14/5/1917 Tenth Isonzo: the infantry attack

After subjecting the Austro-Hungarians to a bombardment of an intensity not yet seen on the Italian front, now Cadorna sends his infantry forward. In this Tenth Battle of the Isonzo, the Italians are hoping to seize the high ground beyond Gorizia, with ambitious plans to then roll up the Austro-Hungarian lines.

With their fighting spirit buoyed up by pep talks from the Futurist poet Filippo Marinetti, the Italians manage to storm the position known as Hill 383, albeit after suffering horrendous casualties from the vastly outnumbered but determined enemy. They are unable to take Mount Kuk, but the Italians manage to storm Mount Sabotinio. However, the fighting then becomes one of attack and counter-attack as the Austro-Hungarians and Italians struggle to deny each other the summit.

The Italians are also attacking on the Carso plateau, down towards the coast, hoping to smash through the depleted Austro-Hungarian positions here. Unfortunately the Habsburgs are able to contain the Italians thanks to a combination of dogged resistance by the infantry and murderously accurate artillery fire.

At the end of the first day it looks suspiciously like this battle of the Isonzo will be much like the previous ones, with the Italians making only minimal gains and taking enormous casualties. Nevertheless the attacks will continue tomorrow.

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Soldiers (La Grande Guerra e i Giovani di Trezzano Sul Naviglio)

14/5/1917 The Battle of Otranto

On land the Italians are making their tenth attempt to break through the Austro-Hungarian defences at the Isonzo. At sea though it is Austria-Hungary which is attacking. Their target is the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the mouth of the Adriatic at the Straits of Otranto. Drifters, mostly British, patrol here, trailing nets in which they hope to catch enemy U-boats; larger ships are ready to support the drifters in case of enemy action.

Led by Commander Horthy, an Austro-Hungarian flotilla sails out at night to attack the drifters, sinking 14 of them and damaging another four. An Allied squadron comprising British, French and Italian ships gives chase, trying to prevent Horthy’s ships from escaping back to port. However the Austro-Hungarians also bring up reinforcements. In the fighting that follows, the Austro-Hungarians see one of their cruisers suffer heavy damage (with Horthy himself severely injured) but the Allies have the worst of it, losing two destroyers.

The battle shows the Allies that they cannot be certain of complete control of the Adriatic. However there are no great consequences of the action. The Otranto Barrage remains in operation, but it also continues to be a a rather ineffectual barrier to German and Austro-Hungarian submarines.

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The Castle of Otranto (Echoes form the Vault)

SMS Novara, Horthy’s flagship (Wikipedia)

Horthy, seriously wounded (Wikipedia)

12/5/1917 Tenth time lucky on the Isonzo?

Since the Italians joined the war in 1915 they have launched nine offensives against the Austro-Hungarians on the Isonzo line. All have failed, apart perhaps from the Sixth Battle, which saw Italy capture frontline town of Gorizia.

Now shelling begins for the tenth offensive. The Italians have built up their artillery, doubling the number of medium and heavy guns available a year ago. They now have 3,000 guns at the Isonzo, a smaller concentration than would be seen on the Western Front, with less shells for them to fire, but this is still capable of blasting the Austro-Hungarians with an intensity never before seen on this front. Cadorna hopes that this time after a short artillery bombardment the infantry will be able to smash through the enemy and achieve the breakthrough that has long eluded him.

10/5/1917 Convoys against U-boats

The Germans are hoping that their U-boats will force Britain out of the war by the autumn. Last month the submarines sunk a record quantity of Allied shipping. As a trading nation, Britain needs its merchant fleet to survive. If the Germans can continue to destroy its ships faster than they can be rebuilt then Britain will be reduced to poverty and starvation.

The British are trying various measures to counter the U-boat threat. Food production at home is being increased and ship building is being accelerated. And now they try a novel tactic to protect the ships while they are at sea. Instead of having merchantmen sail individually, easy targets for the German submarines, today the first convoy of 17 ships, escorted by warships of the British navy, sets sail for Britain from Gibraltar. Some fear that having all these ships sail together presents the Germans with too tempting a target, but the hope is that they will be protected from the U-boats’ depredations by their escorts.

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.

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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.

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Albert Ball (Wikipedia)

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

5/5/1917 Pro-conscription party wins landslide in Australia

Australian politics has been in turmoil since the failure of a conscription referendum last year. Prime Minister Billy Hughes had supported conscription but most of his Labor Party colleagues had opposed it. After the vote, Hughes had left his party, taking a good few of the MPs with him but remaining as Prime Minister only with the support of the Liberals.

Since then Hughes’ supporters and the Liberals have merged to create the Nationalist Party, with Hughes as leader. Today Australia goes to the polls in a general election. A drop in Labor’s vote sees the Nationalists win a landslide victory of seats in the Australian parliament. Now Hughes begins to think about having another go at introducing conscription to Australia.