28/11/1916 A new menace: an aeroplane attack on London

German Zeppelin raids on England are continuing, but the airships are showing no great sign of bringing Britain to its knees. British air defences are improving all the time and Zeppelin losses are mounting. The puny damage being inflicted on English targets by the gas giants is insufficient pay back for the costs the Germans are incurring.

Nevertheless, the Germans remain committed to strategic bombing. They begin to consider attacks on Britain with heavier-than-air craft. By now aeroplanes have improved to the extent that it is possible for one to make the round trip from German occupied Belgium to London itself. Today the Germans launch their first aeroplane attack on the British capital.

Flying an LVG C.II bomber, Paul Brandt and Walther Ilges head off today for London. Racing at speeds of up to 130 kilometres an hour, the Germans cross the Channel and then fly across Essex and up the Thames estuary, photographing anything that might conceivably be a future target on the way.

The German mission is to attack the Admiralty offices in Whitehall, but once they reach central London they drop their bombs randomly from a considerable hit, causing some damage, ten injuries, but no fatalities. Then they turn for home.

Unfortunately for them, Brandt and Ilges do not make it back to their base. Their engine starts to fail and they end up crash-landing on the French coast, where they are captured.

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An LVG C.II bomber, of the type flown by Brandt & Ilges (Wikipedia)

23/11/1916 Tsar Nicholas rearranges the deck chairs

Russia’s Duma is increasingly unruly. The deputies have turned against Stürmer, the prime minister, demanding his removal. Stürmer has become a deeply unpopular unpopular figure, widely believed not just to be incompetent and corrupt but also a traitor, actively working to undermine the war effort. His unfortunate German surname may have a part to play here.

Whatever his faults, Stürmer is completely loyal to the Tsar. Nicholas would rather not part with this pliant servant. The Tsar is temperamentally opposed to any kind of concession to popular rule and finds the idea of the Duma being able to replace his prime minister unacceptable. But these are not normal times and the Tsar accepts that some concessions are necessary. He dismisses Stürmer and today appoints a new prime minister, Alexander Trepov.

Trepov is loyal to the Tsar but he hopes to implement a reform programme and win the support of moderates in the Duma. However the radicals in the Duma are increasingly in the ascendant. They continue to denounce the government and seek to position themselves as the champions of the masses outside parliament. And Trepov’s ability to implement reform is hamstrung by the Tsarina’s opposition to him. Perhaps guided by Rasputin, her spiritual advisor, Alexandra is implacably opposed to reform and is determined to thwart Trepov’s attempts to bring in any meaningful change.

Russian politics thus remains deadlocked. The Duma liberals are seeing their hopes for reform blocked by the reactionary clique around the Tsar and Tsarina. Meanwhile the wider population is becoming increasingly radicalised, with their views amplified and reflected by the radical Duma. But this is not a state of equilibrium. Some kind of change is coming, even if its form cannot yet be determined.

23/11/1916 Bucharest threatened, but Romania prepares to strike back

Romania’s unwise decision to join the Allies now sees its armies engaged in a desperate battle for national survival. German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops have invaded the country, with Mackensen leading one force attacking along the coast while Falkenhayn pushes into Romania from the Carpathians. German and Austro-Hungarian forces have also pushed into Moldavia, but here they have been checked by Russian forces. However the Russians do not have enough men to spare for the defence of the rest of Romania. Allied diversionary attacks in Macedonia have also done little to help the Romanians.

Now the fighting enters a new phase. Mackensen moves some of his men to the west, where they make a surprise crossing of the Danube at Sistova. Mackensen’s plan is for this Danube Army to march on Bucharest and bring Romanian resistance to an end.

But the battle for Romania is not over yet. Romanian commanders note that Falkenhayn and Mackensen’s armies are still widely separated from each other. They plan a desperate counter-attack, hoping that if they commit their reserves against one of the enemy armies they might be able to destroy it and then turn on the other. Even if they are unable to achieve a Romanian Tannenberg, they may be able to buy time for Russian reinforcements to arrive. So the Romanians begin their preparations for a last desperate offensive against Mackensen’s Danube army.

21/11/1916 The sinking of the Britannic

In 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank with the loss of 1,514 lives. Since then, her sister ship the Britannic has been requisitioned into military service. The ship has been serving as a hospital ship, transporting sick and wounded servicemen from the Middle East back to Britain.

Today the ship is on its way to Lemnos to collect more injured soldiers when it hits a mine. The ship sinks quickly. The loss of life is considerably less than in the sinking of the iTitanic. The Britannic manages to launch more lifeboats and the warmer water of the Mediterranean is less lethal than the freezing wastes of the North Atlantic. And help arrives more quickly. All told 1,035 of the people onboard are rescued, with just 30 losing their lives in the incident.

Nevertheless, the loss of the Britannic is great blow. The ship is the largest vessel to be lost by the British thus far in the war.

image source (Wikipedia)

21/11/1916 Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary dies

Emperor Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary caught a cold a few days ago while out walking with the King of Bavaria. Today he succumbs to pneumonia. The emperor was 86 years old and has reigned since 1848. Few of his subjects can remember a time when he was not their ruler.

Franz Josef’s reign was not a happy one, with the Habsburg Empire experiencing a long drawn-out decline. First the Empire lost its territories in northern Italy, then its hegemonic role in Germany was supplanted by Prussia. Internally the Empire has been troubled by increasing nationalism among its peoples. In 1866 Franz Josef was forced to effectively divide his empire in two, creating a self-governing Hungary; this has had the effect of starving central institutions (notably the army) of funds.

The emperor’s personal life has also had its travails. His marriage to Elizabeth of Bavaria was a difficult one. Their only son, Rudolph, died with his mistress in a suicide pact (or an instance of murder-suicide). Elizabeth herself was subsequently murdered by an Italian anarchist. Maximilian one of the emperor’s brothers, was executed by Mexican rebels after he unwisely accepted the imperial throne of Mexico as part of a bizarre French scheme. The one real solace to Franz Josef has been his friendship with the actress, Katharina Schratt.

The death of Rudolph had left Franz Josef’s nephew Franz Ferdinand as his heir. His assassination in 1914 set in motion the events that led to the current war. Having seen Italy and Germany removed from the orbit of his rule, Franz Josef was determined to maintain his control over his Slavic subjects and so supported using the murder of Franz Ferdinand as a pretext to crush Serbia. Sadly for him the war has not gone well for Austria-Hungary, with his empire now little more than a satellite of Germany.

Franz Josef is succeeded by Karl, the grandson of another of his brothers.

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Franz Josef, c. 1905 (Wikipedia)

Franz Josef on his death bed (The World of the Habsburgs)

19/11/1916 Monastir: a return to Serbia

Allied forces in northern Greece are attacking the Bulgarians who occupy Serbia. The French and British in Salonika have been joined by the remnants of the Serbian army, who are keen to liberate at least some of their country. The main goal of this offensive however is to draw some of the pressure away from the Romanians, whose country is being overrun by German, Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian forces.

Today after much fighting the Serbs manage to evict the Bulgarians from Monastir. The recapture of this Serbian town is presented as a great victory, but the town has been dearly paid for in blood. Together with a large number of battle casualties, the Allies lose a great number of men to disease. And although Monastir has fallen, the Bulgarians have established a new secure line behind it, so there are unlikely to be any further gains. The offensive appears also to have failed to relieve Romania, as the Central Powers have not had to divert forces from there to contain the Allies.

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19/11/1916 Winter brings the Battle of the Somme to an end

British and Canadian troops attacked on the Somme yesterday, taking heavy losses and making minimal gains. Now winter is descending onto the battlefield, with snow and sleet making conditions in the mud-drenched trenches intolerable. Further attacks are nigh impossible. Haig had hoped to keep assaulting the Germans through the winter, but yesterday’s carnage has unnerved him. Rawlinson, the Somme commander, has already warned that the scale of Somme losses means that the British may not have enough men left to mount a large-scale offensive in the spring. The losses suffered yesterday only reinforce the point.

So Haig calls a halt to major operations on the Somme. Raids and skirmishing will continue, to keep the men on their toes (and to maintain some kind of pressure on the Germans), but there will be no more attempts to smash through the enemy lines. After four and a half months the Battle of the Somme is effectively over.

Haig had hoped that the battle would see the British break through the German defensive lines. In this regard the battle has been a failure. The Germans have been pushed back as much as five or six miles in some areas but the British have not made it through to open country. Nor have their French or Commonwealth allies.

These gains have been paid for in prodigious quantities of blood. British and Commonwealth forces have suffered some 420,000 casualties. Half of the men sent to the Somme will never fight again, either because they are dead or else too severely injured to continue serving in the army. The French, meanwhile, have taken some 204,000 casualties in the fighting, a considerable figure when added to the losses they are still taking in the fighting at Verdun.

Total German casualties at the Somme are around 429,000. They have also suffered considerable losses this year at Verdun and elsewhere, making these losses hard to sustain, though their total losses for this year are still likely to be lower than in 1915. Though they never came close to the kind of general collapse dreamed of by Haig, the Germans have felt the psychological strain of the fighting, with increased incidents of shell shock and men surrendering rather than fighting to the end.

For the Allies, the one notable success of the Somme is that the pressure there forced the Germans to halt their attempts to take Verdun. Apart from that the benefits of the battle have been minimal. Despite the pressure of the Somme fighting, the Germans were still able to divert men from the Western Front to counter the Brusilov Offensive in the East.

Haig plans to renew the offensive in the spring. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, meanwhile, are determined not to fight another battle of this kind again. They have their own plans for next year.

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map (Wikipedia)

18/11/1916 The Somme: one more push

At their recent conference in Paris Allied leaders decided to hit the Central Powers with simultaneous offensives in May next year. In the meantime Haig wants to keep the pressure on the Germans by launching more attacks on the Somme. His hope is that the winter will be sufficiently mild to keep the battle going without a break until next year. So today Gough launches another assault on the Ancre sector of the Somme, hoping to exploit the previous capture of Beaumont Hamel.

British and Canadian troops make some gains, but as always there is no breakthrough. And losses are high, with the assault troops taking some 10,000 casualties. Considering that this is an attack in just one sector of the Somme rather than the whole battlefront, these losses are considerable.

As well as the guns of the Germans, the attacking troops now must battle the elements. Autumnal rain has turned much of the battlefield into a quagmire. There are reports of men dying from exhaustion as they try to extricate themselves from the mud.

And by now snow is starting to fall on the Somme. The men attacked this morning in sleet. Worse weather is clearly coming. Haig’s plan to keep the battle going through the winter is starting to look rather fanciful.

image source (The Quietus)

16/11/1916 Allied plans for 1917: more of the same

Allied leaders are meeting in Paris, trying to find a way to prosecute the war to victory. The French and British want to concentrate their forces on the Western Front, a view with which the others are obliged to grudgingly acquiesce. This means there will be no substantial reinforcement of the Allied force in Salonika, which is bad news for the Serbs and Romanians. Cadorna too declines to send more Italian troops to Albania or Greece, preferring to keep his men concentrated on the Isonzo.

So what do the Allies agree on? They agree once more to hit the Central Powers with combined offensives next year, with May scheduled as when the hammer blows will fall. Given the casualties the Germans and Austro-Hungarians must have suffered this year, the Allied leaders hope that they will not be able to resist another round of major assaults.

15/11/1916 Searching for a strategy: generals and politicians meet in Paris

Allied leaders are meeting in Paris to decide on how best to prosecute the war. The old argument between easterners and westerners continues. The representatives of Russia, Romania, and Serbia favour the despatch of a larger force to Salonika in Greece, to press the Central Powers in the Balkans. For the Serbs this might allow them to regain their country, now under enemy occupation, while the Romanians hope that an increased French and British presence in Salonika might save them from the same fate. The French however are more interested in concentrating on the Western Front, so that they can expel the Germans from their country. The British generals concur, while their politicians are more ambivalent.

Asquith, Britain’s prime minister, attends the conference and dines with Haig. Asquith is pleased with the recent success the British have enjoyed at the Somme. Haig is pleased by this political vote of confidence. He orders his generals at the Somme to halt any further attacks for now, in case something untoward happens that displeases Asquith.