21/10/1916 Russia begins to crack

Brusilov’s offensive against Austria-Hungary looked for a while like it would restore Russia’s fortunes. Austria-Hungary seemed on the brink of collapse, and if it were to fall then Germany would find itself surrounded and cut off from it Turkish ally. But ultimately the offensive failed. The Germans came to the aid of their ally and prevented the downfall of Austria-Hungary. The huge expenditure of Russian blood appears to have been for nothing.

Unrest is beginning to grip Russia. Its leaders have not been prepared for a long war of this destructive magnitude. Despite the country being primarily rural and agricultural, the dislocation of conflict means that food is increasingly scarce in the cities. Workers are seeing the value of their wages eroded by inflation. Strikes are breaking out in the cities as people struggle to improve their situation or prevent its further deterioration. The city workers are defying the authorities in their attempts at repression.

The country is increasingly gripped by a sense that its rulers are not up to the job. This affects all classes of society. The poor may well feel that the aristocrats do not have their interests at heart, but many of those further up the social ladder despair of the Tsar and his ability to rule the country effectively. He appears to be surrounding himself with incompetent toadies whose only attribute is their obsequiousness towards him.

Some see the Tsar and his associates as simply incompetent, but others mutter that perhaps they are deliberately sabotaging Russia’s war effort. The Tsarina is by birth a German, so rumours abound that she leads a clique of traitors. She is also the subject of lurid gossip about the true nature of her relationship with Rasputin, her spiritual advisor. Of peasant background, Rasputin has an earthy quality that lends itself well to suggestions that he does not lead the life of chastity one expects from a true holy man.

Russia’s problems are systemic, but some in the elite wonder if a change of personnel at the top might turn around the country’s fortunes. Ousting the Tsar is unthinkable, but if Rasputin could somehow be removed, perhaps the Tsar could be persuaded to accept more sensible advisors.

21/10/1916 Vienna: an assassin strikes

Many European countries are feeling the strain of war. Austria-Hungary feels it more than most, with the empire’s defeats on the battlefield reducing it to little more than a client state of its German ally. People are increasingly going hungry, particularly in the industrial cities of Austria.

The empire’s unusual constitutional arrangement means that it effectively has two internal administrations. The Hungarian half of the empire (including many people who are not Hungarian) is ruled from Budapest by Count Tisza’s government. Count Stürgkh is the prime minister of Austria. Tisza’s government is responsible to the Hungarian parliament, but Stürgkh serves at the pleasure of the emperor, Franz Josef. There is notionally an Austrian parliament, but Stürgkh’s government has been ruling without it since before the start of the war, using emergency powers to rule by decree.

Stürgkh’s bypassing of parliament is not universally popular, with many feeling that this contributed to the mistakes in the July Crisis that preceded the war. That emergency rule has continued since then rankles with many opposition politicians. It underlines Austria’s internal problems and lack of cohesion, in contrast to the more pliant politicians of Germany’s Reichstag.

Today Stürgkh’s embrace of rule by decree proves fatal, for him. He is dining in a Viennese hotel when he is approached by Friedrich Adler, a socialist activist who is angered by his policies and authoritarian rule. Adler shoots him three times. Stürgkh dies and Adler is arrested.

18/10/1916 More of the same at the Somme

The British launch another assault on the Germans at the Somme. Rawlinson has been reflecting on the failures to date and attempted to identify their causes. Unfortunately today’s assault largely follows the old template. Because of bad weather, the British have been unable to use their aeroplanes to observe the German positions and so have not been able to adequately target them with artillery. The British have not built suitable jumping off trenches for the assault troops and so have not been able to coordinate their advance with a creeping barrage.

In one respect the British have adapted their methods, attacking in the small hours of the morning rather than the middle of the day. While this surprises the Germans to some extent, it is very difficult for the men to move forward in the muddy conditions of the Somme in conditions of darkness.

The attack is another failure, with British troops taking great casualties for little or no gains.

16/10/1916 Hunger in Central Europe

The food situation in central Europe is increasingly problematic. Agricultural production has fallen. There are a number of reasons for this. Many agricultural labourers have now been drafted into their armies. Thanks to the British blockade, Germany and Austria-Hungary are also unable to import the Chilean nitrates that they had been using to fertilise their lands. And now the German potato harvest largely fails thanks to a blight that destroyed the nutritious tubers just as they are being harvested.

Even before the war, Germany had been a food importer. But now, again thanks to the British naval blockade, American wheat can no longer feed German cities. Romania’s entry into the war means that its harvest too is no longer available to the Central Powers, at least until Mackensen and Falkenhayn can overrun the Balkan country.

The food shortage is creating great problems for people within the two empires. Food prices are rising and simply finding enough to eat is increasingly difficult. Inflation means that those on fixed incomes are seeing the value of their wages collapse.

The two empires are trying a variety of methods to manage the food problem. Rationing has been introduced, at least to an extent, with workers in war industries receiving higher food allocations. For the two conservative empires this has created the troubling situation whereby industrial workers are often less troubled by food insecurity than state officials. In a further sign of change, Germany has now recognised that women too can be employed in war production and accordingly receive the more generous ration.

Public food kitchens have appeared in both Germany and Austria-Hungary. They have also started putting prisoners of war to work on the land to improve agricultural production. And Germany has its conquered territories in Poland and OberOst to exploit. These are being squeezed of food as much as possible. Rations in Warsaw are reputedly just two-thirds of those in Germany, while those in OberOst are probably worse.

Even so, in both Germany and Austria-Hungary social cohesion is beginning to fray. Food riots have been reported. City folk have been going out into the countryside to steal food or to buy directly from farmers, bypassing rationing rules. German farmers meanwhile have been taking their money out of banks, fearing that the authorities will confiscate their deposits or seize them in compulsory war loans at disadvantageous rates of interest.

The food situation is worse in Austria-Hungary than Germany. The authorities have been less effective in their response to the problem, but also they do not have conquered territories to exploit. The internal politics of the empire are creating further complications. Tisza, Hungary’s prime minister, is blocking food exports to Austria and resisting any attempt to equalise rations across the whole empire. He believes that his position is dependent on Hungarians feeling that they are getting more food than those elsewhere in the empire.

As their empire’s face into a winter of hunger and food insecurity, the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary are gripped by the fear that the people will become angry and turn on them. This cannot continue. The leaders, particularly Germany’s leaders, are convinced that the war must somehow be brought to a victorious conclusion in the new year.

13/10/1916 Haig and Rawlinson prepare for a bloody winter on the Somme

British efforts continue on the Somme. A large-scale assault on yesterday has been another disastrous failure. Rawlinson meets with his subordinates and identifies a number of reasons for their lack of success. The Germans are becoming more tenacious in their defence, despite Haig’s claims that their morale is at the point of collapse. Their tactics are also continuously developing, with machine guns placed well behind the frontline now the great plague of advancing British troops.

Rawlinson notes thought that the British are creating problems for themselves with how they organise their attacks. The men seem to always go over the top in the middle of the day, robbing themselves of any element of surprise. Rawlinson proposes that henceforth attacks should take place at different times. He also calls for more effective digging of trenches at the front for troops to attack from, to make it easier to coordinate infantry assaults with creeping barrages. And he looks for more effective aerial observation of enemy positions before attacks are launched.

Despite the worsening weather, there is no sign of the battle coming to an end. Haig visited Rawlinson yesterday and said that the attacks must continue. Rawlinson is increasingly pessimistic as to the chances of success, but Haig insists that the men must keep attacking until bad weather makes it impossible to do so. He even hopes that the battle will continue through the winter, if it is not a particularly harsh one.

12/10/1916 Eighth Isonzo ends as Cadorna squanders his chance of victory

That Italians are attacking again along the Isonzo. This is their eighth major offensive here since their government made the unwise decision to bring them into the war. Italian assaults on the Carso plateau have been repulsed, but further north initial progress has been striking: Italian troops have managed to advance several kilometres, capturing a number of artillery pieces.

Yesterday the Italians made more progress, but they lack the reserves to fully exploit their successes. Then an unexpected counter-attack by Austro-Hungarian troops (spearheaded by a unit of Czech troops, normally considered the Habsburgs’ least reliable nationality) unnerves Cadorna. There has also been a change in the weather, with a fog descending over the battlefield that appears to favour the defenders.

So Cadorna orders a halt to the offensive. He wants his men to regroup and prepare to launch a ninth offensive before the winter descends and makes further operations more or less impossible.

The Austro-Hungarians are astonished that the Italians have called off their attacks. Their casualties were mounting and they were finding it increasingly difficult to hold back the enemy. It looks to them like the Italians have halted their attack just as they were on the brink of a major victory. Knowing that this period of quiet is just a lull before the next battle, Boroevic orders his men to prepare new defensive positions and lobbies Conrad for the reinforcements he desperately needs.

The Italians and Austro-Hungarians have each suffered around 25,000 casualties in this short battle.