20/8/1917 Return to Verdun: France recaptures the Mort Homme #1917Live

The French army has been wracked by unrest since the failure of Nivelle’s offensive in April. Since he took over from Nivelle, Pétain has tried to restore order in the French army by punishing the ringleaders of mutinies but also attempting to address the grievances of soldiers: providing them with more leave, better food, an improved wine ration and generally moving towards treating them with the kind of respect that citizens of a republic should expect from the state.

Pétain has also promised that his men’s lives will not be thrown away on futile large scale offensives. He has said that major attacks by French forces on the Western Front should wait until the arrival of large numbers of American troops and the production of enough tanks to spearhead any assault. But in the meantime French troops have started engaging in more limited offensive action. French troops have taken part in the mainly British offensive in Flanders, where their performance suggests that Pétain’s efforts to restore the army’s fighting spirit are paying off.

Now the French stage another local attack, back at Verdun where Pétain first came to prominence. By the end of the battle last year, the French had recovered much of the ground lost in the initial German offensive. Now the French attack again, hoping to recover some more. After several days bombardment, today the infantry attack. The going is not easy for them, as they are attacking strongly fortified positions and the Germans respond to their attacks with their new mustard gas. Nevertheless, in savage fighting French and Moroccan troops capture the Mort Homme (Dead Man Hill), scene of desperate combat last year. French casualties are not light; nor are those of the enemy.

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map (Graphic Firing Table – Decisive Battles: Verdun 1916)

Postcard of French soldier relaxing with friend (Metropostcard – Belligerents and Participants in World War One: the Republic of France  pt2)

18/8/1917 Third Ypres: mud

British and French forces are attacking to the north of Ypres. Despite the recent unrest in their army, the French have made the best progress but neither of the Allies are doing very well. Unseasonal rain has turned the ground into a quagmire, making it difficult for the troops to move forward.

Because of the waterlogged nature of the ground, the Germans have built pillboxes for themselves rather than relying solely on trenches. The British had hoped to attack these with tanks, but the mud has made it impossible for them to get beyond their own lines.

The Allies make some gains, though they lose some of these to German counter-attacks. In view of the terrible weather conditions they now call a temporary halt to the offensive, hoping that a break in the rain will allow the ground to dry out somewhat, at which point the attacks can resume.

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Mud (WW1 World War One Ieper 1917)

Escorting German prisoners (Wikipedia: Battle of Langemarck (1917))

16/8/1917 Third Ypres: more failed attacks

Despite the bad weather, the British are continuing with their offensive in Flanders. Canadian troops have been making diversionary attacks at Lens but today the main British attacks resume on the Gheluvelt Plateau north of Ypres (with secondary attacks elsewhere).

The British fare little better than when they attacked on the 10th. They manage to storm the village of Langemarck but are unable to make further progress. The mud and the German defences make Haig‘s dreams of a breakthrough impossible to realise.

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Crossing the Yser Canal (Radcliffe on Trent WW1: 3rd Battle of Ypres 1917)

10/8/1917 Third Ypres: mud and the Germans block British progress #1917Live

Bad weather has forced a halt to the British offensive in Flanders. Now conditions are deemed to have improved sufficiently for the attacks at Ypres to resume. The British are now attempting to clear the Germans off the Gheluvelt Plateau. However the going is hard. Shellfire since the start of the battle has disrupted the drainage system of the battlefield while heavy rainfall has turned the ground into a quagmire. The mud makes it difficult for the soldiers to move forward but it also makes it harder to use artillery: the muddy ground yields to the guns’ recoil, meaning that they have to be retargeted after each shot. The gunners also must waste time cleaning their shells, which inevitably arrive from the depots covered in slime. Misty weather prevents aerial observation of the German positions and mud reduces the explosive power of the shells.

The British make some progress but German resistance is dogged. Their artillery is situated on a reverse slope, making it difficult for the British to target without effective aerial observation. They use it to isolate British troops as they move forward, with counter-attacks by infantry then recovering much of the lost ground.

This battle is meant to be one in which the Germans will be worn down, an attritional struggle where the aim is to inflict more casualties on the enemy than he can inflict back. But the British are suffering high casualties in the battle, while on the German side a staff officer notes that his men appear to be suffering less than they did at the Somme.

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British soldiers (The A-to-Z of Yeovil’s History: Sidney George Hawker)

19/7/1917 Kerensky’s star rises as that of the Bolsheviks falls

In Petrograd the excitement of the last few days is fast abating. The radicals seeking to overthrow the Provisional Government have been dispersed. The Bolsheviks are blamed for inciting all the trouble, with Lenin, their leader, apparently revealed as a German agent. With their headquarters seized by the authorities Bolshevik leaders go on the run; those who fail to escape the dragnet find themselves imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Kerensky, the defence minister now deems it safe to return to the city (from which he fled when the trouble started). He is greeted with a guard of honour and presents himself as the national hero who has saved Petrograd by summoning the loyalist troops that quelled the revolt.

However, not everything is going Kerensky’s way. The great offensive he insisted the army stage against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians has been a disaster. Now the Germans are staging a counter-offensive in strength. The Russians are reeling from the onslaught, seemingly unable to offer meaningful resistance. It now looks as though Kerensky’s offensive has broken the Russian army.

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Alexander Kerensky (Wikipedia)

Russians attacked by German cavalry (Metropostcard: The Eastern Front  1917-1919)

17/7/1917 Narungombe: a British advance in East Africa thwarted

The war in German East Africa should be coming to an end. The Germans here are heavily outnumbered and completely cut off from Europe. British Empire forces have overrun the colony’s coast but the Germans have retreated inland. Now the British attempt to follow them, under orders from London to eliminate Germany’s last overseas colony as soon as possible.

This is not purely a white man’s war. The British are fielding troops from India and their various African possessions alongside European and white South African soldiers. They have also forcibly recruited a vast corps of Africans to serve as bearers in slave-like conditions. The German army meanwhile is mainly locally recruited Askaris, with a small number of European officers.

British forces attack the Germans today at Narungombe. The Germans here are outnumbered but Lettow-Vorbeck, the overall German commander is racing to reinforce them. The fighting is confused, with brush fires reducing visibility. The Germans inflict heavy losses on the British but Lieberman, the local commander, fears being overwhelmed. He orders a withdrawal, which comes as something of a surprise to the British.

When they join forces Lettow-Vorbeck is furious that Lieberman did not wait at Narungombe for his arrival. Nevertheless the battle has so battered the British that for now they must abandon any further plans to advance.

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Askaris (Delville Wood)

6/7/1917 Finland declares independence from Russia #1917Live

At the front, any hopes that the Kerensky Offensive will lead to a great victory are rapidly unravelling. Although the Russians are pushing back the Austro-Hungarians, the main effort against the Germans is coming badly unstuck and the stresses of battle are hastening the Russian army’s disintegration.

This reverse is not the only crisis facing the Provisional Government. Aside from the increasingly chaotic situation in the heart of the country, Russia is increasingly beset by separatist movements on the periphery. The Rada in Ukraine has already declared autonomy. Now the parliament of Finland goes one step further, today declaring independence for what had hitherto been a self-governing part of the Russian empire.

The Finnish declaration causes consternation in Petrograd. Both the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet are opposed to Finland’s unilateral declaration of independence. The Soviets resolve to persuade the Finns to revoke their declaration but the Provisional Government adopts a more forceful position, preparing to use force if necessary to keep Finland in the empire.

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The Grand Duchy of Finland (Wikipedia)