Can a donkey dance a minuet? The bloody summer of 1916- Pt. 4.

This is the final part of a four part series on the summer of 1916:

BACKGROUND

VERDUN

THE SOMME

This part examines some of the remaining events to unfold in 1916, as well as the long-term consequences of the Battles of Verdun and the Somme.

To begin, 1916 saw the Battle of the Verdun take a turn, and conclude. The French were desperate to restore the front lines to a location which made Verdun more secure, and launched major attacks throughout October. When the French moved new, massive artillery pieces into position, they began to knock Forts Douaumont and Vaux apart, leading the Germans to abandoning them without a fight, opting for more defensible positions further East. The French celebrated as if they had won the Western front, but they would continue their ill-advised attacks up through December. By the time both French and German commanders were ready to close the book on Verdun, casualties had reached nearly 500,000 on each side, with both Germans and French listing approximately 150,000 killed. By the time the battle ended, both sides were so exhausted that it was easy to mistake the living for the dead.

French troops at Verdun loiter in the trenches, awaiting their next orders.

Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, events proved equally violent. The French had begged the Russians to do something to ease the pressure at Verdun, and the result was the Russian offensive at Lake Naroch: a disaster. The Russians lost between 110,000 and 76,000 troops (12,000 of which perished from hypothermia), while the Germans counted only 20-40,000 in casualties. Later in the year, Russian general Aleksei Brusilov was given the authority to organize a broad offensive in which he pioneered new tactics: many localized, probing attacks designed to achieve one or two breakthroughs before the masses of troops were ordered forward to the weak points. The result was the greatest Russian success of the war: Brusilov’s army advanced approximately 50 miles, and successfully diverted huge numbers of German troops towards the Eastern Front. Even so, Brusilov’s army was but one of several involved in the attack, and the failure of another Russian army (led by Alexei Evert), combined with supply problems, spelled the end of the offensive, and also resulted in massive loss of life. The Russians counted over 500,000 casualties (440,000 dead or wounded), the Germans 350,000, and the Austro-Hungarians a staggering 975,000.

Left: plan of the Brusilov Offensive. Right: frontlines after the offensive.

Back on the Somme: The British reasoned that such events proved that the Germans couldn’t possibly have pressed more troops into the area, and renewed their attacks up through November, even employing tanks for the very first time, albeit in rudimentary form.

Nevertheless, the Germans successfully defended the region, though at great cost to both sides. By the time the British finally gave up on attacks at the Somme in November, it had become a slaughterhouse to rival that of Verdun: combined French and British casualties numbered nearly 800,000, and the Germans counted about 540,000

Captured German trenches at The Somme.

In other news, Rumania signed a secret pact with the Allies in August, agreeing to enter the war on their side in exchange for Transylvania. It was perhaps the biggest miscalculation of the entire war: Rumania quickly invaded Transylvania, inviting a massive German counterattack which smashed the entirety of the Rumanian army. Rumanian retreats and surrenders would continue up through 1917, when a formal armistice was signed in December. Though the Rumanians had at times fought well (and had successfully diverted over 1,000,000 troops from the Central Powers), the end result was a little over 200,000 Central Power casualties, measured against over 550,000 Rumanian casualties, most of them prisoners. There are even reports of Rumanian troops being so shocked by battle with the Germans that they even tried to surrender to approaching Russian troops, their Allies. Supremely un-amused, the Russian commander in the Rumanian front found himself ordered to coordinate a join defense with the Rumanians. He replied that “trying to turn the Rumanians into a disciplined force” was like “trying to get a donkey to dance a minuet.”

While the inconclusive Battle of Jutland maintained British control of the sea, the real changes of 1916 were in political and military leadership:

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph died in November, his Grandnephew Charles becoming the new emperor, and he wanted Austria-Hungary out of the war.

In August, Kaiser Wilhelm was convinced that Erich von Falkenhayn would never deliver Germany to victory, and elevated Paul von Hindenburg to the German chief of staff, effectively handing over all military decisions to Hindenburg’s chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff.

Joseph Joffre was replaced as commander of the French forces by Robert Nivelle the “hero” who had planned the assaults on the abandoned forts of Douaumont and Vaux.

Though Douglas Haig retained command of the British Expeditionary Force until the end of the war, Prime Minister H.H. Asquith was blamed for many of the disastrous strategic decisions, and was replaced by David Lloyd George in December.

Finally, apart from the Brusilov Offensive (which itself was also costly), the Russian experience in the war had been a series of defeats and disasters. 1916 represented proof that the Tzar’s regime would both continue in an ill-executed war, and do so against the will of the people. A revolution in early 1917 would dismantle his imperial government, and another in late 1917 would place the Bolsheviks in power.

We would do well to remember that wars are fought by men, but caused and prolonged by leaders. Though death from old-age, being deposed by revolution, and military replacement are regrettable fates, the real price for the war was paid by the men on the ground. In 1916 alone, the number of casualties would reach unbelievable numbers:

Britain- over 620,000

France- over 870,000

Russia- over 1,000,000

Germany- over 1,300,000

 

At night on the Somme, near Beaumont-Hamel, when the guns and rifles fell silent, the Germans would leave their trenches and wordlessly help the British sort through the piles of dead in order to find the few men who were still alive.

 

 

 

 

The Somme: The bloody Summer of 1916, Pt 3

(For preceding posts on the summer of 1916, click here for the background, and here for Verdun)

When we started to fire, we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.

~German Machine-Gunner

“If it had been possible to win the war in the west by sheer force, by overpowering the enemy with manpower and firepower, the Battle of the Somme would have done the job. The British and French attacked a German army that they outnumbered by an enormous margin. They had an equal advantage in artillery and total control of the air. They were backed by all the resources that modern industrial economies could put at the disposal of their soldiers.”

~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 (New York: Bantam Dell, 2007), 435.

Like Falkenhayn, their German counterpart, the Allied military planners had used the winter of 1915-1916 to strategize the best way to attack their enemy. The solution seemed easy enough: to apply simultaneous pressure on the Germans and Austro-Hungarian armies on the Eastern, Western, and Russian fronts. Even if none of these attacks proved successful, they could at least ensure that each attack would keep German resources from being funneled to the other attacks, and thereby create a predictable enemy. These plans were upset, however, when the Germans launched a major offensive at Verdun in early 1916.

The supreme French commander, Joseph Joffre, had no idea whether the Germans could maintain the strength of their offensive against Verdun. What was important, instead, was to insure that the Germans did NOT capture Verdun, and he thus demanded that the British launch an offensive somewhere else in an attempt to draw German strength away from the vicinity of Verdun.

Joseph Joffre

As with Falkenhayn’s decision to attack the well-fortified region of Verdun, we may certainly critique Joffre’s selection of the Somme for the offensive. The Germans had not been attacked in that region for nearly two years, and had worked feverishly to build up their defenses in that region. Even so, these defenses did have one weakness: The Germans were so confident in the strength of their defensive works in the Somme that their lines there were proportionately less populated than in other areas.

With Joffre’s French armies preoccupied at Verdun, the Somme offensive became the responsibility of the supreme British commander, Douglas Haig, and he could scarcely be accused of failing to plan the offensive. He moved over a 500,000 men to the Somme front, alternating them in turns to the rear, where they trained in mock assaults. Combined with the French pieces, over 1,600 units of field artillery, 1,000 medium and over 400 pieces of heavy artillery were moved to the area, creating a saturation of artillery that amounted to about 1 piece of artillery for every 8 yards of battlefront. To protect against being cut by German artillery, 7 miles of telephone wire were buried. 120 miles of pipe were laid in order to maintain a supply of fresh water to the troops. 10 squadrons (185 planes) were moved to the area to suddenly dominate the air war in the area, allowing for un-hampered artillery spotting. Preparation and planning for the attack on the Somme was very thorough, and Haig was responsible for every bit of it.

Douglas Haig

The rub, however, was in the tactical preparation within the high-command system: there was none. Haig had come through the military as a cavalryman, and therefore intended to smash the German lines, achieving a breakthrough to be exploited by tens of thousands of cavalry waiting in reserve. However, Haig’s primary infantry commander, Sir Henry Rawlinson, was a career infantryman, and had drawn the lesson from the first two years of war that breakthrough was impossible. Instead, he favored attacks with more localized objectives: to seize just enough ground as to lure the enemy into a counterattack, during which both infantry and artillery could obliterate them. Thus, Haig sought a quick victory, destroying an entire German army and collapsing their defenses in the region, whereas Rawlinson sought a long victory of attrition, where success would be measured by the number of enemy soldiers killed. The Battle of the Somme opened with the two major British commanders having different tactical strategies and expectations, and neither attempted to discuss them with the other.

Henry Rawlinson

Even so, the Allies’s advantage in numbers were almost laughable: combined with the French troops, they would send over 750,000 men into battle. The Germans would oppose them (initially) with barely half that number. Given the number of artillery pieces involved, Haig was confident than the artillery barrage alone would blow the Germans apart, as over 1.5 million shells fell on the German lines over the course of a 5 day bombardment. On the evening of June 30, Germans on high observation points noted the numbers of troops and cavalry being marched up to the front lines. Clearly, the day of attack was at hand.

Allied artillery bombardment began at 6:25am on July 1, the same as the 5 days preceding it. At 7:20am, they detonated a mine underneath the German lines at Hawthorne ridge. Yet for the limited destruction which this explosion rendered upon German defenses, it seemed the trigger for German artillery, which suddenly opened up, falling with stunning accuracy upon the Allied lines. Ten other British mines were detonated at 7:28 am, and at 7:30, whistles blew, and the attack began.

Empty shells casings from artillery fired on the first day of The Somme, July 1, 1916.
The explosion at Hawthorne Ridge, the planned detonation of a mine beneath German lines.

The men who went forward quickly learned two stunning truths: First, almost a full third of the Allied artillery shells had failed to explode (due to a collapse of quality control as British factories rushed to manufacture as many shells as possible), leaving German dugouts and barbed wire intact, and forcing the troops into deadly funnels of kill-zones in front of German machine guns. Second, the Germans had not been obliterated by the artillery barrage. Assuming that the barrage would indeed wipe out the Germans and their defenses, Rawlinson had ordered his troops to advance slowly, shoulder to shoulder, to give the inexperienced men courage. Instead, they made astoundingly easy targets for the German gunners. Of the 66,000 men of the first British wave, fully half of them became casualties. The Germans became so repulsed by the carnage that they became unwilling to continue firing when they saw the British falling back. By the end of the day, over 60,000 British troops had become casualties. The bloodiest day in the history of British warfare.

On the Northern and Southern ends of the line, however, the French had been surprisingly successful. To the South, the Germans were surprised by the attack, having seen no preparatory buildup of troops. To the North, an effective creeping barrage paved the way for the French to advance easily past their first day’s objective. As opposed to the British, forced to march with over 70 pounds of equipment, shoulder to shoulder,  French troops were told to leave behind everything unnecessary for the day’s fight, and encouraged to run, duck, and doge their war forward. In the South, however, the swampy marshlands of the Somme river blocked further advance, and in the North, Rawlinson had given orders to advance only as far as the day’s limited objectives allowed, and he thus sent no troops to exploit the breakthrough achieved there. By the end of July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme was already deadlocked, though the slaughter would continue for almost another 5 months, with very limited gains.

The allies made a slow, painful advance over the course of the Battle of the Somme.

As the losses from the Somme continued to pile up, Englishmen became more and more horrified, looking to the 23 men on the British war-cabinet for an explanation. Placards, printed by an English newspaper, began to appear on the streets bearing bold, black print:

WANTED: 23 ROPES

(A summary and conclusion of the events of the summer of 1916 will be forthcoming in my 4th and final post of this series.)

Verdun: “They Shall not Pass!” (The bloody Summer of 1916- Pt 2)

(For the background to this post, see Pt 1, FOUND HERE)

The supreme German military commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, had chosen to attack Verdun for a number of reasons. Secondarily, the city and its surrounding fortifications, once in German hands, would be an easily defensible position. Primarily, however, he wanted to lure the French into launching desperate attacks to recapture a region, and there were few cities or areas which the French placed more value upon than Verdun.

A historic depiction of Verdun, the jewel of Northeastern France, c. 17th century.

Its position dominated a bend in the Meuse river, thus ensuring its importance as early as the 5th century, when the city had successfully resisted an attempt at capture by Attila the Hun. When the Peace of Westphalia divided up the old Holy Roman Empire in 1648, Verdun became a part of France, and the French quickly transformed the city into the heart of their Eastern defenses. A citadel in the center of the city was erected in the 17th century, with a double ring of forts surrounding the city as well. Several modernization programs kept the defenses up to date, spurred on by French defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. By 1914, Verdun had become a symbol of French resistance: It’s concrete reinforced forts and other defenses were linked by telephone and underground narrow-gauge railways.

An example of what some of the defenses of Verdun’s forts looked like.

While we in modernity can point to Falkenhayn’s folly in attacking such a seriously fortified area, we would also do well to remember what was at stake: if Falkenhayn succeeded in taking Verdun, it would essentially end the war. Defensive tactics were far more successful than offensive tactics in the First World War, and Falkenhayn could have simply spent resources on increasing defenses in the area, confident in the knowledge that the French would repeatedly launch desperate attempts to recapture the city which symbolized their resistance to invading forces.

Attacks began in February, 1916, with a 12-hour long German artillery barrage. Over 100,000 shells fell on French defenses every hour. Over the course of the first month, the Germans managed to push forward only two miles. Even so, the threat to Verdun was very real.

Map of the Verdun battle-region. Notice the ebb and flow of the front lines over the course of 1916, with the Germans first advancing, then eventually falling back.

Mistakes by the French allowed Fort Douaumont to fall to the Germans. Supreme French commander Joseph Joffre quickly dismissed those who suggested a retreat from the area, even though they pointed out, correctly, that holding the rest of the region with that fort in German hands would cost them dearly. Indeed, the Germans soon realized that the French only had three very small supply lines into the region (A railroad, a narrow-gauge railway, and a macam road), and soon began lobbing artillery shells on them, taking a terrible toll both on supplies and reinforcements, as well as those attempting to retreat and recover. To this day, that road is called “The Sacred Way,” and is marked not by mileposts, but by the helmets of French soldiers.

A mile marker on “The Sacred Way”

By the end of March, the offensive had resulted in over 80,000 German casualties, and Falkenhayn was forced to admit that he had failed to seize the strategically important bulk of the Verdun region. The element of surprise was wholly gone now, as the French had heavily reinforced the area, realizing that their best chance to beat the German deathtrap was to prevent it from fully forming, defending Verdun at all costs, their troops shouting all the time: “Ils ne passeront pas!” (“They shall not pass!”). Falkenhayn  now had to make another difficult decision: to abandon the offensive as a failure, and risk the French counter-attacks, or to believe in those few commanders who urged that the attack on Fort Vaux be redoubled. They suggested that the Western edge of the battlefield, in front of the captured Fort Douaumont, had been strengthened, to the weakening of the area of Fort Vaux. If Fort Vaux could be captured, they reasoned, they might yet use these forts to wedge their way through the defenses.

What both sides failed to realize is that the majority of their casualties came not because of attacks, defenses, or the coordination thereof, but rather because of artillery. The longer their forces were concentrated in the area of Verdun, the greater the toll would be, and neither offensive nor defensive actions were likely to produce  strategically important results while the big guns continued their punishing work.

A French 370mm mortar.

The Germans indeed succeeded in capturing Fort Vaux, but only after fighting tooth and nail to remove every Frenchman from the underground tunnels, exacting a heavy toll on both sides. By July, the cost of the battle had risen to c. 185,000 French casualties, while the Germans had lost c. 200,000 troops. Two facts make these numbers even more horrific:

1) Though the German offensives would not continue as they had during the first half of the year, the Battle of Verdun would continue all the way through December 1916.

2) An entirely different battle would be launched in July in order to leech German reinforcements away from Verdun, and this new battle would become a bloodbath in its own rite: The British were attacking along the Somme river.

(I hope to finish the series about the summer of 1916 in two more posts)

 

 

The bloody summer of 1916: Pt 1

With my coursework finished, my qualifying exams done (and passed), and a number of other major tasks and events behind me, I finally find myself with enough time and inclination to add to my blog series on WWI. I have no illusions about making up for lost time or even maintaining a semi-daily schedule in the future. Instead, for now, I merely feel, strongly, that some attention should be drawn to the events of the summer of 1916.

As usual, some background must first be explored before we can properly understand what was going on.

In the winter of 1915-1916, the Supreme German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, found himself with a decision to make. Perhaps the biggest decision a German commander had to make since deciding selecting where and when to attack the Allies at the start of the war. Falkenhayn had to select the “sweet spot” which would knock one of the Allies out of the war.

Erich von Falkenhayn, supreme German commander, September 1914 – August 1916.

Selecting the enemy proved an easy decision. The Russians had turned out to be a numerous, though weak enemy. The Battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes in late 1914 – early 1915 had each decimated almost entire Russian armies (approximately 100,000 Russian casualties each, many of them captured by the Germans) at little cost to the Germans. 1915 proved even more disastrous for the Russians, as German offensives damaged, punctured, then crumbled the Russian lines. By the end of the year, the Eastern front had developed into a steady series of hasty Russian defenses and crushing defeats. They lost over 2,000,000 troops that year, a full half of them taken prisoner by the Germans. Tzar Nicholas became so desperate to turn the tide that he assumed personal command of the Russian armies, a decision which would only further solidify their doom. By the winter of 1915-16, Falkenhayn had dismissed the Russians as incapable of major offensive operations.

Russian prisoners wait for transportation, following the battle of Masurian Lakes.

Thus, there were only two major threats to German victory: The French and the British.
Interestingly, Falkenhayn did not view the French as the key opponent. France could be bombed, her troops could be killed, the very country itself was playing host to the war, gradually being transformed into a horrible moonscape sculpted by trenches and artillery. No, reasoned Falkenhayn, France stayed in the war because of Britain.
Britain played a much smaller price for her place in the war. Only those troops ready for the fight ever saw the meat of the conflict, as Britain herself was invulnerable to German invasion. As Falkenhayn saw it, the war went on because this invulnerability buffered the illusion that, by aiding, France, Germany could be beaten: “She is staking everything on a war of exhaustion. . . . We have not been able to shatter her belief that it will bring Germany to her knees. What we have to do is dispel that illusion.”
Falkenhayn saw two ways of potentially shattering the British illusion of victory. One was to threaten starvation on the island-nation through intensified submarine warfare. Though the Germans had reeled in their subs significantly after the sinking of Lusitania in early 1915 had threatened to bring a new enemy (America) into the war, Falkenhayn now decided that every tool had to be employed to the detriment of the British. As for potentially angering the Americans, Falkenhayn decided that they “cannot intervene decisively in the war in time.” Thus, German strategy risked much on winning the war in 1916.

The New York times helped spur American outrage at the conduct of the German submarines.

The other method of knocking Britain from the war, reasoned Falkenhayn, was to remove the French from the war. Here, the solution proved more difficult to identify: German armies had been fighting French armies since 1914 without any decisive battles being fought. Clearly, a wholly different strategy would have to be developed in order to manufacture such a victory against the French. Falkenhayn concluded that the static nature of the front lines prevented him from trying anything tactically novel, but instead, he could focus on a strategically significant region: In choosing where to launch his next major offensive, he could select a target region so intensely valued by the French that they would risk anything to protect it. In protecting this region, reasoned Falkenhayn, the French would empty themselves of their strategic reserve of troops, and remove themselves as a significant threat in the war. At that point, the British could either withdraw from the war, or wait until German had begun to crush France before withdrawing. Either way, argued Falkenhayn, the key to victory, Britain’s withdrawal, would be accomplished.
Falkenhayn therefore spent much of the winter of 1915-1916 on carefully selecting an area for his next offensive which would draw the French into a German-deathtrap. He needed a place which would be not only easily defensible from the German side, but also highly valued by the French side.

He selected Verdun.
(More on the events of the summer of 1916 in my next post)