25/5/1916 The end of the Fokker scourge

At the start of the war, aircraft were used solely for observation. Over time though each side’s aeroplanes began to shoot at each other, trying to prevent aerial observation of their ground forces. On the Western Front the Germans gained an early advantage when they deployed the Fokker Eindecker. This monoplane had a machine-gun synchronised with the engine, meaning that it could fire directly forward through the propeller blades. This gave the Fokker a considerable advantage over British and French aircraft.

But now the Fokker’s dominance is coming to an end. The Allies have better aeroplanes deployed, ones that can successfully challenge the Eindecker. One is the British F.E. 2 is a “pusher”, with the engine at the rear. This allows a gunner to fire forward without having to worry about shooting off his own propeller blades. Pushers have limited performance compared to aeroplanes with propellers at the front, but the F.E. 2 is still able to give the Eindecker a run for its money. What really cooks the Fokker’s goose however is the French Nieuport 11. This has the engine at the front and gets around the propeller problem by having the gun mounted to fire over the blades. In speed and manoeuvrability it outclasses the Fokker Eindecker in all respects. The Nieuport is deployed in increasing numbers by both French and British air forces.
And now a new British aeroplane arrives on the Western Front, the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter. Like the Eindecker, this aeroplane has a forward firing gun synchronised with the engine to avoid shooting the propeller blades. This two-seater has a second gun firing from the rear cockpit.

The Eindecker’s ace card was its forward firing gun. Now that Allied planes have similar capabilities its limitations are revealed. Control of the skies begins to revert to the British and French.

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Fokker Eindecker (Wikipedia)

Repica Nieuport 11 (Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome)

Replica Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (Wikipedia)

See also airwar19141918, a live blog of the British war in the air.

24/5/1916 Verdun: the Germans hold Fort Douaumont

At Verdun French troops are trying to re-capture Fort Douaumont. Some of them have made onto the fort and have managed to install themselves in one of its machine gun turrets, but they are unable to penetrate the vast structure. Now the Germans strike back, shattering the French with artillery bombardments and then mopping up the survivors with infantry counter-attacks. The Frenchmen on the fort’s superstructure are assailed by mine throwers and then rushed by German stormtroopers.

The French attempt to take the great fort has failed. Many French soldiers have died in the attempt and around a thousand have been taken prisoner. Others creep back to the French lines under cover of darkness.

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The Dead (French L. MacLean, author)

22/5/1916 Verdun: the French attempt to recapture Fort Douaumont

Since it fell to the Germans in embarrassing circumstances, Fort Douaumont has been a thorn in the side of the French defending Verdun. The French are keen to retake it, despite the heavy losses an assault on the fort is likely to incur. With the recent inferno inside the fort having discomfited the defenders, now might be the time for the French to strike.

French artillery has battered the fort and the Germans immediately around it for the last few days. Now the French infantry move forward. German artillery cuts the French down as they leave their own trenches. More are killed by rifle and machine gun fire as they move forward. But somehow the French make it to the superstructure of the fort. Yet although they are able to seize a damaged machine gun post, their attempts to storm into the fort fail. The French are left precariously lurking on and around the fort while the Germans pour fire onto them and prepare a counter-attack.

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French troops attack (History)

21/5/1916 Britain engages in time-war

With the war dragging on and no obvious sign of an immediate victory, both sides are resorting to outlandish measures in an effort to gain an advantage over the enemy. Now Britain copies a ruse recently adopted by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians: tinkering with time itself in an attempt to save money and make better use of resources. At 1.00 a.m. this morning all public clocks are put forward by one hour, with private individuals and companies instructed to do the same to their own time-pieces.

The hope is that this measure will allow the long summer evenings to be more productively used. This should reduce the demands on fuel for lighting. Not everyone is in favour of this new development, but the government has been swayed by estimates of substantial savings in money and coal.

The country will return to Greenwich Mean Time in the Autumn.

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Allegorical depiction of Summer Time (Independent)

20/5/1916 Austria’s Punishment Expedition presses on against Italy

Austria-Hungary’s Trentino offensive against the Italians continues. Conrad hopes that his men will be able to advance from the mountains to the coast, cutting off the main Italian army on the Isonzo. Austro-Hungarian troops continue to surge forward, advancing now into the Asiago plateau.

The Italians are making desperate attempts to improvise new defensive lines. Cadorna is also summoning reinforcements to throw in the path of the enemy. Yet the Austro-Hungarian advance appears unstoppable. It seems they can sweep through any newly prepared Italian position.

Nevertheless, the Austro-Hungarians are feeling the strain of the fighting. The men are exhausted and their rapid advance has stretched their supply lines. But still they push on, hoping for the final victory that will bring this war to an end.

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Strafexpedition 1916 (by Tuomas Koivurinne on DeviantArt)

20/5/1916 “The world is mad”: Shackleton emerges from Antarctica

In the summer of 1914, Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton was preparing for an ambitious attempt to traverse the frozen wastes of Antarctica. The war’s outbreak did not delay his mission; Shackleton was ordered to proceed by Winston Churchill himself, the then First Lord of the Admiralty.

Things went awry for the Shackleton expedition. Their ship was caught in ice for months and then sunk. The men found refuge on the remote Elephant Island, but knew they were unlikely to be rescued from here. So Shackleton and five others set off on a 720 nautical mile journey for help to South Georgia and its whaling station. After two weeks at sea in an open boat, they landed on the island’s south coast. Shackleton and two of his men then hike across the inhospitable interior, never previously traversed, to reach the whaling station.

When he meets the manager of the whaling station, Shackleton asks when the war ended. “The war is not over,” the manager replies. “Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.”

Shackleton’s account of his arrival at the whaling station in South Georgia

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Ernest Shackleton after his ship’s loss (Wikipedia)

16/5/1916 The Sykes-Picot Agreement: Britain and France carve up the Middle East

The Allied war against Turkey continues, though progress is mixed. Russian advances in the Caucasus continue, but Britain has just suffered a major reverse in Mesopotamia. Although Turkey remains undefeated, the question of what to do with its empire perplexes the Allies. Before the failed Gallipoli campaign, the Allies agreed that Russia would be given Constantinople while France would be take over Syria. The British now start to think that they want some of the pie and begin negotiations with the French to divide the Middle East.

The negotiations are conducted by Sir Mark Sykes for Britain and François Georges-Picot for France. Their agreement is ratified in secret today. The deal gives France direct control over the Syrian coast and territory stretching further north into Anatolia (coloured blue in the map). The northern Syrian interior and territory stretching as far east as Mosul will be under indirect French control (shown on the map as Area A). Meanwhile the British will have the red coloured territory in Mesopotamia and indirect control over Area B. In deference to Russian concerns, the future arrangement of Palestine remains undecided.

The expectation is that the indirectly controlled territories will be administered by Arab clients. Britain has already been intriguing with Sharif Hussein of Mecca, offering to create an Arab state in Syria to be led by him under British supervision. Sharif Hussein is unaware of the Sykes-Picot agreement but will most likely not be pleased by the expanded Syrian role it offers to the French.

Read the full text of the short agreement here.

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Map of the Sykes-Picot agreement (Wikipedia)