30/6/1916 Brusilov’s offensive rolls on

In Galicia Brusilov’s offensive rolls on. The Russians have inflicted a crushing defeat on the Austro-Hungarians. In some sectors they have advanced almost a 100 kilometres, an astonishing distance by the standards of this war.

Austro-Hungarian losses are devastating. Since the start of the offensive they have lost some 6,740 officers and 319,500 men. The collapse of Habsburg morale is demonstrated by some 186,850 of these losses being classed as missing, with the Russians having captured vast numbers of prisoners.

Reinforcements are being rushed to Galicia, both Austro-Hungarian troops from the Italian front but also German troops. But on the Western Front the British and French are preparing their Somme offensive, while the Italians are preparing now for another attack along the Isonzo. The Allied hope is that these combined assaults will swamp the enemy, forcing the Germans and Austro-Hungarians to spread their reserves too widely to be effective. This might just be the summer of Allied victory.

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Russian troops attack (Europe Between East And West)

29/6/1916 Chemical warfare arrives on the Isonzo

In the Trentino, Italian troops are attacking the Austro-Hungarians, trying to dislodge them from their recent gains. The Italians find the going tough, as the enemy have prepared their positions well.

Meanwhile all is not quiet in the Isonzo sector. While the Trentino Offensive threatened to knock Italy out of the war, skirmishing continued here as the Austro-Hungarians sought to distract the Italians and prevent them from bringing men away to the west. These diversions have continued even after the end of the Punishment Expedition.

Today near Mont San Michele the Austro-Hungarians have a new present for the Italians. They release a cloud of phosgene and chlorine against them, the first time poison gas has been used on the Italian Front. The Italians have been issued with gas masks but many have mislaid them, thinking they will not be needed. Those who manage to find theirs then discover that they are ineffective against phosgene. Some 2,000 men die in the gas attack, with another 5,000 injured.

The Austro-Hungarians tentatively occupy the Italian positions, afraid of their own poison. Italian reserves evict them later in the day, finding the trenches still occupied with their gassed comrades.

image source (Storia e Memoria di Bologna)

Interlude: Remembering the Somme in Dublin

For people in Britain and Ireland the Somme is the big battle of the First World War. As the anniversary of its first day approaches there are a number of commemorative events taking place here in Dublin that readers may be interested in.

The National Library of Ireland has a number of events taking place over coming weeks. A History Ireland Hedge School on the Battle of the Somme is being hosted by the editor of that magazine on the evening of the 19th July.

For me though the particular highlight of the National Library’s events is their screenings of the 1916 film The Battle of the Somme. This was a propaganda film released in 1916 while the battle was raging, mixing documentary and staged footage. It was enormously popular on its first release, being seen by some 20 million people in the first few weeks of its release (possibly making it the most seen British film ever made). The Library will be showing it from the 11th of July. The image at the top of the page is a still from the film, taken from Wikipedia.

I also recommend the National Library’s exhibition on Ireland in the Great War.

The National Museum of Ireland in Collins Barracks has its own series of events relating to the Somme and the First World War. They are also organising screenings of The Battle of the Somme, on the 2nd, 9th and 23rd of July, with introductions. Re-enactors will be displaying replicas of uniforms and equipment used at the Somme.
Meanwhile, in conjunction with the Goethe-Institut, a piece of sound art called Voices of Memory by Christina Kubisch will be in the War Memorial Gardens in Islandbridge from 29/6/2016 to 30/9/2016. From the description, this will consist of voices reading the names of the 49,000 Irish people killed in the Great War, together with other recordings of ambient sound. The War Memorial Gardens are a place of great beauty and it is always worth having an excuse to visit them.

Finally, the Abbey Theatre is staging Frank McGuinness’ play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme in August. This modern classic of Irish theatre tells the story of some Ulster soldiers who took part in the carnage of the Somme’s first day.

26/6/1916 British and French guns batter the German Somme defences

Preparations for the Anglo-French Somme offensive are continuing. Allied guns have been firing for the last two days. Initially they were targeting the barbed wire obstacles in front of the German trenches but now they lift and begin to blast the enemy positions.

Haig, Britain’s Western Front commander, thinks of the Somme as a breakthrough battle. He hopes that in the first day British troops will smash through the German positions, clearing a way for cavalry to push on and attack distant targets. As a result British shelling is not being concentrated on the German frontline trenches: the bombardment is spread over the whole depth of the enemy trench system. The effect will unfortunately be to dissipate the efforts of the gunners over a wider area.

The British had hoped to use aircraft to observe the effects of the shelling, so that the guns could be redirected to ensure key targets were destroyed. The weather has however taken a turn for the worse. Low cloud cover means that aeroplanes are unable to see what damage is being wrought. Still, so many shells are being fired at the Germans that they surely will not be able to put up much resistance when the infantry go over the top.

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British artillery (Pierre’s Photo Impressions of the Western Front)

25/6/1916 Conrad halts the Trentino Offensive

Austria-Hungary’s Conrad took a bold gamble when he launched his Trentino Offensive against Italy. His hope was that his men would be able to storm down from the Trentino uplands to the coast, cutting off the main Italian army on the Isonzo. If all went according to plan, Italy would be forced out of the war and the prestige of Austro-Hungarian arms would be restored. Conrad depleted the Russian front to supply men for Trentino, gambling that the battered Russians would be in no fit state to launch a major offensive.

Conrad’s plans have gone awry. The offensive shook the Italians, but the Austro-Hungarians never made it down to the coastal plains. Perhaps given time they would have done, although they were already beginning to suffer from exhaustion and over-extended supply lines. However the final nail in the Trentino Offensive’s coffin was Brusilov’s Offensive in Galicia. This has so shattered the Austro-Hungarians there that Conrad has to send every man he can spare to staunch the Russian tide. This has forced him to halt his attacks on the Italians.

The offensive has cost the Austro-Hungarians nearly 100,000 casualties, while the Italians have suffered approximately 147,000. Now the Austro-Hungarians withdraw to prepared positions, abandoning much of their recent gains.

Asiago in ruins after the battle (Wikipedia)

May 1916

Verdun carnage continues. Germany calls off the U-boats, again. Austria-Hungary attempts to knock Italy out of the war. Britain and France divide up the Middle East. Jutland: the largest naval battle in history.

1/5/1916 Dublin counts the cost of the Easter Rising

1/5/1916 U-boats: the Kaiser makes up his mind, for now

3/5/1916 Verdun: the Crown Prince loses faith but cannot stop the carnage

3/5/1916 Dublin: the executions begin

4/5/1916 The Sussex Pledge: Germany calls off the U-boats

6/5/1916 Public executions in Beirut and Damascus

7/5/1916 Verdun: German progress, but Joffre decides the crisis has passed

7/5/1916 Kondoa-Irangi: Lettow-Vorbeck strikes back

8/5/1916 Disaster at Fort Douaumont

9/5/1916 Baghdad: captured British officers battle ennui while their men battle starvation

9/5/1916 Kondoa Irangi: South Africans bloody Lettow-Vorbeck’s nose

12/5/1916 Dublin: the last rebels executed

15/5/1916 The Punishment Expedition: Austria smashes Italy

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

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

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

21/5/1916 Britain engages in time-war

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

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

25/5/1916 The end of the Fokker scourge

25/5/1916 Feeding the guns: Britain widens conscription’s dragnet

28/5/1916 Austria’s Punishment Expedition brings Italy to the brink

30/5/1916 Admiral Scheer prepares to sail into a trap

30/5/1916 Italy’s Cadorna fights for survival

31/5/1916 Verdun: Falkenhayn’s big brother seizes the Mort Homme

31/5/1916 Jutland: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”

31/5/1916 Jutland: the fleets collide

see also:

1916 Who’s Who

April 1916

Monthly archive

@ww1liveblog (Twitter)

World War 1 Live Blog (Facebook)

image sources:

French soldier (The Western Front Association)

German ships at Jutland (British Battles; painting by Claus Bergen)

map (Mental Floss WW1 Centennial)

24/6/1916 Verdun: the German wave breaks

Yesterday German assaults appeared to have brought the French at Verdun to the brink of collapse. Knobelsdorf is directing the battle for the Germans. He had hoped that today his men would capitalise on their successes and press on to Verdun itself, winning a victory that would shatter French resolve to continue the war.

But if there is a tide in the affairs of men then today it goes out for the Germans. The French defenders recover their poise, reinvigorated by reinforcements; they fight desperately to hold back Knobelsdorf’s men. The Germans have been advancing on a narrow sector of the front; now French artillery shells rain down, disrupting the assault troops’ supply lines. Knobelsdorf’s men are hungry, thirsty and exhausted. Short of ammunition and their ranks depleted in the brutal fighting, they are in no state to press the French further.

The German assaults on Verdun may be coming to an end. The French are running out of men to commit to the battle but the Germans too are finding that they do not have an inexhaustible supply of men to feed into the mincing machine. Falkenhayn is having to send men east to prevent Brusilov’s offensive knocking Austria-Hungary out of the war. Now with the guns firing on the Somme he knows that the British are preparing something big there. He must keep men in reserve to meet whatever the British are planning and cannot afford to keep sending more men to be killed at Verdun.

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French troops (Verdun 2016: official site of the centenary of the battle of Verdun)

24/6/1916 The Somme guns start firing

For months now the Allies have been preparing to attack the Germans in the Somme valley. Originally this was to be a mainly French affair, with the British supporting, but the Verdun meat-grinder has forced the French to reduce their commitment. The Somme will be an almost entirely British affair, with the French offering only a few divisions to assist their ally.

The British have massed an astonishing quantity of artillery pieces in front of the German Somme positions. Today the guns begin to fire. The British shells target not the German trenches but the barbed wire obstacles in front of them. The guns are to clear the wire so that British troops can move forward. Only in coming days will the shelling lift to hit the enemy trenches.

To make sure the guns have enough time to do the job, the infantry will not attack the enemy until the 29th of June. Such a long bombardment means that any element of surprise will be lost: the Germans will know that the barrage is preparation for an offensive. But the British guns should so devastate the German positions that it will not matter if they know an assault is coming.

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British guns (6th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, on the Somme)

23/6/1916 Verdun: “Ils ne passeront pas!”

Brutal fighting continues at Verdun, with the Germans pressing the French hard. They hope that this final onslaught will carry them all the way to Verdun itself, shattering French morale. The Germans are using a new secret weapon: phosgene gas, code-named “Green Cross”, against which French gas masks are not fully effective.

By late afternoon the Germans have secured the village of Fleury. The fortified position at Thiaumont is also in their hands. They are now only two and a half miles from Verdun. There are more reports of desertions on the French side, an indication that French resolve is beginning to break.

Pétain attempts to project calmness to his subordinates, but he telephones Joffre’s headquarters, to warn that the army is on the brink of collapse. He calls again for the British offensive on the Somme to be brought forward. Joffre likes people to think that nothing worries him, but he fears the consequences of German victory at Verdun. He diverts another four divisions from the Somme to stop the Germans, making the forthcoming offensive there an almost entirely British affair.

Nivelle is the local French commander at Verdun. As the day closes, he attempts to rally the French with an order of the day making the usual threats of harsh measures against anyone who fails to do their duty. He ends with an exhortation to hold the line and halt the Germans: “Ils ne passeront pas!”

image sources:

German assault troops at Verdun (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

French reinforcements (Les Français à Verdun)

23 June map (Les Français à Verdun)

22/6/1916 Verdun: as the Germans attack, French politicians become restive

At Verdun German assaults are continuing. The Germans are attacking the village of Fleury as a prelude to an attempt on Fort Souville, after which they hope to press on to Verdun itself. While the battle was initially conceived by Falkenhayn as an attritional struggle, where the French army would be broken by the amount of casualties inflicted, Verdun has now become something else. Both sides have lost so many men in the fighting that the battle is being fought to vindicate their deaths. Neither the French nor the Germans can give in without risking a collapse in morale. The battle has become a desperate battle of wills between the two armies.

In Paris the Chamber of Deputies is restive. The parliamentarians are concerned at how the war is being conducted. The Chamber meets in secret session. Many deputies are scathingly critical of the army’s senior commanders (including Joffre himself) and of the government for sheltering them. It seems for a time that Aristide Briand’s government will be brought down but he manages to remain in office for the moment. However the Chamber refuses to pass a motion supporting Joffre’s efforts. The army’s commander in chief remains in office for now, but the political winds are beginning to turn against him.

image sources:

Explosion (Les Français à Verdun)

The Chamber of Deputies (Le Figaro; the illustration depicts a French parliamentary debate from 1919)