29/2/1916 Sharif Hussein’s unwelcome visitors

In tradition and stereotype Arabs are noted for their hospitality. Yet Sharif Hussein, emir of Mecca and ruler of the surrounding Hejaz region, may be less than pleased to be entertaining the guests who have joined him today. They are none other than Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal, two of the three most powerful men in the Ottoman Empire of which Hussein is a subject. Enver and Djemal are preparing for a new attempt to attack the Suez Canal from the east. They are also concerned about the loyalty of their Arab subjects and are touring the region to assess the reliability of their various clients.

Sharif Hussein is engaging in secret negotiations with the British but he protests his loyalty to the Ottoman Empire. Djemal and Enver give no impression of doubting his assurances, though they are probably aware of his treacherous intrigues. Their visit serves to intimidate Hussein, an unsubtle warning against rebellion.

Enver & Djemal do not need to mention the ace card they can play against Hussein: his son Faisal is in Damascus, effectively under arrest by Djemal. He would face an uncertain fate should his father ever break with the Turks.

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Sharif Hussein (Wikipedia)

Enver Pasha & Djemal Pasha (Karanlığı Aydınlatan Işık)

29/2/1916 Verdun: what is to be done?

At Verdun German assaults continue but no real progress is being made. Near Fort Douaumont, now in German hands, the assault troops try to drive the French from the village of Douaumont itself. But stubborn resistance keeps the shattered village in French hands. Both sides suffer terrible casualties in the fighting.

Now Falkenhayn, the supreme commander, meets with Crown Prince Wilhelm, the local commander, and Knobelsdorf, the Crown Prince’s chief of staff. The Crown Prince resents Falkenhayn’s decision to hold back the reserves on the 25th and to leave the west bank of the Meuse unmolested at the start of the battle; he feels that these decisions have thrown away the chance of an early victory. But he agrees that the battle should continue, provided that Falkenhayn supplies more men and launches an assault on the west bank to relieve pressure on the east.

Falkenhayn agrees. Preparations begin for a renewed stage of the offensive to begin on the 6th of March. New troops will be committed to the battle and the French will be attacked on the west bank and also on the extremity of their eastern flank, where Fort Vaux will be the initial target.

At Verdun Falkenhayn had planned to draw in French troops who could be killed by German guns, inflicting so many casualties that France would be forced to drop out of the war. Now he is feeding in more of his own men to the mincing machine. Perhaps Germany too will be bled white by the battle.

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Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia (The Mad Monarchist)

Erich von Falkenhayn (Wikipedia)

The harvest (Les Français à Verdun)

28/2/1916 Egypt: Britain routs the Senussi, reasserts dominance

Britain’s veiled protectorate over Egypt has been challenged by the Senussi, a Muslim religious order based in Libya. The Senussi launched an invasion of Egypt from the west, hoping to trigger a revolt that would chase out the Britishand bring Egypt back into the Ottoman Empire. This would have been a disaster for Britain, as the Suez Canal is a vital link in its communications with its possessions in India.

However, after some early successes the Senussi campaign has petered out. Now the British are chasing them out of Egypt. Two days ago the British (with the assistance of their South African friends) smashed the main Senussi force in a battle like that from another era, fought by men on horseback hacking at each other with swords. Following this success the British reoccupy Sidi Barrani, scene of an early success by the Senussi. They make ready to press on towards the Libyan border post of Sollum and to secure the various oases that Senussi fighters have occupied.

The Senussi invasion did not trigger an Egyptian revolt against the British. There has however been some pro-Senussi unrest, particularly in Alexandria. Now, though, with the Senussi star clearly in the descendant British prestige has been restored. For now the Egyptians are chastened, recognising that their British masters are not about to be dislodged.

28/2/1916 Verdun: mud

At Verdun the French and Germans have been fighting over a frozen wasteland. But now a thaw causes the snow to melt. Suddenly there is mud everywhere. For the French, this is a potential disaster. The one road into Verdun is not a metalled all-weather road and it begins to liquify, threatening to become an impassable swamp. If supplies cannot travel on this road then Verdun cannot be held, but desperate action saves the day. French troops line the road, throwing gravel under the wheels of the supply trucks, keeping the road passable. Verdun’s lifeline remains open.
For the Germans the thaw is more of a problem. Because their infantry have advanced so far they now need to bring their artillery forward to support them. But moving artillery forward through the quagmire of the battlefield is extremely difficult. Without adequate artillery support the assault troops continue to struggle against the French defenders.

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La voie sacrée (De Eerste Wereldoorlog 1914 – 1918)

27/2/1916 Austria-Hungary invades Albania

Pamje nga Durrësi, shkurt 1916. Vue de Durrës, 27 février 1916. View from Durrës, Feb 27th 1916. Vista de Durazzo.
The small Balkan country of Albania is in a disordered state, too preoccupied with its own affairs to want any part in the war convulsing Europe. Unfortunately it is unable to keep the war away from its borders. Italian troops have occupied Albanian ports, in accordance with the secret treaty that brought Italy into the war on the side of the Allies. The defeated Serbian army retreated through Albania on their way to the coast, helping themselves to the food and fuel of any Albanians who crossed their path.

Now the Austro-Hungarians have launched their own invasion of Albania, primarily to deny it as a base of operations for the Allies. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, Italian troops abandon Durazzo (or Durres), the capital city; it falls to the Austro-Hungarians today without a fight. Essad Pasha, an Albanian warlord who has made common cause with the Allies, flees into exile with the Italians, establishing a government in exile in Naples.

image source (Only Tradition, on Flickr)

27/2/1916 Verdun: the German advance stalls

At Verdun the Germans are continuing to attack the French. A few days ago it seemed as though victory was in their grasp but now their progress is stalling. Pétain, the new French commander, has breathed new life into the defence, even as he is lying in his sick bed wracked with pneumonia. Reinforcements have stiffened the French defence. Britain’s Haig has reluctantly agreed to take over some of the French line elsewhere, so more French troops will be available for Verdun soon.

The balance of artillery has also moved in the favour of the French. As the Germans advance, they are coming under evermore enfilading artillery fire from French batteries on the west bank of the Meuse. Falkenhayn had declined to attack here at the start of the campaign, as he wanted to maintain a reserve force in case of Allied counter-attacks elsewhere. The earlier advances of the German troops now mean they have begun to out-run their own artillery, which must be brought forward over the devastated ground of the battlefield before it can begin to batter the French again.

The German troops are also exhausted after the heavy fighting of the last week. They have paid a heavy cost in casualties for the successes of the battle and find it increasingly difficult to fight on against the reinvigorated French.

So today, despite the Germans’ best efforts, their attacks make no progress. Victory seems to be slipping away.

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German soldiers (WW1HA)

26/2/1916 Verdun: Pétain runs the battle from his sickbed

The French have decided to hold Verdun come what may. General Pétain has been appointed to lead the defence. But now disaster strikes: the 60 year old general is struck down with pneumonia. Rather than change commanders again, Pétain is left to direct the battle from his sickbed. His condition is kept a closely guarded secret.

Despite his sickness, Pétain manages to reinvigorate the defence. He orders the various forts around Verdun to be re-garrisoned: there is to be no repeat of the Fort Douaumont fiasco. He also has a secret last line of defence prepared around the inner fort surrounding Verdun, in case a last stand must be made at the gates of the town itself. Recognising the importance of keeping the defenders of Verdun supplied, he makes arrangements to ensure that the one good road into the town is kept open, despite whatever German artillery tries to throw at it. Regulations are put in place to ensure that traffic keeps moving on the road, as hold-ups could prove fatal to the defence.

Pétain’s organisational energy and the reinforcements that have come with him are putting new life into the defence of Verdun. Its fall seemed imminent a few days ago but now it looks like the battle will go on.

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La Voie Sacrée (Les Français à Verdun)

25/2/1916 Verdun: France accepts Falkenhayn’s challenge

At Verdun the French situation is desperate. The Germans have overrun the French frontlines and are advancing across open country. They have just captured Fort Douaumont, the strongest of the fortifications defending Verdun itself. In just four days of fighting, French forces in Verdun have suffered 60% casualties. The French high command are unsure whether the town can be held and are considering a withdrawal across the Meuse river. The bridges at Verdun have already been mined and civilians ordered to evacuate the town.

Joffre is the supreme French commander. Much of his mystique rests on his apparent unflappability. If he were to personally visit Verdun to assess the situation it would suggest a level of worry on his part that could cause a general collapse in morale. So he stays at his headquarters in Chantilly. Instead his chief of staff, General Édouard de Castelnau, goes to assess the situation, with full powers to decide on whether Verdun should be held or abandoned.

At the local headquarters in Verdun, Castelnau finds a situation of near pandemonium. General Frédéric-Georges Herr, the local commander, is overwhelmed by the scale of the German assault and is in a state of nervous collapse. There appears to be no coherent direction of the French defence.

Yet Castelnau decides that Verdun can be held. His presence re-energises the French. He decides also that the unfortunate Herr will have to be replaced. The nearby reserve Second Army has already been earmarked to reinforce Verdun. Castelnau decides that its commander, General Philippe Pétain, will come with it to take over the town’s defence. Pétain arrives late in the evening, having been extracted from a seedy Parisian hotel where a lady friend had been entertaining the 60 year old general.

If Germany’s Falkenhayn knew of Castelnau’s decision he would perhaps allow himself a smile of quiet satisfaction. The French have accepted his challenge and are sending more men to Verdun to be killed by his guns. He will have his chance to bleed France white.

image sources:

Joseph Joffre (Wikipedia)

Edouard de Castelnau (Chemins de Mémoire)

Erich von Falkenhayn (Encyclopedia Britannica Kids)

Philippe Pétain (Les Français à Verdun)

25/2/1916 Verdun: the fall of Fort Douaumont

At Verdun the German advance continues. They have overrun the French trenches and are now progressing towards the fortifications that surround Verdun itself. In their path is Fort Douaumont. This monstrous fortification is the pinnacle of French military engineering efforts. Believed to be impregnable, German commanders are unsure what to do about this great redoubt. Wary of the casualties that would ensue from an attack on it, German troops have been ordered to halt short of the fort.

But the German advance has proceeded so quickly that it is hard to rein in the men. Acting separately and in defiance of their orders, two small packets of German troops advance all the way to Fort Douaumont. The defenders of the impregnable fort should be able to brush away these puny assault groups, but it turns out the fort has no defenders. The French have stripped the fort of its garrison, believing that the Germans will never be able to advance this far. Apart from a small number of men left behind to fire its great artillery piece, Fort Douaumont is empty.

The Germans quickly penetrate the fort and overpower the defenders. The impregnable fort falls without a shot being fired.

Crown Prince Wilhelm now requests that Falkenhayn release the reserves that will allow him to exploit the successes achieved. But Falkenhayn demurs. He still fears French or British counter-attacks elsewhere along the line and wants to keep back the reserves to counter these. But releasing the reserves now would also go against Falkenhayn conception’s of this battle. He wants to inflict horrific and unsustainable casualties on the French to force them out of the war. If the reserves are committed to the battle now then Verdun could be taken and the battle ended before the French have suffered enough.

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Fort Douaumont, before the war (De Eerste Wereldoorlog 1914 – 1918)

German troops descending into Fort Douaumont’s moat (after the fact) (Les Français à Verdun)

map (Les Français à Verdun)

Note: The fall of Fort Douaumont is one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of warfare. It is worth tracking down a copy of Alistair Horne’s book The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 to read about it in detail.

24/2/1916 Verdun: German breakthrough

At Verdun German assaults continue. Germany’s Falkenhayn hopes that this offensive will break French resistance, forcing them out of the war. Yet at Verdun the French are still resisting against incredible odds. A stand at the village of Samogneux has led to a temporary halt in the German advance, but now disaster strikes the French. A false report that the village has fallen leads to it being shelled by French heavy artillery. The defenders are devastated and then overrun by the Germans, who move on to press the advantage.

The French are suffering terrible casualties and are desperately rushing reinforcements to fill in the gaps in their line. But today nothing goes their way. A division of Algerian troops are thrown into the battle. These North Africans have earned a formidable reputation and their presence normally strikes terror into the hearts of the Germans. Here however the Algerians are infected by the collapse in morale spreading through the French troops around them. The Germans surge forward, overrunning the French rear lines and pressing on into open country.

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German assault troops


(both Les Français à Verdun)