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)