6/7/1917 The Red Baron shot down #1917Live

Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, has been leading his Flying Circus over the Western Front, striking terror into Allied airmen wherever he goes. By now he has personally shot down as many as 57 Allied aircraft, sending dozens of mostly British fliers to their graves. In Germany he is starting to become famous, portrayed in propaganda as a knight of the air.

Combat flying is a dangerous business. One mistake or an instance of bad luck can prove fatal. Richthofen had a brush with death in March, when an enemy bullet knocked out the engine of his aeroplane. Today the Grim Reaper’s scythe swings closer. In combat with two British F.E. 2d fighters Richthofen suffers a head wound, disorienting and temporarily blinding him. Fortunately for him, he recovers enough to be able to bring his plane down safely in a field on the German side of the line. Richthofen survives, but it will be some time before the wounded Red Baron can to return to the skies.

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Richthofen’s aeroplane after his forced landing (Wikipedia)

Richthofen recovering under the care of Nurse Kätie Otersdorf (Bliss from Bygone Days: The Red Baron)

25/6/1917 The first US troops arrive in France

US warships are now based in European ports and are taking part in anti-submarine patrols.The US army however will not be able to play its part for some time. Conscription is increasing the size of the tiny US peacetime army but the new recruits still have to be trained and equipped for modern war. It could be next year before they are ready to take on the Germans. Nevertheless, today the first contingent of American troops arrives in St. Nazaire in France, where they are greeted by cheering crowds. These troops are not even remotely ready for combat but their very presence makes the French think that perhaps the tide of war is beginning to turn in their favour.

Tensions are beginning to emerge between the Americans and their European allies on how US troops should be deployed. The British and French want American units deployed piecemeal along the Western Front to plug gaps in the line. They reckon this is the best way for the inexperienced Americans to learn how to fight a modern war. But Pershing, the US commander, is insistent that his men will have to be given an entire sector of the front to fight on. To him it would be unacceptable for US troops to be deployed under French or British commanders. This however means that it will be much longer before the Americans can go to the front in serious numbers.

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Postcard (MetroPostcard Guide to the United States of America in World War One on postcards)

24/6/1917 The Red Baron’s Flying Circus

Over the Western Front fliers contend in the skies in support of their comrades on the ground. A problem for the Germans is that they have less considerably aircraft than the Allies: in the skies they will always be outnumbered. Now they try a new tactic to ensure that they are able to achieve aerial dominance in key sectors. Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, is given the command of four fighter squadrons, with the new super-unit given the name Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG 1). The idea is that this unit will be quickly deployable anywhere along the front to achieve local air superiority. Richthofen is authorised to recruit the best fighter pilots on the Western Front and to expel any who underperform.

JG 1 soon acquires a new nickname: the Flying Circus. Many of the aeroplanes are brightly coloured, with fliers emulating the red of Richthofen’s own aeroplane. The unit also travels from place to place by train, quickly setting up to take on the Allies before moving on to their next engagement, like a troupe of wandering entertainers. The cheerful connotations of the nickname are of course at odds with the murderous intent of the Flying Circus.

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Manfred von Richthofen (Wikipedia)

15/6/1917 Pétain attempts to conciliate French mutineers

Unrest continues in the French army. By now around half of the units on the Western Front have been affected, with soldiers refusing orders to attack or to move up to the front line. There have also been instances of desertion and disorders but thus far there are no reports of soldiers attacking their officers. Soldiers are also continuing to defend positions against the Germans. The mutiny has forced the cancellation of a French offensive that was scheduled for the 10th of June at Malmaison and has obliged the British to take the leading role on the Western Front.

Pétain has ordered mass arrests in order to crush the mutiny. Ring-leaders are being court-martialled and in some cases sentenced to death, though most of these death sentences are being commuted. Pétain is also attempting to restore the confidence of the men in their commanders. He orders an end to large-scale attacks. Soldiers conditions are to be improved. They are to be provided with better food and wine and to spend less time in the front-line trenches. More generous leave arrangements are put in place.

Pétain takes it upon himself to visit the soldiers and explain the improvements he is putting in place. To many he is a persuasive figure, having earned their respect during the early days of the fighting at Verdun.

The unrest in the French army is not over by any means. Pétain knows that it will be some time before his army is ready to attack the Germans again. But perhaps he is able to begin hoping that the worst of the mutiny is over and the army is beginning to be ready once more to continue the prosecution of the war.

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Pétain meeting with some soldiers (Poppycock: the Real First World War)

11/6/1917 Messines: the Germans retreat

South of Ypres, British and ANZAC forces have seized Messines Ridge, after first exploding mines under German positions. German counter-attacks have failed to recapture lost ground. Now the Germans begin to withdraw to prepared positions to the east, fearing that the British will launch
further attacks to exploit their success.

In fact the British do not have the men in place to push on from Messines. Haig sees this battle as merely a prelude to this summer’s big battle, an attempt to smash through the German lines at Ypres itself. So the fighting at Messines begins to wind down.

image source (Wikipedia)

7/6/1917 Assault on Messines Ridge

The disorder in the French army means that the British are having to take on a leading role on the Western Front. Allied commanders have agreed that the focus of action will be attritional, aiming to wear down the Germans by inflicting greater casualties on them than they can inflict on the Allies. But Haig continues to hope for a breakthrough battle, where his men will smash through the German lines and restore mobility to the war.

Haig’s plan is for a major offensive this summer in Flanders at Ypres. His ambitious plan is for a ground offensive to be followed by an amphibious assault on the Belgian coast that will clear the Germans from their naval bases there. Today though his men stage a more limited assault, one in keeping with the agreed objectives. They attack German positions on the Messines Ridge south of Ypres. Securing this high ground should make it harder for the Germans to disrupt Haig’s main offensive.
The ridge is strongly defended but the British have left nothing to chance. Mines have been dug under the German positions. Just before the infantry are about to attack the mines are detonated, with an explosive force that is apparently heard in south east England. Some 10,000 German troops are killed in the blast. The survivors are subjected to a devastating artillery bombardment.
The mines leave the Germans at the front stunned and unable to offer serious resistance. British and ANZAC troops overrun enemy positions, capturing some 7,500 prisoners, advancing beyond their target lines. The ridge is secured and the British dig in to repel any counterattacks.

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map (New Zealand History: 1917: Arras, Messines and Passchendaele)

German trench destroyed by the mines (Wikipedia)

German pillbox, blown upside down by the explosion (ANZAC: Messines Ridge)

Prisoners (ANZAC: Messines Ridge)

1/6/1917 French mutinies continue

Disorder continues in the French army on the Western Front. The appointment of Pétain has not brought the unrest to an end, despite his reputation for sympathy with the ordinary soldier’s lot. In fact the French army mutinies have spread, with more and more units disobeying orders to move up to the front or stage attacks against the Germans.

The mutiny is more in the character of a strike than an outright insurrection against military authority. In general troops are staging protests and refusing to throw away their lives but they are still defending positions against the Germans (who have no idea of the unrest in the French army). There are no reports of troops killing their officers, as has apparently started to happen in Russia. However there is an increase in desertion and some circulation of pacifist and socialist literature.

Today, though, there is an apparent escalation. A mutinous regiment takes over the town of Missy-aux-Bois, defying all authority and refusing to obey any orders.

Pétain responds to the unrest by ordering mass arrests. Courts-martial hand down sentences of death, though high command is relatively reluctant to carry out mass executions. As well as the stick, Pétain also applies the carrot, trying to address the grievances that have led to the mutinies: bad food, lack of leave, horrendous living conditions, and an apparently callous disregard on the part of the commanders towards the lives of their men.

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French soldiers (The Great War Project)