During the early months of 1917 the terrible weather conditions dictated that the Western Front remained reasonably quiet. However, General Sir Douglas Haig was promoted to Field-Marshal on the 3rd January 1917. Haig was Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and King George V wrote him a handwritten note congratulating him. The conclusion of the note ended with the statement, “I hope you will look upon this as a New Year’s gift from myself and the country”. Haig and the newly-promoted Prime Minister David Lloyd George had a respectful working relationship, but was soon to become less cordial. During a stormy conference in Calais, Haig was infuriated when the BEF was placed under the command of the new French Commander-in-Chief Robert Nivelle.
Sailing east of Malta on the 9th January 1917, HMS “Cornwallis” was struck on her starboard side by a torpedo from German submarine U-32. With some of her stoke holds flooded she listed about ten degrees to starboard but the list was corrected by counter flooding to the port side. She was struck by second torpedo to her starboard side about 75 minutes later and quickly rolled over to starboard. She stayed afloat for about 30 minutes before sinking allowing all but fifteen of the crew to get off the ship. Fifteen members of the crew had been killed by the two torpedo explosions. HMS “Cornwallis” was a pre-dreadnaught battleship and at the beginning of the war had been assigned to bombard German submarine bases in Belgium. In 1915 she was ordered to the Dardanelles Campaign. She took part in the opening bombardment at Gallipoli and was the last ship to leave Suvla Bay covering the Allied evacuation in January 1916. After the Suvla Bay evacuation, she was transferred to the Suez Canal Patrol.
The British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had rejected the peace plan proposed by United States President Woodrow Wilson in December 1916. The Entente governments, including Belgium sent a formal note back to America on the 10th January 1917 outlining the demands for peace would be the outright defeat of Germany. The plan would entail the restoration of Alsace/Lorraine to France, the restoration of Belgium and finally Austria to be partly partitioned to Italy, Romania and Serbia. Germany issued a note, to President Wilson, on the 11th January 1917 stating they were convinced that their considerable territorial gains did not require any specific conditions or demands. They knew if their offer was rejected they would begin unrestricted submarine warfare even if it meant America was brought into the war on the Allied side. The view of the German military was if the peace plan was rejected the Allies would be responsible for pro-longing the war, not Germany.
Whilst in port at Yokosuka on the 14th January 1917 the Japanese battlecruiser “Tsukuba” exploded and sank in shallow water. At the time of the explosion approximately 200 crewmen were killed instantly and when she sank 20 minutes later more than 100 were drowned. More than 400 crewmen were on shore leave, otherwise the loss of life would have been far greater. A later enquiry attributed the explosion to a fire in the ammunition magazine possibly through spontaneous combustion from deterioration of the powder in the shells. “Tsukuba” had served initially during the blockade of the German port of Tsingtao in China in 1914. After the fall of the city, “Tsukuba” was sent as part of a search for the German East Adriatic Squadron in the South Pacific until the destruction of the German battle fleet at the Battle of the Falklands in December 1914. She remained in Japanese home waters during 1915 & 1916 as part of Japan’s contribution to the Allied war effort under the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.
Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram to the German Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt, on the 19th January 1917. The telegram was sent in anticipation of the re-introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany. This action would almost certainly bring the Americans into the war against Germany and Eckardt was to approach the Mexican government with the proposal for a military alliance with funding from Germany. The prize for Mexico was to be the reclamation of the southern states of America lost in the 19th Century. The telegram was intercepted and decoded by British Intelligence and the contents passed to the American government. Outraged public opinion in America helped to support the eventual declaration of war on Germany in April 1917.
In the Africa theatre, General Reginald Hoskins replaced South African General Jan Smuts on the 20th January 1917. Smuts had been the commander of the East Africa forces since February 1915. The new British Prime Minister David Lloyd George wanted Smuts to attend the Imperial War meetings. Hoskins was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all British forces in South Africa.
HMS “Simoon” was part of the Harwich Force which put to sea to intercept a flotilla of German destroyers. Eleven VS & G class destroyers were known to be heading toward Zeebrugge from their German ports. The two naval forces made contact early hours of the 23th January 1917. HMS “Simoon” was leading the line of four destroyers and after an initial salvo, the German destroyer S50 discharged a torpedo which struck HMS “Simoon”. The torpedo exploded in the “Simoon’s” magazine causing heavy casualties. The destroyer HMS “Nimrod” recovered the survivors of HMS “Simoon”. Immediately HMS “Nimrod” was ordered by Commander Twrwhitt to torpedo and scuttle HMS “Simoon”. Darkness enabled the German destroyer S50 to escape the encounter before returning to Germany.
On the 31st January 1917, the German government announced the forthcoming unrestricted submarine warfare on Allied shipping. Included in the submarine warfare would be attacks on American shipping bringing supplies to the Allies and all hospital ships. The renewed submarine warfare would resume on 1st February 1917.
Alexander Trepov resigned his post as Prime Minister of Imperial Russia on the 8th January 1917, and Prince Nikoli Golitsin succeeded him. Prior to his assassination on the 30th December 1916, Grigori Rasputin was upset and annoyed with the appointment of Trepov as Prime Minister. Rasputin was concerned, as was Tsarina Alexandra, that Trepov’s study and proposals of western parliamentary systems would oppose Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina to bring an end to the Romanov dynasty. Rasputin had a great influence on the Tsarina and consequently the Tsar who had absolute power in Imperial Russia. This influence was because of Rasputin’s ability to calm their son and stop the bleeding due to his haemophilia. Nicholas was opposed to parliamentary democracy and the relationship between him and parliament became bitter to the point where Trepov resigned. Morale in Russia was very low as the front line forces had suffered horrendous losses, and the civilian population was having to contend with severe shortages of all commodities. Civil unrest was now beginning to emerge with two rival institutions competing for power, the Duma (parliament) and the “Petrograd Soviet” (Provisional Government).
Dimitri Savelich Shuvaev resigned from his position as Russian Minister of War on the 17th January 1917. He was a serving member of the Russian army, mainly in staff positions primarily on logistics. The army of Tsar Nicholas suffered in its management of supplies which failed to get food and armaments to the forces in the field. The supplies were often available awaiting shipment. To address these problems Shuvaev was promoted to Minister of War in March 1916 but he was severely handicapped from the beginning. Tsar Nicholas had appointed himself commander-in-chief of the Russian army in the summer of 1915, and Tsarina Alexandra assumed the role of Head of state. In the absence of Nicholas the Tsarina grew ever more dependent on Rasputin who influenced her political view on home affairs. Ministers resigned and Alexandra, who was guided by Rasputin, replaced them. Until his murder in 1916 Rasputin continued his influence on the Tsarina. From the very beginning of his taking office Shuvaev had his logistical expertise rendered ineffective owing to the poor relationship between him and the Tsarina. Despite the fact Shuvaev was willing to work with the government, the Tsarina ensured he did not receive the political influence he needed in order to redress the logistics problem. His predicted resignation was welcomed by the Royal Court.
The Caucasus and Middle East Campaign
On the 3rd January 1917, Thomas Edward Lawrence (known as Lawrence of Arabia) set off with 35 Arab tribesmen on his first desert raid against the Ottoman Empire. They rode out of their camp under the cover of darkness to a Turkish encampment where they dismounted and climbed up a steep hill overlooking the area. They attacked the encampment with rifle fire until they were driven off. Returning to their own camp they stumbled across two Turkish soldiers and promptly captured them and taking them back for questioning. This minor triumph was spoilt by a tragedy when Lawrence had to execute one of his own raiders to prevent a blood feud developing amongst the tribesmen. Lawrence was haunted by this deed for the rest of his life. When the Great War began in 1914 Lawrence was an archaeologist who had worked extensively within the Ottoman Empire. The Arab Bureau of the Foreign Office supported the break-away Arab tribes, and when Lawrence enlisted in 1914 into the British Army he was commissioned as an officer and posted to the intelligence staff in Cairo. During the course of the war Lawrence was operating in intelligence affairs but also went on guerrilla raids with the Arab irregular troops.
In Mesopotamia Sir Frederick Maude’s British troops began launching minority diversionary attacks on Khadairi Bend on the 7th/8th January 1917. Khadairi Bend was a heavily fortified town on the Tigris River north of Kut-el-Amara. Kut is located on the Tigris River which is modern-day Iraq, which had been occupied by the British and captured by the Ottoman troops in 1916. An effective artillery bombardment on the 9th January 1917 began the major attack on Khadairi Bend with the battle lasting almost three weeks. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting was encountered during the British offensive and the Turkish defenders counter-attacks resulting in heavy casualties before the town fell to the British on the 29th January 1917. The Battle of Khadairi Bend proved to be just the prelude to the major Allied offensive in Mesopotamia. Slow but sure progress was made owing to the heavy rains and the concern of London to keep the casualties to a minimum before the Second Battle of Kut- el-Amara, which began the following month.
On the 9th January 1917, following the surrender of the Ottoman defenders at the Battle of Magdhaba the Desert Column attacked the town of Rafah. Lieutenant General Philip Chetwode commanding the Desert Force, left El Arish the previous evening in readiness for the planned attack on the 9th. The Desert Force consisted of the Anzac Mounted Division, the Imperial Camel Corp Brigade, the 5th Mounted Brigade and the 7th Light Car Patrol. The individual forces surrounded the Rafah fortifications and by approximately 9.30 am a thirty-minute preparatory artillery barrage had begun against the town. Under cover of this barrage the attaching troops began their advance to within 2,000 yards (1,800 m) of the Ottoman defences. Fighting continued all day with the attackers making very little headway against a determined Ottoman defence. Gradually machine gun cross-fire gave the assaulting troops sufficient cover allowing them to get within 400 yards (370 m) of the central redoubt. By early evening the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade captured the central redoubt in a final bayonet charge, at the run with many of the soldiers firing their guns as they went. With the central redoubt in British possession, they were able to enfilade the remaining redoubts and the troops advanced and finally captured them. The Battle of Rafah was the final battle to complete the recapture of the Sinai Peninsula by the British forces during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign.