17/5/1917 As the Battle of Arras ends, Haig’s thoughts turn to Ypres

The Battle of Arras is now over. The battle began as a diversion, an attempt to draw German attention away from the French offensive in the Chemin des Dames sector. Great initial successes were achieved but as the battle went on it became more like the typical Western Front meat-grinder battle.

The offensive should have been wound down once the French offensive began, but when it became apparent that the French were suffering a disaster in the Chemin des Dames Haig kept the attacks going. Now though the battle is at an end. The British and their Commonwealth allies have suffered just under 160,000 casualties. German losses are around 130,000.

With Arras over, Haig is now free to plan for his summer offensive, a planned major assault on the German lines at Ypres in Flanders. Haig hopes to break through the German lines and clear them from the Belgian coast, eliminating the German naval bases that have been threatening Allied shipping in the Channel.

image source:

Canadian machine gunners, Vimy Ridge (Wikipedia)

9/5/1917 Nivelle sacked, his offensive halted, the French army in danger of collapse

Nivelle had promised that his offensive in the Chemin des Dames would give France a decisive victory, one that would bring the end of the war into sight. Instead the battle has been a bloodbath, with the French suffering some 187,000 casualties in the battle to date. German losses in this short battle have also been astonishingly high at 167,000.

The Germans have taken their losses while holding the line against French attacks. French losses have resulted from futile attempts to break through the enemy lines. Nivelle’s promises of easy victory grate on men who feel they are being sent to their deaths for no purpose.

Disorder and indiscipline are spreading through the French army. Units are refusing to move up to the front. Others have arrived at the front drunk and without their weapons. Men are deserting and refusing to obey orders. Some units have elected councils, ominously similar to the Soviets that have spread through the Russian army.

For now soldiers are not attacking their own officers or refusing to defend positions against the Germans, but the fear of the army commanders and the politicians is that the army is now at the brink of a complete collapse. Nivelle’s offensive is brought to a final halt. Nivelle himself is hustled out of his job as commander on the Western Front. His replacement is Pétain, who led the defence of Verdun in the early stages of the battle last year. The hope is that he will be able to restore the fighting spirit of the army and once more save France.

image source:

French soldiers (Dying Splendor of the Old World)

7/5/1917 The last flight of Albert Ball

Fighting at Arras continues. The British have deployed a large number of aircraft to the sector, to observe enemy positions so that the artillery can better target them. The Germans in turn have deployed a considerable number of fighter planes, including Jasta 11, the Red Baron‘s squadron.

The British have sent their own fighter pilots to Arras, including Albert Ball, one of their star pilots. He only seems to have joined the battle late in April, but since then has managed to shoot down some 12 German aircraft. With the Canadian pilot Billy Bishop he hatches a daring plan to attack Jasta 11’s airfield at dawn, hopefully catching Richthofen’s squadron on the ground. The attack is to take place at the end of the month, when Bishop returns from leave.

Ball is not able to put his plan into effect. In the evening today his squadron encounters aeroplanes of Jasta 11 and a dogfight ensues. Ball is observed chasing the red aircraft of Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of the Red Baron. Ball pursues the younger Richthofen into a cloud, perhaps thinking he is on the tail of the Red Baron himself. What happens next is unclear, but an observer on the ground sees Ball’s aeroplane fall from the skies. Ball is dead when Germans reach the crash site.

The night before his death Ball had written to his father, saying: “I do get tired of always living to kill, and am really beginning to feel like a murderer. Shall be so pleased when I have finished”. In his short career he has shot down some 44 German aircraft. The Germans bury him with full military honours, a few months short of his 21st birthday.

image sources:

Albert Ball (Wikipedia)

The Last Fight of Captain Ball, VC, DSO and 2 Bars, MC, 7 May 1917 by Norman Arnold (Wikipedia)

4/5/1917 Robertson and Pétain agree on attrition, Haig continues to dream of a breakthrough

Nivelle‘s Chemin des Dames offensive has failed. French efforts are still continuing there but his bold claims that the attacks would smash through the German lines and bring the war’s end into sight have been proved hollow. Unrest is beginning to spread through the French army, with many units proving reluctant to obey orders.

Allied military leaders meet today in Paris to consider how now to proceed. Robertson, the British army’s chief of staff, and Pétain agree that a breakthrough cannot be achieved this year. However, they estimate that their men’s efforts are inflicting considerable casualties on the Germans. They resolve now to avoid further attempts at breaking through the enemy lines and instead focus on inflicting attritional damage on the enemy. Smaller scale offensives backed up by artillery will wear away the Germans, inflicting more losses on them than the Allies will suffer. And because of the French army’s problems, most of these efforts will have to be made by the British.

The British are still attacking at Arras, though efforts there are starting to wind down. The next British attack planned is to take place at Ypres. And although Haig pretends to agree with Robertson and Pétain that this will be a battle of limited objectives, he still intends that this will in fact be a breakthrough battle. He hopes that his men will be able to clear the Germans from the Flanders coast and begin the liberation of Belgium.

30/4/1917 Bloody April: the red skies above Arras

The failure of Nivelle’s offensive in the Chemin des Dames and the unrest emerging in the French army has put the spotlight back on the British. Haig‘s men are continuing their offensive at Arras, now the main Allied effort on the Western Front, for all that it was originally meant to be just a diversion for the French. British troops (and their allies from Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries) continue to struggle with the enemy, but there is no repeat of the spectacular successes of the first day.

The British have deployed a large number of aircraft to the Arras battle. Aerial observation is vital for ensuring accurate artillery targeting of German positions. To disrupt the British observers, the Germans have deployed a large number of their own fighters to the battle, including star pilots like Richthofen, the Red Baron. German aircraft still outclass the aeroplanes of their enemies, so the result is a one-sided battle.

Over the last month the British have lost 275 aircraft in the battle. 50% of their air crews have been casualties. Richthofen’s squadron shoots down some 89 of the Allied aircraft, with the Red Baron alone bringing down some 21 aircraft. The life expectancy of a newly deployed British airman drops to just 11 days.

German losses are not inconsiderable, with some 66 of their aircraft brought down. And despite German successes, the sheer number of British aeroplanes deployed to Arras means that they continue to be able to supply the artillery with accurate information on German ground deployments.

image source (rOEN911 on DeviantArt)

29/4/1917 Unrest in the French army brings Pétain to the fore

Just a month ago Nivelle was telling anyone who would listen that his Chemin des Dames offensive would smash the Germans and bring the end of the war into sight. Unfortunately the assault proved a disastrous failure. No breakthrough was achieved and the French suffered horrendous casualty levels. In the nine days of the battle the French took 134,000 casualties, two thirds of their losses in the whole of the Somme last year.

Now the French troops are beginning to crack. Suspecting that their commanders are throwing away their lives for nothing, units are becoming increasingly mutinous. Men are disobeying orders, particularly ones to move up the front. Officers are seeing their authority breaking down, though for now the soldiers are showing no sign of deserting en masse or refusing to fight if attacked by the Germans (who remain unaware of the discontent in French ranks).

The failure of his offensive means that now the politicians are turning on Nivelle. The process of edging him out of command of the army begins now with Pétain‘s appointment as his chief of staff, effectively Nivelle’s replacement. Pétain earned the respect of the men at Verdun. The politicians hope that he can restore the fighting spirit of the army.

Pétain hopes to win over the men by listening to their concerns about bad food and lack of leave. He orders an increase in the wine ration and an improvement in its quality. He also promises an end to the wasteful offensives that have thrown away French lives for no good purpose. But concessions are only one weapon in Pétain’s arsenal. He also proposes carefully targeted repression to root out and deal severely with troublemakers within the army.

image sources:

French soldiers (Roads to the Great War)

Philippe Pétain (Wikipedia)

29/4/1917 The Red Baron kills

The British have deployed large numbers of aircraft to support their offensive at Arras. Knowing the importance of aerial observation to the Allies, the Germans have responded by sending many of their own fighter planes to attack the British airmen. One of these is Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron. Flying his red Albatross D. III aeroplane, Richthofen leads his squadron as they hunt their British foes.

Richthofen is not just a leader of men. He is also a killer. Today the red hunter has a good day, downing four British aeroplanes, sending 5 British airmen to their graves (and one Canadian).

This has been a good month for the Red Baron. Including today’s bag, he has brought down 22 Allied aeroplanes since the start of April.

image sources:

Manfred von Richthofen (Wikipedia)

Aircraft of Richthofen’s squadron (Wikipedia)