30/7/1916 The Somme: new German tactics

British troops at the Somme are attacking again. Their target now is the village of Guillemont. The attack appears to start off well. After an artillery bombardment the infantry move forward. The British are aided by misty weather conditions, which hide them from the enemy. They manage to overrun the village. But then when the mist lifts, things go wrong. German machine-guns open up on their flanks. German troops emerge from the cellars of the village to attack them. The British are driven back with heavy casualties.

The strength of the German machine guns is an unpleasant surprise for the British, especially after the German trenches had been given a good pounding by their artillery. But the Germans have developed new tactics. Instead of placing machine guns in their trenches, where they will be a target for British artillery, they have started to locate them in shell holes in No-Man’s-Land. When British troops advance, they are not attacking a line but entering a zone of death.

image source (Royal Dublin Fusiliers)

30/7/1916 The Black Tom explosion

The United States of America remains neutral, sitting out the war that is engulfing Europe and spreading its tentacles to the rest of the world. Yet American manufacturers are happy to profit from the war, with munitions producers selling to anyone who will buy their deadly wares. However, the British naval blockade of Germany means that only the Allies are able to buy American arms. This irks the Germans. It means that as well as fighting the Allied armies they are also fighting American industry. To try and interdict the flow of arms to the Allies, Germany sends secret agents to disrupt the American munitions trade.

Black Tom Island lies in New York Bay, near Liberty Island and close to Jersey City. It is a major centre of the arms trade, with vast amounts of explosive materials stored here waiting trans-shipment. Shortly after midnight today guards discover several small fires on the pier. Some of the guards flee in terror, while others attempts to fight the fires and call the Jersey City fire brigade. But the fires cannot be contained. Shortly after 2.00 a.m. they reach the explosives. Around a thousand tonnes of TNT detonate.

The blast registers at over 5.0 on the Richter Scale and is felt as far away as Maryland. Thousands of window panes shatter in lower Manhattan. Only seven people are killed, though several hundred are injured. Property damage is enormous, with the Statue of Liberty alone suffering some $100,000 worth.

Suspicions begin to arise that this huge explosion might be the result of sabotage. Could German agents be responsible, perhaps working in league with supporters of Irish and Indian independence?

image source:

Aftermath (Wikipedia)

28/7/1916 The Dada Manifesto and the Cabaret Voltaire

As the war rages across Europe, Switzerland remains an oasis of tranquility. The mountainous country is surrounded by belligerent nations but has managed to escape the destructive madness. Switzerland has become a haven for those seeking to escape the war, particularly artists, pacifists and people of eccentric political opinions who want to avoid conscription into the armies of their homelands.

Zurich is the base for many of these exiles. Here one finds the Russian socialist Vladimir Lenin, the Irish writer James Joyce, the Franco-Romanian artist and essayist Tristan Tzara and the German author and poet Hugo Ball, amongst many others. Not all of these figures would have known or approved of each other, but Tzara and Ball are part of the same circle. They are habitués of the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub, a night club for artistic, also the base of the Franco-German painter and poet Hans/Jean Arp and the Swiss artist and dancer Sophie Taeuber.

The Cabaret Voltaire is the scene of bizarre performances by the various writers and artists who frequent it. Their experimental work is like nothing previously seen, an avant-garde reaction to the madness engulfing Europe. Their movement begins to acquire a name: Dada. The word is deliberately meaningless, yet it is also the first word said by infants learning to speak.

Hugo Ball has already started editing the Dada journal. Tonight in the Cabaret Voltaire he delivers the Dada Manifesto. Or maybe he delivered it somewhere else two weeks ago. Dada is hard to pin down. The manifesto is largely meaningless, which may be the point, but in a continent destroying itself no one can accuse the artists of being mad fools.

The Dada Manifesto

image source:

Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire (Wikipedia_

Note: I am not sure where the Cabaret Voltaire videos originally come from but as there was no sound cinema in 1916 they must be reconstructions after the fact.

27/7/1916 Germany executes Captain Fryatt

Charles Fryatt is a British sailor, the captain of the Brussels, a civilian steamer. In March of 1915 while sailing in the Norths Sea his ship was ordered to stop by a German U-boat. Fryatt disobeyed this order, instead ordering his ship to raise steam and sail towards the U-boat at full speed. The U-boat managed to submerge before Fryatt could ram it. The Brussels made its escape and in recognition of his actions Fryatt was awarded a gold watch by the Admiralty.

Last month while sailing by night from the Hook of Holland to Harwich the Brussels was ambushed by German destroyers. They forced it to sail with them to their base at Zeebrugge in occupied Belgium. Fryatt and his crew are interned in Bruges.

Today the Germans court-martial Fryatt for attempting to ram the U-boat last year. They argue that, as a civilian, he has no right to be engaging in military action. By trying to ram a U-boat he has become nothing more than a franc-tireur, operating outside the protection of law.

The trial is short. The court finds Fryatt guilty and sentences him to death. The Kaisers himself confirms the sentence. Fryatt is executed at 7.00 pm by firing squad.

image sources:

Charles Fryatt (Wikipedia)

German notice announcing Fryatt’s execution (Wikipedia)

27/7/1916 As the Somme grinds on, politicians become restless but Haig remains confident

Fighting at the Somme has become localised, with troops fighting and dying to secure tiny pockets of ground. One such place is Delville Wood, beside the village of Longueval. South African troops entered the woods earlier in the month but were unable to secure it. Since then it has been the scene of savage fighting as the South Africans and British tried to clear the woods of the enemy while German counter-attacks attempted to expel the Allies and return it to their control.

Today though British troops launch a determined assault to secure the woods. Their attack is preceded by an artillery bombardment so devastating that it shatters the surviving Germans’ ability to resist. The British at last manage to secure Delville Wood.

In London the British government are becoming concerned about the progress of the Battle of the Somme. They are seeing casualty lists becoming ever longer, with no sign that major gains are being made against the enemy. Haig is aware of the government’s concerns, but the British army’s Western Front commander continues to believe that victory is near at hand. He reckons that he just needs six weeks more of “steady offensive pressure” to break the Germans.

image sources:

Battle of Delville Wood, by Ed. H.W. Wilson (Wikipedia)

Douglas Haig, by John Singer Sargent (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

25/7/1916 Brusilov’s offensive begins to slow down, Evert’s continues to fail

In Galicia Brusilov’s offensive against the Austro-Hungarians continues. After spectacular successes, the Russians are beginning to run out of steam as exhaustion and casualties make it harder for them to maintain the pressure on the enemy. Meanwhile the ranks of their enemies are being stiffened by Austro-Hungarian and German reinforcements.

Brusilov had always argued that the way to defeat the enemy was to follow his offensive with others elsewhere. That way the Germans would find it hard to concentrate their reserves against one threat. His commanders had accepted this plan and ordered Evert to attack the Germans to Brusilov’s north. However Evert’s efforts have been lacklustre. His men have attacked in the traditional Russian human wave assaults and have suffered terrible casualties for no great gains. What territory has been seized has mostly been lost to German counter-attacks.

Now Evert sends his men forward again, in another attempt to smash through the German defences. But again, despite a great numerical advantage his men make little or no progress but add to their already extensive casualty list.

image source (Imperor)

24/7/1916 Pozières: Germany strikes back

Yesterday the British launched a major attack on the Somme, which met with little success. One exception was an attack by Australian and British forces towards the village of Pozières. Thanks to an intense artillery bombardment and clever use of a creeping barrage, the Australians managed to punch through the German lines and seize the village.

The Germans are determined to recapture Pozières. Several counter-attacks yesterday were defeated, but today they attack with an entire division. By now however the Australians have brought forward machine guns. The advancing Germans are decimated in fighting that is like a reverse version of that seen on the first day of the battle.

So the Germans change tack. Accepting that they will not be able to storm Pozières, they decide to make it uninhabitable for the Australians. A murderous artillery barrage is directed down on the village. Pozières is to be continuously shelled until its defenders are all killed or forced to withdraw.

23/7/1916 The Somme: British attacks fail but Australian troops seize Pozières

Britain and France are both attacking the Germans on the Somme, but the lack of a unified command structure means that there is little coordination between their efforts. The French attacked on their own on the 20th because the British were not ready then, but the two commanders, Rawlinson and Foch, agreed that a joint attack would take place today. However, now the French are not ready, so Rawlinson decides that his chaps will have to go it alone this time.

Rawlinson’s men attack by night, after a bombardment beginning yesterday. The plan originally was for all the attacking units to go forward at 1.30 a.m., but somehow the attacks end up taking place at a multiplicity of times, reducing the chance of overwhelming the Germans with one strong blow.

The attack is a dismal failure, with minimal gains and heavy casualties. Many of the men trying to advance in the Delville Wood area found themselves lost, wandering around aimlessly until German machine guns open up on them.

The one notable success is achieved by Australian & British troops attacking towards the village of Pozières. The Germans here have been subjected to a longer and heavier bombardment than elsewhere. The Australians also benefit from their supporting artillery using something approximating to a creeping barrage. They capture a series of German positions in brutal fighting that sees no prisoners taken. Then they manage to storm Pozières itself.

The Australians are unable to rest on their laurels. The Germans are determined to recapture Pozières. The Australians withstand two counter-attacks today, but they know that more will come tomorrow.

image source:

The Territorials at Pozières, 23 July 1916 (National Army Museum; painting by William Barns Wollen)

22/7/1916 Exit Sazonov

Sergei Sazonov has been Russia’s foreign minister since 1910. He played his part in the crisis that led to this war’s outbreak and continued to guide his country’s foreign policy afterwards. Russian politics has become increasingly tense since then, with arch-conservatives facing off against those who favour a more liberal course. Sazonov is on the liberal side, but the conservatives are in the ascendant, as they have the support of Tsarina Alexandra and Rasputin, her spiritual advisor.

In an effort to bolster foreign support for Russia, Sazonov has come up with a plan to offer Poland autonomy after the war. This could also undercut German and Austro-Hungarian efforts to recruit Poles into their armies. He puts his proposal to the Tsar, who is probably unsure what to make of it. The Tsarina however is furious, seeing Polish home rule as a dangerous concession too far. She reminds her husband of his duty to maintain his autocratic rule. And so the Tsar acts, dismissing Sazonov from the government.

image sources:

Sergei Sazonov (Today in World War I)

Rasputin, the Tsar, and the Tsarina (Wikipedia)

20/7/1916 The Somme: Britain and France go their own way

It is easy to think of the Somme as being an entirely British show, but it would be wrong. The battle was initially conceived as a joint Anglo-French battle, with the French playing the leading role. The demands of Verdun have obliged the French to reduce their contribution to the battle, so that now the main role is being played by the British. But the French are still here and have had more successes in the fighting than their ally, largely thanks to their better artillery and more realistic goals.

Since the first day of the battle the French have continued with their own assaults on the Germans, nibbling away at the enemy lines. Their attacks are mostly uncoordinated with those of the British. There is no unified command for the Allies at the Somme (or over the whole of the Western Front), so each ally attacks when they like, sometimes bothering to tell the other in advance and sometimes not.

Today there was meant to have been a rare simultaneous attack by both Allied armies, but yesterday Rawlinson revealed to Foch, the French commander, that his men would not be ready in time. Foch decides to attack anyway, but his troops do not make any great progress. Now he proposes a new joint attack on the 23rd. Rawlinson accepts and begins to prepare for a new assault on Delville Wood and the village of Longueval.

image source:

French artillerymen at the Somme (France 24)