The main battlefronts in Europe were still relatively quiet, but 11 March 1917 was a lively Sunday for strategically dubious Allied adventures elsewhere. In Mesopotamia, British imperial forces led by General Maude completed the capture of Baghdad, and near the frontline north of Salonika an Allied offensive met German-led resistance at what became known as the Battle of Lake Prespa.
Ottoman loss of Baghdad was no great surprise. Maude had been poised to take the city since the recapture of Kut in February had left some 75,000 British troops only 70km downriver, and Ottoman front commander Khalil Pasha could muster only 10,000 troops for its defence. Another two divisions – perhaps 20,000 men – were on their way from the Persian frontier but not expected to arrive in time to aid the defence, and Ottoman units in other theatres were too far away to be of any help (27 February, 1917: Payback).
Unwilling to retreat beyond the city, Khalil began preparations for a forward defence at Ctesiphon, where General Townshend’s army had come to grief in 1916, but then changed his mind and fell back on Baghdad itself. He chose not to flood the land approaches from the south, and though fortifications were prepared to the southeast of the city, on the River Diyala, and on either side of the Tigris some 35km downriver, they were incomplete when British units reached the Diyala on 8 March.
The Diyala was 100 metres wide and in full flood, and immediate British attempts to cross it were repelled. Although a small bridgehead had been established across the river by the following morning, Maude switched the focus of his attacks to the weaker Tel Aswad position on the west bank of the Tigris. Khalil was informed of the manoeuvre by a squadron just arrived from the German Army Air Service, and duly moved most of his own troops to meet it, leaving only a single, depleted division to defend the Diyala. This was overrun early on 10 March, prompting Khalil to abandon the Tel Aswad defence and retreat to protect the Berlin to Baghdad railway station, without which any reinforcement from the north was impossible.
Like all Ottoman field commanders by 1917, Khalil was beset by German advisors, but he resisted their demands for a counterattack and, after a sandstorm had ended fighting early for the day, ordered the evacuation of Baghdad that evening. British forces marched in unopposed the next morning, cheered on by a local population accustomed to smiling for conquerors, and from that point Ottoman influence in Mesopotamia and Persia came to an effective end. Now well placed to provide support for Russian operations on the Caucasian Front, or to threaten the Turkish heartlands, Maude began immediate preparations to secure his new position with further northward advances.
Over in Salonika, French General Sarrail’s command of Allied forces on the front was formalised in January 1917, in line with the British government’s commitment to overriding its own generals in favour of the Western Front battle plan proposed by new French c-in-c Nivelle (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear). Encouraged to divert German strength from France by mounting a spring offensive, and with little choice about the general location of an attack, he chose to mount a carefully coordinated repeat of the Monastir Offensive into Serbia that had failed the previous autumn (19 November, 1916: Fake News).
There was no reason to expect a better outcome for the Allies this time. Rampant sickness in the Allied camp and the need to police the nascent civil war in Greece had left only about 100,000 of Sarrail’s 600,000 troops available for frontline duties. Operational coordination between various national units remained shaky to say the least, and the Serbian element was in particularly bad shape, displaying clear signs of mutinous war-weariness. Meanwhile the German and Bulgarian force occupying excellent defensive positions on high ground all along the front was healthier, slightly larger and – thanks to air reconnaissance – fully aware of Allied movements before Sarrail attacked on 11 March.
Sure enough, the offensive went horribly wrong in a hurry. Franco-Serbian units advanced between Monastir and Lake Prespa, while at the other end of the front General Milne’s British force launched a supporting attack around Lake Doiran, but secondary assaults planned for multinational forces at the centre of the front failed to take place at the appointed time. Efficient, air-assisted transfer of reserves enabled defenders to halt the Franco-Serbian advance within a week, by which time the Allies had gained a few hundred metres of land at the cost of 14,000 casualties to battle or sickness. By 19 March German counterattacks had driven the western end of the Allied line back onto Monastir, forcing Sarrail to abandon further attacks elsewhere, and fighting died down on 22 March with the Allies still occupying Monastir but in range of German artillery.
That was the last major action on the front during 1917. A British attempt to resume attacks around Lake Doiran failed in late April, and early May saw more inconclusive fighting in the area, along with a small advance around Monastir by French and ‘Venizelist’ Greek troops. By the middle of the month mutiny had broken out among Russian units at Salonika, and with discontent spreading to French and Serbian troops, Sarrail abandoned all offensive operations for the rest of the year.
So while the British capture of Baghdad at least offered the outside chance of striking deep into enemy territory, albeit secured at a ridiculously high cost, attempts to extract some strategic value from the bloated Allied commitment to Salonika had sunk to new depths of counter-productivity. Instead of distracting German resources from the impending renewal of slaughter in France, they had left a large Allied force paralysed by disease, mutiny and the all-consuming turmoil of Greek politics, destined to remain an inactive blot on the military landscape until the War’s last weeks. So why didn’t they just pack up and leave?
The immediate answer is that it was too late for the Allies to pull out. With Greece on the point of a civil conflict created by the question of which side to join at war, and with the Central Powers poised to invade the country from northern Macedonia, an Allied withdrawal would have been a betrayal of promises made to pro-Allied Greek leaders, a gift to the enemy and a propaganda disaster.
It would have been possible to give up on Salonika back in late 1915, when the pointlessness of trying to aid Serbia had been clear to most strategists, but British, Russian and Italian plans to do just that had been vetoed by the French. The insistence by the French military and government on maintaining a force in Greece was in part a product of their own propaganda, which had transformed the defence of Serbia from an excuse for war against Germany into a sacred duty for the French people. This had rebounded as noisy popular opposition to any withdrawal from Salonika – but behind the facade of public outrage, generating support for the project among the elite classes, lay hard-nosed imperial opportunism.
French strategists had long considered the eastern Mediterranean, encompassing pretty much everything from Serbia to the Lebanon, as their field of influence to the exclusion of other empires, and intended to fill any economic vacuum left in the region by an Ottoman Empire generally regarded as on its deathbed. In that sense Salonika in 1917 was, no less than Baghdad, a beachhead for future expansion by a western European empire.
Like the British Empire in Mesopotamia, the French Republic had blundered into sacrificing thousands of lives and vital resources at Salonika, and was forced to carry on blundering by its greed for post-War power. Given the heritage industry’s desperately old-school obsession with demonstrating the futility of the First World War, you’d think it would pay more attention to the conflict’s most spectacularly useless sideshow.