Category: the great war

Indian Cavalry Secures Haifa by Charge with La…

The Lancers enter Haifa.

September 23 1918, Haifa–British cavalry had advanced dozens of miles since the 19th, destroying the better part of two Turkish armies.  So far, they had been able to find water and fodder for their horses from the large amount of territory captured, but supply was still becoming a concern.  Bringing supplies over such a long distance by land would be quite difficult, so it became a top priority to secure the seaports at Acre and Haifa to land supplies by sea.  Acre would fall quickly, but Haifa was a more difficult matter.  An attempt to secure it with armored cars on the evening of the 22nd failed, driven back by an Austrian battery on Mount Carmel and German machine gun fire.  The next day, British cavalry and armored cars made another attempt.  Maneuver was difficult due to marshy ground, and many horses were killed while attempting to get around it.

Despite their weakened state, the Mysore and Jodhpur Lancers was able to charge the German machine guns and quickly overwhelmed them; while many of the horses were mortally wounded during the charge, they were still able to carry their riders to their objective.  Another uphill attack by the Mysore Lancers took the Austrian battery on Mt. Carmel, and Haifa was taken soon thereafter.  Only three Allied soldiers were killed in the fighting.  The victory, involving one of the final successful cavalry charges in history, is still celebrated by the Indian Army as Haifa Day.

Sources include: Cyril Falls, Armageddon, 1918; Roger Ford, Eden to Armageddon; The Indian Express (includes image credit).

British Secure Jordan River Crossings

The aftermath of RAF attacks on the retreating Turkish Seventh Army.

September 22 1918, Jisr ed Damiye–The success of Allenby’s cavalry in the three days since the breakthrough along the coast had been stunning.  By the 22nd, they had taken Nazareth and reached as far the Jordan near Beisan, about fifteen miles south of the Sea of Galilee.  This left the remnants of two Turkish armies scrambling to reach safety across the Jordan to the east.  On September 22, a force under General Chaytor–including several Jewish and West Indies battalions–attacked and secured the Jordan crossing at Jisr ed Damiye.  This essentially cut off the remaining Turks west of the Jordan, as there were few other good crossings–and units that attempted the steep descent into the Jordan River suffered severe casualties from aerial attacks, as the Bulgarians were experiencing during their own retreat in Macedonia.  Nevertheless, there was still a large gap between Beisan and Jisr ed Damiye, and a few thousand Germans and Turks (including Mustafa Kemal, the commander of Seventh Army) escaped before the remaining gaps were closed on the 24th.

After securing Jisr ed Damiye, Chetwode’s force then looked further east, towards Es Salt and Amman.  Here, they posed a major threat to the Turkish Fourth Army, which had so far been spared much direct attack, but was now in danger of having much of its forces (which stretched as far south as Ma’an) cut off by the British and Arabs far to the north.

Today in 1917: General Bliss New US Army Chief of Staff

Today in 1916: Arab Revolt Captures Taif
Today in 1915: Britain Sends Trawlers to Catch U-Boats in Straits of Otranto
Today in 1914: U-9 sinks Three British Cruisers In One Hour

Sources include: Cyril Falls, Armageddon 1918; Roger Ford, Eden to Armageddon.

General Bulgarian Retreat

The Allied offensive of September 1918.  By September 22, the Allies were within a few miles of Krivolak on the Vardar, and had cut the rail line between Gradsko and Prilep, where just 3 days earlier the Germans and Bulgarians had made the decision to retreat.

September 21 1918, Prilep–On September 19, the Bulgarians and Germans held a conference at Prilep to plan their response to the Allied offensive.  The French and Serbians had made large gains, but the British and Greek attack near Lake Doiran had been entirely repulsed.  The commander of the Bulgarian First Army, which had won at Doiran, suggested an immediate counteroffensive towards Salonika.  The Germans believed the logistics of such an attack would be infeasible, and vetoed the idea.  The Bulgarians then suggested a long withdrawal to the next set of mountains in northern Macedonia and southern Bulgaria–a significant amount of the distance to Sofia.  Although this might give the Bulgarians a chance to recover, this was also dismissed as being too drastic.

Ultimately, the Germans and Bulgarians decided on a smaller withdrawal, hoping to draw the French and Serbians further north before trapping them with attacks from both flanks.  Of course, this withdrawal went further than the zone of the Franco-Serbian advance so that the Bulgarians’ own flanks would not be threatened.  On September 21, the Bulgarian First Army abandoned the Grand Couronné that the British and Greeks had lost thousands of men trying to take just three days earlier.  The British would not be able to pursue on the ground until the next day, but the RAF, which was the first to spot the withdrawal, could act almost immediately.  British planes were able to inflict heavy casualties on Bulgarian troops retreating through ravines, steep hills on either side preventing the Bulgarians from scattering to escape.  Over 700 Bulgarians were killed in the Kosturino defile alone, and the RAF repeated the feat in other canyons and passes over the coming week.

In the meantime, the French and Serbians were conscious of the threat on their flanks and were taking action to forestall any German and Bulgarian attempt at regrouping.  In the west, the Serbians, French, and Greeks secured that flank by taking the 7000-foot Mt. Dzena, while the Italians secured Hill 1050 and advanced six miles.  In the east, the Bulgarian 3rd Division, which was supposed to be preparing for a counterattack on that flank, instead largely fell apart as its troops mutinied and headed home.  Crown Prince Boris attempted to rally its men personally, driving from unit to unit, but with little success.

By midday on the 22nd, it was clear the Bulgarian retreat was not going well.  Franchet d’Esperey issued this general order to his armies:

The enemy is retreat on the whole front between Monastir and Lake Doiran. We have now to rout him, to take prisoners from his ranks, and to capture his materiel by an unceasing and resolute pursuit.  Outflank resistance and push forward light detachments, which should establish themselves on his line of retreat.  The cavalry, whose hour is come, should precede the infantry columns and open the way for them.

Today in 1917: Courland Declares Independence

Today in 1916: UK Manpower Distribution Board Formed
Today in 1915: Bulgaria Begins Mobilization

Today in 1914: Austrian Fortress of Przemyśl Besieged

Sources include: Alan Palmer, The Gardeners of Salonika.

Baku Commune Leaders Shot

A Soviet depiction of the execution of the 26 Baku Commissars; note the presence of a British officer, a key part of Soviet propaganda surrounding the event.

September 20 1918, Pereval–The Baku Commune had been overthrown at the end of July as they refused to invite British help to deal with the advancing Turks.  They had been kept out of prison thanks to local Red Army units, but when the Red forces attempted to make off with the better part of Baku’s military materiel, they were returned to Baku and imprisoned.  As Baku fell to the Turks in September, they escaped or were released and departed by sea, hoping to make it to Astrakhan (the only port on the Caspian still in Red hands).  However, the crew of the ship feared they would be arrested by the Reds there, and made for Krasnovodsk, which had been in the hands of an Ashgabat-based SR government since mid-July.

The Baku commissars were arrested when they arrived in Krasnovodsk.  In addition to the threat from the Reds around Merv and Tashkent and the Turks in Baku, the Ashgabat government was also concerned that the commissars could be a locus of opposition within Turkmenistan, especially if they escaped or were broken out of prison.  The British, who had a presence under General Malleson based across the Persian border in Mashhad, urged the Ashgabat government to hand the commissars over to them; the commissars would no longer be a threat, and they could be used as hostages to ensure the safety of British nationals in Russia.  Funtikov, the head of the Ashgabat government, found the logistics of doing so too difficult, and instead decided to execute them.

On the morning of September 20, the 26 Baku commissars were boarded onto a train and told they were being taken to Ashgabat.  That evening, about 125 miles east of Krasnovodsk, they were taken off the train, walked into the desert, and shot.  The remoteness of the location meant it would take several months for the news to reach Moscow, though the British were informed from their sources in Ashgabat relatively quickly.  Malleson was “horrified at the action taken” and told the Ashgabat government that they were “all alike–Red or White.”  

The Soviet government always held that the British were responsible for the shooting, aided by Funtikov’s coerced confession after his eventual capture by Red forces, and made much use of it as anti-British propaganda in the coming decades.  Although the British certainly rendered significant aid to the Ashgabat government, they had no involvement in and were extremely disappointed by the executions.

Today in 1917: Battle of the Menin Road Ridge


Today in 1916: Polish Legions Become “Polish Auxiliary Corps”
Today in 1915: British Repulsed at Longido
Today in 1914: Reims Cathedral Burns; Elsewhere, Haircuts

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

Armageddon

Some of the approximately 7000 Turkish prisoners that were taken on the first day of operations; another 18,000 would be captured in the following two days.

September 19 1918, MegiddoBritish operations in Palestine and Transjordan were largely put on hold by the needs of the Western Front and the summer heat, but by September Allenby was ready for another offensive.  His plan was to break through the Turkish positions along the coast and then send his mounted troops far into the Turkish rear.  Secrecy was of the utmost importance, to make sure the Turks did not fall back before the British could break through, or reinforce the coastal area.  The British attempted to convince the Turks that the attack would fall across the Jordan, towards Amman, as it had done in the spring.  They kept some of their best troops in the Jordan Valley, marched troops around in the area to create dust clouds, and spread as many rumors as possible among the Arab population.  The Germans and Turks were fooled by these deceptions, despite the defection of an Indian sergeant just two days before the planned attack who told the Turks that the attack would come near the coast.

The British attacked with heavy artillery support at 4:30 AM on September 19.  In most places, they quickly overran the Turkish defenses.  Some of the stiffest resistance came on the right of the Allied attack, near Bidye.  Assisting here was the small French contingent in Palestine, which included a regiment of Armenians who had been rescued from Musadagh by the French Navy in 1915.  The Turks launched their only counterattack of the day here, and the town was not taken until 3AM the next day.

Once the Turkish lines were taken, British cavalry, camelry, and armored cars proceeded into the open country beyond as soon as 7AM, heading north for distant objectives or east to help outflank any remaining points of Turkish resistance.  They were largely able to secure water and fodder during their advance, something that had stymied major cavalry operations in earlier actions in Palestine. They captured multiple Turkish Corps and even Army HQs.  The commander of XXII Corps forced its commander, Refet Bey, to try to escape on foot; Cyril Falls writes that “so far as it is known, he spoke no English, but he moved always by night and answered challenges by saluting and riding on at a walk.  He finally reached Tyre, 75 miles to the north,” early in October.  On the first day, the cavalry advanced well over twenty miles, and by dawn the next morning had taken Tul Karm and Megiddo.  The latter gives its name to the battle as a whole, the first battle in recorded history (in 1457 BC), and the term Armageddon in Christian eschatology.

Also in the wee hours of the 20th, the British cavalry reached the outskirts of Nazareth, more than 40 miles from their starting positions.  Nazareth was the Turkish headquarters in Palestine, and the overall commander, Liman von Sanders, was apparently forced to flee the city in his pajamas.  It may have been only then that Liman von Sanders realized the full scope of the disaster in progress, as he had only had limited contact with his disintegrating armies on the 19th.

Today in 1917: Károlyi Party Advocates for Peace in Hungary

Today in 1916: Belgian Offensive Captures Tabora
Today in 1915: Mussolini’s First Battle
Today in 1914: The Deadly Routine on the Aisne

Sources include: Cyril Falls, Armageddon 1918; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Anglo-Greek Attacks at Doiran Repulsed

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British PoWs captured in the fighting near Lake Doiran.

September 18 1918, Doiran–The French and Serbians were achieving great success with their offensive east of the Vardar, and on September 18 it was the turn of the British and Greeks to join them west of the river.  The Bulgarians had an imposing position on the Grand Couronné just east of Lake Doiran, where their “Devil’s Eye” could keep an eye on all Allied movements.  The British had failed in an attack here in April 1917, and hoped their new plans would meet with more success.  

The Allies attacked at 5:08 AM on September 18, and quickly seized the town of Doiran and the Petit Couronné.  However, the Bulgarians were ready for the advance on the Grand Couronné and their machine guns inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing Allies–many of whom were lost as their own bombardment had changed the landscape and eliminated some of the landmarks they were relying on to navigate.  One battalion did reach the summit, but was quickly hit by Bulgarian fire on three sides; only 56 men returned to the British lines, and more than half of them were poisoned by their own gas during the retreat.  By 10AM, it was clear that the attack had failed.

The Allies did still have one hope, though–simultaneously, the Greeks were to attack north east of Lake Doiran, hoping to push past the lake and outflank the Grand Couronné, as they had done during the Second Balkan War.  Poor coordination between the British and Greeks delayed the advance, and then the first attack was repulsed.  Another attack in the afternoon had to be called off when a grass fire broke out in the valley between the Bulgarian and Greek positions.

Additional attacks the following day met with no more success; the British and Greeks had suffered over 7000 casualties for no significant gains.  Emboldened by their victory, the Bulgarian First Army planned to go on the offensive and strike towards Salonika itself.

Today in 1917: Bosniak Troops Open Gap for Italians in Tyrol, Though Italians Miss Opportunity

Today in 1916: British Take the Quadrilateral
Today in 1915: Germany Suspends U-Boat Campaign
Today in 1914: Bülow’s Attacks on the Aisne Fail

Sources include: Alan Palmer, The Gardeners of Salonika; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Franco-Serbian Advance Continues

September 17 1918, Dobropolje–Fierce fighting continued in the Macedonian mountains on the second day of the Allied offensive.  After a bitter struggle throughout September 16th, the Serbians took the critical Kozyak position, the last large mountain before they could reach the Crna river vallye below.  German reinforcements prevented a complete breach in the Bulgarian lines, however.  On the night of the 16th and throughout the 17th, the Bulgarian position grew worse, however.  The Bulgarian 2nd Division fell back twice without consulting its neighbors, first to the the third line of defense, and then behind the River Crna itself.  The Serbians simply advanced with nearly no opposition into a five-mile gap left for them.  To the east, extensive mutinies in the Bulgarian 3rd Division meant it was in little condition to resist the Allied advance.  The Germans resisted an additional Serbian push to the west, but the main thrust of the offensive was to the north and east along the Crna.  By the end of the day on September 17th, the Allies had advanced up to fifteen miles on a front of over twenty miles, and were planning to expand the offensive onto an even broader front the next day.

Today in 1917: Trotsky Released from Prison


Today in 1916: Richthofen Scores First Confirmed Victory
Today in 1915: Bulgarian Political Leaders Urge Peace to Tsar
Today in 1914: French Attempts to Outflank von Kluck Fail on the Oise

Sources include: Alan Palmer, The Gardeners of Salonika.

United States Flatly Rejects Austrian Peace No…

September 16 1918, Washington–Emperor Charles had long been open to a separate peace with the Allies, most notably sending his brother-in-law Sixtus to negotiate secretly with the French.  When this was revealed by an annoyed Clemenceau in early 1918, Charles was forced to make humiliating concessions to appease the enraged Germans.  By August, however, the Germans’ star was on the wane, as they were suffering repeated defeats on the Western Front.  The Germans decided to only make any moves for peace through a neutral mediator (such as the Dutch or Spanish monarchs) and only then “after the next German success in the west.”

As this success never came, the Austrians quickly lost patience; on September 14, Charles unilaterally issued a note to the Allies (and the Pope), calling for an peace conference “at a near date” in neutral territory, for “a confidential and unbinding discussion on the basic principles for the conclusion of peace.”  On September 16, US Secretary of State Lansing quickly rejected the offer on Wilson’s behalf:

The Government of the United States feels that there is only one reply which it can make to the suggestion of the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Government.  It has repeatedly and with entire candor stated the terms upon which the United States would consider peace and can and will entertain no proposal for a conference upon a matter concerning which it has made its position and purpose so plain.

Lansing here was referring to Wilson’s Fourteen Points; while the Austrians in their note made some positive allusions to them, they stopped well short of accepting them.

The other Allies similarly quickly rejected the Austrian note.  The Germans, meanwhile, grew even more outraged at Emperor Charles.  The only concrete result of the peace move was the cancellation of the planned offensive against neutral Romania, which Austria-Hungary was unwilling to carry out while proposing peace.

Today in 1917: Mutinous Russian Troops in France Violently Suppressed


Today in 1916: Falkenhayn Given Command of German Forces in Transylvania
Today in 1915: Allied Planes Scout Turkish Positions Near Kut 
Today in 1914: 
Lt. Dr. J.L. Huggan Killed While Rescuing German Wounded

Sources include: The New York Times; Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel; Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I.

Allied Offensive Begins in Macedonia

German soldiers bathing on the Crna river earlier in 1918.  The river was the primary initial objective of Franchet d’Espérey’s offensive; once it was reached, the Allies could drive up the river valley to Gradsko on the Vardar, splitting the Bulgarian army in two and opening the way to Skopje and Sofia.

September 15 1918, Mt. Dobropolje–Franchet d’Espérey’s long-awaited offensive began at 5:30 AM on September 15, after almost a day of preliminary shelling.  The wide extent of the bombardment meant the defending Germans and Bulgarians only realized where the main attack was to fall only seven hours ahead of time.  The bombardment did knock out the barbed wire and many of the Bulgarian trenches, but left most Bulgarian batteries and machine gun nests intact.  Fighting on the first day, concentrated in the mountains to the south of the River Crna, was fierce.  In some cases, it took the whole day and the use of flamethrowers to take the peaks.  Nonetheless, the Serbians and French were able to take the first Bulgarian line along an eleven-mile stretch, and they pushed forward guns and fresh reserves during the night.  The defenders suffered heavily as well, but were hopeful that the Allies would quickly wear themselves out as they advanced.

Today in 1917: Germans Launch Their Last Battlecruiser

Today in 1916: First Use of Tanks in Battle
Today in 1915: Staff Car of Kemal [Atatürk] Bombed by Allied Plane
Today in 1914: Allied Attacks Slow Along the Aisne

Sources include: Alan Palmer, The Gardeners of Salonika; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

British Evacuate Baku

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Turkish forces bombarding Baku.

September 14 1918, Baku–The Turks launched a major assault on Baku before dawn on September 14.  The British, vastly outnumbered, were driven back, as were Bicherakov’s troops and the remaining Armenian defenders.  Dunsterville, after conferring with his officers, decided the situation was hopeless and withdrew towards the docks around sunset.  The Centro-Caspian Dictatorship threatened to fire on their ships, as promised, but did not really interfere with the evacuation.  What was left of Dunsterforce successfully made it to Enzeli [Bandar-e Anzali] the next day, along with much of the military materiel in the city and most of the ships in the harbor; Bicherakov’s forces, who similarly left for Derbent, took most of what was left.

Once the British and Russians left, the Azerbaijani population of the city began attacking the Armenians themselves, in revenge for the violence in March.  The Turkish army made no effort to enter the city and restore order for two days, while their Azerbaijani allies killed between 9,000 to 20,000 Armenian civilians in Baku.  

After the fall of Baku, the Turks had their eyes set further east across the Caspian towards Turkmenistan, but the fact that the British had taken most of the ships in the Caspian prevented any movement in that direction.  They chased Bicherakov north into Dagestan, and made plans to advance on Enzeli by land, but neither movement amounted to much by the time the Ottomans exited the war less than seven weeks later.

Today in 1917: Canada Reforms Voting Franchise Ahead of Election

Today in 1916: Seventh Battle of the Isonzo
Today in 1915: Final Plans Made for Allied Offensive in France
Today in 1914: Von Moltke, German Commander-in-Chief, Unofficially Dismissed

Sources include: Roger Ford, Eden to Armageddon; Raymond Kévorkian, The Armenian Genocide.