19/2/1918 A new commander for the British army #1918Live

Since December 2015 General William Robertson has been serving as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, making him Britain’s most senior army officer. Robertson’s rise to this exalted rank is quite an achievement, as he joined the army originally as a private. Robertson has been close to Haig, Britain’s Western Front commander. Although their relationship has frayed somewhat, Robertson has endeavoured to shield Haig from the criticisms of Britain’s politicians.

Unfortunately Robertson is unable to protect his own position. Today he finds himself reassigned to a more junior role as a result of a dispute with the government over the inter-Allied Supreme War Council in Versailles. Robertson’s replacement is Henry Wilson, an Anglo-Irish general known for his love of political intrigue.

Robertson’s departure leaves Haig in an exposed position. The bloody slaughter of Passchendaele has seen Lloyd George lose confidence in the Western Front commander. Unfortunately there is no obvious candidate to replace him and with a German offensive imminent now is not the time to put a new man in charge. Haig looks like his post is secure for the time being.

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Henry Wilson (Wikipedia)

31/12/1917 The horrors of war in German East Africa #1917Live

The outcome of this war will no doubt be decided in Europe, but the conflict nevertheless stretches its tentacles further afield. By now Germany’s overseas colonies have mostly been overrun, but in German East Africa Lettow-Vorbeck still flies the flag for the Kaiser, despite his isolation from the Fatherland and the much larger forces the British Empire is deploying against him. Lettow-Vorbeck’s army is mostly composed of locally recruited African troops, with a small number of white German officers in command. At this stage his main goal is not to defeat his enemies but to keep his army in the field, thereby preventing the Allies from transferring the troops he is fighting to the Western Front.

The armies deployed in East Africa are tiny compared to those seen in Europe. The casualties they suffer in combat are insignificant in comparison to those seen at Verdun or Passchendaele. But this is not some kind of clean war devoid of human suffering. For the native population of German East Africa, this war has been an utter disaster. Lettow-Vorbeck is keeping his army in the field by confiscating the food supplies of the local civilian population. As a result, famine and pestilence stalk the land. Some 300,000 people have died from the famine since the war’s start, roughly 5% of the colony’s pre-war population.

Lettow-Vorbeck is not just taking the people’s food: he is also taking their men. Some of these are press-ganged into his army to make up the numbers lost in the fighting, but more are seized as labourers. The poor roads and the vulnerability of horses to the Tsetse fly mean that men make the best carriers of an army’s essentials.

The British too are press-ganging a vast number of labourers from their colonies to serve in East Africa. Like the Germans, the British are treating these labourers effectively as slaves. They are also underfeeding them relative to their African soldiers, with the result that the labourers are severely malnourished and thereby vulnerable to disease. The African labourers pressed into service by the British have a higher mortality rate than infantrymen serving on the Western Front.

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British troops and African bearers (Wikipedia: East African Campaign)

See also: How The Great War Razed East Africa

9/12/1917 Jerusalem falls to the British #1917Live

Since his victory at Gaza, Allenby has been pushing northwards through Palestine. Turkish forces under Germany’s Falkenhayn are struggling to contain the British advance. A Turkish counter-attack in late November failed to halt the British, who then pressed on to the gates of Jerusalem itself.

A British assault yesterday broke through the Turkish lines, rendering Jerusalem untenable. The Turks withdraw, leaving the city abandoned. Today Jerusalem is surrendered to the British by its mayor, Hussein al-Husseini, bringing an end to 400 years of Turkish rule over the Holy City.

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Jerusalem’s surrender party and British soldiers. Hussein al-Husseini is holding the cane. (Wikipedia)

7/12/1917 Cambrai: a bloody draw but a German victory on points

The battle of Cambrai is now winding down. The German counter-attack hit the British hard and Haig had to order a withdrawal from most of his men’s gains to prevent a complete collapse. The British still hold a small slice of the territory they captured but the Germans to the south have pushed beyond their original frontline. Both sides have taken around 45,000 casualties in the fighting.

For the British the battle has proved dispiriting. The initial successes (thanks to tanks and well-targeted artillery) could not be sustained and the German counter-attack has shown what the enemy is still capable of on the Western Front. For the Germans meanwhile the second part of the battle has raised their morale, showing that Hutier‘s infiltration tactics are as effective against the British as they were against the Russians and Italians. Ludendorff is looking forward to applying them in his spring offensive next year, which he hopes will bring the war to a victorious end.

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Knocked out British tank & map (Remembrance Trails of Northern France: the Battle of Cambrai)

30/11/1917 Cambrai: the Germans strike back

The British have called a halt to their attacks at Cambrai. While the first day‘s successes were not repeated, the battle so far has done wonders for British morale, showing that the combination of tanks and carefully targeted artillery is able to smash through even the strongest defences.

The British think the battle is over now, but they are wrong. The Germans have reinforced the Cambrai sector and now they launch an unexpected counter-attack, hoping to recover the ground lost in the fighting so far. The Germans do not have tanks to spearhead their assault, but they do have the infiltration tactics developed by Hutier at Riga and then used to great effect at Caporetto.

When German stormtroopers attack after a short but intense bombardment they attack the right flank of the British, ripping through their lines. The Germans are supported by a significant deployment of air power, with large numbers of ground attack aircraft harrying the British. Only the deployment of the few tanks the British still have available prevents their complete collapse.

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German stormtroopers attack (Metropostcard – Belligerents and Participants in World War One: The German Empire  pt1)

27/11/1917 Cambrai: as British attacks halt, the Germans prepare for a counterattack #1917Live

British Mark IV 'Female' (Blarney Castle), Fontaine Notre Dame, November 1917
After a first day of astonishing successes, British progress at Cambrai has slowed as their tanks have broken down or been knocked out by the enemy. Now after a series of failed attempts to take the village of Fontaine the British call a halt to their attacks. The Cambrai offensive has shown what tanks are capable of; the British hope that next year they will be able to apply these lessons on a larger scale.

As far as the British are concerned, the Battle of Cambrai is over. The Germans however see things differently. They brought troops to Cambrai to block the British advance. Now they are preparing for a counter-attack, one that will treat the British to the infiltration tactics that were so successful at Riga and Caporetto. The second phase of the Battle of Cambrai is about to begin.

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German soldier and British tank knocked out during fighting in Fontaine (Flickr, Drakegoodman: tanks)

map (Wikipedia: Battle of Cambrai)

23/11/1917 Cambrai: British progress stalls #1917Live

"English tanks near Cambrai" / „Dieses Vieh überfährt Schützengräben, Bäume und Wälle.”
The British have had trouble exploiting their initial gains at Cambrai. German resistance has stiffened as reinforcements have arrived while the British tank force is being depleted by enemy action and mechanical failure.

The fighting has now assumed a more positional character. The village of Fontaine is targeted by the British, but evicting the Germans from it proves nigh impossible. The defenders are making the most of the cover the ruined buildings of the village provide. And now the Germans have discovered that the tanks are vulnerable while manoeuvring through Fontaine’s narrow streets. They take to knocking out the land battleships by flinging bundles of grenades underneath them.

The British are still making gains. Today they drive the Germans from Bourlon Wood. However they fail to take the nearby Bourlon village. With fighting at Fontaine stagnated and tank numbers depleted down to 92, the British offensive at Cambrai is clearly running out of steam.

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Knocked out tanks near Fontaine, probably photographed some time after the fighting was over (Drakegoodman: Tanks (a Flickr album of vintage First World War tank photographs))