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.

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