Barbed Wire Disease

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

For the German prisoners of war in Souilly, a French commune in the Meuse near Verdun, life behind enemy lines hadn’t been much better than their previous life in the trenches.

Operating as unpaid laborers, the German POWs dug trenches and roads eleven hours a day, seven days a week.  A dysentery outbreak in the camp months earlier had decimated their ranks, as French supplies and medical care struggled to meet the prisoner’s needs.  Even the basic safety of the prisoners was willfully neglected as POWs were forced to perform their roles right on the frontlines, often under German shellfire.

News of such treatment had been suppressed in France – the army’s Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle (who hadn’t taken much care with his own men’s lives in Verdun), brazenly lied to Paris about the practice – but news had trickled back to Germany.  In response, the Germans publicly announced that newly captured French POWs would no longer be transferred back to Germany but kept on the frontlines as quasi-human shield laborers.  If the French would move their German prisoners further back, and not expose them to gunfire, the Germans would do the same.  With German authorities allowing French prisoners to write letters home, detailing the conditions they faced at the front under their nation’s own artillery fire, public pressure quickly mounted in France to move the German POWs.

On March 27th, 1917, the French government agreed to Germany’s demands, despite objections from London and Nivelle.  By June of 1917, no POWs remained at the front on either side.  It was a small gesture of deescalation in the increasingly dehumanizing treatment of POWs in the Great War.


German POWs in France

European history had given relatively little insight into how to manage the problem of hundreds of thousands of enemy prisoners for an indefinite period of time.  Prior to the wars of the Napoleonic era, most armies were made up almost exclusively of professional soldiers, providing a sort of collegial basis for the treatment of those captured on the battlefield.  Prisoners were usually quickly exchanged via the “cartel” system, which placed monetary values on prisoners based on rank.  Thus those who surrendered would often find themselves soon back with their armies, having been traded for a man of equal rank, money, or both.   Continue reading

The “Brilliant Victory”

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

Night had only begun to settle over Gaza for the ANZAC Mounted Division on March 26th, 1917.  The division, part of a 22,000-man operation to build upon the British victory at Romani in the summer of 1916, had accomplished its objective of defending the main advance of British infantry against any Ottoman counterattack.  Only 12 hours into the offensive, Gaza had been effectively surrounded, and by dusk, units such like the Mounted Division had even captured outlying portions of the city.

Despite the ferocity of some of the German-led Ottoman counterattacks, the Commonwealth units held their ground.  The British infantry had captured the hill of Ali al Muntar, overlooking the rest of Gaza, while holding over 460 German and Ottoman prisoners, including a divisional commanding general.  The British held the high ground and all the access points to the city.  The campaign for Palestine might be over before it even started.

Instead, the ANZAC Mounted Division – along with the entire defensive screen of forces – were told to retreat.  The threat of 12,000 Ottoman soldiers to the battle’s east had been deemed too great a threat to the British supply lines.  Rather than risk a fight, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) command chose to disengage.  The irate men of the Mounted Division cursed that “victory [had been] snatched away from them by the order to withdraw.”

In addition to the elements and the Ottomans, Britain would have to confront its own generals in the Middle East.

The Ottomans on the march – the Empire was in retreat on all fronts and their men were asked to hold Palestine against a growing British force


With revolution in Russia, and strategic inertia in France, the Middle East appeared to be the only front that saw the armies of the Entente victorious at the start of 1917.

Following the debacle at Kut, a joint British/Indian army had successfully marched to Baghdad by the spring of 1917, putting a practical end to the Mesopotamian campaign with the capture of the city in early March.  And the Arab Revolt of the summer of 1916 had managed to drive the Ottomans out of a series of coastal towns dotting the Red Sea, while sowing rebellion among the various tribes of Arabia.

Yet these campaigns, while providing much need victories for a war-weary Entente, had proved themselves to be little more than costly distractions.  The Arab Revolt had to be completely underwritten by London, and (thus far) hadn’t been able to win without British support.  Baghdad had been the first prominent capital within the Central Powers to fall, but the operation had required over 800,000 men with 250,000 casualties – and the Ottomans looked no closer to surrender as a result.    Continue reading

A Tsar Is Torn

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

Cramped in the rail-yard of the Pskov station, the Tsar’s Imperial Train made for quite a sight.  The train carried ten carriages: a sleeping-car for the Tsar and Tsarina, a saloon car, a kitchen, a dining car, carriages intended for the grand dukes and other family, the children’s car, cars for the Tsar’s retinue, as well as cars for railway servicemen, servants, luggage and workshops.  The ornately designed cars stood out like a sore thumb amid the largely industrial city.

But on midnight of March 15th, 1917 (or March 2nd, by the old Russian Gregorian calendar), the attention of the citizens and soldiers of Pskov were not on the garish train, but it’s occupant – Tsar Nicholas II.  Having rushed back from his command headquarters in Mogilev, some 400 miles away from St. Petersburg/Petrograd, at the repeated urging of the capital’s political and military leadership, Nicholas II found his path home blocked by rebelling soldiers.  Instead of arriving back at his seat of power, Nicholas II had been forced to retreat to Pskov.

Three days earlier, Nicholas had fumed with indignation that the Chairman of the Duma had described the scene in St. Petersburg as “anarchy.”  The Tsar called such warnings “nonsense,” declaring he wouldn’t even reply to such communications.  Now, Nicholas II’s military and Duma allies were grimly explaining the consequences of the Tsar’s inaction.  St. Petersburg was completely in control of the rebels and a makeshift coalition of forces there had declared themselves the legitimate Provisional Government of Russia.  Further violent crackdowns seemed out of the question.  Any federal troops sent to St. Petersburg only joined the rebels.

Tsar Nicholas II asked Army Chief Nikolai Ruzsky what he should do.  “Abdicate,” Ruzsky replied.  Hesitating for but a few moments, Nicholas agreed.  Russia’s 370 years of Tsarist rule was about to end.

The “February Revolution” – hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded St. Petersburg/Petrograd, prompting the fall of the Tsarist regime


By the spring of 1917, the surprise was not that Tsarist Russia collapsed, but that it had endured for as long as it did.    Continue reading

Total War

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

For months, the rumors had trickled through the Entente lines in France.  From the highest levels of government, down to the individuals soldiers in their trenches, talk had persisted that after a year of bloodshed, and the loss of over 960,000 dead, the German army might finally begin to retreat.

On March 14, 1917, the rumors appeared to become facts.  Following several weeks of localized German retreats, the British 4th Army at Sailly-Saillisel in the Somme region began to spot the early signs of a massive German withdrawal.  Cautiously, British and French units began to advance – the Germans had used similar withdrawal tactics in 1914, luring Entente soldiers into salients and then attacking at the edges of the withdrawal; a sort of Great War pincer maneuver.  Yet as the British and French occupied territory long since lost, no counter-attack occurred.  Almost 10 miles past the original front, the armies of the Entente met at Nesle, their forces so congested into the abandoned front that the resulting march halted due to the traffic jam.

For the Entente, the retreat signified Germany’s weakening position.  In reality, the Germans had retreated behind a nearly impregnable wall of concrete bunkers and interlocked defenses.  After nearly three years of war, Germany was learning from the slaughter of the trenches.  The newly built German line might have been formally called the Siegfriedstellung or Siegfried Position, but as the brainchild of the Chief of the German General Staff Paul von Hindenburg, the “Hindenburg Line” would be the lynch-pin of Germany’s solution to the conflict – an embrace of “total war.”

Hindenburg (left) and his deputy, Ludendorff. Their reputation as military geniuses extended beyond the ranks of the Central Powers


From the earliest days of the Great War, German strategy had been to force a conclusion on the Western Front.  Whether represented by offensives such as the Schlieffen Plan or Verdun, the German General Staff had operated under the assumption that France and Britain could be knocked out of the war.  Despite ample evidence that Russia was the far weaker of the major powers of the Entente, General Staff Chief Erich von Falkenhayn had persistently vetoed shifting German resources to the East.  The pure vastness of Russia – in terms of territory, manpower and apparent indifference to casualties – had historically bested other commanders.  Falkenhayn was determined not to join their company.

By the fall of 1916, such views had changed along with the General Staff’s leadership.  In a conflict that had disgraced countless generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff had risen by their successes on Berlin’s secondary front.  Winning battles against the Russia juggernaut with far fewer men, and despite being encumbered by the failings of their Austro-Hungarian ally, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were seen as the ideal candidates to solve the bloody dilemma of the Western Front.    Continue reading

Sunk

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was uneasy as he approached the podium in the Reichstag on January 31st, 1917.  Despite having done more than perhaps any other figure in Europe to ensure the Great War, Bethmann-Hollweg’s support for the conflict had slowly dissipated.  Only weeks earlier, the aging Chancellor had been forced to offer the outline of negotiations by rebellious German legislators eager to bring the bloodshed to an end.

Now, Bethmann-Hollweg was finding himself forced to announce a policy he had long fought against – the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.  While the policy had done more to turn the tables of war in favor of Germany than any other action of their armies, Bethmann-Hollweg feared a continued policy of sinking any and all ships would eventually bring the United States into the conflict.  Three weeks earlier, the leaders of Germany’s Navy had met with the Kaiser and implored Wilhelm II to restart submarine operations.  The nation was starving to death and Berlin’s U-boats were the other weapon that could return the devastation of the blockade in-kind.  The Kaiser agreed.

Bethmann-Hollweg told the assembled delegates that the U-boat campaign would renew the following day, February 1st, 1917.  “We have been challenged to fight to the end,” the Chancellor intoned.  “We accept the challenge. We stake everything, and we shall be victorious.”

A submarine’s view of the war – German U-boats would sink tremendous numbers of British commercial vessels during the Great War


For a weapon that nearly decided two World Wars, the Unterseeboot or U-boat was barely a consideration in Germany’s naval program.    Continue reading

Lost in Translation

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The cable handed to America’s ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, in early January of 1917 was an unusual request.

Since the start of the Great War, Germany’s telegraph lifelines to the rest of the world had been severed by the Royal Navy.  But the undersea cables connecting the United States to Europe had remained undisturbed, and in an effort to demonstrate the nation’s commitment to their stated policy of neutrality, the Wilson administration had allowed Germany use of their lines.

The terms of Germany’s use of America’s transatlantic cables were fairly simple – all messages had to be transmitted “in the clear” – uncoded – or they would not be relaid to other German embassies.  The message in Gerard’s office was coded, set to be delivered to the German ambassador to the United States, Johann von Bernstorff, in Washington.  The cable was coming from the newly installed Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, who had won Wilson’s trust by positively responding to the American administration’s peace overtures.  Zimmermann was a career bureaucratic from a middle class family – not a member of the German royalty that Wilson privately blamed for the war.  In the interest in building trust with Zimmermann’s office, Gerard let the cable go through on January 16th, 1917.

The recipient may have been Ambassador Bernstorff, but Washington was not the message’s final destination.  Bernstorff relayed the contents to Germany’s Mexican ambassador – an offer of a German/Mexican/Japanese alliance against the United States.  In return for Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, Mexico would join the Central Powers in the event of America entering Europe’s war.

Arthur Zimmermann believed he was ensuring Germany’s defense.  Instead, he had poured the foundation of Germany’s eventual defeat.

The Zimmerman Telegram made headlines around the world and enraged the United States – leading to her entry into the Great War


The Mexico of 1917 was simmering with political mistrust and foreign intrigue.  And it had started – in small part – over an insufficient apology.    Continue reading

The Holy Alliance

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

It was well after midnight on December 29th, 1916, but the staff of the Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg was preparing for a party.

The Palace’s wine cellar had been temporarily redecorated for their expectant visitor.  Furniture and carpets had been moved in, along with a gramophone playing “Yankee Doodle” on a continuous loop.  Several bottles of wine had been set aside for the occasion, in addition to a variety of sweet petit fours.  The number of attendees were unknown – only a few key members of Russia’s nobility and their assistants would later amid to being present.  The host, Prince Felix Yusupov, was attempting to entertain his guest of honor – Grigori Rasputin.  Yusupov had sought out the supposed “mad monk” weeks earlier to attempt to learn some of the controversial holy man’s healing techniques.

What followed was a mixture of partial facts blended with mysticism and politically-motivated exaggeration.  Popular legend states that Yusupov fed Rasputin treat after treat laced with potassium cyanide to no effect.  Re-interpretation suggests that one of the night’s conspirators, a doctor, couldn’t violate his Hippocratic Oath to poison the famed mystic.  Reality suggests the food was either never poisoned or was administered before being baked, evaporating the cyanide in the process.

After an hour, an exasperated Yusupov had tired of playing guitar and listening to an increasingly drunk Rasputin.  The Prince would retrieve his gun and, according to his testimony years later, “a shudder swept over me; my arm grew rigid, I aimed at his heart and pulled the trigger.”  Rasputin was seemingly dead – only to reanimate himself and stumble out the door where he kept moving despite four more shots.  Only a following head shot supposedly slayed the infamous corruptor of the House of Romanov.

In reality, Yusupov’s first shot had passed through Rasputin’s mid-section without major damage.  One of the Prince’s co-conspirators, politician Vladimir Purishkevich, had fired multiple times at Rasputin and connected only once – a bullet to his spine.  The body was dumped in the Malaya Nevka River with such haste that one of Rasputin’s galoshes was stuck in the bars of the bridge.  Unsure of how to react, the participants dismissed the police sent to investigate the gunshots heard at the Palace, only to re-invite them back to brag about killing Rasputin…all the while insisting the officers keep the incident quiet.

Grigori Rasputin had been an enigma in life – his role in Tsarist Russia a subject of heated debate then and now.  In death, the man from the Siberian Plain would become a legendary indictment of Russia’s nobility and government in the First World War.

The truth of Rasputin is difficult to uncover – many “facts” of his life have later been proven false.  Allegations abound as to his behavior and influence over the Romanovs


By the winter of 1916, St. Petersburg had become a national paradox – the seat of government for Tsarist Russia, yet a capitol increasingly void of political power.

Tsar Nicholas II had long since left the capitol for Moghilev, some 400 miles away, after appointing himself Commander-in-Chief following the Russian army’s rout in the summer of 1915.  Left behind in St. Petersburg to manage the domestic affairs of state were Nicholas’ wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, and a deeply divided State Duma with little actual authority.   Continue reading

White Friday

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The men of the Austro-Hungarian 1st Battalion of the Imperial Rifle Regiment Nr.III likely considered themselves fortunate.  Stationed at the summit of Mount Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites section of the Alps, the soldiers were on a fairly passive part of the Italian front.  Their barracks, build into the mountain side in the summer of 1916, was well protected by rock cliffs, which limited the effectiveness of Italian artillery.  Even the weather was reasonable.  Despite the massive snowfalls of that winter, the temperatures were warming.

The roar that the battalion heard at 5:30 in the morning on Friday, December 13th, 1916, didn’t sound like artillery.  It groaned and seemed to move closer towards them, shaking the very earth under their feet.  Most the men in the unit had been awakened by the sound, only moments before 200,000 tons of snow and ice collapsed on top of them.  In an instant, 270 Austro-Hungarian soldiers were killed by an avalanche – a part of 10,000 men killed by falling snow in December of 1916 alone.

The Italian front continued to find new ways to claim lives.

Austro-Hungarian troops survey their position – the Hapsburgs would suffer nearly 2.4 million casualties on the Italian front


It had taken multiple failed offensives, and a nearly successful Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive, but Italy’s fortunes in the Great War had finally improved.

The late summer of 1916 had presented Italy with an opportunity.  Between the Battle of Asiago and the Brusilov Offensive of that summer, the Dual Monarchy was on the verge of a military collapse.  Vienna had transferred hundreds of thousands of men from the Eastern front to the Italian front, and when that gambled failed, had been forced to do the same back to the East as the Romanians pressed into the underbelly of the Habsburg Empire.  Despite five different attempts at breaking the deadlock at Isonzo over the course of a year and a half, for the cost of over 175,000 casualties, Italy now held something it never had before – a numerical advantage.    Continue reading

The Knockout

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

It was 7pm on December 6, 1916, as several of the key members of Britain’s War Cabinet arrived at Buckingham Palace.  For the past 24 hours, Britain had been without a Prime Minister – and seemingly no one was willing to accept the position.

Herbert Henry (H.H.) Asquith had not been a particularly popular war-time Prime Minister, as he had been increasingly mistrusted by both the left and right in his coalition government.  Nevertheless, Asquith’s resignation the day before had come as a shock.  Even more surprising was that the office’s natural successor, the Conservative opposition leader Bonar Law, had declined George V’s offer to form a new coalition.  Law had insisted on Asquith’s continued presence in the War Cabinet; Asquith spoke of resigning from politics altogether and escaping to Hawaii.  Despite George V’s negotiations throughout the day of the 6th, the Monarch couldn’t bring together the disparate parties.

Now the torch of British leadership was being offered to a man who just two years earlier had been accused of being a pacifist, a political radical, and a “Little Englander” (a supporter of self-government for many of Britain’s colonies).  Instead, for the next two years, David Lloyd George would be one of the strongest proponents for continuing the Great War and expanding the British Empire.


David Lloyd George inspects the troops. He would go from war skeptic to hard-line war supporter within the course of the conflict

Britain and the Entente had seen many crises during the Great War, forcing out elected leadership in most of the democratic members of the alliance.  By the fall of 1916, the French were already on their third Prime Minister, with two more to follow before the fighting was done.  By comparison, the Italians, infamous for their dysfunctional governance, would have only three different PM’s throughout the entire conflict.   Continue reading

Follow the Leader

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The aging Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been confined to his bed for several days.  The 86 year-old monarch, who had reigned for nearly 68 years, had caught a cold that had developed into pneumonia.  While Joseph’s participation in the day-to-day affairs of state had been significantly curtailed for years, the Empire still waited nervously for updates on the monarch’s conditions.

Franz Joseph’s empire had been beset with ethnic divisions for decades – the Austrian monarchy had become the Dual Monarchy with Hungary under his watch.  Yet Joseph remained a popular, unifying figure for all the ethnicities under Habsburg rule.  Bismarck himself had noted many years earlier that despite the nationalist squabbles of the nation, “if Kaiser Franz Josef should mount his horse, all his people will follow him.”

On November 21st, 1916, Franz Joseph died.  The glue of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had faded away.


The outlines of the demographics of Austria-Hungary, circa 1910.  It’s easy to see the beginning traces of the states that would follow in the Dual Monarchy’s fall

The narrative of the final years of Austria-Hungary was of a rising tide of nationalist fervor overtaking a polyglot empire.  And most assuredly, the Habsburgs presided over one of the most diverse kingdoms of Europe.  Austrians, Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Croats, Serbs, Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Muslims, Jews and others made the Dual Monarchy their home, with the empire recognizing 10 different ethnicities in their 1910 census.  With the rise of ethnic-based states like Serbia, observers from both outside and within the Empire wondered how unified Vienna could be in the event of war.   Continue reading

3,800 Votes

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

As the night of November 7th, 1916 became the early morning hours of November 8th, supporters of Charles Evans Hughes were becoming increasingly confident.

The former New York Governor, Supreme Court Justice and Republican nominee for President, Hughes had waged a brief campaign – he hadn’t sought the office but accepted the nomination in June – but looked as though he was on the verge of winning.  Hughes had all but swept the Eastern states, racking up victories in large electoral college states like New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois.  By the time the reported results had turned to the Western states, Hughes already had nearly 249 electoral votes (New Hampshire was still too close to call) out of the 266 he needed to win.  The early numbers in the West had favored incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, but Hughes’ camp felt secure that he would obtain at least Oregon and California’s votes.  Together, they would deliver the Presidency to Hughes.

Despite Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare and numerous acts of terrorism, America had remained neutral in Europe’s conflict.  Wilson had campaigned largely on his ability to keep America out of the war, while Hughes had spent the last five months questioning the nation’s preparations.  Despite Hughes wanting to side-step any mention of the war directly, the campaign’s final weeks had devolved into a pro-neutrality versus pro-Entente/pro-war election.

The results from Oregon and California, although not official, arrived early in the morning – Hughes looked likely to win them both.  As Hughes drifted off to sleep, it was as the President-elect of the United States.  America had taken one step closer to preparing for war.


It’s not quite “Dewey Defeats Truman” but the nation assumed they had narrowly elected Charles Hughes as President

The common historical refrain of America’s attitude about the Great War in 1914 was that the nation staunchly preferred peace.  In reality, the nation was strongly divided on a variety of issues surrounding Europe’s conflict.   Continue reading

Romania’s Day

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The Romanian ambassador to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was insistent on delivering his communique on August 27th, 1916.  Entrusted with a diplomatic message directly from Romania’s Prime Minister Ion Bratianu, the ambassador was rushing to made sure it reached the correct authorities within the Dual Monarchy.

In a verbose note that covered Romania’s relatively short diplomatic history with the Habsburgs – the nation had at one point been a part of the Triple Alliance along with the Austrians, Germans and Italians – Bratianu recited a long list of perceived slights and concerns for the young Romanian nation.  The Dual Monarchy had regarded the Romanians as “an inferior race” which had led to a “continual state of animosity,” at least according to Bratianu.  For these reasons, and many, many others, the note concluded: “Rumania considers herself, from this moment, in a state of war with Austria-Hungary.”

The Romanian ambassador had done his job.  Only the note was supposed to be delivered on August 28th, not the 27th – meant to arrive as Romanian troops were already crossing the Austro-Hungarian border.

Romania had surveyed the landscape of the Great War and decided to join the Entente in a grasp for territory and power.  Within two days of their premature declaration of war, they found themselves surrounded and in conflict with every nation of the Central Powers.


The Romanians weren’t exactly fighting for “freedom and justice.”  Romania’s Day would be extremely short

Romania’s choice to go to war in the late summer of 1916 may have been cynically opportunistic, but the nation’s optimism seemed firmly grounded by the war’s recent turn of events.   Continue reading

Mirage

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The men of the British 2nd Light Horse Brigade welcomed the setting sun on the night of August 3rd, 1916.  Stationed at the small Egyptian town of Romani in the Sinai, the men had been forced to contend with the unforgiving elements of the desert more than their Ottoman opponents for months.  The few wells and vast distances between towns or outposts exacerbated the effects of the 120-degree temperatures, which took their toll on the Brigade’s men and horses.  Wrapping up their daily patrol in the cool desert night was a refreshing change of pace.

The night-time patrols had been deemed necessary as the Ottoman presence near Romani, only 23 miles from the Suez Canal, had slowly increased.  But since the Ottoman raid against the Suez in January of 1915, what little fighting had occurred in the Sinai had been done as minor raiding parties by either side.  Other than the disastrous Turkish invasion of Sarikamish early in the war, the Ottoman Empire had been almost exclusively on the defensive.  The threat of a large-scale Turkish offensive seemed little more than another desert-fueled illusion.

The sounds of gunfire and artillery as the night of August 3rd became the early morning of August 4th confirmed the fears of the Brigade’s commanders.  8,000 troops – the vanguard of a mixture of 16,000 Ottomans, Germans and Austro-Hungarians threw themselves against the light horsemen.  The strength of the Central Powers in the Middle East was about to reach its zenith.

Members of a captured Turkish ambulance at Romani. The battle would be the Central Powers’ attempt to gain the upper hand in the Sinai and Egypt


For all of the strategic importance of the Suez Canal – its construction had reduced the journey between Bombay and London by nearly half, facilitating trade that rapidly grown Britain’s economy – neither Britain nor the Ottoman Empire had prioritized efforts to defend or occupy the Sinai.  Instead, the significant battles for control of the Middle East had thus far occurred in the Bosphorus and Mesopotamia.   Continue reading

The Embers of Prometheus

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The town of Kostiuchnówka had already seen heavy fighting for nearly a year when the first hits of Russian artillery landed on July 4th, 1916.  The town, located in Austrian occupied Russian territory (now, modern Ukraine), had been part of the frontline that was the Eastern Front since the massive Central Powers’ victory in the summer of 1915.  Now, Kostiuchnówka was again an active battlefield as part of the Russian Brusilov Offensive.

The attack had unfolded as most of the attacks during the offensive – a brief artillery barrage followed by seasoned Russian troops putting pressure on the entire front, hoping to form a crack and exploit the advantage.  26,000 Russians were prepared to assault Kostiuchnówka.  Only their opponents weren’t the usual mixture of men from the Dual Monarchy.

Many of the 5,500-7,300 men facing the Russians had recently been Russian nationals themselves.  The men of the Polish Legion, led under Józef Piłsudski, weren’t merely fighting for Berlin or Vienna’s claims on Tsarist Russia, but for a renewed homeland for themselves.  As Pilsudski’s men fell, the seeds for the short-lived Kingdom of Poland were being planted.


Russian pro-Polish propaganda – the Russians tried to keep Poles from rebelling, as they had four other times since 1830

Despite the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth being one of the largest nation states in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, Poland had usually been at the mercy of their neighbors.  By the summer of 1916, Poland had ceased to exist for more than 120 years following the nation’s division between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary.  Yet the potential future of a Polish state was very much on the minds of the country’s long-past conquerors.    Continue reading

The Arab Revolt

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

The call to early morning prayers (the fajr) had reverberated throughout Mecca on June 10th, 1916.  The modestly-sized city of less than 80,000 was only just beginning their day as Hussein bin Ali, the Ottoman-appointed Sharif of Mecca, strode to the balcony of the Hashemite Palace.

Despite the conflicts to their East in the Sinai and Mesopotamia to their West, the holiest city in all of Islam, home to the Masjid al-Haram or “Sacred Mosque,” had been remarkably quiet.  Most of the Ottoman troops stationed in Mecca had been relocated, leaving only a skeleton force of a thousand men.  A large military presence in the holy city, the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s triumphant return following years of exile in nearby Medina, was otherwise considered unseemly.

From the balcony of the Hashemite Palace, a shot was fired into the air.  As the echo coasted down the city streets, 5,000 men began firing upon the Ottoman fortresses that dotted the town.  Peering out from behind one of the fortress walls, the Ottoman commander quickly telephoned Sharif Hussein bin Ali – who was attacking them?  Both the attackers and defenders were flying the same flag of the Kingdom of Hejaz, the regional authority of the Ottoman Empire.  Were these attackers Bedouin?  Ottoman deserters?  The British?  No, Sharif Hussein bin Ali replied – they were his troops.

What would become known as the “Arab Revolt” had begun.  And the era of Ottoman control of the desert was about to end.


Arab Revolt – the romanticized view.  In reality, it would become a brutal conflict and one heavily subsidized by the British

In the summer of 1916, the dichotomy of the politics of the Arabian Peninsula were profound.  Nowhere else in the Ottoman Empire was a region governed by men so willing to rebel, yet leading over a populace so apparently disinterested in doing so.   Continue reading

The Rock Amidst the Raging Tempest

Despite rough seas, the HMS Hampshire was making good time on June 5th, 1916.  Having left the main British naval base in Scapa Flow, Scotland, the cruiser was easily outrunning its destroyer escort.

With the wound of Jutland fresh in the minds of the admiralty, the HMS Hampshire had been assigned a circuitous route through the Orkney Islands to avoid German U-boats and yet another British naval casualty.  Besides, the HMS Hampshire was carrying precious cargo – the Secretary of State for War, Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener.  The man whose image had called millions of Britons to service in the Great War, had seen his political star dim by 1916, as his support of tertiary British fronts and efforts just short of conscription hadn’t produced his promised results.  Still, Kitchener maintained some of his pre-war aura as the heroic pragmatist with a golden touch.  His dire warnings on British manpower – that the war would be won by the nation capable of finding the “last million men” – had echoed in the halls of power only months earlier.

Kitchener’s mission aboard the HMS Hampshire had him en route to the Russian port of Arkhangelsk, where the Secretary was charged with negotiating yet another agreement for supplies with the Tsar’s failing government.  He would never arrive.

At 7pm, an explosion tore through the hull of the HMS Hampshire – the victim of a U-boat placed mine.  The ship starting listing immediately, on it’s way to sinking within 15 minutes.  As sailors scrambled towards the few lifeboats that were being lowered, a figure caught their eye.  Standing calmly on the starboard side of the vessel, casually chatting with fellow officers was the War Secretary himself.  It would be the last time anyone would see Lord Kitchener again.


 

Kitchener the Recruiter – the War Secretary’s call to patriotism swelled the ranks of Britain’s armies (at first)

“We hoped against hope, but no doubt now remains. A great figure gone. The services which he rendered in the early days of the war cannot be forgotten…He made many mistakes. He was not a good Cabinet man. His methods did not suit a democracy. But there he was, towering above the others in character as in inches, by far the most popular man in the country to the end, and a firm rock which stood out amidst the raging tempest.”

Journalist Charles Repington upon Kitchener’s passing

 

With the passage of 100 years, the reputation and impact of Herbert Horatio Kitchener is difficult to relay without invoking the comparison to another titan of war-time Britain just a conflict later – Winston Churchill.  Like Churchill in World War II, Kitchener was an aging war hero; a walking anachronism that nevertheless personified the English ethos of their eras and inspired a generation’s trust and admiration.  Unlike Churchill, Kitchener would never live to see his legacy repaired by victory.   Continue reading

“The Greatest Crisis of the War”

The days might have been getting longer across Europe in June of 1916, but in the capitals of the Entente, the second summer of war only appeared to be getting darker.

France was bleeding to death in the trenches of Verdun.  Italy was reeling from an Austro-Hungarian offensive that threatened their main army at Isonzo.  Even the vaunted British Royal Navy had suffered a tactical defeat days earlier at Jutland.

Yet perhaps nowhere did the Entente’s fortunes look worse than in Tsarist Russia.  Malnourished, under-trained, and overwhelmed with anti-Tsarist/anti-war propaganda, Nicholas II’s armies (now directly under his command) had suffered devastating blow after blow.  After losing nearly five million soldiers by the fall of 1915, the Russians had failed to advance against the Central Powers just months earlier despite an overwhelming advantage in men and material.  On June 4th, 1916, they were being asked to assume the offensive once more.

Near the Galician city of Lutsk (now in modern Ukraine), the Russians would yet again attack – only this time without a significant advantage in manpower.  Nor would they be aided by a massive artillery barrage.  In fact, their commander had specifically requested that artillery not pound the Austro-Hungarian line for days in advance.  Even the Stavka, the Russian High Command, saw little chance of success.  To them, the offensive was being conducted for political, not military, reasons, in order to shore up Russia’s support of the Chantilly Agreement of inter-Allied coordination.

Within 72 hours of the first shots being fired, the entire complexion of the Great War would change – and Russia would emerge victorious from one of the largest offensives in history.


Gen. Aleksei Brusilov – an under-rated general, Brusilov’s offensive would temporarily change the direction of the entire Great War

After nearly two years of war, the recipe for offensive warfare could have easily been viewed as numbingly rote, if not for the horrible carnage.  Lined in trenches, forces would advance in human-wave conditions after a sustained barrage of heavy artillery.  Gaines and losses could be measured in meters, not miles, and even in victory, the cost in lives were high.   Continue reading

Jutland

Despite the vast expanse of the North Sea, on the afternoon of May 31st, 1916, British Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty had found his prey.

Commanding a squadron of six battlecruisers and four battleships, Beatty’s small fleet had encountered a German fleet of five warships.  Both small contingents had spent most of the last two days seeking each other out.  Now finally confronting one another, the battle was relatively short as the Germans quickly took out two of Beatty’s battlecruisers.  With dry British wit, Beatty remarked “there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”  Withdrawing from the battle, Beatty hoped to encourage the Germans to chase him.  The Germans obliged, unwittingly following Beatty into a British trap where a large portion of the world’s foremost navy lay in wait.

As the small German fleet appeared on the horizon, with the early evening sun back-lighting the German ships, only then did the British realize both sides had intended to set a trap on this day – the pursuing German vessels numbered nearly 100, not single digits.  Instead of a minor naval battle, both Germany and Britain had committed the majority of their surface forces to a battle that could decide the question of naval supremacy, and with it, potentially the outcome of the Great War.

Off the coast of Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula, 250 warships would spend the next several hours engaging in the largest naval battle in human history.*


Jutland wouldn’t be the only clash of surface ships in the Great War, but it would be the most significant by far

The seeds of Jutland had been planted nearly 20 years earlier, thousands of miles away from Jutland, Germany or Britain.    Continue reading

A Slice of Turkey

The letter that sat on the desk of Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had been eagerly awaited.

Addressed from France’s Ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, the contents of the letter were the result of nearly five months of negotiations between Britain and France to reshape the Middle East after the hoped-for fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Despite the failings of the Entente to make progress on the battlefield, diplomats Sir Mark Sykes of England and François Georges-Picot of France had sought out success at the negotiating table, slicing and dicing Turkish lands.

What would become known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement would first unite, and then embarrass the Entente, while setting the foundation for the next 100 years of engagement between the Middle East and the West.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement – the final map of the Middle East after World War I wouldn’t be much different


100 years earlier, Europe had seemingly settled most of the map of the world with the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna.  The result had ultimately satisfied no one, with most of the attendees echoing the parting words of Britain’s Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who regarded the final treaty as little more than “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.”  For Stewart’s heirs across the various powers, the Great War seemed a grand opportunity to re-draft the map of the world for another century.

From the war’s first shots, both the Entente and Central Powers had cast their eyes onto their rival’s territories with hopes of expansion.  Whether it was the British and French trying to digest German African colonies, or the Ottomans seeking to expand their Empire to Persia, millions were dying or being maimed for the right to claim sections of the globe most the warring power’s citizens didn’t even know existed.   Continue reading

The Strafexpedition

For an operation that the Dual Monarchy had hinged on careful coordination, seemingly nothing had gone according to plan.

The scale of the forces involved could hardly be concealed.  400,000 men, complete with nearly 2,000 pieces of heavy artillery, had sat nestled into the Austrian Alps for months on the Italian/Austro-Hungarian border.  Record snowfall had kept the men confined to their trenches as whatever element of surprise the Austro-Hungarians once held slowly melted as surely as the white powder around them.

Having been on the defensive in Italy for a year, the Austro-Hungarian troops were now fed promises of dealing their hated Italian enemies a crushing blow.  General Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Dual Monarchy’s Chief of Staff, had labeled the coming offensive a Strafexpedition or “punitive expedition” against Italy.  While the tactical goal was ideally to cut off the Italians from the majority of their armies to the south in the Isonzo river valley, the more honest strategic purpose was simply to raze as much of Italy as possible for having joined the Entente.  At last, the Dual Monarchy was finally prepared to have their revenge.

On May 15th, 1916 the Austro-Hungarian army wasn’t looking to beat Italy, but to punish her.

The ruins of Asiago. The city, deep in what is now northern Italy, then closer to the border, was devastated by the Austro-Hungarian offensive

Long before Italy had cast it’s lot with the Entente, the simmering hostilities between the Dual Monarchy and Rome were well known among the diplomats of Europe.  France’s ambassador to Italy, Camille Barrère, defined the relationship between the two nations as “enemy-allies.”  Despite each nation’s participation in the Triple Alliance with Germany, the Austrians resented their defeats within the Italian Risorgimento and the Italians longed to acquire territory at the Dual Monarchy’s expense.  As late as 1911, the Austro-Hungarians were contemplating a preemptive assault against their nominal Italian allies.   Continue reading

Éirí Amach na Cásca

The halls of the Irish General Post Office in Dublin, An Post, were quiet at noon on April 24th, 1916.  The day, Easter Monday, was a holiday in Ireland, leaving the gigantic Georgian building practically empty save perhaps for a few support staff who weren’t taking Easter Week off.

As such, there was no resistance as 400 armed men stormed past the An Post‘s pillars and burst through the front doors.  The men, members of the armed Socialist trade union the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), raised two Irish Republican flags and began reading from the prepared pamphlets they had printed in secret – a proclamation of an Irish Republic.

Across Dublin, 1,200 Irish volunteers representing a cross-section of the various rebellious groups constituting the Irish Resistance spread out, occupying most of the significant buildings of the city.  Despite ample intelligence forewarning of Irish intentions, the British were taken completely by surprise.  For the next week, one of the hottest battlefields in the Great War would be in the heart of the Entente.

“Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and too near us to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.”  Future Prime Minister William Grenville to the Duke of Rutland, December 3, 1784

 

Monday, Bloody Monday – a British barricade in Dublin during the Easter Rising

If one is to talk of the seeds of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, there are no shortage of dates that can be chosen from which to start.  Did it begin with the Norman Invasion of the 12th Century?  The Tudor conquest in the 16th?  The overthrow of the Catholic parliamentary majority in 1614?  The Acts of Union of 1800, which ended semi-Irish independence as the country was politically absorbed into the British Parliament?    Continue reading

Moscow on the Mediterranean

Marseilles was awash in pomp and circumstance on April 16th, 1916.  Military bands played marching songs and patriotic music, as throngs of French citizens flocked to the waterfront, eager to meet the arriving vessel the Himalaya.

Thousands of wide-eyed young men trampled off the causeway, many with musty uniforms and salt-corroded brass – remnants of the group’s more than two-month journey to the Western Front.  While all of these young men had been born and raised in an urban, industrialized environment, for most of them it was their first trip to a foreign country.  The experience was overwhelming for men who just months earlier hadn’t even been in military service, and were now showered with attention from local French dignitaries and beautiful French women.

Only these weren’t French soldiers.  Or British.  Or even colonial troops from one of the Western Allies.  The nearly 9,000 men marching through Marseilles were the soldiers of the Russian 1st Special Brigade – the first of nearly 50,000 Russian troops who would serve on the Western Front.

The Russians Are Coming! – the arrival in France.  They had gone East from St. Petersburg, making an arduous two-month journey out of the Pacific port of Vladivostok to France

The vast expanse of the Eurasian Steppe had long conjured the image that within the Russian Empire were multitudes of men ready, willing, and able to serve the Tsarist military machine.  The “limitless” manpower of Russia had been so ingrained in Western popular opinion, that it came to be believed as well by the country’s ruling elite.  Despite the monstrous losses incurred on the Eastern Front in just a year and a half, few in St. Petersburg, London or Paris feared that Russia would – or could – reach a breaking point when it came to fielding an army.    Continue reading

Death by Committee

What had been a roar of artillery weeks earlier had quieted to a trickle of distant, infrequent thuds.  Where the men of the Russian Second Army had charged forward over snow-capped passes days earlier, on March 31st, 1916, survivors now limped back through a morass of mud and blood at Lake Naroch, in what is now modern Belarus.

It should have been a momentum-changing victory for Russia and the Entente.  Eager to recover from their rout in the summer of 1915, 373,000 Russian soldiers had attacked only 82,000 Germans holding one of the weakest portions of the Eastern Front.  887 pieces of field artillery had pounded the German line for two days – an eternity by Eastern Front standards – under a battle plan crafted by the Russian Imperial Army’s own Chief of Staff.  The Russians had optimistically believed they were about to achieve their breakthrough.

Instead, it was yet another major Russian defeat.  Only this time, it had the fingerprints of the rest of the Entente all over it.

Lake Naroch carried all the hallmarks of early Russian defeats – bad intelligence, terrible tactical execution, and overconfidence.  The difference was the Russians thought they had addressed these issues before the battle

The seeds of the Russian debacle at Lake Naroch had been planted months earlier in the French city of Chantilly.  Indeed, many of the Entente defeats of 1916 could trace their lineage to the Inter-Allied Conference at Chantilly in December of 1915.    Continue reading

Knights of the Sky

The Great War had made unlikely alliances since the first shots had been fired.  And in the spring of 1916, there were few stranger alliances circulating through the Entente’s halls of power than the triumvirate of William Thaw, Norman Prince and Edmund L. Gros.

The trio of Americans had all arrived in France at the start of the conflict with the motivation of aiding a beleaguered Entente, albeit with vastly different strategies.  Thaw and Prince were military dilettantes; the children of some of the most wealthy individuals in the world.  Thaw had served with the French Foreign Legion while Prince was flying with the French Air Corps.  Gros had been interested in saving lives, working as a field director for the American Field Service (AFS), a volunteer effort providing medical services to the French trenches.  Together, they had lobbied (thus far, unsuccessfully), to create an all-American volunteer air wing.

The group had much working against them.  While the Germans were pioneering airpower as a means of attack, the Entente still viewed the biplane’s principle role as observational.  And considering those lobbying for an expansion of France’s air force included one pilot, a soldier with terrible eyesight who wanted to fly, and a doctor with no military experience, the odds appeared long that the group’s proposed “Escadrille Américaine” would ever come to be.

But the French Air Department saw the propaganda value of American volunteers fighting against the Kaiser and renewing the spirit of the centuries’ old alliance between France and America.  On March 21st, 1916, what would become the Lafayette Escadrille was born.

The Lafayette Escadrille – yes, those are lions in the picture, the squadron’s mascots

The concept of aircraft influencing the outcome of wars was as revolutionary in 1914 as flight itself.  Orville and Wilbur Wright had only achieved heavier-than-air human flight nine years earlier.  The first commercial use of aircraft had only actually happened months before the Great War started – a brief 23 minute flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida.  And in terms of combat, the first bombs dropped by plane had no impact on the outcome of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 – why would they now?    Continue reading

Down Mexico Way

One would have to search hard to find the tiny village of Columbus, New Mexico on a map in the modern era.  It wouldn’t have been any easier on March 9th, 1916.

The quiet hamlet on the Mexican/American border had grown in recent years thanks to the train stop, adding a general store, a saloon and even a school, in addition to several hundred new residents.  Signs of the village’s growth were everywhere as four new hotels sprang up and even a local newspaper.  Guarded by a few hundred soldiers, Columbus probably felt as safe as any location in the United States.

The sounds of gunshots and battle cries surprised both civilian and soldier alike.  Cutting through the cold desert night, 500 Mexican guerrillas loyal to famed rebel Pancho Villa, (or Villistas, as they were known) had invaded the village, pillaging and shooting anything they could.  Desperate for supplies in their long-running war against Mexican authorities, Villa and his men had mistakenly been told the village was all but unprotected (rumors persist into the modern era that Villa had come to Columbus to buy guns from an American arms dealer).  Instead, 270 U.S. soldiers, and several Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié machine guns, lay just over the border.  By the time dawn broke, Columbus had been burnt to the ground, with at least 90 Villistas, 8 U.S. soldiers, and 10 U.S. civilians dead.  Elements of Columbus’ garrison defied orders and chased Villa 15 miles into Mexico, killing a few more of his men.

The United States had resisted entering Europe’s war, even amid hundreds of American casualties.  But blood had been spilled on American soil from across the Mexican border – and not for the first time.  America was going to war in Mexico.

Pancho Villa (middle) and Gen. John J. Pershing (right) in 1913.  A young George S. Patton looms over Pershing’s shoulder

The turbulent political background in Mexico had seen an ever-changing series of alliances, with the United States intermittently intervening and then withdrawing, unwilling and/or uninterested in creating permanent relationships with the variety of figures and governments in Mexico since 1910.  Despite a sizable American military presence on the border, rebels continued to cross into the U.S., trading fire and casualties.  Coupled with political paralysis from Washington, which dithered between antagonizing Mexico and trying to quell the violence, the situation on the border had significantly deteriorated by the beginning of 1916.    Continue reading