29/10/1915 France has a new government

René Viviani resigned as France’s premier after the Champagne offensive’s failure and Bulgaria’s invasion of Serbia shook confidence in his government. Now the veteran socialist Aristide Briand succeeds him as prime minister, with Briand also taking on the role of foreign minister. Viviani remains in the cabinet as Minister for Justice but the most striking appointment is the new Minister for War, General Joseph Gallieni.

Gallieni was military governor of Paris during the Battle of the Marne. His decision to send the Paris garrison to the front ensured French victory in that vital battle… or so he insists to anyone who will listen. Gallieni’s relations with Joffre, France’s Western Front commander, have previously been difficult so there may be trouble ahead between France’s political and military leaders.

image sources:

Aristide Briand (Wikipedia)

Joseph Gallieni (Vergue (a fascinating vintage photography website))

28/10/1915 OberOst: Germany plans the East’s exploitation

OberOst is the German abbreviation for Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten Deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten (the Supreme Commander of German Forces in the East). But OberOst is coming to mean not just the actual German commander on the Eastern Front (Field Marshal Hindenburg) but the military administration of the territory captured from Russia. Poland is under the separate administration of General Hans Hartwig von Beseler, in keeping with plans under consideration to reconstitute it as a German or Austro-Hungarian client state. OberOst’s writ runs in the occupied territories further east: Courland, Lithuania, sections of Byelorussia and the Ukraine.

At the start of the war there was very little thought given in Germany to the long-term disposition of conquered territory. German leaders saw themselves as fighting a war for national survival rather than conquest. Many assumed that any territories captured would be returned at the end of hostilities. But now that Germany has conquered great swathes of territory and suffered considerable casualties in doing so the political mood turns towards making these permanent parts of the German Empire.

Within nationalist circles many are saying that Germany has a civilising mission towards the less advanced lands of the East. Sometimes this is seen as meaning that the inhabitants of these territories are to receive the benefits of German civilisation and to be forcibly rescued from their perceived backwardness. Sometimes there is talk of clearing away these natives or converting them into a subject people for Germany. Either way there is not much consideration of the interests of the people in the lands OberOst administers and even less respect for their cultures.

The German chief of staff in the east is Erich Ludendorff. He directs the administration of OberOst. Although he is in some ways close to the thinking of German ultra-nationalists, his concerns are more pragmatic and driven by Germany’s needs in the war. Ludendorff views OberOst’s territories as a space for economic exploitation. With the British naval blockade strangling German trade and cutting off food imports Ludendorff sees the East as an important source of raw materials and foodstuffs for Germany. If that means the locals go hungry so be it.

image sources:

Das Land Ober Ost (Wikipedia)

Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)

27/10/1915 Third Isonzo: brutal positional war

Italian forces are attacking along the Isonzo line. In this Third Battle of the Isonzo Cadorna is hoping that his men will break through and capture the town of Gorizia, temptingly close to the front line.

Success eludes the Italians. There is no breakthrough and the battle becomes a series of brutal engagements over bitterly contested positions. Italian gains are hard-won and frequently lost to determined counter-attacks by the Austro-Hungarians. Even where the Italians manage to hold onto captured positions they typically have only gained the forward trenches of the enemy, with the Austro-Hungarians continuing to hold the stronger reserve trench lines. Cadorna’s dreams of a war of manoeuvre are turning into a brutal war of attrition.

image source (ibiblio: A Short History of the Great War, by Albert Frederick Pollard)

27/10/1915 Shuffling the political decks in Australia and France

Australia has been led by the Labor Party’s Andrew Fisher since elections last year. Fisher has committed Australia to assisting Britain’s war effort “to the last man and the last shilling”, but he has found the strain of wartime leadership a bit too much to bear. Today he resigns as both prime minister and member of parliament. His party colleague Billy Hughes takes over as Australia’s prime minister. He is equally determined to pursue the war to victory, no matter what the cost.

Meanwhile in France the government is also facing rumblings of discontent. Failure in the autumn offensives has led to discontent with the government of René Viviani. He attempts to reconstitute his cabinet but key figures will not serve under him. Admitting defeat, Viviani tenders his resignation to President Poincaré. Now France will have to find a new prime minister.

image sources:

Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes & Liberal Party leader Joseph Cook in 1914 (Sydney Morning Herald)

René Viviani (Wikipedia)

26/10/1915 Niedermayer and Hentig finally meet the Afghan king

Germany has sent an expedition on a difficult journey through Persia to Afghanistan. The hope is that the Afghans can be persuaded to ally with Germany and launch an invasion of British India. But although the mission was received cordially in Kabul earlier this month, the Afghan king has shown no great eagerness to meet the Germans or the Turkish and Indian members of their expedition.

Today King Habibullah Khan finally meets with the Germans Hentig and Niedermayer, and with other members of their mission. But although he is polite, Habibullah Khan shows no great interest in launching an immediate invasion of India. He is interested in hearing what the Germans have to offer but he doubts their ability to deliver on their promises. For now he is making no commitments.

image source:

Habibullah Khan (Wikipedia)

25/10/1915 Australia’s youngest soldier dies

Like many Australians, James Martin volunteered to join the Australian army after the outbreak of the war. Martin is however unusual in his age. He was just over 14 years old when he enlisted in April 1915, claiming to be over 18 to recruiting officers who seem not to have been too zealous in their checking of enlistees’ ages.

Martin was sent to Gallipoli where he wrote to his parents saying not to worry about him as “I am doing splendid over here”. But like many in the hot and fetid conditions of the Gallipoli trenches he became ill. Today he dies of typhoid fever aboard a hospital ship. He is buried at sea.

image source (Wikipedia)

24/10/1915 Sir Henry McMahon makes an offer to Sharif Hussein

Hussein bin Ali is Sharif of Mecca and the ruler of the Hejaz, the Arab region in which the holy cities of Mecca and Medina lie. Hussein is a vassal of the Ottoman Empire but he has no love for the Turkish authorities. He has been engaged in a secret correspondence with Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt. The British hope that Hussein can be encouraged to break with the Ottoman Empire and lead an Arab revolt against the Turks.

Now McMahon writes to Hussein with a direct offer. Subject to certain reservations, Britain is happy to accept the establishment of an Arab state comprising most of Turkish Syria and surrounding areas. With Hussein implicitly to become the ruler of this huge country, this is a most tempting offer.

The territories McMahon is not offering to Hussein are areas around Alexandretta and Mount Lebanon where the population is less solidly Arab or religious minorities are locally dominant. In the case of Mount Lebanon, the British are also deferring to the interests of their French allies, who have long established links with the Maronite Christian population. As for Mesopotamia, McMahon makes clear that Britain will be asserting its own interests there and that it will guarantee the security of the holy places in Palestine. The letter also implies that Britain will retain a guiding role in this new Arab state. But despite all these reservations, the prospect of exchanging his Meccan backwater for a palace in sophisticated Damascus is one that Hussein will find it hard to resist.

image source (Wikipedia; link includes text of letter but also spoilers)

21/10/1915 Third Isonzo: no breakthrough for Italy

Along the Isonzo line the Italians have been shelling the Austro-Hungarians for the last three days. Italian aeroplanes have also hit targets behind the enemy lines. Now it is the turn of the infantry to attack. In this Third Battle of the Isonzo Italy’s Cadorna is sending his men forward to the north and south of Gorizia in the hope of capturing this enemy-held town.

However, the Austro-Hungarians are waiting for the Italians. The Italians struggle to advance uphill in the face of determined enemy fire. And the Austro-Hungarian barbed wire is still largely intact; Italy has many artillery pieces but they mostly fire shells too light to damage the enemy’s barbed wire.

So the breakthrough the Italians are hoping for fails to materialise. They do at least manage to take the Big Trench, an especially strong Austro-Hungarian position on the slopes of Mount Mrzli, but elsewhere their gains are minimal and paid for in oceans of blood.

image source (Mental Floss) (readers may notice that the map is of the First Battle of the Isonzo, but the failure of the first and second battles mean that it is also relevant to the third)

18/10/1915 Third time lucky for the Italians on the Isonzo?

Italian troops are carrying out local assaults on Austro-Hungarian positions in the Dolomites. The terrain here is extremely mountainous. Gains are minimal to non-existent, as the steep gradients make massed infantry assaults impossible. The troops like a life more like that of mountaineers than soldiers, climbing near vertical rock faces and hiding where they can on the sides of mountains from the enemy’s guns. It does not look like there is any real prospect of the Austro-Hungarians being dislodged from their positions.

The Dolomites fighting is just a sideshow. The Italians’ main focus remains the Isonzo sector. Here Italy’s General Cadorna is preparing a third major offensive. The failures of the first and second Isonzo battles have made his goals for this one more modest. Instead of attacking in the south in the hope of breaking through and seizing Trieste, his target this time is the town of Gorizia. And instead of a frontal assault on the town he is planning to send his men to the north and south of it, so that the Austro-Hungarian defenders will be obliged to withdraw rather than be outflanked or surrounded.

Today the pre-assault bombardment begins, one far more intense than anything the Italians have managed thus far. However, the Italians are short of heavy artillery and their lighter shells may not be sufficient to damage enemy fortifications or cut through barbed wire.

image source:

The Dolomites (Para mais tarde recordar)