March 1917

March 1917

The Western Front

 

During the Battle of the Somme, Bapaume was occupied by the Germans until the 17th March 1917 when the British captured the city. The Germans had occupied Bapaume since trench warfare had commenced and it was such a strategic objective that the Germans re-captured the city on the 24th March 1917, where they remained until August 1918.

On the 18th March 1917, the Germans evacuated Peronne, Chaulness, Nesle and Noyon, and retired 85 miles to the Hindenburg Line. The British referred to this operation as a German retreat, but it was a strategic withdrawal which allowed the Germans to shorten their line by approximately 25 miles. The British were unaware of the building of the Hindenburg Line with its prepared defences which allowed the Germans to defend their line with far fewer divisions which could be deployed elsewhere. The planned British offensive for the spring of 1917 was seriously disrupted.

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Various Fronts

 

The 1st March 1917 headlines in the USA broke the news of the Zimmerman telegram. In this telegram Arthur Zimmerman, the German Foreign Secretary had asked his Ambassador to Mexico to propose a German-Mexican alliance in the event of war between Germany and the USA. The telegram had been intercepted by British Intelligence and stated that Germany would offer financial aid to Mexico should the two countries become involved in military conflict. If victorious Germany promised to restore the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico. President Woodrow Wilson’s request for the vessels to be armed after Germany had begun unrestricted submarine warfare on 1st February 1917 had been delayed. On the 12th March 1917 the United States Senate announced that all merchant vessels in the war zone would be armed and the re-arming began later in the month of March 1917.

On the 1st March 1917, HMHS “Glenart” (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) struck a mine between Le Havre and Southampton in the English Channel. She was damaged but all the crew and casualties were transferred to destroyers, tugs and trawlers. Weather conditions were ideal and the ship was towed into Portsmouth.

On the 8th March 1917, German Count Ferdinand Adolph August Heinrich von Zeppelin died aged 79 years. He was the inventor and manufacturer of large dirigible balloons consisting of cells filled with hydrogen inside a long cylindrical covered framework. The balloon was driven by engines mounted to the outside. The first airship flew in July 1900 covering a distance of 3.75 miles. During the Great War the Zeppelin Foundation produced airships capable of bombing Britain and France. However, the Zeppelins were vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire and destruction from improved Allied aircraft. By late 1917 Zeppelin airships were more or less discontinued as the Allied aircraft were consistently able to destroy them. Count von Zeppelin died on the 8th March 1917.

HMS”Achilles”, a warrior-class cruiser, was patrolling north of the Shetland Islands on 16th March 1917. Accompanied by the armed boarding steamer SS “Dundee” they encountered RMS “Leopold”, a German disguised auxiliary cruiser. When ordered, “Leopold” stopped but positioned herself to prevent “Dundee” from boarding. “Leopold” fired two torpedoes but missed both British ships and “Dundee” retaliated by raking “Leopold’s” stern and badly damaging her. “Achilles” immediately open fired on “Leopold” which sank with all hands an hour later.

French Prime Minister Aristide Briant resigned on the 17th March 1917. As well as being Prime Minister he also held the title of Minister for Foreign affairs. He had been Prime Minister since 20th October 1915 and it was his second term in office. Briand resigned from office as a direct result of disagreements over the proposed Nivelle Offensive. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by Alexandre Ribot who was appointed Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign affairs on 20th March 1917. Ribot was 75 years old and he had been Prime Minister on three previous occasions, but his fourth ministry was to last only until September 1917 following the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the subsequent mutiny of the French soldiers.

On the 17th March 1917, the British hospital ship HMHS “Asturias” had finished unloading her front line wounded men. En-route from Avonmouth to Southampton she was torpedoed by the German U-boat UC-66. The damage was so extensive that she had to beach herself near Bolt Head. Had she gone down with a full complement of wounded the losses would have been greater than the thirty-one killed and a further twelve missing. She was salvaged and for two years became a floating ammunition hulk at Plymouth.

On the 17th March 1917, Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey resigned as France’s Minister of War after a disagreement in the Parliamentary Chamber and was replaced by Paul Painlevé on 20th March 1917. Lyautey was a French Army general who had commanded forces in Indochina, Madagascar and Morocco. He was appointed Minister of War in early 1917 but his unpopularity and overbearing manner with both French and British politicians/military leaders led to his resignation. Painlevé was to stay Minister of War until his appointment as France’s Prime Minister in September 1917.

Two flotillas of German torpedo boats attacked the Strait of Dover on 18th March 1917. One flotilla attacked Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs shelling both the town and shipping in the harbours. The second flotilla attacked the British drifters and destroyers patrolling near Goodwin Sands. While attempting to defend the drifters, destroyers HMS “Paragon” and HMS “Llewellyn” were torpedoed. The Germans withdrew from both attacks with no casualties, but “Paragon” was sunk and “Llewellyn” was damaged.

In the Mediterranean the French battleship “Danton” was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-64 on the 19th March 1917. “Danton”, commanded by Captain Delage, was returning to duty after a refit in Toulon. She was to join the Allied blockade of the Strait of Otranto and she was bound for the Greek island of Corfu. “Danton” sank within 45 minutes after being hit. 806 men were rescued by the destroyer “Massue” but 296, including Captain Delage, went down with the ship.

On the 20th March 1917, the British Imperial War Conference began in London with representatives from the dominions of the British Empire. Recognising the British Empires’ increased contribution to the war effort, Prime Minister David Lloyd George created the British Imperial War Cabinet enabling consultation and co-ordination of military policy between all the dominion governments. The Commonwealth, as it became known, consisted of Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and India. The conference lasted until 27th April 1917.

The Imperial German merchant raider SMS “Mowe” commanded by Nikolaus zu Dohna-Schlodien was returning from her second raiding voyage disguised as a neutral cargo ship. She left Kiel on 23rd November 1916 and at the end of the four months she had been at sea she had accounted for the destruction of 27 ships. Off the Azores in the Atlantic “Mowe” encountered and fought the New Zealand Shipping Company’s cargo steamer “Otaki” on the 10th March 1917. “Otaki” fought a doomed but gallant fight armed only with a single 120mm stern gun and managed to hit “Mowe” several times. This resulted in a serious fire which was put out with difficulty. However, “Otaki” was severely damaged before sinking and her captain Archibald Bisset-Smith went down with his ship. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, being one of only two VC’s awarded to the Merchant Service during the First World War. “Mowe” had sustained serious damage and had five of crew killed and another ten wounded and was forced on a return course for Germany, arriving home safely on 22nd March 1917. On her return “Mowe” was taken out of service as a raider, not to be risked again as she was reckoned to too valuable as a propaganda tool. She served the remainder of the war firstly as a submarine tender and secondly as an auxiliary minelayer.

On the 30th March 1917, HMS “Gloucester Castle” was torpedoed off the Isle of Wight between Le Havre and Southampton. The torpedo was fired by German U-boat UB-32 commanded by Kapitantleutenant Max Viebeg. “Gloucester Castle” was a steam ship built for the Union Castle Line but was requisitioned for use as a British hospital ship during the Great War. After “Gloucester Castle” was torpedoed the crew and wounded were transferred but three people died during the transfer. She was towed back to port.

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The Balkans

On the 10th March 1917, following her wounding and subsequent release from hospital, Romanian Ecaterina Teodoroiu was decorated for bravery. She was awarded the “Scout Virtue” Medal and the Military Virtue Medal 2nd Class. She was to receive a second decoration and promotion. On the 17th March 1917, King Ferdinand of Romania presented Ecaterina with the Military Virtue Medal 1st Class. She was made honorary Second-Lieutenant (Sublocotenent) and given command of a 25-man platoon in the 7th Company (43/59 Infantry Regiment)

On the Macedonian front, French forces began an offensive on the 11th March 1917 to relieve Monastir from constant Bulgarian artillery bombardment. The city had been captured by the Allies in November 1916 but could not be utilised properly because of Bulgarian artillery activity. The Allied Commander-in-Chief, Frenchman Maurice Sarrail, who planned an attack against the enemy line between lakes Ohrio and Prespa, located west of Monastir. A frontal attack commenced against Hill 1248, which was just north of Monastir in the Pelister Mountain range. Hill 1248 was captured but a successful counter-attack resulted in the partial recapture of the hill, but the summit remained abandoned by both sides. The French attacks against the line between the lakes achieved some success but resistance had been stronger than anticipated and, coupled with extremely bad weather caused the attack to fail on the 23rd March 1917. Monastir was to remain under artillery fire until after the Armistice in 1918.

 

In a letter to Prince Sixte of Bourbon on the 31st March 1917, the Karl I (or Charles I), Emperor of Austria secretly proposed the opening of conversations, with a view to peace, to the President of France.

 

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The Eastern Front

Russia in 1917 had two revolutions which would eventually take Russia out of the war. The first was known as the “February Revolution” (March in the Gregorian calendar) when food shortages forced civilian demonstrators to take to the streets of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) on 8th March 1917.  They were supported by huge crowds of striking industrial workers.  On the 11th March 1917, troops from the Petrograd Garrison were ordered by Tsar Nicholas II to quell the uprising. Despite some troops opening fire on, and killing some demonstrators, the protesters stayed on the streets.  On the same day Nicholas dissolved the Duma (Russian Government) again. The Russian Revolution officially started on the 12th March 1917, when regiment after regiment of the troops sent out to quell the demonstration, defected to the cause of the demonstrators. However, the response of the Duma was to set up a Russian Provisional Government on the 12th March 1917. The Provisional Government was an alliance between the socialists and the liberals. The socialists, consisting of striking workers and their deputies, formed the Petrograd Soviet who wanted political reform. The provisional Government removed Prince Nicholai Golitsin from office as the Russian Premier on 13th March 1917, as was the Russian Minister of War General Mikhail Belyaev. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 15th March 1917 on the advice of the remaining Army Chiefs and ministers. The abdication brought an end to the Romanov monarchy. A Provisional Government was set-up on 15th March 1917 with, initially Prince Georgy Yevgenievich Lvov appointed as Russian Premier. Also appointed on 15th March 1917 was Pavel Milyukov as Foreign Minister and General Alexander Guchov as Minister for War.

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The Caucasus and Middle East

In Persia (Modern day Iraq) on the 7th March 1917, the Ottoman commander Khalil Pasha made the decision to defend Baghdad where the Diyala River and the Tigris join, 56 km (35 miles) south of Baghdad. Previously, on the 24th February 1917 the British commander Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude, had re-captured Kut-el-Amara after a long siege and was awaiting instruction from London to proceed to Baghdad which was less than 70km (44 miles) away. On the 5th March 1917 the British began their advance arriving at The Diyala River on the 9th March 1917. The Ottoman forces resisted the initial assault, and Maude attempted to outflank the Ottoman defenders and head directly to Baghdad. Khalil Pasha responded by attempting the same outflanking manoeuvre against the British leaving one regiment to hold the Diyala River. On the 10th March 1917 the British crushed the Diyala defenders and Khalil Pasha was forced to order his army to retreat north to Baghdad. The Ottoman authorities ordered the complete evacuation of Baghdad, which Khalil Pasha carried out. The British followed closely behind and captured Baghdad without a fight on 11th March 1917.

On the 26th March 1917, led by General Sir Charles Dobell the British forces launched an assault against the Ottoman forces in Gaza. In early January 1917 the British had forced the Ottoman forces out of the Sinai Peninsula and were able to consider an assault on Palestine. The Ottoman army was   outnumbered two to one but were waiting in Gaza. With his 36,000 strong army assembled on the coast 8km (5 miles) from Gaza and under cover of dense sea fog Dobell’s cavalry advanced to cut off Gaza in the rear. A central infantry advance was then launched, however, with British victory almost certain, Dobell assessed the infantry advance to be a failure and ordered Sir Philip Chetwode to withdraw his cavalry. The commander of the Ottoman forces in Gaza was German General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein who hastily re-inforced the town’s permanent garrison. When the British attacked the following day, the 27th March 1917, they were up against strong Ottoman defences. The Ottoman army counter-attacked, and with the combination of the lack of water, Dobell was persuaded to call off the attack. Dobell was sub-ordinate to Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, Sir Archibald Murray. As commander Murray wrote to the War Office in London suggesting the Ottoman forces sustained three times the actual figure of 2,400 losses implying a clear-cut British victory. Although in reality with British casualties of 4,000 men the First Battle of Gaza ended up as a draw.

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