty of space to troubles in Austria-Hungary and Transcaucasia, and even more to the other thing the German high command had going on in March – the occupation of Eastern Europe.

The peace finally agreed at Brest-Litovsk had, as discussed a few days ago, freed the German Third Supreme Command to chase one of its most treasured dragons, the belief that apparently inevitable defeat by superior enemy resources could be reversed by rapid exploitation of an eastern empire.  By that time the German Army faced very little serious competition in the region.  Its virtually unopposed advance towards Petrograd, Operation Faustschlag, had been suspended when its aim – Bolshevik acceptance German peace terms – had been achieved on 24 February, but any idea that Germany would respect the nominal independence of satellite states agreed by the treaty was instantly killed off.  German forces reached the Estonian capital, Tallinn, on the same day, found it occupied by nationalist politicians and marched in to take control anyway.

With German forces only about 150km from Petrograd, Lenin’s government moved its capital to Moscow on 12 March, a permanent change that proved unnecessary in the short term.  The need for rapid returns argued against any attack on a target as defensible and turbulent as Petrograd, so the northern arm of the German Army on the former Eastern Front, shrinking as units were transferred to France, concentrated on control and exploitation of the Baltic States, Belarus and Finland.  Further south, peace with the Bolsheviks was the signal for a German invasion.

An unstable cocktail of competing nationalist, socialist and Bolshevik elements – too complex and fluid to describe in anything but excruciating detail, and not my business here – was undermining German establishment of an expanded Ukrainian puppet state, and the German Army’s southern wing (including Austro-Hungarian forces under German command) began advancing east almost as soon as the ink was dry at Brest-Litovsk.  Again able to overwhelm pockets of poorly armed, organised and motivated resistance without much need for fighting, German and Austro-Hungarian forces swept through the Ukraine, occupying the Russian Navy’s Black Sea base at Odessa on 13 March, and pushed on towards the Crimea.

Static stalemate? Quiet preparations for a future offensive elsewhere? I don’t think so…

The Crimean peninsula occupies an obviously important strategic location on the northern Black Sea coast, and is good arable land, making it a bone of contention between competing states and empires since pretty much the dawn of recorded history.  Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Goths and the Ottoman Empire were just some of the powers to exercise control over Crimea before the Russian Empire annexed it from the latter in 1783.  Fear of greater Russian expansion at the expense of the Ottomans lay behind the excuses for the Crimean War (October 1853 to February 1856), during which an alliance of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire (OK, and Sardinia) besieged and eventually took Sevastopol, the peninsula’s purpose-built fortified naval base.  Still Crimea’s greatest claim to fame in the Anglophone world, largely thanks to Florence Nightingale and the Light Brigade, the war laid waste to the region’s agricultural, village-based economy, which was slow to recover and remained essentially tribal in 1914.

Since the collapse of the Russian Empire in late 1917, the Crimea had been through the same kind of political spasms that had afflicted other imperial provinces with ambitions for self-government.  Ukrainian nationalists, Russian-led Bolsheviks and indigenous Tatar Moslems had all claimed the right to form a new state, and the latter had declared an independent Crimean People’s Republic in mid-December 1917.  The Tatar state had been overthrown by a series of Russian-sponsored Bolshevik coups during January, but a Bolshevik regime had barely come into existence when the German eastward advance began in early March.  Despite a fresh declaration of independence in late March, intended to marshal internal support and put legal barriers in the way of the invaders, the regime was crumbling in the face of opposition from all sides when the German Army entered Crimea on 13 April.

The 20th century took longer to reach some parts of the world than others: Ukrainian nationalist troops in 1918.

Accompanied by Ukrainian nationalists and welcomed by many Tatar villages as a welcome respite from the Bolsheviks, German forces were in effective control of Crimea by early May, when they entered Sevastopol unopposed, seizing those units of the Russian Black Sea fleet that had stayed in port (and hoisted Ukrainian flags in the hope of being left alone).  German authorities remained in control until the Armistice but soon lost local support as the need to provision the Fatherland outweighed the desire to promote regional independence as a bulwark against any future Russian incursions.  A Crimean regional government was formed on 25 June, but although it maintained a separate identity from the Ukraine throughout the occupation it was an entirely puppet regime headed by a Lithuanian Moslem (or Livka Tatar) in German pay, Maciej Sulkiewicz.

Political instability meant corpses in the Crimea. These were executed by Bolsheviks.

The Sulkiewicz government fell within two weeks of the Armistice, and was followed by a social democrat, anti-Bolshevik regime that was itself replaced by a Soviet regime in April 1919, after Allied anti-Bolshevik forces had landed in Crimea and departed without taking any action.  As the Russian Civil War ebbed and flowed across the former Empire, White Russian forces under counter-revolutionary leader General Wrangel drove the Bolsheviks from Crimea in June, and held the peninsula until November 1920.  Crimea then passed a relatively stable seventy years as part of the USSR, punctuated by another spell as a multinational battlefield during the Second World War, and followed by twenty-plus years as part of an independent Ukraine.  We all know what happened next.

This particularly vague ramble has been a reminder that the First World War reached a lot further than the entrenched stalemates of Western Europe, and that many of Eastern Europe’s modern tensions have roots that go deeper than Soviet history.  It’s also a passing introduction to the kind of chaos you can expect once the Russian Civil War gets up a head of steam, and a sympathetic nod to theTatars, Russians, Ukrainians and smaller ethnic groupings of the Crimean peninsula.  Like the people of Poland, the Baltic States and the Balkans, they live in lands condemned by accidents of history and geography to serve as the battlegrounds of empires.

3 SEPTEMBER, 1917: Trial By Fire

First of all, on the off chance anyone’s noticed, apologies for being AWOL lately.  Plenty of travel, a busted laptop, a touch of war weariness and the presence of small children… give that lot to 1917’s sword bearers during a Mediterranean heatwave, they could’ve stopped the First World War in no time.  In my case it’s merely slowed things down a little, and requires me to slip something slight into the early September slot.  That’s fairly appropriate, because I want to spend a little time on the Eastern Front, and a century ago the war in Eastern Europe was all but over.

July’s failed Kerenski Offensive had left the Russian Army in no shape for any kind of attack, while what little coherent energy Austro-Hungarian forces could muster was focused on the Italian Front and everyone involved, including the Romanian Army, had settled for status quo in the Romanian campaign.  Only the German high command had the strength to consider attacking options in the east, but its thoughts had turned to exploitation of occupied territories, its ambitions were still centred on submarine warfare and its immediate concern was defence of the Western Front.

All the same, the German Army did bother to launch one last attack in the east, at the far northern end of the front, where a limited offensive launched on 1 September took the Latvian capital of Riga two days later.  It did this for three reasons, and one of them was quite interesting.

The first was a matter of tidiness, because Russian positions in front of Riga formed a small but irritating bulge in the line. The second was a matter of provocation, because a move on Riga might suggest a further attack towards Petrograd and add to the ongoing chaos in the Russian capital. The third reason was a matter of military experiment, because the German Army thought it had found a way to beat defensive trench warfare.  This was a potentially crucial development, and needed testing.

I think I’ve made it clear over the years that ‘breakthrough tactics’ had been tried, tried again and found wanting on all the main European battle fronts since 1915, but were still being used on the grounds that more men and bigger bombardments might just make them work.  BEF commander Haig had stuck with breakthrough tactics for his latest attack around Ypres, with disastrous consequences, and was only just learning to make use of the alternative approaches demonstrated at Messines in June.  The German Army was meanwhile developing a more radical departure from breakthrough, advocated in print by a French Army captain in 1915 but first put to full practical use during the attack on Riga. Called ‘infiltration tactics’ by the British, they were known to the Germans as ‘Hutier tactics’ after the operation’s commander, General Oskar von Hutier.

Breakthrough involved a long, a massed bombardment of enemy strong points, followed by a massed, concentrated infantry assault on the wrecked remains of enemy forward positions.  Infiltration was preceded by only a brief ‘hurricane’ bombardment, after which small but powerfully armed units would attack into the spaces between enemy strong points with a view to disrupting rear and artillery positions.  Equipped with light machine-guns, light mortars, flamethrowers and sometimes light artillery, and given first call on aircraft support, these ‘stormtrooper’ units were expected to penetrate as deep as possible behind enemy lines, forcing defenders to abandon the pre-prepared second- and third-line positions that had scuppered so many breakthrough attempts for so many years.

A German light mortar – the stormtrooper’s friend, developed as mobile support for attacking infantry.

Infiltration tactics certainly worked at Riga, which was defended by the Russian Twelfth Army, led by new c-in-c General Kornilov and pretty much the last coherent fighting force at his disposal.  Warned of the impending attack by the transfer of German reinforcements from Galicia, Kornilov was already preparing a retreat on Petrograd (of which more another day) when Von Hutier’s Eighth Army stormed into action across a 5km front along the River Dvina.

With important support from German Air Force units enjoying uncontested dominance of the skies, meticulously prepared German divisions carried out the new tactics perfectly, and had established a strong bridgehead across the river by the end of the first day.  The Russians abandoned the defence next day, and anything militarily useful was evacuated from Riga before it fell on 3 September.  The Russian retreat, though fairly orderly, was not particularly efficient, and von Hutier’s forces chased stragglers up the Dvina for the next three weeks before offensive operations were halted.  By that time any thoughts of advancing on Petrograd had been shelved as unnecessary, because the Russian war effort appeared to be collapsing on its own.

Infiltration tactics at their most effective: the Battle of Riga.

So were infiltration tactics the key to unlocking the ghastly stalemate of trench warfare?  Not really.  They did open up the possibility of making relatively large territorial gains in a hurry, but they didn’t solve the supply and transport difficulties that had been making long-range exploitation of gains impossible since 1914. Within a few months they would be tested three times on the grand scale – by Austro-German forces on the Italian Front at Caporetto, by the BEF on the Western Front at Cambrai and by the German Army for its 1918 spring offensive in France – and on each occasion attacking forces would quickly run out of momentum and support. Infiltration methods would be used during the relatively open warfare that brought final Allied victory on the Western Front in the autumn of 1918, but only as one element in a blend of tactics, and only for limited, pre-planned infantry advances.

My excuse for wandering off into trench tactics is, yet again, the persistence of popular myths about First World War command attitudes.  To listen to the heritage chorus you’d think tossing away tens of thousands of lives, time after time, was fine with most generals so long as there were yet more men available for the next round at the mincing machine.  While there is some truth in the accusation at strategic level, most obviously among the German Third Supreme Command, field commanders were almost uniformly horrified by the grim realities of twentieth-century ground warfare, and never ceased trying to change them.  Von Hutier and his staff (like Australian General Monash at Gallipoli and British General Plumer at Messines, to name a couple off the top of my head) were prime examples of this determination to alter the equation, and were backed by an embattled German high command desperate for any battlefield edge.

Well before the Germans arrived in Riga, the Russian Army fled, wrecking its infrastructure and making escape very difficult for civilians and native troops in the enemy’s path.

The German war effort didn’t need Riga, given that the Russian Baltic fleet had effectively ceased to function, and it didn’t need the burden of extra Latvian territory.  It had started transferring troops to the Western Front almost as soon as the city had fallen, and left only a skeleton force to occupy the region, a force more concerned with keeping Latvia quiet amid revolutionary turmoil than with bleeding it dry to supply the war effort.  That’s not to say the people of Riga didn’t suffer – even before the occupation their city was wrecked and stripped of food by the retreating Russians – but it does suggest that the German Army, already stretched beyond reasonable limits, had been prepared to mount an entire offensive to test out a tactical approach that might defeat trench systems.  Case closed.  Generals did care.

1 JULY, 1917: The Last Straw

The second half of June 1917 was, in some ways, a bustling interlude for Europe at war.  The great Allied offensive in France had failed, the German attempt to end the war with submarines was failing and the overthrow of the Russian tsar hadn’t brought the end of civilisation as great power strategists knew it – but there was plenty of tidying up and polishing of tarnished images to do before the next wave of fighting, scheduled for early July.

The first division of US Army troops landed at the French port of St. Nazaire on 25 June, a moment that brought a proud tear to the eye of their watching c-in-c, General John J. Pershing, but had no immediate military significance.  The First Division – some 14,500 men, many of them raw recruits – was in for a long spell of training by French officers and a longer wait for any action, but the enormous Allied fanfare that greeted its arrival was all about boosting popular morale after another disappointing spring.

The French were meanwhile taking the opportunity to tidy up the mess they’d helped make in Greece, as discussed the other day, and the British firmed up for a renewed invasion of Palestine by appointing General Allenby, a seasoned, senior general, to command the theatre (24 March, 1917: Imperial Sunset Strip).  The German High Command, having learned more from the Battle of Messines than the victorious British, was busy toughening up its defences on the Western Front, and preparing for the offensive Haig was quite obviously planning in Flanders by transferring troops there from the dormant Eastern Front (7 June, 1917: Listen And Learn).

The German Army could afford to do this because Russian armed forces were still far too busy with revolution to perform any coherent military function.  This was old news by late June, recognised on all sides as a fact of life and emphasised when the Russian Black Sea fleet mutinied at the Crimean base of Sevastopol on 21 June.  It’s a measure of the Russian Provisional Government’s desperation to establish some sort of control over the revolution’s cascading chaos that, when the brief European interlude came to a crashing end on 1 July , it was shattered by the launch of a major Russian Army offensive.

Known as the Kerensky Offensive or the July Offensive, the attack was planned by the Provisional Government’s effective leader, war minister Kerensky, and the Russian Army’s new c-in-c, General Brusilov.  Both recognised that it represented an enormous gamble on the Army’s willingness to fight, and both knew the odds were heavily against success.

The collapse of the Provisional Government’s fantasy that an outburst of international pacifism would end the War left Kerensky with little option but to hope that a ‘liberty offensive’ against the ‘imperialist’ Central Powers, and ideally a victory, would unite popular opinion in defence of the revolution while encouraging Russia’s allies to maintain vital economic support (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).  Brusilov, the architect of Russia’s only notable military success on the Eastern Front, had been on the point of dismissal before the new government promoted him, and regarded the Army as doomed unless it could be revived by the patriotic unity that only a fighting victory over a hated enemy could inspire.  Between them they set up a repeat of the 1916 offensive in Galicia, at the southern end of the Eastern Front, that had made Brusilov’s name (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…).

Whereas the first Galician offensive had attacked along the whole Galician sector, lack of reliable manpower restricted the second to two main thrusts.  Brusilov took command of the northern attack, by the combined remains of the 7th and 11th Armies (31 divisions, now renamed the ‘Red Army’) along a 65km front around the town of Brody.  Launched on 1 July, it went very well at first, taking 10,000 prisoners on the first day and driving German General Bothmer’s largely Austro-Hungarian Südarmee back towards Lvov – but it soon lost momentum as low morale, chaotic supply lines and the arrival of German reinforcements (sent from the Western Front once Brusilov’s preparations had made his intentions clear) reduced its advance to a crawl.  Aware that his forces were falling apart, Brusilov called off offensive operations around Brody on 16 July.

There’s your map. You’ll be needing it.

Meanwhile, in the Bukovina region to the southwest, General Kornilov’s Russian Eighth Army had opened its attack along a 100km front south of the River Dneister on 6 July.  Facing Austro-Hungarian forces that were barely fit to fight, it too enjoyed early success, breaking through the lines west of Stanislau on 8 July and advancing some 30km by the time the attack ran out of steam on 12 July.  With troops refusing to fight and supplies running short, Russian forces were static or withdrawing all along the Galician front when Bothmer’s reinforced Südarmee launched a major counterattack on 19 July.

Preceded by a 7-hour preliminary bombardment and led by German Army units, the counterattack’s main thrust was aimed at Brody, and it blew away the right wing of Brusilov’s force, gaining 15km in the first day – at which point the Red Army disintegrated, with most troops simply giving up and going home.  Austro-German forces then advanced into empty space, retaking Stanislau on 24 July, reaching Czernowitz on 3 August and crossing the Galician frontier either side of the Dneister by the time new c-in-c Kornilov – who replaced Brusilov on 1 August – had stabilised the front.

The Russian Army was just about capable of an attack in July 1917… but ran away when it was attacked.

A supporting offensive by Russian and Romanian forces based in Moldovia was eventually launched on 22 July, and met a similar fate. After making initial gains, it was halted when German General Mackensen’s multinational army in Romania counterattacked on 6 August.  By 9 August Mackensen’s troops had won a battle around the town of Foscani to threaten the Allied rear, but although one Russian division disintegrated of its own accord the Romanian Army, drastically reorganised since the debacle of its 1916 campaign, regained some of its former reputation by refusing to buckle.  The Allied line was still holding at the end of August, when the German High Command switched its attention to other fronts.

The Kerensky Offensive is not part of our First World War heritage showreel, and on one level that’s fair enough.  Like so many other wartime offensives it was a miserable failure that achieved none of its aims and wasted thousands of lives.  On the other hand, and unlike any of its better-remembered predecessors, it was decisive.

After the offensive’s failure, the Russian Army effectively ceased to exist and, apart from an experimental German attack around Riga in September, serious fighting on the Eastern Front came to an end. The Provisional Government in Petrograd never recovered from the stigma of sending Russians back into battle, and had no more big cards to play as the revolution passed irrevocably into the angry control of the streets and the soviets.  The German High Command, recognising that it could leave Russia to fall apart on its own, was able to redistribute its forces for fighting on other fronts and the exploitation of occupied eastern European territories.  Given the momentous consequences of these changes – in the short term for other battlefronts and for the German war effort; in the long term for the history of Russia, Asia, Eastern Europe and the superpower world – the Kerensky Offensive stands as one of modern history’s great military turning points.

So while you’re applauding 150 years of Canada’s benign consumerism, and just before the heritage industry swamps you with remembrance of Passchendaele’s hapless horrors, raise a glass of something very cold to Kerensky’s doomed last throw of the dice. The July Offensive may have been the worst kind of First World War battle, a grotesque waste of lives in a cause its perpetrators knew to be all but hopeless, but at least this batch of dead soldiers changed the world.

21 APRIL, 1917: Anarchy in the…er… Spambot Magnet

You couldn’t say it was exactly world-shattering news at the time.  It couldn’t really compete for headlines with the monstrous Allied offensives in full cry on the Western Front, accompanied by the crowd-pleasing dogfights of Bloody April and the Red Baron’s surge to fame.  From anywhere West of the Rhine, it hardly seemed important compared with the rising crescendo of submarine warfare, the exotic dramas of British advances through the Middle East, the diplomatic fallout from Washington’s momentous move to war, or reports of mayhem in St. Petersburg as Lenin joined the crowded ranks of revolutionaries returned from exile.  What with all that and more kicking off at around the same time, it’s hardly surprising nobody in the West made too much fuss about the successful conclusion, on 21 April 1917, of the first Ukrainian National Congress.  A century on, nothing’s changed.

What little attention Western academics have paid to the Eastern Front over the decades has tended to view it from the perspective of the major empires involved, understandably enough given that most available source material comes from imperial bureaucracies, especially the German bureaucracy.  So our standard Western view of the First World War skates over its enormous importance to those countries – Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic states – that stood on the western frontiers of the Russian Empire and would one day form an inner ring of Soviet satellites.  In the Ukraine, for instance, the Great War was on one hand a social and environmental catastrophe, as the country became a battlefield under military occupation and conscripted Ukrainians fought for both sides, but was on the other hand a golden opportunity that transformed the idea of national independence into fleeting reality.

Ignoring the current battle for its eastern territories, modern Ukraine comprises the western majority of what was, in 1914, the Russian imperial province of Kiev, along with parts of what was then southern Poland, some of it under Austro-Hungarian control. Nationalist ideas and organisations had taken hold among academics, businessmen and politicians in pre-War Kiev, aiming at greater regional autonomy and promotion of the Ukrainian language, but they were efficiently suppressed in one of the most militarily controlled sectors of the Russian Empire and had little impact on the rest of the country. Controls were tightened further under wartime conditions, but everything changed when the February Revolution of March 1917 toppled the Russian Tsar (8 March, 1917: False Start).

Ukraine as envisaged by the Rada in 1917. Big, huh…

News travelled fast by telegraph in March 1917, and views moved like lightning through the conduit of a Russian Army consumed by revolutionary turmoil at every level. On 17 March, only five days after proclamation of the new Provisional Government in St. Petersburg, Ukrainian politicians, workers, military agitators, businessmen, students, bureaucrats and churchmen came together in Kiev to found the Central Council of Ukraine. More commonly known as the Central Rada, it was led as chairman by historian and nationalist activist Mikhailo Hrushevsky, and wasted no time testing the St. Petersburg government’s avowed liberal principles.

Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, among the finest beards of the War so far.

After issuing a declaration of support for the Provisional Government on 22 March, the Rada began establishing itself as St. Petersburg’s rival for authority over the Russian Ukraine. Hrushevsky, essentially a social democrat, guided the Rada in pursuit of autonomy as a prelude to full independence, and spent his first weeks in office building a wider mandate for its authority, organising delegates from the many elements represented by the Rada, and anyone else willing to participate, into a national congress.

Seven hundred voting delegates – along with 200 non-voting observers and some 600 guests – attended the National Congress that convened in Kiev on 19 April.  The Congress elected 150 delegates to form a new Rada that was in effect a governing parliament, and confirmed Hrushevsky as its chairman, with leaders of the two main Ukrainian political parties as his deputies.  Most significantly, the new Rada included representatives from provincial authorities, and from the socialist workers’ organisations and soviets that were surging into life in every urban area of any size, extending its writ beyond the Kiev region for the first time.  By the time the Congress dissolved on 21 April, it had transformed the Central Council into a provisional government that would lead the Ukraine towards tentative and short-lived independence.

During the next few weeks, the Rada worked to establish its bona fides as a legitimate national government.  It elected a ‘small council’ of thirty members, including representatives of most political groupings, to serve as a cabinet, and on 10 June it declared national autonomy for the Ukraine.  Later that month, in an attempt to widen its influence beyond Kiev, the Rada was expanded to include 130 representatives from soldiers’ councils and 133 from the peasantry.

Peasants made up the vast majority of the Ukraine’s 30 million people.  Principally concerned with peaceful subsistence, they gave the Rada important if somewhat uncommitted support, and presented no serious threat to its authority.  Soldiers’ councils, or soviets, were much more dangerous to the Rada.  In control of most Russian Army units in the Ukraine, they were inclined to preach socialist revolution and generally looked to St. Petersburg for authority, as did many socialist groups in urban areas.  The Rada’s attempt to incorporate the soviets, which was only partly successful and had little impact outside the north of the country, reflected its greatest challenge in the months after the Tsar’s demise – how to achieve peaceful co-existence with a Russian Provisional Government that still claimed political control over the Ukraine.

A compromise was reached in July, when the Russian government agreed to recognise the Rada and defer any binding decisions concerning the Ukraine’s autonomy or sovereignty.  The deal prevented any immediate, mutually unproductive conflict but otherwise solved nothing.  With Kerensky’s Russian regime being forced further and further to the left in order to survive, Ukrainian soviets becoming more radical with every passing day and the Central Powers waiting in the wings if the Russian Army collapsed, the Rada government could do little more than survive through a summer of rising instability, maintaining an appearance of cohesion in its Kiev power base amid seismic socio-political shifts on all sides.

For all its rapid reaction to events, impressive attempts to promote unity and efficient creation of ‘national’ institutions, the Rada’s provisional government was not long for this world.  Viewed by revolutionary socialists as a liberal, bourgeois enemy of the workers, and dismissed as such by the Bolshevik regime after Russia’s October Revolution, it was effectively overthrown in January 1918 by a rival soviet government based in Kharkov.  The Rada responded by declaring Ukrainian independence from the new Soviet Union on 22 January and making a separate peace with the Central Powers, which had been providing diplomatic and financial support since the spring.  This treaty, signed on 9 February and known in Germany as the Brotfrieden (‘bread peace’), left the Rada as a powerless puppet government and ushered in a long period of violent misery for the Ukrainian people.

Signing the ‘bread peace’. Bad idea.

On the positive side, the Central Powers granted Ukrainian control of the Cholm region, a northern province that was also claimed by an independent Poland.  The concession ruined Vienna’s hopes of getting Poland to accept an Austro-Hungarian protectorate, but the urgent need for Ukrainian food supplies was seen as more important.  In return, the Rada invited the German and Austro-Hungarian Armies to occupy Russian Ukraine, authorised their immediate seizure of grain and other supplies on a vast scale, and accepted German Field Marshal Eichhorn as effective military dictator of Ukraine and the Crimea.

Eichhorn’s ruthless attempts to meet the colossal demands for food laid down by the Third Supreme Command in Berlin brought severe hardship to rural Ukrainians, while his imposition of forced labour programmes to increase agricultural production fed rising nationalist unrest in the countryside.  By the time Eichhorn was assassinated by nationalists in Kiev, on 30 July 1918, military occupation was the only force keeping a lid on a chaotic cauldron of revolutionary turmoil, and the collapse of Germany in November brought anarchy in the Ukraine.

During the next three years fourteen different governments claimed to represent the Ukraine, and a state of civil war was only calmed by a fairly secure Bolshevik takeover in 1921.  From the that point the Ukraine became part of the USSR, and though the new Soviet Republic permitted some nationalist and peasant representation, no echo of the Rada’s legacy survived the brutal repression of Stalinism in the 1930s.

So why bother commemorating the birth of something that can only be described as a short-lived failure?  Because the Ukraine is now a sovereign state, in part constructed from the blueprints laid down by the Rada in 1917 and under severe pressure a century later. These days I think we can all agree that its future matters to ours, so on the grounds that it’s good to understand things that matter, here’s to the flawed godfathers of Ukrainian nationhood, and here’s to sneaking a bit of the Ukraine’s history, however sketchy and blind to its many controversies, into our heritage.

23 OCTOBER, 1916: Feeling Brave?

Today was the day, a century ago, that German and Bulgarian forces occupied Constanta, Romania’s most important Black Sea port and its principal trading link with the rest of the world. The capture came two days after Field Marshal Mackensen launched his renewed German-Bulgarian offensive from the south into the eastern Romanian region of Dobrudja, and the fact that the port was taken intact was a measure of how completely the attack had blown away Romanian defences. Romanian units simply fled, leaving Mackensen free to move northeast towards Moldavia and the Russian frontier, and threatening to cut off the capital, Bucharest, from the sea.

At this point, I recommend a quick look back at my last Romanian ramble (10 September, 1916: Fights Of Fancy), which left the campaign in mid-September. By that time the Romanian Army had spent three weeks attacking north into Transylvania and preparing an attack south into Bulgaria, but had achieved only the loss of its inflated fighting reputation and the chaotic scattering of its units. Meanwhile the Central Powers had manoeuvred multinational forces, under German control and using plenty of German equipment, into position for major counteroffensives on both fronts. Here’s the same old map, by way of giving that some context.

One Russian border, three belonging to the Central Powers – Romania was a hard place to defend in 1916.
One Russian border, three belonging to the Central Powers – Romania was a hard place to defend in 1916.

Mackensen’s army on the Bulgarian border couldn’t advance until the threat of a Romanian attack across the Danube had been eliminated, so General Falkenhayn’s northern force of some 200,000 men struck first. Its advance against outnumbered Romanian units strung out along the mountainous Transylvanian frontier region began on September 18, and the offensive got fully underway on 27 September with an attack in the centre of the 300km front, around the town of Hermannstadt.  Hermannstadt fell on 29 September, and surviving defenders fled for the hills, as did those driven back by the secondary attacks of another German army further east and an Austro-Hungarian army to the northeast.  By 14 October, all that was left of the Romanian invasion had retreated beyond the frontier where, joined by a few belated reinforcements sent from the south, they mounted delaying actions in an attempt to keep to Falkenhayn and Mackensen apart.

Once Mackensen’s army had captured Constanta with barely a fight, the Russians finally got serious about the potential threat it posed to their frontier and their Back Sea operations.  Russian naval units bombarded the port and, with the Brusilov Offensive finally at its ragged end, Stavka diverted an impressive 36 infantry and 11 cavalry divisions to a new ‘Army of the Danube’ on the Romanian front.  Transport problems meant most of them didn’t arrive until December, but the declaration of intent was enough to dissuade Mackensen from any serious incursion into Moldovia.

Russian manoeuvres (or anything the other Allies might attempt) couldn’t do anything much to stop the two armies converging on Bucharest and that part of the country most useful to Germany, the fertile Wallachian heartlands and the Ploesti oilfields. As October ended, Mackensen was poised for the kill, and the only thing preventing Falkenhayn from breaking through to the lowlands was the Romanian Army’s token resistance in the Carpathian Mountains.  For now Romanian King Ferdinand, his court and government – the architects of their country’s disastrous gamble on war – remained in the capital, well-dressed rats in a trap, but plans were already being laid for their flight to Iasi, safely behind Russian lines in Moldovia.

That was just an update, and I’ll come back to Romania for the next phase of its demise sometime in the next few weeks, but the ease with which Romanian forces were brushed aside in October 1916 does raise one general point worth making. We’re used to the idea that the developed powers of the early twentieth century enjoyed even greater technological superiority than they do today over what tends to be called the third world, but it’s easy to forget that in 1916 the third world started much closer to our doorstep.

Men from the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Russia, southern Italy, in fact from anywhere except those few wealthy countries or regions with largely literate populations, lived and fought in conditions and with assumptions closer to the 18th than the 20th century. These were conscripts or volunteers who, like the Romanians facing German units, had never before seen heavy artillery, gas, mortars and other state-of-the-art field weaponry, let alone fought against them.  Anyone tempted to look down from posterity’s smug heights on those who ran away, or to draw odious comparisons between the First World War’s brave and apparently not so brave, could do worse than wonder how modern conscripts of any nationality might behave against weapons from the Starship Enterprise.

Romanian troops in training – the kind of training that wasn't much use against heavy artillery.
Romanian troops in training – not the kind of training likely to be  much use against heavy artillery.

12 OCTOBER, 1916: Donkey Work

For the sake of an anniversary, the Eighth Battle of the Isonzo ended a hundred years ago today. It had only begun on 10 October, and had been Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s second attempt to extend the limited gains made during the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo. Like the first attempt in mid-September (aka the Seventh Battle of the Isonzo), it had been a total failure, and been called off once excellently positioned and pre-warned Austro-Hungarian defenders had mown down massed Italian infantry attacks along a narrow front. There’s not much more to say about it, unless you need telling it was ghastly, but the apparently suicidal persistence of Italian attacks on the Isonzo does beg questions about Allied strategic thinking in the autumn of 1916.

Why were all the major Allied armies still committed to banging their heads against the same, lethal brick walls that had proved impossible to break down in 1915? And why were they still incapable of coming up with a master plan for winning the War?

A few weeks ago, I talked about the new German supreme command, and its one-eyed commitment to closing the growing gap between Allied production output and that of the Central Powers. In strategic terms, this meant sparing German resources from the wastage of attrition, and focusing offensive efforts on the capture of more resources – whether manpower, raw materials, food or industrial capacity – that would enable the German economy to compete with the Allies on more equal terms (29 August, 1916: The Blueprint). This was an essentially mad strategy, based on a wild misreading of Germany’s economic potential and a very optimistic view of the juice to be extracted from allied or conquered countries – but it was at least a plan, expressed loud and clear in the Hindenburg Programme, and the military-industrial oligarchy running the supreme command stuck with its catastrophic progress to the bitter end (at which point they jumped ship, but that’s another story).

The Allies, on the other hand, had only begun to experiment with joint strategic discussions in late 1915, when they were seeking an antidote to mounting popular, political and military pessimism. They did agree to coordinate the timing of their major offensive actions, but were in no position to come up with a coherent overall strategy for 1916. They all had different war aims, and the most powerful among them, Britain, enjoyed nothing like the controlling influence that Germany exerted over its increasingly dependent allies. Since then, Germany had taken the initiative on the Western Front by attacking Verdun in February, and Allied strategic thinking on the main European fronts had all been reactive, every offensive one way or another designed to relieve the pressure on Verdun. The only shared, positive strategy Britain, France, Russia and Italy could muster between them was the bleak concept of victory through attrition.

By the time the latest Italian adventure in carnage collapsed in mid-October, almost eight months of attrition had left the War locked in a state of apparent stasis, encouraging a resurgence of the pessimism, accompanied by calls for change, that had one way or another affected the all main Allied nations when the year began. Hopes that the one positive new development, alliance with Romania, would be a turning point in the war on the Eastern Front had already evaporated into fears that Germany would soon control Romanian resources, and the other secondary fronts being contested by Allied forces had gone very quiet since the summer.

In Mesopotamia, the fall of Kut had persuaded the British to take control of the theatre away from the British Indian Army, and military action had been suspended while reinforcements were built up, a new command team put in place, modern weapons and vehicles delivered to Basra, and supply lines to the battlefronts given a complete and much-needed overhaul. On the southern borders of Palestine, depleted British imperial forces were slowly preparing to invade north in 1917, and in East Africa General Smuts was too busy rebuilding the region’s railways and reorganising his battered, diseased forces to mount any kind of offensive action in late 1916. British, French and Serbian forces were theoretically on the offensive from Salonika, but their campaign was melting down into an obvious shambles and doing nothing for Allied morale anywhere. Even the good news from the most successful Allied campaign, on the largely ignored Caucasian Front, had slowed to a trickle while General Yudenich, denied any serious reinforcement, consolidated his army’s control over eastern Armenia.

That just left the big one, the Western Front, where attrition was king and its reputation was wearing thin. With no sign of any kind of breakthrough in the theatre and casualties at mind-boggling levels, the high commands and governments of Britain and France were again attracting criticism for inefficiency, but now also faced questions about the wisdom of carnage as a strategy.  Those questions are still being asked, in particular about the continuation of the Somme offensive beyond any hope of significant victory, but they did have a fairly simple answer.

In mid-October, the British were still trying to extend the bulge, or salient, in the Somme line that had been left largely unaltered by the tank-assisted attack around Flers-Courcelette (15 September, 1916: False Start). Attacks east of the salient from 25–27 September have since been called the Battles of Morval and Thiepval Bridge, and attempts to push the line further eastward continued whenever weather allowed in October. The actions known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights and the Battle of the Tannoy Ridges, which both began on 1 October, lasted for ten and twenty days respectively, and were matched by French attacks in the centre (near Morval) and further south around Chaulnes. None of these attempts gained much more than heritage notoriety, but territorial gain wasn’t their only purpose. Originally launched as support for the French defence of Verdun, the Somme Offensive was now being pursued in support of French offensive plans.

That was because the tide had turned around Verdun. German attacks in July had been held off by the new star among French commanders, General Nivelle, after c-in-c Joffre had refused front commander Pétain’s request to finally withdraw from the sector. Massive casualties on both sides then forced a pause through August and September, during which time the new German supreme command altered the priorities laid down by Falkenhayn, and began siphoning resources away from Verdun. Finally, after months of trying, the battle on the Somme could genuinely be said to be achieving something – even if it was the secondary aim of weakening German efforts at Verdun – and it took only a little imagination to see signs that the Allies were at last gaining significant benefit from the policy of attrition. With French forces being built up for a counteroffensive at Verdun, scheduled to begin on 24 October, of course the pressure had to be kept up at the Somme.

Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.
Indian cavalry at the Somme. Not your standard UK heritage image.

And so the Somme Offensive dragged on for a few more weeks, its architects bolstered against criticism by these apparently substantial justifications. They would soon prove illusory. Attrition had not yet brought German manpower anywhere close to breaking point, so the eventual end to the slaughter at Verdun and on the Somme (and in Polish Galicia on the Eastern Front) would leave the Allies pretty much back where they had started the year. Though the British in particular had reasons to hope for improved results from sideshows in Africa and the Middle East, the approach of winter on the Eastern, Italian and Western Fronts would find the Allies facing military deadlock from a position of strategic near-bankruptcy.

Hindsight has condemned Allied strategists for their persistence at the Somme, and there’s no doubt they got it wrong, but that doesn’t mean their decision to grasp at one more illusion of victory through attrition wasn’t understandable, or even justifiable given the guesswork they were forced to employ.  My point here is one I’ve made before, but that bears repeating as long as Blackadder is the principal popular reference source for the Western Front.  The men guiding the slaughter were sometimes misguided and almost always facing impossible conditions for effective attack, but most of them weren’t donkeys and many of their most derided actions were all but inevitable.

10 SEPTEMBER, 1916: Fights Of Fancy

Broadly speaking, the historical impact of the First World War didn’t have much to with armies and battles.  For all that fighting killed a lot of people, wrecked a lot of terrain and occasionally captured swathes of territory for one side or the other, its principal effect between 1914 and 1920 (and I’m being conservative about the dates) was to prolong and expand the conflict. That meant the extension and spread of ‘total war’, a new and terrible phenomenon that transformed and tested Europe’s biggest economies and societies – and only a fool, a liar or a media professional would even try to deny that total war was the prime catalyst for the profound changes wrought upon the planet by the First World War.

The economic, political and social stresses of total war would defeat Russia, Ottoman Turkey, Austria-Hungary and Germany before their failures were confirmed on the battlefield. Ability to survive the same stresses (and the radical, permanent changes they provoked) would enable Britain and France to end the War with battlefield victories, while the USA’s grand success would have little to do with military prowess and everything to do with industrial, socioeconomic and political adaptability, along with a transformed take on the world. Italy achieved almost nothing on the battlefields, was lucky to survive three years of total war as a functioning state, and fell apart almost as soon as the conflict was over.

But that’s the big picture of the big hitters. The First World War also wrapped its wider identity around plenty of smaller affairs, local conflicts that were continued or begun under the umbrella of the great alliances, and some of them were all about the fighting. Various colonial struggles involving the British Empire spring to mind, as does the Central Powers’ invasion of Serbia in late 1915, and today marks the centenary of a pivotal moment in another. The moment in question was the fall of Silistra, a port city on the Danube, to German and Bulgarian forces on 10 September 1916, a blow that shaped the brief but lively war between Romania and the Central Powers.

I talked about Romania’s decision to go to war against the Central Powers a couple of weeks back (27 August, 1916: Going, Going, Gone…). It was a calculated, greedy choice, and it quickly translated into military action because some strategists on all sides saw it as a potential turning point in the War on the Eastern Front.

On the Allied side, most (though not all) analysts expected Romania’s army to make a major regional contribution, distracting the Bulgarian and German forces deployed in front of Salonika, and posing a direct threat through Transylvania to Austria-Hungary (at the time still defending its heartlands against the last efforts of the Brusilov Offensive further north). This rosy viewpoint ignored several important factors. First, Romania was difficult to defend, menaced as it was by Bulgarian or Austro-Hungarian enemies on two sides. Secondly, the summer of 1916 had seen Germany assume effective strategic control over its enfeebled allies, increasing the likelihood of a coordinated attack on Romania from both sides; and thirdly the Romanian Army, its reputation sky high after a successful Second Balkan War, was in fact rubbish.

Limited peacetime conscription meant Romania’s army was big by regional standards, 860,000-strong after mobilisation in 1916, but rapid expansion had left it pitifully short of modern weapons. Half its 1,300 artillery pieces were obsolete, most were housed in fortresses, hardly any machine guns were available and some units were 40% short of rifles that were anyway of nineteenth-century vintage, as were the brightly-coloured uniforms worn by troops. Decked out as targets and ill-equipped, the same troops went into action with little training or competent leadership, thanks to an officer corps that was good at dressing up, getting wasted and duelling, but a hopeless shambles in military terms.

Military reality made little difference to an atmosphere of one-eyed, expansionist ambition in Bucharest. Dividing its forces into four armies – and ignoring British advice to attack south through Bulgaria, towards Salonika – the royal high command left one army to defend the Bulgarian frontier and sent the other three north, through difficult Carpathian Mountain passes, to invade Hungarian Transylvania. Some 400,000 Romanian troops crossed the Hungarian border along a 300km front on 28 August, a day after the declaration of war, and advanced into southeast Transylvania unopposed by 35,000 Austro-Hungarian defenders, but crippling supply problems and command ineptitude had halted progress by 10 September.

Meanwhile, as might have been expected by any Allied strategist not high on optimism, Germany had organised and launched an invasion of Romania by the Central Powers. One of the Eastern Front’s most experienced and successful commanders, General Mackensen, was put in charge of a Danube Army, made up of German, Austrian, Bulgarian and Ottoman units, to attack north into the Dobrudja, an ethnically Bulgarian region seized by Romania during the Balkan Wars and including all the country’s coastline. A diversionary attack struck the fortress of Tatrakan on 2 September, and took it four days later, while the main force advanced further east towards Silistra, only about 150km from Bucharest. When Silistra fell on 10 September, the entire Dobrudja region was opened up to Mackensen’s army.

<img class="wp-image-1050 size-medium" src="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg" alt="I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you'll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest. " width="300" height="244" srcset="http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-300×244.jpg 300w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-768×624.jpg 768w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949-1024×832.jpg 1024w, http://poppycockww1.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/romania_02-e1473851943949 have a peek at this website.jpg 1099w” sizes=”(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px” />

I realise this is a complex (stolen) map of the Romanian campaign, and you’ll have to figure some of the names out for yourselves – but it does make sense with a bit of effort. Honest.

Romania suddenly needed help, but its new allies were better at making promises than keeping them.

Any hope of direct Anglo-French support had evaporated with the failure of General Sarrail’s earlier attempt to move north from Salonika (14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge), and though Sarrail’s multinational force did launch an even less ambitious attack into southern Serbia on 13 September, German and Bulgarian delaying tactics were enough to prevent any significant progress before November and it had no impact on events in the Dobrudja. Meanwhile the Russian high command, still busy pouring resources into breakthrough attempts in Galicia (4 June, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…), would only spare a token 50,000 men to provide limited support for the 70,000 or so Romanian troops facing Mackensen’s advance.

Having learned the true value of its alliances, the Romanian high command dithered for a few days before abandoning the invasion of Transylvania and, from 15 September, transferring more than half its northern force to the Bulgarian front, as the Army Group South, for an attack across the Danube.  The Romanian pause for thought in Transylvania had meanwhile given enemy reinforcements time to reach the sector, in the form of the German Ninth Army and its new commander, none other than former Chief of Staff, General Falkenhayn.  His combined German and Austrian force of around 200,000 men now outnumbered remaining Romanian units strung out along the Carpathians, and he launched a counteroffensive on 18 September.

So three weeks into a war that the Romanian government and most Allied strategists believed would break the deadlock on the Eastern Front, scattered Romanian armies had failed in one offensive and were in the process of regrouping for an attack into Bulgaria – but faced powerful invasions on two fronts with dangerously inferior numbers.  Not stalemate, then, or attrition, but a war of rapid movement, pitting 20th-century German equipment, tactical nous and organisational skill against strictly19th-century Romanian forces led by a naive, effete elite.

Old-school stuff, all dash, derring-do and dunces – and worth a mention, partly as a reminder that not all First World War fighting conformed to the trench-bound heritage stereotype, and partly as a commemorative nod to a historically important campaign that is largely forgotten where I live.  Oh, and as a set-up for another instalment in a few weeks, when Romania’s hubris really hits the fan.

27 AUGUST, 1916: Growing, Growing, Gone…

It had been coming for some time, but a hundred years ago today the Kingdom of Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary, triggering a counter declaration from Germany.  Going to war would turn out to be very bad idea for Romania in the short term, and was arguably a mistake that has shaped the country’s subsequent history, so this seems a good moment to loose off a preliminary briefing about Romania’s First World War.

Formed from the former Ottoman provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia, Romania had existed as an independent nation since 1878.  In 1914, it was a constitutional monarchy along German (rather than British) lines, with an indirectly elected National Assembly that exerted little actual control over a Crown Council appointed by King Carol I, who was a relative of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The country’s participation in the Second Balkan War (6 September 1915: Caveat Emptor) had increased its size to almost 140,000 square kilometres, including the Dobrudja region taken from Bulgaria, and swollen its population to more than 7.5 million.

The Romanian economy was predominantly agricultural – though the Ploesti oilfields to the north of the country were becoming increasingly important – and largely dependent on commerce and capital investment from Germany and Austria-Hungary. Tied to both empires by a secret treaty of 1883, Romania enjoyed excellent relations with Germany, which had financed construction of some 5,000km of state railways by 1914, but Vienna was viewed as a hated enemy, accused of maltreating 3 million Romanians in Habsburg Transylvania.

Romania in 1914
Romania in 1914

The Transylvanian issue was King Carol’s excuse for ignoring the treaty and declaring Romania’s neutrality in August 1914. The country’s geographically pivotal position (in Eastern Front terms), and its inflated military reputation since the victory of 1913, meant it was considered a prize potential ally, but though both belligerent power blocs made offers of military and economic aid, only the Allies could offer Transylvania.  Popular pressure to join the Allies weakened the position of King Carol, whose personal preference for the Central Powers was never in doubt, and by the time he died in October he was losing influence to the prime minister, liberal Francophile Ion Bratianu.

The new king, Ferdinand I, took a more balanced view – as befitted a Germanic monarch with a British wife – and allowed Bratianu to pursue a deniable pro-Allied policy, aimed at extracting maximum territorial gain from prolonged negotiations.  By the summer of 1916, both Ferdinand and Bratianu were sufficiently impressed by the nearby successes of Russia’s Brusilov Offensive to agree that an Allied victory was just around the corner, and Romania duly declared war against the Central Powers on 27 August.

29iht-retrospective-roumania-blog480
The International Herald Tribune’s take… nothing to do with reality, and normal service for the press in 1916.

During the next two years Romania would become a battleground. Two-thirds of the country would be stripped of resources and infrastructure under enemy occupation, more than 200,000 Romanian soldiers would die, and an estimated 500,000 civilians would be killed by invasion, occupation or starvation.  In short, the First World War wrecked Romania,  and it made little difference that the country emerged from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference with its size almost doubled since 1914.  The calculated gamble on war that sprang from the bad seed of aggressive nationalism, and its obsession with territorial gain, had blasted a young nation from the path to sustained socioeconomic development, and it would be a very long time before Romania got back on the road.

I realise this has been so brief it’s almost terse, but I can’t spare the time for anything more detailed just now, because over in Germany there’s a totalitarian dictatorship brewing and it’s going to take some explaining. I will come back to the sad story of the Romanian campaign as it unfolds, but in the meantime log Romania as yet another victim of belief in war as a legitimate act of statecraft, a faith that had sustained empires for a century or more, but that has led nation after nation down the path to self-destruction in the mechanised age.

4 JUNE, 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…

On the Western Front in early June, the German assault on Verdun was still grinding down French territory by the metre.  In the Alps to the north of Italy, Austro-Hungarian forces were threatening breakthrough in the Trentino Valley.  In Chantilly, half a year earlier, the Allies had agreed to launch supporting offensives whenever one of them was attacked.  So where were the British and Russians when the French and Italians needed them?

The British Army in northern France was deep into exhaustive preparations for its offensive at the Somme, a grand scheme that was hardly a secret, hardly different in anything but scale to all the BEF’s previous grand schemes, and impervious to haste – but was at least expected to be a game-changer.  Meanwhile the Russians, though far more amenable to bullying by their allies, were generally considered incapable of a successful attack after almost two years of miserable failure.

The Russian Army’s early offensives on the Eastern Front had achieved little more than parity against attacks by the Central Powers, and had been thrown back hundreds of miles by the German-led offensives of 1915.  Its only real success had come in early 1916 on the Caucasian Front, where smaller armies under General Yudenich had outmanoeuvred and outfought weakened Ottoman forces to occupy eastern Armenia, but since then the Lake Naroch offensive, a first attempt to distract German forces from Verdun, had collapsed in complete failure.

Understandable pessimism about Russian capabilities didn’t stop the French – in what they and the rest of the world considered their hour of greatest need – from demanding a renewed effort in the east almost at once, or dissuade the Russian high command, Stavka, from reluctant agreement to the challenge.  Stavka did demand time to build up manpower and artillery in preparation for yet another heavily concentrated attempt at ‘breakthrough tactics’… only to be told by one general that he was ready to attack on short notice with the minimum of reinforcement.

The maverick in question was General Alexei Brusilov.  Approaching his mid-60s, and an aristocrat unhampered pre-War factional alliances, Brusilov had commanded the Eighth Army on the Eastern Front since 1914 and made it the most respected Russian fighting unit in the theatre.  Having managed to emerge from the fiascos of 1915 with some credit, he had been appointed c-in-c of the Eastern Front’s southwestern sector in March 1916.  In April, he proposed a series of simultaneous attacks all along his sector of the front, without the massed artillery and tightly focused infantry assaults required by breakthrough tactics.

Stavka wasn’t overly impressed.  Both central sector commander Evert and northern sector commander Kuropatkin enjoyed considerable numerical superiority over enemy forces shorn of many German units, but Brusilov didn’t.  His armies in the southwest mustered about 600,000 men and 1,700 big guns, against some half a million men (almost all of them Austro-Hungarian) and 1,350 guns. His plan was authorised, but with little enthusiasm or optimism, and only as a preliminary to a more conventional offensive being prepared by Evert.

Brusilov may have been deaf to the siren song of breakthrough tactics, but experience had taught him other, more valuable lessons in the grim craft of trench warfare.  In stark contrast to previous Russian offensives, his attack was carefully prepared, making extensive use of reconnaissance aircraft, of sappers to mine towards enemy positions and of huge dugouts to protect waiting reserves.  It also stood out from previous Russian battle plans in making almost no use of cavalry.

Weeks of Russian preparation were observed but not interrupted by (German) General Linsingen’s five armies, four of them Austro-Hungarian and one Austro-German.   Aware of Brusilov’s numerical strength, or lack of it, they kept faith with a well-constructed trench system and, when the attack came, concentrated infantry in forward positions to await the usual Russian tactics – an ineffectual preliminary bombardment followed by massed breakthrough attempts on narrow fronts.  That’s not what they got.

The attack opened on 4 June with an extraordinarily accurate series of bombardments that inflicted heavy casualties on forward defenders.  Infantry assaults all along the line followed, scattering Austrian reserves to multiple crisis points and bringing immediate success in four main areas.  To the north, with the Pripet Marshes on its right, the Russian Eighth Army attacked along a 30km front, steamrollered through the Austrian Fourth Army and took the town of Lutsk on 6 June.  Further south, the Russian Eleventh Army broke through at Sopanóv, taking 15,000 prisoners, and the Seventh Army gained ground with a smaller victory at Jazlowiec.  None of these matched the progress made by the Russian Ninth Army, at the extreme south of the line, where an initial victory around Okna on 5 June was followed two days later by a secondary breakthrough to the north that drove the Austrian Seventh Army into headlong retreat.

eastern_front_may_1916
All that mass slaughter calls for a map, so here it is, complex and stolen but illustrative if you’ve got the energy for a close look.

 

The retreat soon became a chaotic rout.  Conflicting orders from above and the breakdown of transport arrangements split the Seventh Army in two, with half hurrying west to the Bukovina region while the rest attempted to hold a line at the River Prut, beyond Czernowitz, until driven back from 17 June.  Brusilov next launched an attempt to trap German forces positioned between his own and the central sector, but it was called off for lack of meaningful support from Evert’s command, and with supply lines lengthening the offensive paused for rest and reinforcement.  At this point the Russian advance had taken some 200,000 prisoners and 700 guns, shifted the front line as much as 80km west in places, and all but cleared Galicia of Austro-Hungarian forces.

Both sides brought up reinforcements during the second half of June.  Twelve fresh divisions joined Brusilov, while the Central Powers, still preoccupied with offensives elsewhere, managed to add sixteen (far less fresh) divisions from France and Italy.  Nine of the latter took part in a counterattack against the Russian Eighth Army from 20 June, but it had made only token gains and cost 40,000 casualties when it was called off at the end of the month, by which time Brusliov had launched a second phase of attacks.  Often distinguished as the Ukraine Offensive, these had taken another 40,000 prisoners and 63 guns by 7 July, pushing the sector’s front line between 10 and 35 kilometres further west.

The Eastern Front offered a more spacious take on carnage... Brusilovs troops advance.
The Eastern Front offered a more spacious take on carnage… Brusilov’s troops advance.

This was sensational stuff, prompting loud celebrations in Britain, France and Italy, exposing the fragility of Austro-Hungarian units and weakening Falkenhayn’s position as German Army chief of staff – but the length of his supply lines and his own 50,000 losses again forced Brusilov to pause.  That gave Stavka, the most outstandingly incompetent wartime high command in a competitive field, a chance to stifle the enterprise.

To the north of Brusilov’s front, General Evert had begun his own, breakthrough-style offensive on 2 July, but it followed the usual, ill-prepared pattern of earlier Russian operations and collapsed inside a week with 80,000 losses.  Stavka then decided to concentrate all its offensive efforts in the southwest, and ordered Brusilov to mass his forces for another breakthrough bid, this time at the north of his lines towards Kovel.  In a move that typified its inability to separate political and military priorities, it transferred overall command to Evert – an ardent monarchist who epitomised the caution, inefficiency and cabalism of many senior Russian generals – as a means of overcoming his reluctance to shift forces south.  This marked the end of the Brusilov Offensive proper and the beginning of what is known as the Kovel Offensive, which would get underway in late July, grind on until October and mark a grim return to the failed tactics of 1915.

I’ve had enough massed armies for one day, particularly in the wake of last week’s longwinded Jutland manoeuvres, and I’ll talk about Kovel later in the summer.  For now, that was the Brusilov Offensive. Its successes marked an important stage in the fateful transfer of military power in Germany to Ludendorff and Hindenburg, but clearly failed to change anything much about the Russian high command.  In strategic terms it achieved little more than another temporary and costly positional shift in the front line, and although it did help persuade Romania to join the War on the Allied side, hindsight sees that as more of a disaster than an achievement.  Not much in return for several hundred thousand killed or wounded (and yet another battering for the battle-scarred landscape of Eastern Europe), but worth commemorating as another massive battle we tend to ignore because no Tommies were involved.