20/8/1917 Return to Verdun: France recaptures the Mort Homme #1917Live

The French army has been wracked by unrest since the failure of Nivelle’s offensive in April. Since he took over from Nivelle, Pétain has tried to restore order in the French army by punishing the ringleaders of mutinies but also attempting to address the grievances of soldiers: providing them with more leave, better food, an improved wine ration and generally moving towards treating them with the kind of respect that citizens of a republic should expect from the state.

Pétain has also promised that his men’s lives will not be thrown away on futile large scale offensives. He has said that major attacks by French forces on the Western Front should wait until the arrival of large numbers of American troops and the production of enough tanks to spearhead any assault. But in the meantime French troops have started engaging in more limited offensive action. French troops have taken part in the mainly British offensive in Flanders, where their performance suggests that Pétain’s efforts to restore the army’s fighting spirit are paying off.

Now the French stage another local attack, back at Verdun where Pétain first came to prominence. By the end of the battle last year, the French had recovered much of the ground lost in the initial German offensive. Now the French attack again, hoping to recover some more. After several days bombardment, today the infantry attack. The going is not easy for them, as they are attacking strongly fortified positions and the Germans respond to their attacks with their new mustard gas. Nevertheless, in savage fighting French and Moroccan troops capture the Mort Homme (Dead Man Hill), scene of desperate combat last year. French casualties are not light; nor are those of the enemy.

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map (Graphic Firing Table – Decisive Battles: Verdun 1916)

Postcard of French soldier relaxing with friend (Metropostcard – Belligerents and Participants in World War One: the Republic of France  pt2)

19/8/1917 11th Isonzo: Italy smashes Austria-Hungary #1917Live

Italian artillery has been blasting the Austro-Hungarians on the Isonzo since the start of the month. Now the infantry attacks, launching the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo. Italy’s Cadorna hopes that this time his men will finally smash through the defences of the enemy and win the decisive victory of which he has long dreamed. He is confident of success. The Italians outnumber the Austro-Hungarians by the same margin as in every other Isonzo battle, but this time their superiority in artillery is overwhelming. Italian aircraft also control the skies.

Italian troops attack all along the Isonzo line. On the Carso plateau, near the coast, gains are modest and in many cases lost to determined counter-attacks. But around Gorizia the situation is different. Here the Austro-Hungarian defenders are heavily outnumbered and stunned by the weight of the bombardment they have had to endure. They find themselves unable to resist the Italian onslaught. Capello, the local commander, sends more men forward to exploit the breakthrough, ordering them to press on regardless of whether they outrun their supply lines. The day of victory appears to be at hand: this is not a time for holding back.

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Italian infantry attack (Wikipedia; image is from the Ninth Battle but they’re all the same)

18/8/1917 Third Ypres: mud

British and French forces are attacking to the north of Ypres. Despite the recent unrest in their army, the French have made the best progress but neither of the Allies are doing very well. Unseasonal rain has turned the ground into a quagmire, making it difficult for the troops to move forward.

Because of the waterlogged nature of the ground, the Germans have built pillboxes for themselves rather than relying solely on trenches. The British had hoped to attack these with tanks, but the mud has made it impossible for them to get beyond their own lines.

The Allies make some gains, though they lose some of these to German counter-attacks. In view of the terrible weather conditions they now call a temporary halt to the offensive, hoping that a break in the rain will allow the ground to dry out somewhat, at which point the attacks can resume.

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Mud (WW1 World War One Ieper 1917)

Escorting German prisoners (Wikipedia: Battle of Langemarck (1917))

16/8/1917 Third Ypres: more failed attacks

Despite the bad weather, the British are continuing with their offensive in Flanders. Canadian troops have been making diversionary attacks at Lens but today the main British attacks resume on the Gheluvelt Plateau north of Ypres (with secondary attacks elsewhere).

The British fare little better than when they attacked on the 10th. They manage to storm the village of Langemarck but are unable to make further progress. The mud and the German defences make Haig‘s dreams of a breakthrough impossible to realise.

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Crossing the Yser Canal (Radcliffe on Trent WW1: 3rd Battle of Ypres 1917)

16/8/1917 Hindenburg & Ludendorff sack the head of Germany’s Supreme War Office #1917Live

As part of their effort to militarise the German economy, Hindenburg and Ludendorff created the Supreme War Office, headed by General Groener. Groener’s responsibilities are broad, extending beyond the production of military supplies to encompass food and industrial production generally.

Part of Groener’s brief is to minimise industrial unrest in Germany. Groener’s policy in this regard is relatively subtle, attempting to conciliate unions while also being willing to threaten repression if they step out of line. Nevertheless, this summer has seen many strikes in Germany, as workers attempt to protect their living standards from erosion by inflation.

These strikes unnerve Hindenburg and Ludendorff who fear that Groener’s conciliatory policy has emboldened the unions. They also heed the complaints of industrialist that Groener’s work has been affecting their profits. So now Groener is dismissed as head of the Supreme War Office; he returns to the army to take up an operational command.

Ludendorff believes that industrial unrest is the result not of workers trying to defend their interests but of agitation by socialists and foreign spies. He hopes that harsh measures will stamp out this nonsense.

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Wilhelm Groener (Wikipedia)

Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)

16/8/1917 The Bolsheviks adopt an ominous new slogan #1917Live

Since the Provisional Government survived the crisis of the July Days Kerensky has been steadily consolidating his power. He has taken over from Prince Lvov as Prime Minister and formed a new government. This has a majority of socialists but these are mostly from the less radical wings of their parties and they are in the government as individuals rather than representatives of their parties. Kerensky’s government is also no longer tied to the programmes of the Petrograd Soviet.

Kerensky has appointed Kornilov to head the army, now in a chaotic state following the failure of the recent offensive. Kornilov wants to restore order in the army through iron discipline and has become popular in conservative circles. He demands more powers from Kerensky.

The Bolsheviks meanwhile are on the back foot, their leaders in exile or on the run, with Lenin accused of being a German spy. However the party remains active and continues to look to the future. Its congress meets today and discusses the way forward. Following the failure of the Petrograd Soviet to accept power in July, they abandon the slogan “All power to the Soviets”. In its place they are now for “Complete Liquidation of the Dictatorship of the Counterrevolutionary Bourgeoisie”.

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Lenin in disguise (Marxist Internet Archive: Russian Revolution)

15/8/1917 As Italy prepares for another offensive the Pope calls for peace #1917Live

The Italian army is preparing for another offensive on the Isonzo. Cadorna hopes that this eleventh battle will be the one that finally breaks the Austro-Hungarians. He has assembled an impressive store of artillery and the Italian air force has control of the skies, so he is confident of success.

Not everyone is on board with the Italian commander’s martial vision. In Rome, Pope Benedict XV has called again for an end to the war, which he describes as “useless slaughter”. The Pope’s words strike a chord, with many wondering whether the cost of the war is worth enduring. Socialists and radicals also denounce the war in increasingly strident terms.

Within the army too a certain war weariness is becoming evident, though the military authorities do their best to keep the men in line with harsh discipline. Today in a trench near the front officers find a note scribbled on cardboard saying that the unit there will surrender to the enemy if they are not taken out of the front line. The culprit is not found, so the local commander orders four men to be chosen by lot and immediately executed.

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Pope Benedict XV