The costly military failures of 1915 had led to sweeping changes within the Allied command structure by years end. In the autumn, against the advice of his Generals, Tsar Nicholas assumed supreme command of all Russian forces on the Eastern Front.
The heavy casualties suffered by the British prompted Prime Minister Asquith to dismiss Sir John French and replace him as commander in chief with Sir Douglas Haig while also ordering War Minister Kitchner to begin the transition of powers to Sir William Robertson. Only in France did General Joffre’s supremacy pass unchallenged.
By early 1916, chief of the German high command General Erich Von Falkenhayn, became convinced that it was essential that Germany won the war in the west. Falkenhayn thus formulated a massive assault on the town of Verdun and its surrounding forts.
These forts seriously threatened German lines of military communication, Falkenhayn also believed the French would throw enormous amounts of men and resources into its defense, which would then give the Germans the opportunity to inflict the maximum possible casualties and bleed the French white.
The operation began on the morning of February 21st. Falkenhayn massed artillery to the North and east of Verdun to preempt the infantry advance with an intensive artillery bombardment. Verdun was utterly unprepared for the initial assault and the German Infantry which followed that afternoon met little resistance as the German offensive went unchecked for the next four days.
On February 25th, the Germans occupied Fort Douaumaont. French reinforcements under General Petain arrived and managed to slow the German advance with a series of skillful counter attacks. Over March and April the hills and ridges surrounding Verdun exchanged hands several times.
Petain then gave up on an offensive strategy and organized a series of strong defensive positions along the main road into Verdun to ensure that it remained open to carry the vital supplies and reinforcements needed to support the city.
German gains throughout June were slow but continuous. On June 7th they occupied the heights along the Meuse River and captured Fort Vaux. By June 23rd the Germans had reached the Belleville heights, the last French stronghold before Verdun itself.
By the end of June the French armies at Verdun were on the brink of collapse with Petain himself about to give the order to evacuate thier positions, when on July 1st the Allies launched a major offensive against the Somme. The Germans could no longer commit troops to the Verdun area and were thus forced to dig trenches and also adapt a more defensive posture.
Germany’s plan to capture Verdun and bleed the French to death had now clearly failed. From July onwards to the end of the year, French offensives slowly regained the forts and lost territory gained by the Germans. Falkenhayn was sacked and replaced as chief of the German high command by General Hindenburg and Petain became a national hero.
Casualties in the ten month battle of attrition amounted to 450,000 French compared to German losses of 400,000 men.
VILNA - NAROCH
During the battles in and around Verdun, French Commander in Chief Joffre, called upon his Russian Allies to launch offensive operations so as to divert German resources from the Western Front and ease pressure on the embattered French Army.
Czar Nicholas II and the Russian chief of staff, General Mikhail Alekseyev responded quickly with an offensive drive in the Vilna - Naroch region. In thier haste to come to France’s aid, the Russian high command grossly overestimated the capability and preparedness of thier own forces.
Launched on March 18th, The Russian attack began with two days of extensive artillery bombardment which for the most part failed to inflict any damage to the German positions due to the wholesale inaccuracy of its gunners.
The 300,000 strong Russian 2nd Army commanded by General Smirnov then advanced against the German defenses manned by the 70,000 soldiers of the German 10th Army under General Eichorns. Almost immediately things went bad for the Russians. The spring thaw had arrived early and had turned the ground into an impassable quagmire which greatly favored the defender.
Russian infantry assaults became bogged down in the mud, making the soldiers easy targets for German Artillery and machine guns. Over time food, ammunition and medicines became more scarce as the weather also completely paralyzed the Russian supply system.
After twenty seven days of repeated failed assaults, the Russian 2nd Army lay decimated. On April 14th General Smirnov boldly informed chief of staff Alekseyev, that he was ceasing all offensive operations. Russian casualties numbered 120,000 men, sickness, disease and frostbite had immobilized the remainder of his army. German losses in stark contrast numbered 20,000 men.
THE SIEGE OF KUT
Following the complete failure of the British - Indian attack upon Turkish held Ctesiphon in November 1915, Major General Sir Charles Townshend led what remained of his 6th Infantry Division on a long and wearisome retreat one hundred miles south of Bagdad to the town of Kut - Al - Amara, arriving in early December.
The regional commander in chief Sir John Nixon along with the war office in London requested the 6th infantry fall back further south. However Townshend was well aware that his 13,000 men were utterly exhausted and incapable of out pacing the pursuing Turkish forces numbering 20,000. He therefore chose to stay and defend Kut.
On December 7th, the Turks arrived and completely surrounded the town. In command was the Ottoman Lieutenant General Nureddin along with his German counterpart and advisor Field Marshall Baron Von Der Goltz. Thier instructions were straightforward and clear, force complete surrender or entirely destroy the British lead Indian division.
During the month of December 1915, the Turks launched three unsuccessful attacks to capture Kut but the Indian defenders held and threw each back with heavy casualties. Thus Nureddin and Goltz agreed upon a siege and set about blockading the town.
Townshend himself calculated that there were enough supplies to maintain the division on full daily rations for two months.Townshend then proposed his forces attempt a breakout but London insisted the he remain at Kut and tie up as many Turkish formations as possible.
On January 1st 1916, a British relief force 19,000 strong led by Lieutenant General Aylmer, left Basra to rescue Thai trapped comrades. Thai advance was repeatedly checked however on January 8th, 13th and 21st at the battles of Sheikh Sa’ad the Wadi and Hanna respectively.
Thirty thousand men of the Ottoman 6th Army under Governor Khalil Pasha now arrived at Kut. The British responded by sending a further 25,000 soldiers to reinforce Aylmer’s deteriorating position.
General Aylmer then launched an assault against the Ottoman’s along the Dujaila Redoubt of March 8th. The British attacks were improperly coordinated and the operation failed miserably suffering losses of 5,000 men.
Aylmer was now dismissed and replaced by General Gorring on March 12th. For the next month Gorring formulated a relief operation which he launched on April 5th. The British soon captured Fallahiyed and pushed on to occupy Beit Asia on the 17th.
Just one final Ottoman stronghold stood in the way of rescue for General Townshend and the 6th infantry division, the heavily fortified town of Sannaiyat. Gorringe launched his assault on April 22nd but immediately met strong resistance. By the 25th, the attack had clearly failed with British losses amounting to 2,500 men.
All British relief efforts were now completely exhausted and had utterly failed. The Kut garrison had run out of food supplies and were infected with diseases of epidemic proportions. With no further hope, General Townshend contacted Ottoman Governor Pasha, requested and received a six day armistice to discuss surrender terms.
General Townshend surrendered his command on April 29th, it was the greatest humiliation to have befallen the British army in its history. For the victorious Turks it proved a significant morale booster and undoubtedly weakened British influence in the Middle East.
Along with the 8,000 Indian troops of the 6th division, the British suffered an additional 23,000 casualties during the relief efforts, the Ottoman Turks lost 10,000 men.
CAPTURED INDIAN SOLDIERS
Although there had been minor naval clashes between Great Britain and Germany at Heligoland and Dogger Bank, a full scale battle had not yet occurred. It was believed that both fleets had avoided a major engagement for fear that one navy may win a decisive victory and leave the other nation extremely vulnerable to blockade.
The British Royal Navy was predominately based in Cromarty and Scapa Flow. Here it could protect the North Sea and prevent the German High Sea’s from getting into the Atlantic where it could cause huge problems for Britains merchant fleet.
From wars start the German High Sea’s Fleet had been commanded by Admiral Von Poul. The Kaiser believed Von Poul to be too passive with the German navy therefor at the start of 1916, Von Poul was replaced by Admiral Reinhardt Von Scheer.
On May 30th after months of planning, Admiral Scheer sortied into the North Sea with the entire German fleet of ninety nine combat ships. (16 Battleships, 5 Battle Cruisers, 6 Pre Dreadnoughts, 11 Light Cruisers and 61 fast attack Torpedo Boats).
Sheer believed the only opposition he would meet was from Admiral Beatty’s Battle Cruiser squadron based at Scapa Flow. Unfortunately for Scheer, the Royal Navy had broken the German naval codes and knew of his departure.
The British would respond with one hundred and forty nine combat ships. (28 Battleships, 9 Battle Cruisers, 8 Armored Cruisers, 26 Light Cruisers and 78 Destroyers).
On May 31st at 2:28pm, British Admiral Beatty commanding the Battle Cruisers encountered thier weaker German equivalent under Admiral Hippr. At 3:48 the battle commenced at a range of 18,500 yards, both forces opening fire upon the other practically simultaneously.
Though they were the smaller force, the initial advantage lay with the Germans enjoyed a huge visibility advantage over the British due to the lay of the sun. Just after 4:00 the British Battle Cruiser “Indefatigable” was destroyed by the Germans. Nearly thirty minutes later, “Queen Mary” was also sunk.
The British position became more tenuous when Hipper was joined by Scheer’s Battleships. Jellicoe’s force was still fifteen miles from Beatty. As the two British fleets converged, they suffered a third major loss when the “Invincible” was sunk shortly after 6:30pm.
As Jellicoe approached the Germans, they now became very much outgunned by the Grand Fleet and thier superior fire power began to change the course of the battle. Scheer decided to disengage and return to port. During the withdrawal the German Battle Cruiser “Lutzow” was sunk and her sister ships “Seydlitz” and “Deerfflinger were badly damaged, but the majority of the German Fleet escaped.
The Germans now claimed that Jutland was a victory for them as they had sunk more capital ships the the British. Jellicoe claimed that the victory belonged to the British for the Germans had retreated and left the British in possession of the North Sea.
The Germans lost one Battle Cruiser, one Pre - Dreadnought, four Light Cruisers and five Destroyers along with 2,500 Sailors. The British lost three Battle Cruisers, four Armored Cruisers and eight Destroyers along with 6,000 Sailors.
The British did lose more ships and suffer greater casualties then the Germans however the German Fleet was never again in a position to put to sea and challenge the British Navy.
The ferocity of the German Verdun offensive demanded that the planned date for the Allied Somme offensive be moved forward from Ausust to July 1st, with its main objective being to divert German resources from the Verdun battle field.
Beginning June 24th, British General Rawlinson ordered the main attack be preceded by an eight day artillery bombardment comprising 1,500 British and French guns. The expectation being the barrage would entirely destroy the German defenses thus enabling the attacking forces to easily occupy the vacated enemy trenches.
Twenty seven infantry divisions numbering 750,000 men, eighty percent of which were British, went into the attack on July 1st. Occupying the enemy trenches before them were sixteen divisions of the German 2nd Army under General Fritz Von Below.
Unknown to the allies the artillery bombardment had completely failed to accomplish a single objective, for the Germans simply sought effective shelter in underground bunkers, emerging only with the ceasing of the barrage.
When the first attacking wave of the offensive went over the top into no mans land from the town of Gommecourt to the French left flank at Montauban, they were met with barbed wire, artillery and machine gun fire.
For an entire day the British were mowed down, fell back, regrouped and then repeated the whole murderous process again and again until nightfall ceased operations. The British had suffered 58,000 killed or wounded on the first day, yet General Haig persisted that Rawlinson continue with the offensive the following day.
Ten more bloody days would ensue before Rawlinson’s forces managed to secure the first line of German trenches. It was only at this time that German forces were transferred from Verdun to contribute to the Somme defense.
After the failed allied assault to take Fromelles on July 20th. The German defenses were re - organized with Von Below’s left wing receiving additional reinforcements and then forming a new 1st Army under General Von Gallwitz.
On July 23rd after suffering 5,500 casualties, the 1st Australian division captured the town of Poziers, this would be the last major offensive operation for the remainder of the summer as General Haig consolidated his positions.
On the morning of September 15th, the British 4th Army numbering fifteen infantry divisions and supported by twenty five tanks under British General Gough would renew the attack on the German positions in and around Flers Courcelette.
At the same moment the French 6th Army under General Emile Fayolle would attempt to clear the enemy from the British right flank. As the French attack began to stall in the face of withering German fire, three divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary force did capture Courcelette while to thier south, the 15th Scottish division captured Martinpuich on July 22nd.
Between September 25th - 27th, General Haig concentrated his next offensives to capture Morval and the Tiepval Ridge. Although the British 4th Army suffered 14,000 casualties as they struggled to navigate the elaborate mazes of German barb wire, trenches, bunkers and fortified dug outs, they did capture both thier objectives.
The German 1st Army was now clearly on the defensive. Haig thus decided to keep the pressure on the exhausted enemy units by ordering a large scale offensive to capture three major objectives. British 5th Army under Lieutenant General Gough was to attack north of Thiepval Ridge. British 3rd Army was to advance east of Gommecourt and British 4th Army to capture the vital Albert Bapaume road.
On October 1st, Haig gave the order to attack, however extremely bad weather and the quick arrival of fresh German divisions brought in from quiet sectors of the front (Including a Naval Marine Brigade). The subsequent German counterattacks only delayed the enviable until November 11th when all British objectives had been secured.
On November 13th, the British made one final all out effort to break the German defenses. Despite slow but progressive advances, a fridged drop in temperature and the arrival of deep snow brought an entire halt to the Somme offensive on November 18th.
For the meager gains of twelve kilometer’s, the five month long allied campaign for the Somme had cost 420,000 British and 200,000 French casualties in comparison to German losses of 500,000 men
On August 27th, during the height of the battle of the Somme. Romania declares war on the Central Powers and launches an invasion of the Austro - Hungarian Empire through the Carpathian Mountains. On September 1st, a quickly conscripted army consisting of German, Turkish and Bulgarian forces halt the Romanians then counter attack and invade Romania in response to her aggression against Austro - Hungary.
On the Eastern Front, the Russian Brusilov Offensive launched in early June ground to a halt. Four Russian armies under the command of General Alexei Brusilov had initially penetrated sixty miles along a three hundred mile front capturing 350,000 Austro - Hungarian prisoners. But the arrival of twenty four German divisions transferred from the Western Front stemmed the Russian advance.
Amid insufficient supplies and reserves, the Russians were forced to give up thier hard fought gains and withdrawal. The offensive had cost the Russian Imperial Army nearly one million casualties. Russian soldiers now began to desert in thier thousands, throughout the country civilian and military unrest rose up against the Czar’s rule and his handling of the war.
BACK TO WORLD WAR I
BACK TO GREAT MILITARY BATTLES
This Literary work © GreatMilitaryBattles.com