December 1916

December 1916

Verdun

On the 15th December 1916, the French began the Second Offensive for the Battle of the Verdun after a six-day artillery bombardment, advancing 3km beyond Fort Douaumont. Four divisions of the French Army were up against five divisions of the under-strength German Army. The German defence collapsed and 13,500 of the 21,000 of their infantry were lost, 11,500 having been taken prisoner. The offensive ended on the 17th December 1916 with the Germans finally accepting defeat at the Battle of Verdun on the 18th December 1916, and the French retrieving the territory they had lost in February 1916. When German officers complained to the French commanders about their lack of comfort in captivity, the reply was “We do regret it gentlemen, but then we did not expect so many of you”.

Having captured and destroyed 115 guns and 9,000 prisoners the French had pushed the Germans back to their original start line. The battle had lasted from February to December 1916 and was the longest single battle of the Great War. The French suffered 550,000 casualties and the Germans 434.000, with each side having approximately 60,000 killed. Tactical values of strategical advantage had not been gained by either side. For the French the Battle of Verdun was an iconic battle as they fought the Germans without Allied assistance. However, the Battle of the Somme and the Brusilov Offensive proved to be a great asset as they both drew German forces away from the Verdun battlefield thereby relieving the pressure on the French army.

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The Balkans

During the Romanian Campaign, the Central Powers of Germany and Austro-Hungary had pushed the Romanian army toward their capital Bucharest. On the 1st December 1916, the Romanians halted their retreat east of the Arges River. They counter-attacked along the 20km wide gap between the two advancing armies and captured thousands of prisoners and large quantities of military equipment. The Central Powers were almost encircled by the Romanians but last minute intervention by Turkish Infantry on 2nd December 1916 was sufficient to stop the encirclement. When a Romanian Staff car accidently drove into a German position the Romanians suffered a massive set-back. The Staff car and the personnel carrying the Romanian attack plans were captured, and the Germans were able to push back the Romanian forces and progress on to Bucharest, which was eventually occupied on the 6th December 1916. To prevent the advancing Central Powers from gaining access to the oil wells and wheat fields the retreating Romanian forces destroyed them by setting light to them. In the meantime, the Romanian Government had relocated to Jasssy on the 1st December 1916. Despite all their efforts the Central Powers had not achieved their aim of defeating Romania and forcing them out of the war. With the occupation of Bucharest the Romanian army was still a force of considerable power and was of great assistance to the Allies. During the campaign Romania had lost approximately 250,000 men, almost a third of the manpower mobilized in August 1916.

On the 11th December 1916, Commander- in-Chief General Joseph Joffre called off the Monastir Offensive during the Salonika Campaign owing to the onset of winter and the front line stabilized along its entire length. After the British had captured Monastir on the 19th November 1916 the Bulgarians and their German Allies retreated north. The British attacked the new defensive line a few kilometres north of Monastir but the line held firm. Having reached the limits of their supply lines the British failed to continue the attack as their troops were exhausted. Although Monastir had been abandoned the new positions provided excellent conditions for defence and the Bulgarian artillery was assured dominance for bombarding the town. The Bulgarian and German casualties totalled approximately 61,000 men during the campaign, whilst the British and Serbian battle casualties were approximately 50,000. Another 80,000 casualties of sickness, disease or the resulting death brought the British and Serbian casualties up to approximately 130,000 men. The Serbian army was provided with the satisfaction of knowing they were able to return to the border of their own country, which was the one positive of the whole offensive.

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Eastern Front

The assassination of Grigori Rasputin was carried out by five Russian Noblemen in Petrograd on the 30th December 1916.  At the beginning of the twentieth century Rasputin had left his wife and children and spent some time in a monastery before embarking on a life of religious wandering. He was introduced to Tsar Nicolas and his wife Alexandra and eventually was asked by the Tsarina to try to cure their son by prayer. Alexei was suffering from haemophilia and Rasputin had the ability to calm Alexei and this helped to stop the haemophilic bleeding once it had started. The Tsarina was convinced Rasputin was a holy man and he became more influential in the Royal Court which alarmed the Russian aristocracy. He was invited to the Palace of Prince Yusupov, in Petrograd and was offered poisoned cakes and wine for refreshment. He ate and drank but the poison seemed not to have not affected him. A Nobleman shot him but he survived this wound and managed to crawl to an outside door. When he managed to disappear in the dark, two more shots were fired into his retreating body. To be certain he was dead the Noblemen threw his body into river Neva and was retrieved some days later.

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The Caucasus and Middle East Campaign

On the night of the 13th/14th December 1916, British troops began to advance toward Kut–al–Amara in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). The garrison of Kut had been besieged and in April 1916 Sir Charles Townsend had surrendered to the attacking Turkish forces. This surrender had prompted the British Government to re-think its Middle East policy as they were aware British prestige had been severely damaged. In July 1916 Sir Frederick Maude was appointed commander of the Tigris Corps., and he immediately set about re-supplying and re-organising British and Indian forces. An influx of troops from India had re-enforced the British army bringing the total number of troops to approximately 150,000 under the command of Maude. With the improvements to the British system of medical supplies and transport facilities, Maude requested permission from London to advance toward Baghdad before the arrival of the winter floods. After a short delay the request was granted and 55,000 men began the advance on both sides of the Tigris River toward Kut–al-Amara.

Britain recognised Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca as king of the Arabs on the 15th December 1916 following discussions between the Arab nations and the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed on the 16th May 1916 giving the French control over southern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The United Kingdom controlling the Mediterranean and all of Jordon, southern Iraq and a small area to include the ports of Haifa and Acre. These ports allowed access to the Mediterranean from the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal. The Russians controlling Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and Armenia. Hussein was recognised by the British as King of the Arabs provided the Allies defeated the Ottoman Empire with the assistance of the Arabs. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was and is seen as a turning point in Western and Arab relationship.

The Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division (Anzac Mounted Division) of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (E.E.F.) seized the town of El Arish on the 21st December 1916. El Arish is on the coast of the Mediterranean in Sinai. The Ottoman and German Empires had abandoned El Arish and re-located at Magdhaba, 18-30 miles (29-48 km) inland and south-east of El Arish. Magdhaba was well defended by the Ottoman army, and taken by surprise when confronted by the Anzac Mounted Division, so soon after they had set-up their defences. Having seized El Arish and after a night march the Anzac Mounted Division attacked Magdhaba. By modifying tactics the Anzacs rode as close to the front line as possible, dismounted and continued the attack with the bayonet. Camouflaged redoubts had been located by assisting aircraft and the artillery, together with machine-gun fire had enabled these redoubts to be captured. Late afternoon of the 23rd December 1916 The Battle of Magdhaba collapsed after the Ottoman defenders surrendered.

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Other Fronts

David Lloyd George was Liberal Party Chancellor of the Exchequer at the outbreak of war who was appointed Prime Minister on the 7th December 1916. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George was a vigorous campaigner for the increased production of munitions but came into conflict with Lord Kitchener in the early months of 1915. After the death of Kitchener and the resignation of Admiral Sir John Fisher- First Sea Lord in 1915 the then Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith was forced to reconstruct the Government into a coalition with the Conservative Party. Lloyd George received the position as Minister of Munitions. Through the leadership of Lloyd George sufficient munitions were available for the Battle of the Somme. Disagreements at Cabinet level over Asquith’s running of Governmental affairs led Asquith into a position where he was forced to resign as Prime Minister on the 5th December 1916. Two days later, on the 7th December 1916 Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister. One of the first things he organised was the immediate transformation of the British war effort. He had a strong hand in the managing of every affair, both military and domestic. Lloyd George was absolutely clear about how important it was for the support of women. He encouraged women to assist in the war effort by working on the land, the transport industry and the munition factories. It was Lloyd George who provided the driving energy and organisation skills that helped the Allies win the war. On the 9th December 1916, a five man War Cabinet was formed with Lloyd George as it’s’ leader to replace the three men War Committee chaired by David Lloyd George.

On the 12nd December 1916, General Robert Georges Nivelle was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, to replace Joseph Joffre who had been dismissed in mid-December 1916. Nivelle was a capable Commander of the French Second army who spoke English well, and an organiser at regimental and divisional levels.  His now-famous line: “Ills ne passeront pas” (they shall not pass) was acknowledged as being a major reason for his success at Verdun. Alongside his success at Verdun was his ability to persuade French and British leaders he knew how to win the war, and was an important factor behind the decision to appoint him the position of Commander-in-Chief.

On the 12th December 1916, The German Government stated its willingness to consider the question of peace with the Allies. The request was submitted to America and on the 18th December 1916 President Woodrow Wilson sent a communication asking both sides for the outline of their proposals. Germany proposed Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine would remain under German control. In return the Allies stated their own conditions upon which they would consider peace. David Lloyd George, Britain’s new Prime Minister, reaffirmed that any peace could only come with the outright defeat of Germany. By the 26th December 1916 the peace proposals had been discussed and on the 30th December 1916 Lloyd George rejected the peace plans.

On the 26th December 1916, Joseph Joffre was promoted to the position of Marshall of France. He had been dismissed as Commander-in-Chief in mid-December 1916 by the French Government. His leadership had been gradually eroded owing to the continued deadlock of the opposing armies, coupled with the huge casualties sustained. As Marshall of France his role was reduced to ceremonial for the rest of the war and he was made strategic adviser although in reality his power was at an end.

The French built Charlemagne-class pre-dreadnaught battleship “Gaulois” was sunk on the 27th December 1916. “Gaulois” was off the southern coast of Greece in the Aegean Sea when she was hit by a torpedo fired by German submarine UB-47. The single torpedo exploded amidships killing two crewmen. Twenty-two minutes after being hit the “Gaulois” capsized, allowing all but two of the crew to abandon ship before sinking fourteen minutes later. The crew were rescued by the escorting single destroyer and two armed trawlers. When the Great War began the “Gaulois” escorted troop convoy ships across the Mediterranean Sea from French North Africa to France. She joined the allied fleet in early 1915 attacking Turkish forts at the entrance to the Dardanelles. Having steamed too close to the forts the “Gaulois” was hit and damaged below the water-line. After making temporary repairs she managed to cross the Mediterranean and enter dry-dock at Toulon for complete repairs at Brest in August 1916 and upon completion she was ordered back to the Dardanelles on the 25th November 1916.

On the 27th December 1916, Togoland was separated into French and British administrations, during the period of the “scramble for Arica”. Togoland had been a German Protectorate in West Africa nestled between Ghana and Nigeria and had been one of Germanys’ two self-supporting colonies. On the 6th August 1914, Germany was asked by the French and British to surrender and the request was rejected. Two days later they were over-run by the French and British forces. Togoland was governed by a joint administration until the separation on the 27th December 1916, Geographically, Togoland’s coast-line was ideally placed, during the war, for spotting the movement of both Allied and enemy shipping along the west coast of Africa.

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