16 FEBRUARY, 1916: The Walrus In Winter

A month ago I mentioned that European weather in January 1916 was weirdly warm, but that exploiting it with any serious offensive action was beyond the military technology and orthodoxies of the day.  By mid-February, northern and western Europe were well into an almost equally extraordinary spell of wet weather, destined to last another week or so before a fall in temperatures signalled an unusually cold, wet March.  On the Western Front, where major offensives by both sides were still in preparation, weather conditions presented no more than a logistic nuisance – but soggy ground, mud and freezing cold were about to have their day in France and Belgium… and how.

So spare a small, forgiving thought for contemporary leaders when, amid the appalling carnage that took place on the Western Front in 1916,  the heritage lines get clogged with contemptuous dismissals of their idiocy.  Bad ideas, badly executed by bad generals were a problem by 1916, but commanders were not only dealing with a form of mechanised warfare that was still in the experimental stages, and working with unprecedented numbers of lightly trained, inexperienced troops, they were doing it under conditions created by one of the strangest winters in European history.

A little further south, on the alpine front between Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces, the weather was essentially normal for the time of year, that’s to say wintry, unpredictable and unsuited to fighting.  Both sides were still in recovery from the four fruitless offensives launched by the Italians in the Isonzo valley during 1915, but while Austro-Hungarian forces were being reinforced for a future attack on positions further west, in the Trentino region, Italian commander Cadorna was preparing his battered troops for yet another Isonzo assault.

Nobody has much good to say about General Cadorna’s long, ugly campaign on the Italian Front, and quite right too, but in February 1916 even he deserved some sympathy.  Italy had entered the War bent on territorial gain but in no economic condition to fight it, and was dependent from the start on Allied promises of military and economic aid.  Nine months on, with public and press criticism of the military campaign mounting and urban food shortages becoming serious, Allied aid had become critical to national survival but was delivered only on the condition that the Italian government did exactly as Britain and France asked.  In December 1915, at the Chantilly Conference, Italy had of course agreed that any Allied offensive should be supported by attacks on other fronts, so once Haig and Joffre had finalised their plans for offensives on the Western Front, Cadorna had no choice about mounting an attack. Given the requirement to do so quickly, he had little practical choice about its general location.

Elsewhere, the Eastern Front was still paralysed by winter, Salonika was inert, British plans for an advance into Palestine were still brewing, and the Mesopotamian campaign was locked around the siege of General Townshend’s troops in Kut.  In Africa, German Cameroon had just reached the end of the line, and in German East Africa a new South African commander, Jan Smuts, was preparing a major British offensive against General von Lettow-Vorbeck’s resolute defence.  In other words, the First World War was under starters orders for the year… unless you were in Armenia.

When I last gave the Caucasian Front its due (15 August, 1915: No Silver Lining), it lay fallow while both sides were busy elsewhere – Ottoman armies at Gallipoli, Russian coping with German advances on the Eastern Front.  West of the front line, remaining Ottoman authorities then spent the latter part of 1915 attempting to wipe out the Armenian people, while on the eastern side Russian General Yudenich could only hold his positions until the high command provided sufficient reinforcements for an attack.  The vast improvement in Russian industrial output, as discussed back in June, meant that by the end of the year Yudenich had built up a force of some 300,000 troops, including reserves.  This outnumbered Ottoman forces at the front by at least three to one and Yudenich, aware that reinforcements were on their way from Gallipoli, chose to launch an offensive before they arrived.

On 10 January, in deep snow, Yudenich launched his advance into Armenia with preliminary attacks all along the front. Ottoman forces, most of them still in winter camp, were taken by surprise, and a week later the Russians broke through the lines at Köprukoy, inflicting some 25,000 casualties but failing to surround the rest of the Turkish Third Army, which retreated into the reputedly impregnable fortress city of Erzurum.

By the end of the month Russian forces had besieged Erzurum, and a century ago today, on 16 February 1916, the garrison surrendered, giving up some 13,000 prisoners and 350 (largely obsolete) artillery pieces.  Two days later, a secondary advance to the south took the town of Mus.  All this deserves a map, but as I’ve mentioned before the Internet is a little short on remotely comprehensible maps of the Caucasian Front, so this is the best I can do:

400px-Russian-Caucas-Front-1916
You’ll just have to work this one out for yourselves…

The fall of Erzurum and Mus ended the first phase of a genuinely successful campaign. Alone among senior Russian commanders at the time, Yudenich understood the concentration and reserve strength needed to achieve a breakthrough, knew how to take enemies by surprise and was open to innovation. Crucially, he also recognised the inherent dangers of over-extension that had been ruining grand offensive plans since 1914, and pursued strictly limited objectives. Better yet, because regional commander Grand Duke Nikolai was busy with factional intrigue in far off Tbilisi, Yudenich was left to get on with being a good general without interference from Stavka.

Having caught the Turks unawares and under strength, and broken through their lines, Yudenich made no attempt to exploit the victory by sweeping onward into the heart of Turkey, as the likes of Ludendorff would surely have done (and as British commanders in Palestine were hoping).  Instead he sprung another surprise by turning his armies northwest from 22 February, and using naval landings to occupy Black Sea coastal positions before taking Trabzon in April.

In the summer, Yudenich expanded his area of control with an attack west of Erzurum, advancing the front line some 150km and taking the town of Erzincan in late July.  The advance nipped most of a planned Turkish offensive in the bud, and although the Ottoman Second Army did advance at the southern end of the front to take Bitlis in August, Russian counterattacks had recovered all the lost ground by the end of the month.  At that point, aware that the theatre was of secondary importance to Stavka and unlikely to be heavily reinforced, Yudenich cashed in his chips and spent the rest of the year consolidating his gains.

The long-term strategic importance of the Erzurum Offensive is debatable, given that the collapse of both competing empires made it irrelevant to the political future of Armenia, but in the short term it did protect at least some of the region’s population from the further predations of genocide-inclined Ottoman officials.  Its main claim to fame, or at least to my interest, is that (with the qualification that it benefitted from some very poor defending by ill-equipped Ottoman forces) it can honestly be called efficient and successful, which is more than you can say for anything else attempted by the major powers since the autumn of 1914.

Yudenich was not the only general to have begun solving the offensive conundrum posed by the state of the military-technological world in early 1916.  Australian General Monash had, for instance, been learning similar lessons on a smaller scale in the cauldron of Gallipoli.  For now though, they were voices in the wilderness, drowned out by the sweeping strategies of leaders desperate to end the agony with one killer blow.  It would be another two years before the pragmatic good sense of their step-by-step approach to victory would find much general acceptance, and that, as history’s grim statistics record, was a terrible shame.

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