31/12/1916 Another year of war comes to an end

As 1916 draws to a close, few leaders of the belligerent countries are in a position to look forward to 1917 in confidence. The year has been one of bloody failure across the board.

Repeated Italian offensives against Austria-Hungary have failed, with the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Battles of the Isonzo seeing the Italians repulsed after making relatively minor gains. However, things have not gone well for the Austro-Hungarians either, with their counter-offensive failing to knock Italy out of the war.

The general situation for Austria-Hungary is increasingly dire. The Habsburg Empire has been shattered by Russia’s Brusilov Offensive. It has been sustained by German aid, but at the cost of becoming little more than a satellite of its northern neighbour.

The Russian situation is not great either. Although the Brusilov Offensive inflicted terrible losses on the Austro-Hungarians, the Russians too suffered enormous casualties in the battle. Despite the vast manpower reserves of the Russian empire, the army is now struggling to find new recruits to replace those who were lost.

Germany meanwhile saw its attempt to win the war by smashing France lead to bloody attritional stalemate at Verdun. The Battle of Jutland meanwhile reaffirmed British naval dominance in the North Sea. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the new leaders of the German army, are determined not to repeat the attritional battles of 1916 next year, but they still have no realistic strategy for bringing the war to a victorious end.

The Anglo-French offensive on the Somme was meant to break through the German lines and win the war in a campaign of manoeuvre. Unfortunately it turned into another slogging match, with both sides suffering enormous casualties. But even as attritional warfare the Somme has proved a failure for the British: German casualties in 1916 are actually lower than last year.

The Turks meanwhile had triumphs early in the year at Kut and Gallipoli, where the British Empire suffered humiliating defeats. But the tide is starting to turn against them too. British forces are advancing from Egypt towards Palestine, Russian forces in the Caucasus are making significant gains and a revitalised British army in Mesopotamia is threatening to renew the advance on Baghdad. The Turks are also battling a rebellion by Arab forces loyal to Sharif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca.

The home fronts of all the belligerents are feeling the strain. Allied control of the sea is making things particularly bad for the Central Powers, with civilians finding it increasingly difficult to keep themselves fed. Unrest is also mounting in Russia, where the domestic economy is creaking under the strain of the war.

1917 threatens to bring more of the same. For want of anything better to do, the Allies plan to continue their near simultaneous offensives on their enemies. The Central Powers are still searching for a strategy. Ludendorff has decided that Germany will not stage a major offensive next year, but he knows that wars are not won by sitting on the defensive. Because of the dire situation of the German home front, German leaders are convinced that the war needs to be ended soon. As a result, they are becoming more receptive to claims by the navy that an unrestricted U-boat campaign would bring the Allies to their knees.

Efforts to bring the war to a peaceful end are going nowhere. After the suffering they have endured thus far, none of the belligerents is willing to accept anything less than a victorious peace. 1917 looks like it will be another terrible year.

image source (National Gallery of Victoria)

30/12/1916 The murder of Rasputin

Russia is in a desperate state. Her armies have been shattered by the unprecedentedly bloody nature of the war, with it becoming increasingly difficult to find new recruits to make up the numbers. At home workers are restive and the Duma has become increasingly radicalised, with the fiery speeches of parliamentarians echoing the anger of the streets.

The empire seems therefore on the road to disaster, either defeat in the war or revolution at home, or both. The Tsar and his circle seem happy to bumble along, but many aristocrats are convinced that something must be done to rescue Russia from the abyss. There is talk of deposing the Tsar or forcing him to accept a constitutional government, though these plots remain stillborn.

However, one plot succeeds. Many of the aristocrats have become fixated on the figure of Rasputin, the peasant and self-declared holy man who has latched onto the Tsarina, exerting a great influence over her on account of his apparent ability to treat the symptoms of her son’s haemophilia. Rasputin’s role has become more political, with the careers of ministers advancing or retreating according to his patronage.

A group of plotters around Prince Felix Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri convince themselves that if Rasputin is eliminated then the Tsar will be shocked into setting Russia on the road to reform. Yusupov invites Rasputin to his palace to meet his wife Irina, the beautiful niece of the Tsar. Rasputin enjoys the company of women and accepts the invitation.

A bizarre series of events unfolds unfolds after Rasputin’s arrival at the Yusupov Palace in Petrograd. He is offered madeira wine and cakes, all laced with poison. He consumes them with gusto but they have no apparent effect. He becomes impatient at Irina’s non-appearance, but is told she will be joining them soon. At some point after midnight, Yusupov’s nerve cracks and he produces a pistol, shooting Rasputin at close range. The conspirators take him outside, planning to dump his body in the river. But he revives and tries to escape. The conspirators bring him down with more gunfire and then throw him into the Neva, weighed down with chains. That appears to be the end of him.

Word of Rasputin’s murder circulates quickly through Petrograd’s aristocratic circles. When Dmitri attends the theatre that evening, he is treated to a standing ovation.

image sources:

Rasputin and friends, in 1914 (Wikipedia)

Felix and Irina Yusupov (Wikipedia)

Rasputin (Wikipedia)

28/12/1916 Tensions in Germany

In 1914 German politicians put aside their differences in support of the war effort. This became known as the Burgfrieden, the castle peace. Now though the Burgfrieden is starting to fray. The politicians are still relatively quiescent, apart from a few fringe socialists like Karl Liebknecht and others in the anti-war faction of the Social Democrats. But society at large is no longer displaying the kind of cohesion one would expect in a country united behind the war effort.

Germany is in the grip of a food crisis thanks to the British blockade and agricultural disruption caused by the war. People are referring to this as the Turnip Winter, as the turnip (normally reserved for animal feed) has largely replaced the potato in people’s diets. In an effort to control inflation, the government has imposed price controls on foodstuffs. This however has discouraged production or led to farmers supplying their produce to the black market, exacerbating tensions between the cities and the countryside. Meanwhile crime rates have increased after declining after the war’s start. Ration fraud is particularly widespread, with an audit revealing that the number of people registered to receive rations is higher than Germany’s population.

In the absence of their parents (fathers at the front and women working in factories) and with many schools closed, children and teenagers are now running wild. And industrial workers are increasingly unruly, with the number of strikes soaring as they try to offset inflation by demanding higher wages.

Germany’s armies remain unvanquished in the field, but the home front is Germany’s achilles heel. The country’s leaders fear that the nation cannot endure a second Turnip Winter. They are desperate to find a way to bring the war to a victorious conclusion in 1917.

image source:

mobile soup kitchen, Berlin (Roads to the Great War)

27/12/1916 Empty honours for Joffre

Joseph Joffre commanded France’s armies at the start of the war, but recently he was promoted to the meaningless position of general-in-chief of the French armies, with Robert Nivelle taking over command of the French forces on the Western Front. If Joffre thought that he would still be able to direct the war effort, he finds himself sadly mistaken. His post has no authority attached to it and he is completely removed from the process of real decision-making.

Nevertheless, Joffre remains popular in the country at large. People remember the calm fortitude he displayed during the darkest days of the German invasion of 1914 and his direction of the Battle of the Marne, which threw back the enemy from the gates of Paris. In honour of his past efforts and to sugar the pill of his effective sacking, the French government now formally promotes him to the rank of Marshal of France, the army’s highest rank. He is the first marshal of France’s Third Republic.

image source:

Joseph Joffre (Wikipedia)

25/12/1916 Christmas in the trenches

Christmas Day in 1914 saw widespread instances of fraternisation between the soldiers on opposing sides of war. In 1915 the commanders on both sides issued strict orders against any such informal truces, but there were still many reports of soldiers meeting the enemy on Christmas Day.

This year there are less of these Christmas Day truces on the Western Front. The horror of the Somme and Verdun has left many soldiers lacking any feeling of goodwill towards the men in the opposite trenches. But there are still some instances of Christmas cheer. At Vimy Ridge, Canadian and German troops halt hostilities and trade bully beef for cigars. And fraternisation seems not to have been confined to Christmas Day itself: Private Arthur Burke writes home to his parents in Salford that his unit and the Germans have been on “absolutely speaking terms” in the run-up to Christmas, with the atrocious weather encouraging a sense of commonality between the British and German soldiers. There are also reports of French and German troops exchanging gifts in quiet sectors of the Front.

see also:

First World War Christmas truces not limited to 1914, new evidence shows (Belfast Telegraph)

24/12/1916 Germany seizes Romania’s granaries

The German food situation is grim. The British navy prevents Germany from importing food or fertilisers from overseas. The dislocation of war has led to a significant decline in domestic agricultural production. This year’s potato harvest has been struck by blight. Germans are calling this the “turnip winter”, as they are having to eat turnips (normally used as animal feed) instead of potatoes.

But there is one bright star on the horizon. When Romania joined the Allies, there was consternation in Berlin as Germany no longer had access to Romanian grain exports. Now, though, Romania has mostly been overrun by Falkenhayn and Mackensen. In their advance they have managed to seize the country’s granaries intact. The Germans will be able to eat bread made from Romanian wheat after all. Their food situation is still desperate but the conquest of Romania will allow Germany to continue fighting the war.