Category: the great war

British Launch Carrier Attack on Zeppelin Base

The Sopwith Camels on the flight deck of the Furious while en route to the Danish coast.

July 19 1918, Tondern [Tønder]–The British had occasionally carried out air raids on German Zeppelin bases.  Many of them were too far east to be attacked by land-based planes, so any air attack would have to come from the sea.  On Christmas 1914, seaplanes had attacked Cuxhaven; the raid did little damage, but was an important morale boost for the British.  By 1918, the British had developed the first real aircraft carriers as we would recognize them today, on which wheeled planes could take off and land.

After a few failed attempts due to high wind, a force of seven Sopwith Camels took off from the HMS Furious off the Danish coast.  Six reached the target of the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern [Tønder], quickly destroying two Zeppelins, the L54 and L60. The Germans, taken by surprise, only managed to take a few pot-shots at the British fliers.  The British had expended a large amount of fuel during the raid, however, and three of the pilots decided to land in nearby Denmark rather than risk running out of fuel over the North Sea; they were interned for the remainder of the war.  Two of the other pilots made it back to the Furious, but ditched their planes rather than attempt a dangerous landing on the carrier itself; the sixth pilot did not return.

Today in 1917: The Breaking of the Russian Army

Today in 1916: First Australian Attack on the Western Front
Today in 1915: British Explode Largest Mine of the War at Hooge
Today in 1914: Austrian Ministerial Council Officially Approves Demarche To Serbia

Stay tuned for a bonus edition later today.

Allies Go On the Offensive

Infantry from the US 1st Division, shortly before the battle.

July 18 1918, Soissons–For some time, Generalissimo Foch had been preparing an attack on the right flank of the German salient stretching south from the Aisne.  When the Germans launched their latest offensive on July 15, Pétain tried to cancel the effort and move troops south to meet the German attack, but Foch countermanded the order; the attack would go forward as planned on July 18.  Preparations continued at night, and the Germans, who were preoccupied elsewhere, did not suspect a thing.  They were taken entirely by surprise when the French and Americans attacked behind a massive creeping barrage at 4:35 AM.  Private Francis, in the US 2nd Division, recalled:

I will never forget the sight when our artillery opened up. It was worse than any electrical storm I have ever seen.  The whole sky seemed to open up for it became as light as day.  This put new life into us and we went over as if we had just hopped off the trucks.  It was impossible to hear any one talk, and the artillery kept a continual roar day and night.  It seemed like thunder and it didn’t even let up for five minutes.

The infantry was also supported by 500 tanks, mainly quick-moving light French Renault models, although many of them were knocked out during the day.

Along a 27-mile front, stretching from Soissons south to the Marne, the French and Americans would advance up to five miles–in the words of one officer in the 2nd Division, it was “nothing but a hike.” French cavalry was present to exploit the breakthrough, but they could never quite be assembled in time and in the right place to make a difference.  Even in the open country beyond the Germans’ lines, a few well-placed machine gunners could quickly stop the advance.

The Allied attack greatly concerned Ludendorff, who had been planning Operation Hagen in Flanders with Crown Prince Rupprecht.  He sent what reserves he could to the area, and countermanded the movement of troops and artillery north to Flanders.  Apart from that, however, with German reserves running low, he “could only await further developments.”  General Lossberg, Chief of Staff of the Fourth Army in Flanders, would write that:

July 18, 1918 was the precise turning point in the conduct of the war.  The OHL’s failure to understand that the combat strength of the German army was already severely shattered…finally drove us to the position in which we found ourselves at war’s end.

Today in 1917: Finland Unilaterally Declares Autonomy from Russia

Today in 1916: UK Ratifies Treaty with Saudis
Today in 1915:  Second Battle of the Isonzo Begins As Italians Assault Karst Plateau
Today in 1914: Austrian Ambassador Szapary Tries To Reassure Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov

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

Bolsheviks Kill the Czar and His Family

The site of the execution.  Most of the damage to the wall was done by investigators after the Whites took Ekaterinburg later in the month.

July 17 1918, EkaterinburgAfter his abdication, the Czar and his family remained at his palace at Tsarskoye Selo, under what amounted to lavish house arrest, while the Provisional Government figured out what to do with him.  They had no particular interest in charging him for any crimes, and really just wanted him out of the country.  However, he was unpopular abroad as well, and both France and Britain refused to take him in.  In August 1917, the Romanovs were transferred to Tobolsk in Siberia, with the eventual hope of moving them to Japan.  What luxuries they had were forfeit after the Bolsheviks took power; they no longer had any servants, were put on reduced rations, and, at the end of April 1918, were moved to a modest house in Ekaterinburg.

After the Romanovs’ arrival in Ekaterinburg, however, the Bolsheviks’ fortunes in Siberia took a turn for the worse.  The first fighting between the Czechs and the Bolsheviks began in mid-May in Chelyabinsk, just over 100 miles to the south.  By July, they had linked up with the Czechs across the Urals in Samara, and were advancing north towards Ekaterinburg to prevent the Bolsheviks from making any move on the Trans-Siberian Railway.  The local Bolsheviks believed the Czechs were on their way to liberate the Czar and help to reinstall him on his throne, and decided to execute the Romanovs to prevent this.  How much involvement the Bolsheviks in Moscow had with this decision is unclear; official Soviet history held that it was a local decision, but Trotsky and others held that it was decided in Moscow.  If it was Lenin’s decision, he was very careful to make sure no paper trail was left.

In the wee hours of July 17, the Romanovs were woken by their doctor and summoned down to the basement of the house, on the pretext that they were to be moved out of Ekaterinburg.  At around 2AM, the commandant of the house, Yakov Yurovsky, entered with a Cheka squad and read their sentence: “Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.”  After repeating the order, the firing began.  Most of the men aimed at Nicholas or Alexandra, and the children were protected from incidental fire by the large number of gems sewn into their clothing.  The guns did not use smokeless powder and it soon became too smoky to continue in the confined space, so they soon turned to bayonets to kill the children, then pistol shots to the head when that failed. 

The bodies were disposed of two days later, and the execution of the Czar was publicly announced.  The fate of the rest of the family was not discussed openly, but the Whites were able to piece together what happened after they captured Ekaterinburg a week later.  They were unable to find the bodies, however, so wild speculation continued until glasnost.

Today in 1917: Churchill Returns; House of Windsor Established

Today in 1916: Serbian Army Returns to the Frontline
Today in 1915: Women’s Right to Serve March in London
Today in 1914: Berchtold Not To Discuss Plans With Italian Allies

Germans Call Off Their Last Offensive

British machine gunners attacking a German plane on July 16 at Les Essarts, about ten miles south of the German bridgehead across the Marne.

July 16 1918, Dormans–The German offensive aimed at Rheims had not had the hoped-for result; Ludendorff was “very wad about the paltry outcome.”  Attacks east of Rheims were quickly called off, but the Germans attempted to continue from their new bridgehead across the Marne on the 16th.  However, their artillery would need to cross the Marne to provide sufficient support, and the French were able to bring reserves west now that the Germans had stopped attacking in Champagne.  On the evening of the 16th, Ludendorff called off the offensive.  One of his staff officers wrote in his diary: “Fairly depressed mood.  Difficult question–what is to happen from now on?”  Ludendorff wanted to proceed with Operation Hagen in Flanders, and drove north to meet with Crown Prince Rupprecht the next day.  In the meantime, the Germans’ bridges across the Marne came under heavy artillery and aerial bombardment (as had the Austrians’ on the Piave), and they began preparations to abandon their sole gain in the battle.

Today in 1917: Bolshevik-Inspired Uprising in Petrograd

Today in 1916: 50,000 National Guard on Mexican Border
Today in 1915: D’Annunzio Made Official War Chronicler; Maria Luisa Perduca’s The Vigil
Today in 1914: Russians Gain Increasing Evidence of Austrian Plans

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

The Final German Offensive

The Germans used about 20 tanks in their offensive, many of them captured British models.  Most were quickly knocked out by French artillery.

July 15 1918, Dormans–The long-delayed German offensive against Rheims finally began shortly after midnight on July 15.  The Germans knew that surprise would be key, but the long preparation time, the short summer nights, and deserters from an army tired of repeated offensives meant that the French had a decent idea of where the attack was to fall.  The Germans would strike on both sides of Rheims–striking across the Marne in the west and in Champagne in the east, hoping to cut off the city.  Its capture would greatly improve German logistics, would demoralize the French, and would hopefully draw off large numbers of reserves from Flanders, where Ludendorff wanted to strike next.

The Allies, aware the strike was coming, even down to the hour, launched their own preemptive barrage before the Germans did.  Many of the German gas attacks were ineffective due to the wind.  In Champagne, the French had learned well the lessons of the last few months, and kept only a token force near the front line.  The German bombardment thus missed the main French positions to the rear, and the Germans infantry took heavy casualties advancing over open ground.  By 11AM, the Germans realized their predicament, and halted their advance after failed costly attacks on the main French line.

To the west, the Germans had more success.  The French had hoped the Marne would serve as an effective natural barrier, but they were able to cross the river at night with relative ease, and the French and Italian defenders in the area bore the brunt of the German bombardment.  The Germans advanced four miles across the river, but the Allies had kept adequate reserves in the area to contain them.  Among these were elements of the US 3rd Division, which held its position and even counterattacked against a German force that outnumbered them three-to-one.  To this day, the 3rd Division (and especially its 38th Infantry Regiment) is nicknamed the “Rock of the Marne.”

Today in 1917: Kadets Leave Provisional Government over Ukraine

Today in 1916: South Africans Fight for Delville Wood
Today in 1915: South Wales Coal Miners Strike
Today in 1914: Lützow Warns British Ambassador of Imminent Austrian Note To Serbia

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

Quentin Roosevelt Killed in Aerial Combat

Quentin Roosevelt (1897-1918)

July 14 1918, Coulonges-en-Tardenois–Former President Theodore Roosevelt had been one of the leading advocates for American military preparedness and entry into the war.  His offer to lead American volunteers, as he had done during the Spanish-American War, was rebuffed by Wilson, and he remained in the United States.  His sons, however, all served as volunteers, three of them in 1st Division.  Theodore Jr. commanded a battalion (and later a regiment).  Archie was wounded while leading a trench raid in March.  Kermit, who had the least military training, first served in the British Army in Mesopotamia.  As the British did not want to risk his life, he was assigned to their transport pool before transferring to the AEF and commanding a battery.  Quentin, the youngest son, volunteered to serve in an air reserve unit in May 1917, and began service as a combat pilot on June 17th, 1918.

Quentin was very popular with his fellow pilots, but apparently garnered a reputation for recklessness.  On July 14, he was killed by machine gun fire from a German plane while over the salient created by the German offensive on the Aisne.  The Germans soon found his crashed plane and gave him a full military funeral before informing the Americans through neutral channels (and dropping notes over local American airbases).  Roosevelt was hit especially hard by the death of his youngest son; his health quickly deteriorated and he died in January 1919.

Today in 1917: First American Military Injury From Enemy Fire

Today in 1916: British Success on Bazentin Ridge
Today in 1915: British Attack at Mbuyuni Fails
Today in 1914: Hungarian PM Tisza Finally Approves Austro-Hungarian Action Against Serbia

Railway Workers Kill Tashkent Cheka Chief

July 13 1918, Kizyl Arvat [Serdar]–Although they were quickly losing control of the situation further north, the Bolsheviks still nominally had control of Russia’s possessions in Central Asia.  However, as was the case throughout the Civil War, control of the railways was key, and the Bolsheviks had annoyed the railway workers in modern-day Turkmenistan.  Vladimir Frolov, the head of the Cheka in Tashkent (in modern-day Uzbekistan) declared martial law in the area in July and had several leaders of the railway workers in Ashgabat shot.  While returning to Tashkent, Frolov was confronted and killed by railway workers in Kizyl Arvat [Serdar] on July 13.  The next-day, an SR-led committee seized power in Ashgabat, and the other major cities of Turkmenistan followed within a week.  Knowing they could soon expect reprisal from Bolshevik forces based in Tashkent, the new government in Ashgabat appealed to the small British military mission across the Persian border in Mashhad for aid.  The British were reluctant to get involved, but were worried that the chaos in the area might allow the Turks or Germans to get a foothold in the area should they reach and cross the Caspian.

Today in 1917: Chancellor Bethmann Forced Out by Hindenburg & Ludendorff

Today in 1916: Greek Royal Palace Burns Down; King Narrowly Escapes
Today in 1915: Germans Launch Assault Towards Narew River in Poland
Today in 1914: Wiesner Report on Assassination Finds Extensive Serbian Black Hand Involvement; No Evidence of Serbian Government Involvement

Sources include: C.H. Ellis, The Transcaspian Episode.

Japanese Dreadnought Explodes

The Kawachi.

July 12 1918, Tokuyama–More dreadnoughts were lost to accidents in the First World War than to enemy action.  Adding to that total on July 12 was the Japanese dreadnought Kawachi, at anchor before training exercises in the Inland Sea.  At 3:51 PM she was wracked by an explosion in one of her magazines; four minutes later, she capsized, killing over 600 of her approximately 1000-man crew.  As was almost always the case, sabotage was immediately suspected, but no reasonable suspects could be found.  An inquiry found that the cause was likely mishandled cordite, but could not be completely confident in that conclusion.

Today in 1917: First Use of Mustard Gas

Today in 1916: German Merchant Submarine Offloads Cargo in Baltimore
Today in 1915: British Celebrate Destruction of SMS Königsberg
Today in 1914: Final Assassin Apprehended in Montenegro

Flu Pandemic Affects German Planning

July 11 1918, Tournai–The flu pandemic had, by mid-summer, crossed the Atlantic with the Americans and was afflicting soldiers on both sides of the war.  The effects were more pronounced for the Germans, who were shorter on manpower in the first place and were planning two large offensives for the near future.  It should be stressed that the flu in the summer of 1918 did not follow the same pattern as the more famous and deadly flu that hit in the fall; mortality was not unusually high, and young people were not disproportionately affected.  Nevertheless, the first cases had already caused issues during Operation Gneisenau in June.  The next offensive, directed mainly at Rheims, would go forward on July 15 regardless, but worries began to mount for the long-delayed Operation Hagen, aimed at the British in Flanders and currently planned for August 1.  On July 11, Crown Prince Rupprecht, in charge of executing Operation Hagen, seriously considered postponing it due to the flu; too many soldiers were incapacitated by it, and it would certainly interfere with the large movement of men back to Flanders that would be necessary over the next three weeks.  Rupprecht decided against a postponement, and troop transfers would go ahead as planned, beginning as early as July 16–and by August, the flu pandemic had subsided for the time being.  While ultimately Operation Hagen would never take place, it would not be because of the flu.

Today in 1917: British Attack Ramadi in 122-Degree Heat

Today in 1916: Final German Attack at Verdun
Today in 1915: Armenians Surrender at Shabinkarahisar
Today in 1914:  Kaiser Wilhelm To Wish King Peter of Serbia Happy Birthday by Telegram

Italian Offensive in Albania

An Italian camp outside Berat, pictured in early August.

July 10 1918, Berat–The Italians had successfully defended their line on the Piave against the Austrians in June, in a battle rightfully hailed as a great victory for them.  General Diaz was cautious and saw no need to waste men trying to cross the Piave in a counteroffensive, but the Italians were emboldened enough to launch an offensive on their subsidiary front in Albania.  On July 6, the Italian XVI Corps around Valona [Vlorë], which had done little since late 1916, launched a general offensive on its sixty-mile front; troop densities were far lower in neglected Albania than almost any other section of front in the war.  On July 10, they took the local Austrian headquarters in Berat, part of an advance of over ten miles on a broad front that took 2000 Austrian PoWs.  The victorious Italians were subsequently severely weakened by malaria, which took an especially high toll that summer.

Today in 1917: “Operation Beach Party”

Today in 1916: Cesare Battisti Captured and Executed by Austrians
Today in 1915: Reaction to the German Lusitania Note in the German-American Press
Today in 1914:  Russian Ambassador To Serbia Dies in the Austrian Embassy

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