18/10/1917 Mahiwa: Lettow-Vorbeck’s pyrrhic victory

In German East Africa the British are frustrated by the continued resistance of Lettow-Vorbeck‘s army. The Germans are completely cut off from their homeland and have been driven into the interior of the colony but are nevertheless refusing to give up the fight. The campaign is becoming a game of cat and mouse, as the British hope to catch and annihilate Lettow-Vorbeck’s force while the German commander struggles to fight on.

For the last few days the two sides have been fighting at Mahiwa in the south of the country. British Nigerian troops have attempted to block the Germans’ withdrawal but have found themselves surrounded by the enemy. The engagement turns into the largest battle seen yet in the campaign, with large numbers of British forces and the bulk of Lettow-Vorbeck’s men deployed into a desperate struggle by both sides to gain a decisive advantage.

Today the battle draws to a close. The British have failed to block Lettow-Vorbeck’s withdrawal and have suffered horrendous casualties: something like 2,700 out of the 4,900 men deployed. However for the Germans too the situation has been a disaster. Their casualties are just 500 men or so, but this represents a significant proportion of Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces. Worse, in the fighting the Germans have used up most of their ammunition in the fighting; with modern smokeless ammunition almost completely depleted they are now reliant on obsolete rifles firing black powder rounds. The Germans have also had to abandon machine guns and face a surge in desertions from their African troops.

For all that, the Germans have escaped annihilation. Lettow-Vorbeck’s war continues.

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German Askaris attack (Metropostcard: Africa and Asia  1915-1919)

11/10/1917 Operation Albion: German troops seize the islands of Estonia #1917Live

On the Eastern Front, the Russian military situation continues to deteriorate. German troops have already taken Riga; now they land on Saaremaal in the Estonian archipeligo, crushing Russian resistance there. This is an ominous development: the amphibious operation is outflanking Russian defensive lines, threatening a German advance on Petrograd itself. To those in the capital who fear that the revolution has gone too far, the prospect of the Kaiser’s troops arrival becomes almost something to hope for.

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Riga & the Baltic Islands (Wikipedia: Operation Albion)

9/10/1917 Poelcapelle: an Allied attack at Ypres fails #1917Live

The latest attack at Ypres takes place today, an attempt to further extend the Allied position with Poelcapelle at the centre of their crosshairs. The last few attacks have been relatively successful, with ground gained and significant casualties inflicted on the Germans (albeit also at considerable cost to the Allies).

Good weather played a significant role in previous successes. Now however the weather has broken. British airmen find it harder to observe and guide down artillery on German positions. The infantry find if extremely difficult to move forward across an increasingly muddy battlefield. Mud also makes it difficult to keep the guns firing. And the tanks find themselves unable to manoeuvre in the morass into which they are to advance.

The result is that the British and their Commonwealth allies suffer terrible casualties and make almost no gains. The only real success today happens on the British flank, where French troops trudge through the mud behind a slowly creeping barrage, achieving their limited objectives with relatively few casualties. Overall this is a day of failure, though British commanders may at least take some satisfaction from the knowledge that the Germans too have suffered great losses in containing the attack.

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Mud (Copwick: images of Poelcapelle and the Passchendaele battle site)

4/10/1917 Broodseinde: more Ypres attrition #1917Live

After their recent attacks on Polygon Wood and the Menin Road the British now launch another of their bite-and-hold attacks. This time, with a large part being played by Australian and New Zealand troops, the aim is a general extension of the Ypres salient, centred on the ridge of Broodseinde.

The Allies attack without a preliminary artillery bombardment, catching the Germans on the hop and taking many prisoners. German counterattacks are held off and in some areas the Allies even advance beyond their objectives. So well have the men done that Plumer, the local commander, considers pushing more men forward to exploit the gains, but in the end caution prevails.

Nevertheless, for all the Allied successes today, casualties suffered have been great (but not as great as those of the enemy). And the weather is beginning to break, suggesting that it will not be easy to repeat recent gains in the future. Haig, the British Western Front commander, begins to look beyond the front line towards Passchendaele, a German-held village that he thinks would be an ideal target for the next stage of the battle.

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British troops moving up before the battle (Wikipedia: Battle of Broodseinde)

map (Wikipedia: Battle of Broodseinde)

27/9/1917 East Africa: Lettow-Vorbeck escapes another Allied trap #1917Live

British Commonwealth forces have overrun the coastal areas of German East Africa. South Africa’s Deventer has been left to command the forces mopping up German resistance. The British authorities in London are keen to bring an end to the East African campaign as soon as possible, so that the men and ships deployed there can be moved elsewhere.

German forces under Lettow-Vorbeck are greatly outnumbered and completely cut off from Europe. They are feeding themselves by living off the land and relying on what they can capture from the enemy for military and medical supplies. The German army here is mostly comprised of Askaris, locally recruited troops, with a small number of European officers who are at perpetual risk of succumbing to malaria should quinine supplies run out.

Nevertheless, Lettow-Vorbeck is determined to fight on. His men are now concentrated in the south of the country and he is contesting Allied advances from the coast. In difficult terrain the Allies have struggled against the Germans, but today they manage to take his main base at Nahungu. However Lettow-Vorbeck and enough of his men escape that they will be able to continue resistance. For the Germans, survival is victory.

images source:

German Askaris & map

Both from The Soldier’s Burden: Bweho-Chini – 22nd September 1917, German East Africa

26/9/1917 3rd Ypres: Britain storms Polygon Wood #1917Live

The British are staging a rolling series of limited attacks at Ypres. These are meant to attritional, inflicting more damage on the Germans than the Allies are taking, but casualties are heavy on both sides. Since the recent assault on the Menin Road and the fighting that followed, some 20,000 losses have been suffered by British and Australian forces. German losses are about the same.

Now the British shift focus to attack Polygon Wood (so named for its curious shape on the map). Again the British are helped by relatively dry weather conditions and good preparations. British and Australian troops push into the wood (or what is left of it) and establish themselves on more easily defended positions from which German rear areas can be observed. The Germans launch vigorous counter-attacks but are unable to dislodge the British from their gains. Casualties on both sides are heavy: well above 10,000 men each.

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Australian troops advance (Wikipedia)

Australian troops wearing respirators (Wikipedia)

20/9/1917 3rd Ypres: a limited assault on the Menin Road #1917Live

Fighting at Ypres continues in fits and starts. The weather has improved somewhat, making it easier for the British. Plumer, the new local commander, is staging a series of limited offensives, though Haig continues to dream of a breakthrough. Today the British attack on a wide front straddling the Menin Road from Ypres. Artillery blasts German front line positions, with the guns then being retargetted to hit enemy forces staging counterattacks.

Plumer’s men make modest gains, advancing on average less than a kilometre. But this is deliberate, with the attack intended to seize and hold territory and then force the Germans to fight at a disadvantage. Now after the initial gains both sides attempt to reorganise their defences and take the best possible positions.

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British troops resting in a trench (Wikipedia)

Wounded Australian troops (Wikipedia)