The Point of Light

There was little reason for the German and Austro-Hungarian units on the Romanian front to believe they would see action again anytime soon.

Devastated by counteroffensives following their entry into the war the previous summer, and now seemingly completely dependent on Russian support, Romanian troops clung to what little territory remained of their state.  Despite the overwhelming concentration of men – 9 armies, 80 infantry divisions, 19 cavalry divisions and 1.8 million combatants in all – the front was but a minor theater in the massive war in the East between the Central Powers and Russia.  How could a nation incapable of producing more than one bullet per soldier per day defend itself, let alone launch an offensive?

On July 22nd, 1917 at town of Mărăști, Romania did precisely that – and would punch a 22-mile wide and 12-mile deep hole in the Central Powers’ line.


Romanian troops advance – the Romanian offensives of 1917 were the most successful (by territory) of any Entente operation that summer

Only months after their entry into the Great War, Romania had lost nearly 1/3rd of their mobilized forces and more than half of their territory.  The nation had lacked the industrial infrastructure to resupply their troops and what little heavy artillery they had was lost during the German/Austro-Hungarian/Bulgarian/Ottoman counteroffensives in the fall of 1916.  If not for the presence of one million Russian soldiers, Romania would be driven out of war as fast as she had entered it.    Continue reading

Divisible

There was very little international fanfare as five signatories placed their ink to paper on July 20th, 1917 on the Greek island of Corfu.  The signers, a mixture of Serbian politicians and Croatian nationalists, had pledged their post-war political unity under the banner of the Serbian Karađorđević monarchy.  But this was no “Greater Serbia” as the nationalists who had started the Great War had envisioned.  Rather, the signers saw their new state as a constitutional monarchy that would unite the Slovenian, Serbian and Croatian peoples in a free nation.  “This State will be a guarantee of their national independence and of their general national progress and civilization, and a powerful rampart against the pressure of the Germans”, the Declaration proclaimed.

With the conclusion of the ceremony, the nation of Yugoslavia had been born.  It had been the product of nearly a century of political idealism in the face of ethnic rivalry.  And before the ink even dried, the seeds of another near century of political division and bloodshed in the Balkans had already been planted.

A modest attendance – only five signatures are on the Corfu Declaration, and they represented only around a dozen members of the “Yugoslav Committee” that had pushed for the unification of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes in one nation


From the battle of Kosovo in 1389, which robbed the Serbs of their independence from the Ottoman Empire, to the Balkan Wars of the 1910s that had set the region’s then-modern boundaries, Serbian nationalism had literally defined most of the Balkan’s history.  By the summer of 1917, it had also cost Serbia everything.

The influence of the terrorist group The Black Hand had corrupted sections of the Serbian military and intelligence services and led to the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  The Black Hand, and their sympathizers, had long dreamed of a “Greater Serbia” that encompassed vast tracts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Ferdinand stood not only as the heir to the hated Habsburg throne, but as a political threat due to Ferdinand’s support of unification of the Slavic people under a third crown alongside the Austrian and Hungarian titles.

The Archduke’s murder had brought death across the globe, but in few places worse than Serbia.  57% of the nation’s male population would be killed or wounded during the conflict and Serbia was now suffering in occupation by the Central Powers.  What remained of the Serbian army sat in Salonika as a small part of a vast listless Allied army.  And what Serbian government still existed did so in exile in Corfu, left with little to do but issue powerless decrees.

Austro-Hungarian propaganda: “Serbia Must Die!”

Prime Minister Nikola Pašić wasn’t interested in pushing around paperwork while awaiting the end of the war.  A formidable politician for 40 years, Pašić had been Serbia’s Prime Minister since 1904 and was viewed as a political opponent of the Serbian “Court Party” of the government that had, in theory, supported the same aims as The Black Hand.  While the historical record conflicts Pašić’s claim to not knowing about the smuggling of The Black Hand terrorists into Bosnia who eventually shot Ferdinand, Pašić’s political history would not place him as a likely ally to the group.  In either case, the cause of “Greater Serbia” had effectively destroyed the country – it was up to men like Pašić to envision it’s rebuilding.

Few could have seen the eventual fate of post-war Europe in the summer of 1917.  For Pašić, a reborn Serbia would need allies against the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians, and a crumbling Russia, Serbia’s long-time ally, hardly appeared able or willing to perform the role of protector.  If Serbia was going to survive, she would need ethnic allies, which by necessity meant Serbian nationalism had to be checked.  Serbia would offer a nation guided by self-determination for their ethnic neighbors.  The concept wasn’t new – in fact, it went as far back as the French Revolution.

“Serbian National Day” – honoring their 1389 defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire


For Croatian intellectuals of the early 19th century, the Balkan ideal was a unification of all southern Slavic peoples, or “Yugoslavism.”  The name itself was a combination of the Serb-Croat word “Yugo” or “southern” and Slavic.  With the French Revolution propelling ideas of self-determination, Croatian politicians and writers fixated on a mythical unification of all southern Slavic people whose ethnic distinction would merge in a Balkan melting pot that would look like, perhaps not surprisingly, a culturally Croatian nation.  As such, the concept of “Yugoslavism” held little appeal to Serbs, Slovenes and Bosnian Muslims.

The unification of Italy would re-ignite the fire of “Yugoslavism” in the late 1870s.  For Serbia, Yugoslavia might represent a similar grand unification and allow Belgrade to play the role of the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont as providing the political and military heft to a new empire.  For the first time, Serbs and Croats spoke of “Yugoslavism” as political goal, albeit with vastly different interpretations of who would be the dominant political and cultural force in such a joint nation.  Coupled with the example of the alliances of the First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire, the hazy 19th century dream of a single Slavic state appeared as a potential reality in the 20th century.

In a cruel irony, the war that would unite the Croats and Serbs had been launched by a Yugoslav, not Serbian, nationalist.  “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs,” said Gavrilo Princip at his trial.  “I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria.”  That defining principle would be shared by the signers in Corfu.

From the early, heady days of the war – Serbia held out against Austria-Hungary far longer than most anticipated, but at tremendous cost


Nikola Pašić would have an additional motivation to find Croatian allies before the end of the war – the territorial promises made to Italy.

The 1915 Treaty of London that had brought Italy into the Great War had contained what Britain and France likely considered colonial scraps.  However, the Treaty also granted Italy large chunks of the coastal region of Dalmatia, which was currently under Austro-Hungarian rule.  Beyond the fact that Dalmatia was culturally Croatian, if Italy controlled the region, it would again relegate any future Serbia as landlocked.  Belgrade wasn’t about to trade a hostile Austro-Hungarian neighbor for a hostile Italian one.  Serbia could hardly make a claim on Dalmatia, but Croatian nationalists could.

Ante Trumbić would become the Croatian face of the new Yugoslav nation.  A former Austro-Hungarian mayor, Trumbić had been exiled due to his support for a Croatian-Slovenian Yugoslavia, even starting a “Yugoslav Committee” with the sole purpose of lobbying the Allies for support.  Trumbić needed an influencial ally; Pašić needed a moderate Croat he could sell to Serbian nationalists.  Together, they created most of the foundation of the Yugoslavian State.

Ante Trumbić

The Corfu Declaration embodied, on paper, the best principles that the Western Allies claimed to be fighting for: guaranteed universal male suffrage, territorial indivisibility, religious freedom, and full legal equality for the three national denominations.  The details of the new state were vague, but considering the territory that they hoped to govern was still ruled by their Central Powers opponents (and promised to one of their nominal allies), the Declaration was more a statement of intent than definitive plan.  The marker had now been set – the Allies stood for the independence of ethnic states ranging from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.  In a brief two years, the goals of London and Paris had shifted from dividing colonial territory to a redrawing of the map of the world into smaller and smaller states.


The unity of the Corfu Declaration would not even survive to the actual founding of the Yugoslav State.

Pašić would soon tell Trumbić that calling the new nation “Yugoslavia” was good for domestic consumption, but that in international affairs “Serbia” ought to represent all three ethnic groups.  It soon became clear that the proposed Constituent Assembly that would rule Yugoslavia would be tilted in favor of Serbian control and would have little veto power against the Serbian monarchy.  Despite being given the post of the first Foreign Minister of Yugoslavia (Pašić would be the first Prime Minister), Trumbić voted against the 1921 Yugoslavian Constitution, decrying the document’s enshrinement of Serbian hegemony.

Division Multiples – more and more ethnic groups now sought nations of their own

By the 1930s, Trumbić was out of power in Yugoslavia and could only offer his emotional support as King Alexander embraced a royal dictatorship that formally renamed the nation as “Yugoslavia” and stripped numerous Serbs from power, at last balancing out the power structure Trumbić and other Croats thought they had agreed upon in 1917.  It would be a preview of the post World War II era of the nation as only dictatorial power could seemingly prevent one group from dominating the others.

In his last media interviews Trumbić expressed regret he ever signed the Corfu Declaration, claiming he wished the Austro-Hungarian Empire had never disappeared.

Nothing Is Written

Apart from it’s mountainous view, the concrete blockhouse atop Abu el Lasan was an otherwise forgotten roadmark within the Arabian desert on July 2nd, 1917.  Situated between the small town of Ma’an and the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea, the blockhouse was home to a Turkish battalion, recently arrived to drive out the handful of Arab rebels.  The size of the Turkish force was likely unnecessary given that the few Arabs scattered with the battalion’s arrival, but since the rise of the so-called “Arab Revolt” the previous summer, more and more Turkish regulars had been dispatched to try and re-occupy the lands of the Hejaz.

As the Turkish battalion made camp, the surrounding hills of Abu el Lasan revealed their own occupants – hundreds of rebels from the northern Howeitat tribe of Bedouin Arabs.  Led into battle by their Sheikh, Auda ibu Tayi, the tribesmen overwhelmed the Turks, slaughtering 300 of their number – the majority while trying to surrender.  For the loss of only 2 men and a handful of wounded, the path to Aqaba had been cleared.  Four days later, as British warships pounded the port city and Ibu Tayi’s men marched against scant Ottoman resistance, Aqaba fell.  The last Turkish port on the Red Sea was in the hands of the Entente – and had been delivered by Arab forces acting largely independently of their British allies.

News of the operation would capture the attention of the world due to the promotional skills of it’s brainchild – British Military Intelligence officer and adviser to the Hashemite Army of the Arab Revolt, T.E. Lawrence.  Lawrence had almost not survived the battle at Abu el Lasan.  While Auda ibu Tayi suffered several gazing shots, Lawrence found himself thrown from his camel at the beginning of the fight.  His Arab compatriots rushed to his side to find Lawrence unharmed but his poor animal with a gaping bullet wound to the head.  For despite the dashing persona Lawrence would soon encourage among the world’s press, Lawrence was actually quite poor at riding or fighting – he had accidentally shot his camel in the back of the head.

Lawrence his men pose for a photograph after Aqaba – Lawrence was always very conscious of his media image, and that of the Arab Revolt


By the summer of 1917, what had been missing in the Arab Revolt were Arabs.  There were no shortage of military advisers under the banner of Sharif Hussein bin Ali.  French Muslim officers and former Ottoman commanders populated the ranks of the conventional Sharifian Army and the tribesmen-based Hashemite Army under the control of Hussein’s sons Abdullah and Faisal.  But their combined forces reached fewer than 30,000 men at their apex, many of whom were former Ottoman soldiers from across the Turkish empire who had deserted while stationed in the desert.  Despite the £220,000 a month the British were pouring into the rebellion (the equivalent of £11,470,000/month now), the Arab Revolt had failed to attract many supporters or win many victories.   Continue reading

July Daze

Recently arrived by rail, Russian troops by the thousands off-loaded themselves in St. Petersburg on the night of July 5th, 1917.  For days, the capitol had been rocked by increased protests from Bolshevik supporters, whose ranks had now included armed soldiers chanting “all power to the Soviets.”  Not even the local Soviet leadership could apparently calm the growing mob, who screamed back at the group’s representative “take power, you son of a bitch, when it is handed to you!”  For the second time in 1917, St. Petersburg looked ready for a coup.

But the Provisional Government of Russia was determined to not make the same mistakes as the Tsar had just months earlier.  Loyalist troops quickly swarmed the offices of Pravda and the Bolshevik Central Committee, shutting both organizations down.  Warrants for the arrest of Vladimir Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were authorized, forcing the Bolsheviks to flee the city or go underground.  The general St. Petersburg public, tired of the constant protests and street violence they increasingly associated with the Bolsheviks, cheered the Provisional Government’s swift hand.  Even the most liberal members of the government began endorsing violent retribution to protesters and disorderly soldiers.

By July 7th, 1917, St. Petersburg was as quiet as it had been since the start of the Great War.  The proto-democratic Provisional Government had crushed their fiercest internal opponent while launching an offensive against the Central Powers that the government believed would save the war effort.

On both counts, they would be sadly mistaken.

The “July Days” protests – the Provisional Government saw the protests as a Bolshevik-inspired coup.  More likely, it was a fairly spontaneous series of protests over the lack of improvement of living conditions and getting Russia out of the war


The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II following the events of the “February Revolution” had left St. Petersburg/Petrograd (the city’s name had been changed at the start of the Great War as to avoid sounding “too German”) as a capitol nearly void of actual political power.   Continue reading

Broken China

In the early morning hours of July 1st, 1917, Peking was a capital on the edge.

From the beginning of the Great War, China had debated whether or not to enter the conflict, even going so far as offering the British 50,000 troops to invade the German colonial city of Tsingtao.  But internal divisions – both within China and among the Entente – kept Peking on the sidelines of a war occurring in their own backyard.

For the past year, the debate over the war had divided the capital between President Li Yuanhong and Premier Duan Qirui.  Yuanhong, the successor to General-turned-President-turned-Emperor-turned-President again Yuan Shikai, wanted to keep China out of Europe’s squabbles.  Qirui saw an opportunity to exert Chinese power abroad in hopes of securing European alliances that might undo the various concessions the nation had endured, including the “Twenty-One Demands” foisted upon them by Japan in 1915.  But despite his internal popularity with Peking’s politicians and various warlords, few wanted to follow Qirui into war.  Yuanhong had seemingly put an end to the debate as he dismissed Qirui from power.

The troops that entered Peking that morning were not supporters of Qirui, nor were they loyalists to the otherwise unpopular central government.  The troops of General Zhang Xun had an entirely different future for China in mind – a return to the Imperial model and restoration of the Qing Dynasty.  The shape of the war in Europe would depend on the outcome of a coup in China.

Pro-Qing Dynasty troops await orders


The dissolution of the nearly 300-year reign of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 had left China with a massive power vacuum.  Rebellious southern provinces, various generals and pro-republican politicians each had sought power for themselves, with little unifying an already fractured empire.  One man had appeared capable of bringing together such disspitate parties  – General Yuan Shikai.  Through alliances, guile and force, Shikai positioned himself as the first President of the newly formed Republic of China.   Continue reading

Beach Party

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 better part of a year and a half, the British General Staff had tinkered with the plan.  The lessons of failed offensives and technological innovations had repeatedly changed Sir Douglas Haig’s tactics but not his overall strategy.  On June 18th, 1917, the commander of the British Expeditionary Forces signed off on the most ambitious amphibious attack since Gallipoli – an invasion behind the German line via the beaches in Belgium.

Massive newly designed landing crafts would drop off 13,500 British troops, tanks, artillery and even a motorized machine-gun unit.  Coupled with a joint British/Belgian/French offensive from Ypres, Haig had envisioned a quick strike behind the fearsome new Hindenburg Line, driving deep the behind German front to sow confusion, forcing what the British believed were weary German defenders to abandon their fortified trenches.  For a commander who was already earning the gruesome moniker of “Butcher” for his seemingly callous disregard for British lives, Haig appeared invested in finding a solution to the trenches short of yet another frontal assault.

The offensive had been silently built up for months, hence the codename of Operation Hush.  Yet for all of the supposed secrecy, within 24 hours of the offensive’s approval, the Germans would know exactly what the British intended – and would counter it.


Operation Hush – a naval-based flanking maneuver designed to finally circumvent the German trenches, the operation would be batted around the halls of the London War Office for almost two years

Since the earliest days of the Great War, Britain had obsessed over the opportunities that the Belgian coast provided their armies.  As early as October of 1914, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had advocated for a naval landing behind the recently occupied Belgian front.  Even officers as relatively cautious as the British Expeditionary Force’s first commander, Sir John French, backed the concept until it was shelved for the similar Gallipoli operation.    Continue reading

48 Hours

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.

After a year that had seen carnage on a historical scale, the opening salvos around the Chemin des Dames region of Western France almost appeared as modest.  850,000 men, a joint Franco-British task force, lashed out against Germany’s Hindenburg Line with 7,000 guns and 160 tanks on April 16th, 1917.

The operation, the brainchild of France’s newly promoted commander of it’s northern armies, Robert Nivelle, had all the hallmarks of the sort of offensives that had dominated the Western Front since 1915 – massive artillery bombardments, human waves attacks, gruesome casualties and continued stalemate.  Only the reaction of the men who participated would differentiate the assaults from the dozens that had preceded it.

A general with the penchant towards the dramatic, Nivelle had promised that he could bring about the end of the deadlock in the West within 48 hours of the first shots fired from his offensive.  Instead, he would usher in the near total collapse of the French military.


French troops, in gas masks, await orders to go over the top.  By the start of 1917, 1 million Frenchmen, out of a population of 40 million men of all ages, had died in the Great War

By the spring of 1917, the dividing lines in the Great War appeared less to be between the Entente and Central Powers, then between those nations willing to adapt and those who stubbornly refused to change.    Continue reading

The Yanks Are Coming

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 almost two and a half years, the crew of the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Cormoran had sat in Apra Harbor in the U.S. territory of Guam.  The cruiser, captured from the Russians off of Korea early in the war in 1914, had stopped in Guam in December of that year in an effort to resupply themselves with coal.  With the United States a neutral power, and the island already significantly short of coal, the Cormoran‘s request was refused.  Since then, the ship had sat at anchor while the German crew settled on the island, awaiting the end of the war in tropical peace.

On April 7th, 1917, the Germans noticed that the 3 seven-inch guns on nearby Mount Tenjo had been turned to face them.  The schooner the USS Supply pulled close to the Cormoran, and demanded the ship surrender.  The Germans promptly set to work attempting to scuttle the vessel instead.

In response, the U.S. opened fire over the Cormoran‘s bow.  Fearing the Americans would soon overpower the ship’s crew, the speed of the Cormoran‘s scuttling was hazardously increased.  An early explosion would led to the deaths of 9 crew members and make Apra Harbor the Cormoran‘s final resting place.

Just hours earlier – a day earlier by the time difference from Washington – the United States had formally declared war against Germany.  America had joined the Great War.

The U.S. enters the First World War – a variety of factors had led to this eventual decision…


 

“It is a war against all nations…The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it….

 

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

—President Woodrow Wilson, addressing Congress, April 2nd, 1917

It was an address Woodrow Wilson had fought against having to make.  The president who had “Kept Us Out of War,” and as recently as the end of 1916 believed he could negotiate an end to Europe’s bloodshed, had rapidly seen the nation’s appetite for neutrality vanish with the publication of the Zimmerman Telegraph a month earlier.  The tide towards war had been building far before that, as Wilson told crowds in October of 1916 that “this is the last war of the kind, or of any kind that involves the world, that the United States can keep out of.”  Having just been inaugurated for a second term on a platform of peace, Woodrow Wilson now stood before Congress asking for a declaration of war.   Continue reading

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