23/12/1916 Britain advances in the Sinai

The British Empire is on the march in the Sinai, hoping to advance across this arid region and into Palestine, thereby aiding the progress of the Arab Revolt further south. Previous Turkish attacks on the Suez Canal through the Sinai have foundered because of the difficulty of supplying large bodies of troops there.

To make things easier for themselves in this regard the British are building a railroad and water pipeline as the advance. Even so, things are difficult once the men move ahead to engage the Turks. Nevertheless, they have had some successes. Turkish forces withdrew without a fight from the coastal position of El-Arish, given the strength of the British marching against them and the support they could expect from the British navy.

The Turks remain in force at Magdhaba, an inland position. From here they can retake El Arish, should the British advance further towards Palestine. So the British move up to attack Magdhaba.

The advance takes the British beyond their supply lines. Their Australian commander, General Henry Chauvel, knows that the battle must be run quickly or shortage of water will force them to withdraw.

The attack sees British, Australian and New Zealand mounted infantry approach as closely as possible to the Turkish positions before dismounting to press the assault. The fighting goes on all day and Chauvel fears that he will have to withdraw his men, but in the late afternoon the tide turns against the Turks and they begin to surrender in large numbers. There are odd episodes of fraternisation between Gallipoli veterans on both sides, with the horror of that campaign creating a point of sympathy between them.

With the Magdhaba position eliminated the British are now free to press on towards Palestine. The tide of war in the Levant is now turning decisively against the Ottoman Empire.

image sources:

Infantry advance (Wikipedia)

map (Wikipedia)

22/12/1916 Germany thinks again about U-boats

Since replacing Falkenhayn, Hindenburg and Ludendorff have been pondering what strategic direction to take in 1917. To minimise Germany’s losses they are determined to remain on the defensive on the Western Front: there will be no repeat of the long battle of Verdun.

However, wars cannot be won by sitting on the defensive. Ludendorff is acutely aware that Germany cannot keep the war going indefinitely, so there must be some way of bringing it to a victorious end. One option remains a renewed U-boat campaign. At the moment, U-boats are fighting according to rules that prevent them from attacking merchant ships without warning or allowing them to evacuate before being sunk. This minimises civilian casualties but severely limits their effectiveness.

Senior figures in the German navy argue that if the U-boats are allowed to attack enemy shipping at will then the enemy will rapidly be brought to their knees. Britain is dependent on its overseas trade for not merely its prosperity but for the food its industrial workers eat. Now Henning von Holtzendorff, the navy’s chief of staff, issues a memorandum arguing that unrestricted U-boat warfare would starve Britain into submission by autumn 1917.

To Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, such thinking is madness. He fears that U-boat warfare will bring the United States into the war against Germany, making the war unwinnable. But to Ludendorff, Holtzendorff’s memorandum is appealing, as it offers the prospect of victory without having to throw away the lives of soldiers on the battlefield. A final decision has yet to be made, but the tide is moving towards the U-boats.

21/12/1916 The Seeadler sets sail

The British navy has strangled Germany’s overseas trade, leading to increasing hardships as the German people are unable to source food from the Americas. Germany has attempted to strike back at British shipping using its U-boat fleet. For the moment, though the U-boats are on a tight leash, forbidden to attack merchant ships at will for fear of antagonising the Americans.

Now the Germans attempt to disrupt British trade by another method, one that seems to have escaped from the pages of a book on the Napoleonic Wars. Today the Seeadler (Sea Eagle) sets sail from Germany. In an age of industrial warfare the Seeadler is a throwback, as she is a three-masted sailing ship, albeit one also equipped with engines. And like a privateer of old, the Seeadler flies a false flag, that of Norway, and has her guns well hidden. Her captain, Felix von Luckner, and many of his crew are fluent Norwegian speakers. They hope to trick any Allied warships into letting the Seeadler pass as a neutral vessel.

image source:

SMS Seeadler, by Christopher Rave (Wikipedia)

21/12/1916 Lloyd George closes Frongoch, university of Irish rebellion

After the suppression of the Easter Rising, the British authorities in Ireland were left with a large number of rebel prisoners. The round-up that followed the revolt added to their ranks. These were removed from Ireland and interned in Wales at a former prisoner of war camp in Frongoch.

Since then the British have been unsure what to do with these internees. The initial response to the Rising was harsh, with rebels being executed after trial by court martial. This however created problems with Irish public opinion and the courts martial were halted. The British abandoned the idea of subjecting any more of the rebels to trial and held them in Frongoch under wartime emergency powers.

Holding all these people together at Frongoch has had unintended consequences. The inmates of Frongoch have become increasingly unruly and uncooperative with their captors. The round-up hauled in many people of relatively mild nationalist views, but throwing them together with more committed rebels has led to their increased radicalisation. Now they start to plan the next steps in the struggle to separate Ireland from the United Kingdom. Belatedly the British realise that they have effectively created a university of rebellion.

So now Lloyd George, the Welsh prime minister of Britain, decides to close Frongoch. The rebels will be sent home before Christmas, arriving back in Ireland in batches, to minimise the likelihood of their being greeted by anti-British demonstrations.

image source:

Frongoch (Irish Independent)

see also:

Frongoch and 1916: Recreating a Lost Landscape (online exhibition by Inspiring Ireland)

18/12/1916 President Wilson’s peace initiative

Could the war be coming to a negotiated end? Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg of Germany recently offered to open peace talks with the Allies. His proposal has had a frosty response from Germany’s enemies, who want to prosecute the war to victory. But across the Atlantic President Wilson of the United States is interested.

The USA is still neutral, but many Americans fear that if the war continues they will eventually be sucked into it. Wilson was elected on a peace platform, trading on the fact that he had kept his country out of the war. Now he acts to try and bring the war to an end. He sends a message to all the belligerent countries, asking them to state their terms for an end to the conflict. In so doing he hopes to start the ball rolling on negotiations to end the conflict, one in which his country could perhaps serve as an honest broker.

image source:

Woodrow Wilson (Wikipedia)

18/12/1916 Verdun finally grinds to a halt

The Battle of Verdun has raged since the Germans launched their first assaults in February. Now the French have pushed the Germans back, recovering much of their lost ground. The battlefield is increasingly in the grip of winter. After 302 days the struggle splutters to a halt.

The battle is a defeat for the Germans. They have not managed to break French morale by seizing Verdun. Nor have they succeeded in Falkenhayn’s goal of bleeding France to death by inflicting an unsustainable level of casualties. True, French casualties are enormous, estimated at 377,231 in total, of whom some 162,440 were killed. But the French wells of manpower have not run dry and they have always been able to find more men to feed the guns at Verdun. And the Germans have suffered almost as many losses as the French, taking some 337,000 casualties, of whom around 143,000 were killed.

The Germans have much greater reserves of manpower than the French, so they can better afford these losses. However the Germans have also lost great numbers of men at the Somme and are heavily engaged against Russia and in the Balkans. Attritional warfare is a dangerous game for them. Small wonder then that Hindenburg and Ludendorff are determined not to repeat Verdun.

The French also do not want a repeat of the battle. Nivelle, their new Western Front commander, made his name at Verdun, where he commanded the counter-attacks that recovered the ground lost to the Germans. He is planning to replicate these successes in a major offensive in the spring, one he hopes will smash through the German lines and bring the war to an end.

image sources:

Mountain of bones (Mental Floss)

Verdun: the World’s Blood Pump (Wikipedia; medal originally from British Museum exhibition “The other side of the medal: how Germany saw the First World War”)

map (Les Françcais à Verdun)

16/12/1916 Documenting the Hell of Horrifying Ghosts

Armin T. Wegner had been serving as a medical officer with the German army in the Turkish Empire. He noticed the extermination of the Armenians taking place around him: the massacres, the deportations, the death marches, the killings by starvation and so on. Horrified by what he saw, he did what he could to stop the slaughter or, failing that, to document it so that it could not be denied in future. A keen photographer, he captured many disturbing images of the Armenians’ suffering across Syria and Mesopotamia. Against military orders he had these smuggled these and notes describing the mass killings smuggled back to Germany and to diplomats from neutral countries.

Now Wegner is back in Germany, apparently recalled because the German authorities were concerned at the potential embarrassment his efforts cause to relations with their Turkish allies. Today he writes to Marga von Bonin, a German nurse he had befriended in Constantinople. He tells her that he has written a book about the Turks’ extermination of the Armenians, but the censors’ have blocked its publication. He describes again the horrors that he has seen and then adds “It was more of a chance and a miracle, that I was able to get out alive once more from the hell of those horrifying ghosts”.

Wegner has brought more photographs back with him to Germany. He continues his efforts to spread the word of what his country’s ally is doing to the Armenians.

image sources:

Armin T. Wegner (Wikipedia)

Wegner photograph of child and murdered man, Syria (Columbia University:
Documents and Wegner Photographs Reporting on the Armenian Genocide)

see also:

Armin Wegner, the German who stood up to genocide of both Armenians and Jews (Irish Times)

A. V. MusheghyanArmin T. Wegner’s letters and diary of 1915-1916 and struggle for condemnation of the Armenian Genocide [PDF] (Fundamental Armenology, no. 1, 2015)