On January 19th, British intelligence intercepted a wireless telegram sent by German ambassador Alfred Zimmermann in the German foreign office to there embassy in Mexico City. The message outlined future plans for an alliance between Germany and Mexico against the United States of America.
The message specifically stated that Germany would provide tactical and military support once Mexico invaded the American Southwest, retrieving her lost territories that had once been a part of Mexico. The British passed the information along to the Americans and then it was leaked and made public causing an outcry throughout the United States.
To enforce there intentions, on Febuarary 1st, Germany publicly announced a return to unrestricted U-boat warfare around the British Isles. Germany’s goal was to knock England out of the war by cutting off all imports thus starving the Island into submission.
After the sinking of seven unarmed American merchant vessels in three days including the grain ship Housatonic (The largest merchant ship in the U.S. Navy). The United States promptly severed diplomatic relations with Germany on February 3rd.
On April 2nd President Woodrow Wilson appeared before the U.S. Congress giving a speech which ended “The world must be made safe for Democracy”. He then asked for a declaration of war against Germany. Four days later Congress approved and formally informed Germany that a state of war now existed between them.
Was the main attack during the Nivelle Offensive. A French and British attempt to inflict a decisive defeat on the German armies in France and end the war. General Robert Nivelle planned the offensive in December 1916, after he replaced Joseph Joffre as Commander in Chief of the French Army.
The objective of the attack on the Aisne was to capture the prominent fifty mile east to west ridge of the Chemin des Dames. Then advance north and capture the city of Laon. Once accomplished the French and British would link up with additional forces attacking from Arras and continue to pursue the retreating German armies through Belgium and to the borders of Germany herself.
The diversionary part of the offensive began on April 9th, when the British attacked at Arras. Seven days later nineteen divisions of the French 5th and 6th Armies under Generals Mazel and Mangin supported by 7,000 Artillery pieces which after firing 4,000,000 shells, launched the main attack.
Defending the high ground along the Chemin des Dames was the German 7th Army under General Von Boehm. The French assault quickly met massed German machine gun and artillery fire which repulsed the French along the entire field of attack. At the end of the first day of battle the French had not reached a single objective at the cost of 40,000 casualties.
On April 17th, the French 4th Army under General Anthoine launched a subsidiary attack east of Reime towards Moronvillers. However General Von Below’s German 1st Army repelled the continuous French assaults throughout the day, inflicting and additional 25,000 casualties.
Despite evidence to the contrary and the constant pleas from his subordinate commanders too abandon the offensive, Nivelle still believed his battle plan to be sound and would ultimately prove successful.
For the next eight days the French attacks would continue. Some minor gains were made by General Mangin west of Soissons, but progress was slow and at a high cost. By April 25th, disillusion amongst the French General Staff had led to General Nivelle’s prompt dismissal and replacement by General Petain.
Petain immediately ordered the attacks scaled back over the next two weeks and finally abandoned on May 9th. For the loss of 187,000 men, The Nivelle offensive had gained a mere six miles of territory. The Germans suffered 120,000 casualties, 20,000 prisoners taken and 150 Artillery guns captured.
The failure of the Aisne Offensive also had a near catastrophic effect on the resolve and morale on the French Army as a whole. From May 27th - June 1st a mutinous atmosphere sweep through the ranks and erupted into open insubordination as soldiers began to refuse orders.
Sixty eight of the one hundred and twelve divisions along the Western Front experienced full blown mutinies and associated disruptions by disgruntled soldiers who became angry over the mass casualties suffered and the continuous unending battles along with the appalling living conditions endured in the muddy rat and lice infested trenches.
Petain also cracked down on the mutiny by ordering mass arrests and firing squad executions of the worst violators promoting insurrection. Of the thousands of court martials, five hundred and fifty mutineers were sentenced to death but only sixty hard liners were executed. During this desperate time for the French Army, these chain of events were keep secret from the nations populace as well as the Germans.
General Petain immediately suspended all offensive operations while he personally visited the troops slowly improving morale with promise’s of no further suicidal attacks, better food, providing more rest for exhausted units and instituting longer home furloughs.
THE KERENSKY OFFENSIVE
During the Nivelle Offensive, a mass protest by Russian civilian’s in ST. Petersburg on March 8th, erupted into violence against Czar Nicholas II and his handling of the war. Within days Russian soldiers within the city began to mutiny and disobey orders.
By March 15th, political and military support for the Czar had all but vanished, bringing the three hundred year Romanov Dynasty to an end. Czar Nicholas was forced to abdicate in favor of a new democratically minded provisional government. The western allies were quick to recognize the new government in the hopes Russia would stay in the war and maintain its huge presence on the eastern front.
On April 16th, after twelve years in hiding, political exiles Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin arrived in Petrograd. On May 19th, the provisional government publicly announced it would scale down its participation in the war while secretly informing its allies the new Minister of war, Alexander Kerensky was planning a large offensive slated for July.
As the offensive approached, the Russian army was better prepared, armed and supplied than at any other time during the three years of war against the Central Powers. 300,000 men were grouped into three armies. General Ivan Erdelyi commanded the northern 11th Army, 7th Army in the center was under Lieutenant General Sieliwacziow and the southern 8th Army was led by General Lavr Kornilov.
Opposing the Russians were three armies numbering 250,000 men. The German 8th Army along with the Austro Hungarian 3rd and 7th armies under the command of Generals Felix Graf Von Bothmer, Karl Von Nadas and Hermann Von Kovesshaza respectively.
On the eve of battle General Erdelyi knew the 6,000 men of the Austro Hungarian 2nd Army’s 19th division were Czechs. He then sent emmisaires comprising former Czech prisoners of war who had gone over to him with a solicit of surrender before the main assault. The Czech Nationals abandoned There positions, switched sides and joined their fellow countrymen.
On July 1st, seven hundred artillery pieces heralded the beginning of the offensive. After a six hour bombardment the Russians moved forward along a forty mile front through Galicia with the goal of cutting through then destroying the enemy formations on there way to recapturing the industrial city of Lvov.
In the south, General Brusilov mounted a full scale attack on the Austro Hungarian 3rd Army. Russian forces cut through the enemy defense lines, so fast was the advance they even captured 10,000 men of the German Reserve Battalions stationed ten miles to the rear.
With an apparent Russian victory in Kerensky’s grasp, It was the 7th Army in the center which lost the initiative and placed the success of the whole offensive in jeopardy as General Sieliwacziow for some unapparent reason chose to hold back and launch his part of the offensive three days late.
This catastrophic error allowed the Central Powers to bring up six veteran German divisions from the Western Front which stopped the Russian 11th Army dead in its tracks, hurling them back to there own lines in utter confusion.
With the Russians in complete disarray, the German 8th and Austro Hungarian 7th Army’s launched a concerted counter attack against the Russian 7th Army whose units quickly broke and deserted en mass. In a mere ten days The entire Russian southern front collapsed, only a lack of supplies would halt the advance.
By July 19th, the Kerensky offensive had ended in complete and utter failure. The Russians suffered 50,000 dead with 20,000 wounded with 10,000 prisoners taken. German losses were 5,000 dead 2,000 wounded and 10,000 taken prisoner. The Austro Hungarians lost 10,000 killed, 5,000 wounded and 12,000 taken prisoner.
GERMAN MACHINE GUN TEAM
The offensive at Ypres was Sir Douglas Haig’s attempt to break through Flanders, race to the coast of Belgium and cut off, then destroy the German U-boat pens. Haig also strongly believed the morale of the German Army after there defeat at Messines, was now at a low ebb and that an Allied offensive would destroy the enemy defenses and roll through Flanders without strong resistance.
On July 18th, Haig gave the order for three thousand guns to begin a ten day artillery barrage to destroy the German defenses. After firing nearly four million rounds, Haig gave the order for the offensive to begin.
Across an eleven mile front the main assault led by General Sir Hubert Gough’s 5th British Army went forward. Protecting Gough’s flanks were the French 1st Army under General Anthoine on his left and General Sir Herbert Plumer’s British 2nd Army on the right.
Four days into the attack, the area became saturated with the heaviest rainfall the region had experienced in thirty years. Maneuver became near impossible, the impact of the Allied artillery bombardment had also destroyed the natural drainage systems and the shell craters which now littered the battlefield were filled with water making the area impassable.
Haig blamed the lack of progress not on the battle field conditions but on General Gough. Haig then dismissed Gough and replaced him with General Plumer. Plumer quickly set about fighting a series of small battles within Flanders. Menin Road Bridge, Polyon Wood and the battle of Broodseinde. This change in commanders produced limited gains of just over a few thousand yards east of Ypres but at the horrendous cost of 22,000 British and Australian casualties.
Haig now ordered that the offensive be concentrated against Passchendaele Ridge. Unbenounced to the Allied high command, German forces which had been fighting on the eastern front had been secretly moved westward specifically to defend the Passchendaele area. From October 9th - 12th, the British attacked repeatedly but the Germans used Mustard Gas to assist them in there defense and the Allied breakthrough failed to materialize.
However, Haig would still not concede. In late October another three failed Allied attacks were made on Passchendaele. Haig now felt he had no recourse and threw in his last reserves, the Canadian Corps. After four days of bitter fighting the Canadians had succeeded were seven other Commonwealth countries had failed, capturing Passchendaele village on November 6th. Haig now skillfully used this lone success to vindicate his plan and called off the offensive.
This would bring the third battle of Ypres to an end. For limited Allied gains of a mere ten miles, they had suffered 400,000 casualties along with 30,000 taken prisoner. The Germans faired little better in the five month battle with losses of 325,000 men.
CANADIANS OCCUPY PASSCHENDAELE RIDGE
GERMAN GAS ATTACK
Following the eleventh battle of the Isonzo, the Austro Hungarian front against Italy was in danger of collapse. The German high command under Generals Paul Von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff formulated a plan with the Austro Hungarian commander in chief, Arz Von Straussenberg to launch a combined operation against the Italians intended for September.
The offensive would include the Austro Hungarian 5th Army commanded by Field Marshal Svetozar Boroevic and the Tyrolean Army Group comprisng the remnants of the 10th and 11 Armies under Austrian Archduke Joseph and the newley raised German 14th Army comprising nine Austrian Hungarian and six German Infantry divisions under General Otto Von Below.
This amounted to 350,000 men supported by 2,500 artillery pieces. Opposing the Central Powers was the 400,000 strong Italian 2nd Army with 4,000 guns under the command of General Luigi Capello.
At 2:00 am on the morning of October 24th along a twenty five kilometer line directley to the front of Caporetto along the Isonzo River, one thousand Metal cylanders containing a chlorine arsenic mixturetriggered electrically to release the agent which quickley drifted into the valley below smothering the Italian trenches in a dense thick cloud.
After Four hours of being drenched in poison gas, the German artillery began thier bombardment, timed for around the precise time the Italian gas masks would begin to reach thier protection limits. The already disorentated Italians began to panic and evacuate thier trenches.
At 8:00 am, the Central Powers attacked. German and Austro Hungarian forces quickley advanced through the almost undefended Italian fortifications in the valley, breaching the first two defensive lines with relative ease capturing thousands of prisoners and driving a wedge between the Italian 2nd Army and the flanking 4th and 27th Corps.
Von Below’s breakthrough had thrown the other two Italian Corps into complete disaray, fleeing in all directions. Italian reserves which were rushed forward to stem the tide, were also overwhelmed by advancing enemy forces and surrendered in droves.
General Capello, realizing his army was being routed, requested permission to withdrwal back to the Tagliamento River. He was sternly refused by Field Marshal Cadorna who believed that the Italians could regroup were they stood and reform there lines.
VON BELOW CORDORNA
As a direct result of Cadorna’s order to stand fast, the entire Italian 87th Regiment (5,000 strong), deployed along the Plezzo Basin was utterly destroyed. Caporetto itself was captured on the evening of the 24th along with the major rail hub of Saga, twenty five miles inland.
It would take a further six days of constant withdrawals and redeployments before Marshal Cadorna ordered a general retreat across the Tagliamento River. For the next four days the German and Austro Hungarian artillery pounded the retreating Italians, taking ever more prisoners and never giving them a moments respite to make an orderly withdrawal.
On November 2nd, German units actually outpaced the Italians and established a secure bridgehead on the opposite bank of the Tagliament, directley in the path of three retreating Italian divisions. The Germans were then able to cut them off and force there surrender, netting a further 33,000 prisoners.
By November 5th however, the rapid pace of the offensive began to slow as the Central Powers supply lines became over stretched, forcing a halt to offensive operations. This saving grace consequently saved part of the Italian 2nd Army from being pinned against the Adriatic Sea and anilalated.
This respite also allowed Marshal Cadorna five crucial days to establish strong defencsive positions along the Piave River. It was along this line that the last great push of the German and Austro Hungarian armies were met and halted by the Italian’s at the Battle of Monte Grappa (November 11 - December 23).
The battle of Caporetto would now grind down into endless defensive static trench warfare. The Germans and her Austro Hungarian allies suffered 30,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. The scale of the Italian disaster was much greater with some 300,000 casualties (80% of which were as prisoners) and virtually all the 2nd Armies 4,000 artillery peices lost.
Although the situation had stabalised, the Italian defeat sent shock waves amongst the other Allied Governments. In Italy Field Marshal Cadorna was dismissed. Prime Minister Boselli was sacked and relpaced by Vittorio Orlando who leaned heavily towards an armistice with the Central Powers but remained in the war with the prompt arrival of 200,000 troops comprising six French and five British Infantry Divisions, along with the promise of vast land consessions at the end of the war.