14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge

This war has been running for a little more than two years, and Europe is still teetering on the brink of self-destruction.  Ask yourself how long ago the last World Cup final feels, and that’s how long Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Belgium, Russia, Britain and their various empires had been at war by August 1916. Two years can feel like the blink of an eye, but it’s safe to say that to citizens of those countries – or at least the literate ones – the heady, bellicose, optimistic days of August 1914 felt like a very long time ago.

In Britain, despite a warm start to the month, citizens were marking the anniversary by going to the pictures.  Twenty million people – almost half the population – were flocking to cinemas to watch the Battle of the Somme, the propaganda film that gave civilians their first even remotely accurate images of modern industrialised warfare. The movie didn’t do much to lift mounting popular war weariness or soothe increasing exasperation with the Asquith government.  Nor did it silence the rumbles of unrest bubbling under the surface of a society that, though outperforming its rivals in terms of finding a sustainable model for ‘total war’, was storing up sociopolitical tensions for the future. On the other hand the film’s convincing realism did reinforce rock-solid popular support for the troops themselves, and recognition that millions of ordinary people in uniform depended on it was still the key to public obedience in Britain.

The same was true in the only remotely comparable democracy fighting since 1914, France.  The grumbling, turbulent waters of French politics had been calmed by the vast loss of men and materials during a six-month struggle for Verdun. The initial German attack in February had damaged both the authority of French Army c-in-c Joffre, who was blamed for the depleted state of Verdun’s defences, and the popularity of the government, which was blamed for not telling Joffre what to do. French recovery on the battlefield had since improved the government’s popular reputation, and turned the defence of Verdun into a national crusade, replete with attendant mythology (most of which, hero-worship of Pétain aside, still informs French heritage commemoration).  For now at least, a combination of grief, outrage and patriotism was keeping war weariness at bay France.

Given that both were under occupation by the Central Powers, popular opinion and war weariness in Belgium or Serbia didn’t really amount to a hill of beans, and the same can be said of Austria-Hungary. People were suffering and weary all across the central European swathes still controlled by the Habsburg dynasty, but all significant strategic and constitutional activity took place in the refined, strictly eighteenth-century bubble of imperial Vienna, where the Emperor and his court were fiddling with fantasy warfare while the provinces seethed with separatism. As for Russia, its ruling autocracy defined anything outside the immediate royal entourage as ‘popular’, regarded politicians, businessmen and industrialists as enemies to be ignored, and never considered the mass of its subjects capable of a sophisticated sensation like weariness.

Politically, as geographically, Germany stood somewhere between the autocratic east and the democratic west, a would-be autocracy atop a modern, literate population or, to put it another way, a powder keg perched on a red hot economy. The psychedelic patriotism of August 1914 had brought an unprecedented political truce across the young nation, but two years later it was showing signs of cracking.  Bad harvests, shrinking supplies of imported goods, high casualties and now, after months of military disappointment on land and sea, an underlying pessimism about the chances of overall victory were all contributing to change of atmosphere. Strikes had broken out in Berlin and the Ruhr, and the Reichstag (Germany’s largely powerless parliament) had resumed its peacetime habit of demanding constitutional reform.

Berlin in 1916 – a serious need for soup kitchens.
Berlin in 1916 – a serious need for soup kitchens.

The military, industrial and aristocratic interests that ran the Empire for an increasingly tame monarchy were aware that Germany was losing the industrial and economic battle, and that German society, though still deeply committed to the national cause, was incapable of the military-industrial focus that might reverse the situation. By August 1916, they were preparing a revolution that would change Germany forever… and we’ll get to that one day soon.

If civilians with two years of war behind them were feeling the strain, many of the troops they were supporting had been reduced to virtual inactivity by sheer exhaustion.  On the Western Front around Verdun, almost six months into the battle, the vast casualties suffered by both sides (as well as the need for French and German forces to be shifted to the Somme) had reduced fighting to inconclusive and largely incoherent skirmishing on a relatively small scale, and the sector would not come to the boil again before the autumn. On the front line around the Somme, the battle begun at the start of July had developed an extra-strategic momentum of its own, with both sides fighting on in the belief that the other was on the point of exhausted collapse – but August was a period of recuperative quiet (just localised trench warfare for its own sake) while British generals planned a renewed push for September.

On the Eastern Front, Russia’s astonishingly successful Brusilov Offensive was still in progress, but had ground into a stalemate of its own. As I’ve mentioned before (4 June 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…), Brusilov had driven the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of Galicia during the summer, and inflicted crippling losses in the process, but the offensive had left advanced German positions in the northern and central sectors of the Front essentially unchanged. In July the Russian high command (Stavka), obsessed with pecking orders and imprisoned by orthodoxies, had taken overall command away from Brusilov and abandoned his successful tactics, so that ongoing Russian attempts to drive on into the Austro-Hungarian heartlands were employing standard ‘breakthrough tactics’ – and failing accordingly.

Russia’s other successful field commander – General Yudenich on the Caucasian Front – was meanwhile in position to drive west towards the Ottoman Empire’s heartlands, but was aware that no significant reinforcements were coming his way as long as the Eastern Front remained active and never considered the idea. Instead he spent the late summer and autumn consolidating his army’s gains in Armenia.

Neither exhaustion nor manpower shortage stood in the way of Allied offensive operations from the Salonika Front that summer. French General Sarrail’s multinational force of British and French imperial troops had been augmented by the remnant of the Serbian Army that had survived the previous winter’s brutal retreat (25 November 1915: The Hard Way), and now amounted to some 200,000 troops. They were not comfortable in Salonika, hemmed in by the volatile chaos of Greek politics, and their governments were uncomfortable with their inactivity, so Sarrail had been planning a major offensive against the mixed Bulgarian, Austro-Hungarian and German force currently occupying the Serbian frontier with Macedonia.

Intended to drive north, deep into Serbia, the Allied offensive got underway with an artillery bombardment in the centre of the allied position, around Lake Dorian, on 10 August, but had produced only trivial gains by French forces when, on 17 August, some 120,000 German and Bulgarian troops opened an offensive further west. The attack, agreed by Berlin to keep its relatively new Bulgarian allies happy, focused on the town of Florina, where Allied positions were held by Serbian forces, and the town fell on the same day.  The Serbs had been driven back to the Lake Ostrovo region by 18 August and, after a failed counterattack next day, they held a line east of Florina, around the Crno River.

Meanwhile, to the east of the Allied attack, Bulgarian forces crossed the frontier to take the town of Seres on 25 August and advanced to the coastal fortress of Kavalla, meeting no resistance from Greek Army forces and brushing off a half-hearted coastal barrage by Royal Navy warships .

The front lines on this map hadn't yet been established, but you get the picture.
The front lines on this map (stolen and removable on request, natch) hadn’t yet been established, but you get the picture.

The invasion of Macedonia went no further.  Inspired by Bulgaria’s desire to modify the results of the Second Balkan War, and dependent on German support, it was halted as soon as Romania joined the Allies on 27 August.  Bulgarian attention then switched to its northern frontier – and the new threat from a neighbour with its own grudges left over from the Balkan Wars – but Bulgarian forces retained control of their conquests in eastern Macedonia.  This didn’t matter much to the inhabitants of a region that had been changing hands on a regular basis for years, but it did upset Greek nationalists, triggering rebellion against the Greek monarchy by the pro-Allied ‘Venizelist’ faction, which set up an alternate state based on Salonika (21 July 1916: Money Talks… And Can Be Dumb). General Sarrail’s offensive was meanwhile quietly called off, and a less ambitious operation rescheduled for September.

The slow death of Brusilov’s offensive the Ukraine and the spasm of military action around Salonika weren’t the only military adventures taking place during August.  Italy had spent little more than a year at war, but the attack on the River Isonzo launched by c-in-c Cadorna on 4 August was already the Italian Army’s sixth offensive in the sector.  Unlike the five before it or the five more that followed, this one was very nearly a success.

Cadorna’s penchant for attacking on the Isonzo generally needed little encouragement – in fact he never attempted an attack anywhere else – but the sixth offensive was essentially forced upon him by the national passion for instant revenge that followed the shock of invasion by Austro-Hungarian forces around the Trentino valley (15 June, 1916: A Very Dangerous Drug).  Cadorna did his usual good job of exploiting northern Italy’s excellent railway network to deploy his forces quickly and efficiently for the attack, and for the first time the Austro-Hungarian Army, reduced to a skeleton by the needs and losses around the Trentino and Brusilov Offensives, wasn’t ready and waiting to pick off the attackers in the valleys below their positions.

By 8 August the Italian Army had surpassed anything achieved by the first five offensives, establishing its first bridgehead across the Isonzo and taking the town of Gorizia.  Having secured these two longstanding objectives, it went on to achieve a relatively huge advance of some 5km along a 20km front by 12 August, when the arrival of Austro-Hungarian reinforcements brought progress to a halt. Cadorna called off the attack five days later, cutting his losses (already above 50,000 men, against some 40,000 Austrian troops killed, wounded or taken prisoner) and accepting the laurels for a limited victory.

Sometimes dignified as the Battle of Gorizia, the offensive provided a beleaguered Italian government with some breathing space and boosted national morale to keep popular enthusiasm for the War at an unfashionable high. It also provided the only sliver of genuinely good military news, for either side, coming out of Europe during that summer’s sombre pause for breath.

As they started out their third year of all-out warfare on an unprecedented scale, Gorizia didn’t amount to much in the way of consolation for literate civilian observers from Britain or France, but their prospects were on the whole far better than those of everyday people from other European states at war. They couldn’t be expected know that in 1916 – but we can, and adding some European context to Britain’s endlessly documented home front struggles is my only excuse for subjecting you to this very long, very rambling, spectacularly generalised tour of the continent’s ramparts.

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