Category: the great war

Germans and Whites Cut Off Finnish Reds

German and White Finnish forces meet in Lahti, completing the encirclement of much of the Finnish Red Army.

April 20 1918, Lahti–Since the Germans landed at Hanko on April 3, the situation of the Finnish Reds had quickly deteriorated.  On the 6th, Mannerheim’s White forces captured Tampere, and on the 13th, the Germans took Helsinki, suffering only 200 casualties in the ten days’ campaign.  Meanwhile, another force of Germans had landed at Loviisa, fifty miles east of Helsinki.  On April 20, they linked up with Mannerheim’s forces approaching from the north near Lahti, cutting off a Red force of over 25,000 men.  The last seat of Red power was in Vyborg, near the Russian border, and on the same day Mannerheim and the Germans began their advance on the city.

Today in 1917: Failure of the Nivelle Offensive

Today in 1916: Russian Expeditionary Force Arrives in France
Today in 1915: Armenians Besieged in Van

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.

Hashemites Defeated at Ma’an

Hashemite forces on the way to Ma’an.

April 19 1918, Ma’an–Feisal had planned to launch an attack on the key railroad station at Ma’an while Allenby attacked Amman to the north in early April; however, heavy rains and flooding, which caused delays for the British, meant the Arab operation was postponed until well after the British had crossed back over the Jordan.  Nonetheless, Feisal hoped that the Turks had redirected enough strength to face Allenby that his small force could overwhelm the reduced defenses at Ma’an after cutting the railway both north and south of town.

Over three days of fighting, the Arabs took multiple Turkish trench lines around Ma’an, and some of the Turkish officers were considering surrender.  However, the people of the town, fearing that the Arabs would ransack their homes, took up arms and bolstered the Turkish defenses.  Meanwhile, the Arabs had suffered disproportionate casualties from Turkish artillery and machine-gun fire, with no way to respond; the French battery sent to aid the Hashemites ran out of ammunition within hours.  On April 19, after suffering nearly 300 casualties (including more than half of their officers), the Hashemites reluctantly decided to retreat before their forces broke entirely.  Ma’an would remain in Turkish hands until the fall.

Today in 1917: First American Action of the War

Today in 1916: Wilson Addresses Congress on Submarines, Threatens to Sever Relations with Germany
Today in 1915: Massacres of Armenians in Van

Sources include: Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans

Conscription Extended to Ireland

John Dillon of the Irish Parliamentary Party leads an anti-conscription rally in Roscommon.

April 18 1918, Dublin–The British government was sent into crisis by Germany’s renewed offensives in the west.  Believing he was in real danger of losing the war, Lloyd George introduced a bill to expand conscription into the House of Commons on April 9, only hours after the Germans launched Operation Georgette in Flanders.  Conscription would now affect all men from 17

½ to 50, though 40-50 year-olds would remain in Britain for home defense.  Some exemptions for munitions workers were removed, and standards for good eyesight were lowered.  Most controversial, however, was the expansion of conscription to Ireland, where it had so far not been enacted due to extreme political opposition.  Lloyd George attempted to temper this by announcing that he would also implement Home Rule for Ireland, attempting to co-opt the report of the Irish Convention. The bill was pushed through in a week’s time with a majority of 198 votes.  A day later, the Irish Parliamentary Party left the Commons in protest; this would mark the end of (non-abstentionist) Irish representation in Westminster outside of Northern Ireland.

The Military Service Act become law on April 18.  The same day, leaders of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Sinn Féin, the All-for-Ireland Party, and Labour met in Mansion House in Dublin, formed the Irish Anti-Conscription Committee, and began to plan how would they oppose the realization of conscription in Ireland.  On the same day, Ireland’s Catholic bishops were holding a meeting, and agreed that they should call upon their parishioners to resist conscription “by the most effective means at our disposal…[that are] consonant with the law of God."  In conjunction with the Anti-Conscription Committee, they agreed to post the following pledge on the door of every Catholic church the following Sunday, April 21:

Denying the right of the British government to enforce compulsory service in this country, we pledge ourselves solemnly to one another to resist conscription by the most effective means at our disposal.

This was followed by a one-day general strike on Tuesday the 23rd.  Ultimately, the extreme opposition in Ireland, the passing of the crisis on the Western Front, and the arrival in France of many more American troops (and others; the Italians sent a force of 50,000 to the Western Front on April 18 as well), meant that the government would never attempt to enforce conscription in Ireland.

Today in 1917: Second Battle of Gaza

Today in 1916: Russians Capture Trebizond
Today in 1915: Roland Garros and his Plane Captured by Germans

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

Belgians Repulse German Attack

April 17 1918, Merckem [Merkem]–Although over 90% of their country was occupied by the Germans, the Belgian Army still continued to defend their portion of the line in Flanders.  Their sector had been relatively quiet since 1914, aided by deliberate flooding of much of the low-lying land in the area.  Although officially not part of the Allies, the Belgians still did their best to cooperate with the forces that were helping to defend what remained of unoccupied Belgium from the Germans.  When the Germans broke through south of Ypres on April 9, Belgian King Albert volunteered to extend his line south to aid the Allies.

On April 17, the Germans attacked the Belgian lines around Merckem, at the northern end of the Ypres Salient, which had been much reduced by Plumer’s withdrawal from Passchendaele.  An attempted attack on the British lines the previous day had failed after the Germans realized they were attacking into nothing.  Simultaneously, the Germans were attacking south of Ypres, towards Mt. Kemmel, in an attempt to take the high ground there and cut off what remained of the Ypres Salient.

The Germans had some initial success against the Belgians, but a counterattack with bayonets by the 3rd Division reversed all the German gains and captured 800 PoWs and 42 machine guns.  The northern end of the Ypres Salient was secured, and the Belgians had won one of their first victories in Europe since 1914.

Today in 1917: 

Further French Attacks as Mutinies Begin

Today in 1916: Final Attack to Relieve Kut Begins
Today in 1915: British Take Hill 60 After Sappers Detonate Mines

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

Pogrom in Cracow

April 16 1918, Cracow [Kraków]–The Allied blockade of Europe and several years of back-and-forth fighting on the Eastern Front had led to severe food shortages in Austria, even in its breadbasket of Galicia.  The Jewish population of the area was over-represented in milling, baking, and other food-related trades, and the combination of hunger and anti-Semitism led to suspicions that the Jewish population was hoarding food.  These feelings were so pronounced by May 1917 that the Jewish population began seriously considering setting up its own defense forces in case violence broke out against them.  Late in 1917, an attempt by bread protesters to march south to the Jewish district of Kazimierz was halted by police.

In 1918, tensions rose further with bread strikes in January, followed by riots against the peace treaty with Ukraine, which had given major concessions to the Ukrainians at the expense of the Poles, in a misguided attempt to secure food supplies.  By the spring of 1918, the local Polish population no longer had any trust in the government; for example, two women on a tram were overheard saying that if the bread shortage continued, “we won’t go to the town council or governor, we’ll just demolish the shops where they sell cakes and rolls.”

On April 16, at a food market in the north of the city, Christians, enraged at the high prices and blaming Jewish traders for them, began attacking the latter.  A mob marched twenty-five minutes south to Kazimierz, looting Jewish shops; the police did nothing to stop them.  Violence continued through the 20th.  On the 19th, Jewish youths retaliated, driving out Christian traders from a market with sticks and iron rods.  The military attempted to intervene on the 18th, and did temporarily calm the situation, but neither side trusted the emperor’s soldiers; both Christians and Jews attacked or tried to drive the soldiers off.

Although the city was calm once again by April 21, it was not to be a one-time affair.  Pogroms would continue across Galicia throughout the remainder of 1918, and the ugly anti-Semitic attitudes would long outlast the war.

Today in 1917: The Nivelle Offensive

Today in 1916: Internal Security Dramatically Increased in Russian 12th Army
Today in 1915: Turkish Torpedo Boat Attack on Transport Ship Fails; 51 Die in Panic

Sources include: Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel.

Austrian Foreign Minister Resigns After France…

Ottokar Czernin (1872-1932), Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister from December 1916 to April 1918.

April 14 1918, Vienna–Hopes for a negotiated peace largely evaporated after the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in the east and Germany’s massive offensives in the west.  The most promising peace feelers had come from Austria-Hungary, whose Emperor Charles had sent his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus, to negotiate on his behalf in early 1917.  On April 2 1918, Austrian Foreign Minister Czernin, wanting to improve relations with the victorious Germans, gave a fiery speech in Vienna claiming that France had attempted to reach a peace deal with Austria-Hungary before Operation Michael, but that Austria-Hungary had firmly rejected them.

Clemenceau was incensed by this fabrication, and decided to release Austria-Hungary’s own peace feelers of the previous year.  He revealed the details of Charles’ letter of March 24, 1917, including Charles’ agreement that the Germans should return Alsace-Lorraine to the French.  Czernin had not even known of the existence of this letter, and dismissed it as a fabrication until it was published in the French press.  The revelations severely damaged Charles’ reputation in the eyes of his government, his army, German Austrians, and his German allies.  Czernin attempted to convince Charles to remove himself from active governance of the empire, but failed, and was forced to resign on April 14; he would be replaced by his predecessor, Count Buriàn.

Charles was savaged in the German press, who saw him as a traitor, and a month later he was forced to “go to Canossa” and make severe, long-lasting economic and military concessions (some provisions extending as far as 1940), essentially making Austria-Hungary a German vassal and committing them to an offensive against the Italians.  Clemenceau’s revelations ultimately ended any hope of a separate peace with Austria-Hungary, much to the disappointment of the Americans.

Today in 1917: Battle of Vimy Ridge Ends

Today in 1916: Austria and Germany Disagree on Future of Poland
Today in 1915: British Defeat Turks at Shaiba

Sources include: David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel.

General Kornilov Killed in Battle

Anton Denikin (1872-1947), the new commander of the Volunteer Army.

April 13 1918, Ekaterinodar–Since the fall of Rostov in February, the White Volunteer Army had been wandering across the steppe in the middle of winter, trying to avoid railroads and any large towns, both firmly under the control of the Bolsheviks.  They seized what supplies they could by force, often brutally killing civilians to do so.  Running short of ammunition, he decided in early April to face the Bolsheviks head on by attacking the city of Ekaterinodar on the Kuban, defended by a Red force more than twice the size of the Volunteer Army.  Their chances were likely nil, but Kornilov was determined, telling his subordinate Denikin on April 12 that “if we do not take Ekaterinodar, there is nothing left for me to do but put a bullet through my head.”

The next morning, before a doomed assault on the city was scheduled to begin, a Red shell hit the farmhouse that housed Kornilov’s headquarters; Kornilov was killed instantly.  His subordinates had warned him to move his headquarters due to the shelling, but he had dismissed it as “not worth the trouble” as the battle would be over, one way or the other, by the end of the 13th.

Denikin, who had never approved of the idea of the siege, took command of the Volunteer Army and broke off the attempted siege.  The local Bolsheviks, thinking the death of Kornilov meant the end of the Whites, did not pursue.  Lenin agreed, saying ten days later that “it can be said with certainty that, in the main, the civil war has ended.”  Kornilov was quickly buried with little circumstance; Denikin did not want his soldiers to dwell on his death.  The Reds eventually found his grave, exhumed the corpse, and paraded it through Ekaterinodar before burning it.

Today in 1917: Wilson Creates Committee on Public Information

Today in 1916: Mexico Demands US Withdrawal After Their Armies Clash
Today in 1915:  Reports of Italian Preparations for War

Sources include: Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy; Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War.

Day of Crisis in Flanders

British artillerymen near Merville on April 12, which would fall to the Germans later that day.

April 12 1918, Merville–As the Germans continued to advance, the British were sent into almost a panic.  Haig, and most of the British leadership, believed that the Germans were on the verge of inflicting “a decisive defeat” on them.  On April 12, the Germans took Merville and reached within six miles of the key rail center of Hazebrouck.  If it fell, the British would likely have to abandon their position in Flanders, and were worried that the Germans might push on to Dunkirk and other Channel ports beyond.  Against this backdrop, Haig had issued a Special Order of the Day on April 11th:

Three weeks ago today the enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a fifty-mile front.  His objects are to separate us from the French, to take the Channel Ports, and destroy the British Army….Many amongst us are now tired.  To those I would say that Victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest.

There is no course open to us but to fight it out.  Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement.  With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight to the end.  The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment.

Foch, now in control of Allied reserves, was reluctant to move French troops to the area, as he was worried about additional German attacks elsewhere.  Nonetheless, he ordered the movement of some reserves, and the first began to arrive on April 12; however, he categorically refused to throw them into the fighting.  France’s politicians were less calm, and were especially worried about German shelling of the Bruay coalfield, supplying 70% of the coal for France’s armament industry; the British had to divert some of their own falling coal output to compensate.

In the meantime, the British rushed whatever reinforcements they could find to hold Hazebrouck; that evening, the 5th Division (newly diverted from the Italian Front) 1st Australian Division arrived, and would join the fighting the next day.

Today in 1917: Appeal for American Destroyers To Fight U-Boats

Today in 1916: British Publish German Lusitania Medal as Propaganda
Today in 1915: Greece Repeatedly Refuses to Help Allies

Sources include: David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War.

German Flanders Offensive Expands

British gas casualties near Givenchy, at the southern end of the German offensive.

April 10 1918, Messines–The Germans quickly moved their heavy artillery north late on April 9, and launched another large attack on a six-mile front.  This was directed at the Ninth Corps of Plumer’s Second Army, comprised of divisions that had all lost half of their strength during Michael and had been transferred north to a section of the front they thought would be quieter.  As during the opening of Michael, a heavy mist aided the Germans, concealing the advance of their infantry.  While the Germans did not advance as far as they had the previous day, they still managed to advance up to two miles, reversing almost entirely the British gains from last June’s Battle of Messines (which had required over a year of sapping as preparation).  The British evacuated Armentières that evening, while the Germans to the south continued their advance, taking Estaires and pushing across the River Lys; in two days they had captured over 11,000 PoWs.

Today in 1917: Rumors of German “Corpse Conversion” Factory Originate
Today in 1916: Starvation Rations at Kut
Today in 1915:  Russians Halt Carpathian Offensive

Sources include: David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Operation Georgette

Portuguese PoWs surrendering their gas masks.

April 9 1918, Neuve Chapelle–Ludendorff’s plan for 1918 had always involved a series of offensives, hoping that repeated strikes in different areas of the front would eventually catch the Allies off guard and cause a breakthrough.  One of these plans was Operation George, a two-part offensive in Flanders aiming to break through and threaten the Channel ports while pinching off the Ypres salient.  The success of Michael, however, meant that plans for George were put on hold.  When the advance on Amiens stalled and the attacks on Arras failed, the plans were quickly resumed and artillery and forces sent north to Flanders to attack as soon as possible, while British reserves were still defending Amiens.  The scope of the offensive was reduced, as was its name, from “George” to “Georgette.” The accelerated timetable meant that troop and artillery movements had to be made during the day, and the preparations did not go unnoticed by the British.  However, Haig and the War Cabinet were convinced the German attack would fall north of Arras, rather than near Ypres, and arranged their forces accordingly.

The initial German offensive would fall between Armentières and La Bassée–areas that had seen heavy fighting in 1914 and 1915 but were relatively quiet since then.  Defending much of this area was the Portuguese 2nd Division–a primary reason why the Germans chose this sector.  Morale among the Portuguese was low; the men had little opportunity to return home for leave, and the force received little support from their government, which since the coup last December was decidedly against vigorous prosecution of the war.  They were due for relief on the evening of April 9, but this would come a day too late; in the meantime, they were holding a front of over six miles by themselves.

The German barrage opened at 4:15 AM on April 9; they had learned lessons from Michael and were more effective than before, if operating with fewer guns.  At 8:45, the infantry attacked behind a rolling barrage.  Although many of the most elite stormtroopers had fallen during Michael, the Germans were still able to overrun the Portuguese positions entirely within two hours.  About a third of the Portuguese force was killed or captured, while the rest withdrew as they could.  In some cases, they retreated using the bicycles of the 11th Cyclist Battalion that had come up as their reinforcements.  The Germans managed to outflank the positions to the north of the Portuguese as well; to the south, near Givenchy, the British managed to hold on, diverting the thrust of the German offensive northward.

By the end of the day, the Germans had advanced nearly five miles, to the River Lys, on a front of nearly ten miles–they had not struck so deep on a single day even during Michael.  Supplying and reinforcing their advancing troops was a concern, but the Germans planned more attacks the next day as they shifted their artillery north.

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; John Keegan, The First World War; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War.