May 1917

 

May 1917

Western Front

Over Douai in France on 7th May 1917, English fighter pilot ace Captain Albert Ball VC was killed in action. In poor weather conditions he had been involved in a dogfight against Lothar von Richthofen, brother of the German Red Baron. Ball had pursued von Richthofen apparently puncturing his fuel tank and forced him to land. It would appear Ball had become disorientated during combat and he crashed his aircraft and was killed. For some time he was listed as missing but at the end of May 1917 the Germans dropped a message over the British lines to say they had buried Albert Ball with full military honours at   Annoeullin Communal Cemetery in France. Ball was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross on the 21st July 1917 which was presented to his family. Albert Ball had gained his pilot’s wings in January 1916 and in 17 months he had amassed 44 confirmed “kills” with another 25 unconfirmed. During that period he was awarded three Distinguished Service Orders (DSO) and the Military Cross. He was also awarded the Légion d’honneur by France together with the Order of St. George (4th Class) by Russia. But perhaps the greatest tribute of all to the 21 year Albert Ball came from his greatest opponent Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, who simply described him as “by far the best English flying man”.

Following the failure of the Nivelle Offensive to break through the German defences the French army began to refuse to follow orders for any further attacks on the 3rd May 1917. Unbeknown to the Germans morale in the French Army had received a body blow after the failed offensive. Coupled with news about the Russian Revolution and that it would take time for the Americans to start arriving, the French army began to mutiny. The French 2nd Division was the first to begin the mutiny when the troops arrived at the battlefield drunk and without weapons. The mutiny soon spread through the army. The men were mostly veterans who were demanding an end to the offensive. They believed the attacks they were being ordered to make were futile because the military authorities were inattentive to the slaughter and the realities of modern warfare. The offensive was suspended on the 9th May 1917. General Robert Nivelle was replaced as commander, on the 15th May 1917, by General Phillipe Pétain. Nivelle then disappeared from the world stage. History has not judged him very kindly. During the month of May 1917 over half the Divisions of the French Army were involved in the mutiny and a record number of 27,000 French soldiers deserted. Pétain restored morale by talking to the men, promising no more suicidal attacks, rest for exhausted units, home leave and moderate discipline. Fortunately the mutinies were kept secret from the Germans. From here on the French were not the driving force and the British took over the main offensive. On 15th May 1917, when Pétain took over from Nivelle as commander-in-chief, Ferdinand Foch became the Allied Supreme Commander. He remained in the position of chief of all staff until the end of the war.

The Third Battle of the Scarpe was an offensive by the British army along a 14 mile frontage from Bullecourt in the south to Fresnoy in the north. This action was part of the Battle of Arras and was fought on the 3rd – 4th May 1917. The decision to launch the attack at 3.45 am. In the darkness was contentious. There were two waves of attacking troops behind a creeping barrage of artillery fire. German artillery and machine gun fire caused heavy casualties to the first wave and few reached the German trenches at the Hindenburg Line. The second wave advanced in daylight and they faced machine guns sooner than the first wave. The attacking forces were compelled to withdraw on the 4th May 1917 owing to the dominance of the German artillery and machine gun fire. This disastrous day marked the beginning of the end of the Battle of Arras.

The Second Battle of Bullecourt was launched on the 3rd May 1917 after the French army had called for a renewed British offensive. The French assault on the Chemin des Dames ridge during the Nivelle Offensive had been a complete failure. Eight successive waves of infantry by the Australians of the 1st Anzacs began their attack at 3.45 am, alongside the British 62nd Brigade, supported by artillery fire. The Australians broke through the partially destroyed German barked wire, passing fallen comrades still lying dead in the mud from the previous month’s attack. Before they actually reached the German barbed wire, the 62nd Brigade was cut to pieces by machine gun fire and was forced to withdraw. By withdrawing they halted the advance of the following waves of infantry and by the day’s end no further gain had been attained. In the following days the Australians had strengthened their positions and gained a hold around Bullecourt by the 7th May 1917. In the following days, British and Australian forces were bombarded by continual artillery shells and in some cases, flamethrowers. Over the next few days sporadic fighting broke out until all action ceased on the 15th May 1917. The tragic events at the two Battles of Bullecourt contributed to the awakening of the Australian nation.

The Arras offensive was called off on the 16th May 1917. The British and French high command agreed there should be a series of limited offensives over the following months. In view of the French weaknesses with mutinies in their army, British commander-in-chief General Sir Douglas Haig sought an offensive in Flanders. Having received support from the military authorities Haig gave the order to proceed with the long–planned attack on Messines Ridge at the southern end of the Ypres salient.

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Various Campaigns

America declared war on Germany, however, she was no better prepared for war than Britain was in 1914, as she only had a regular army of 145,000 men. The U.S. navy was slightly more prepared and on the 2nd May 1917 a flotilla of 6 destroyers arrived at Queenstown, (Cobh), Ireland, helping to patrol the waters around Britain. Within weeks a further 12 destroyers were dispatched for patrol, proving to be an effective strategy against German submarines.

The American General John Pershing was appointed to command the American Expeditionary Force on the 10th May 1917. He was the natural choice of the American military authorities and was given command because of his service in Cuba, the Philippines and Mexico. He was determined that the fresh U.S. forces were not to be used as re-enforcements for the war-weary British and French armies, but would remain an independent fighting force. By the end of May Pershing had left New York for France with only a small force, very few guns and ammunition and would be very dependent on the Allies for supplies. But America had committed herself to the war in Europe.

On the 18th May 1917, the USA passed the “Selective Service Act”. When the USA declared war on Germany there was an initial flood of volunteers to join the military. There were insufficient numbers who volunteered and it became apparent to the military authorities that conscription would be necessary. A “selective draft” policy was brought in and eventually 11 million men were registered but of these only 4 million were called for service.

On the 5th May 1917, Australian Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes won an enlarged majority in the Australian general election. Hughes was an Englishman who immigrated, aged 22 years, to Australia in 1884. He became involved in politics and succeeded Prime Minister Andrew Fisher on the 27th October 1915. Committing himself to a vigorous “win-the-was” policy he proved to be a tireless wartime Prime Minister. He travelled to London in early 1916 to represent Australia in the U.K. war cabinet meetings, and gave assurances he would boost military recruitment in Australia. Upon returning to Australia his attempt to increase recruitment was met with opposition. He resigned as the Labour Party Prime Minister on the 14th November 1916. The Governor-General R.C. Munro-Ferguson recommissioned him to form a minority government. The new National Labour Party, with the support of the former Liberal opposition. The two parties merged to form The National Party and won the general election of 5th May 1917.

On the Italian Front the Tenth Battle of Isonzo was launched on the 12th May 1917 along the Italian/Austria-Hungarian border. The Italians had mixed fortunes by securing most of mountains barring the way to the Bainsizza Plateau. They did lose some of their gains to the Austria-Hungary counter-attack in the area around Konstanjevic on the Carso on 6th June 1917. During the winter of 1916-1917 the Allies agreed to synchronize their offenses in the spring. The Italian offensive was to be launched at the same time as the Arras and Nivelle offensives on the Western Front. However, the lateness of the spring made it impossible for the Italians to meet the schedule. Italy was the first of the Allies to feel the after-effects of the Russian February Revolution. Austria-Hungarian troops had been transferred from the Eastern Front, thereby convincing the Italian high command to maintain the initiative for the remainder of 1917.

On the 25th May 1917, the Germans carried out a massed air raid on targets in Southern England deploying 23 Gotha heavy bomber aircraft. The raid caused even more concern to the civilian population than did the earlier airship raids. This was because the only two bombers that reached their targets did more damage than any of the Zeppelin raids that proceeded it. A total of 95 people were killed and 192 wounded including soldiers and civilians. The German High Command had lost faith in the costly Zeppelin campaign, which overall had wreaked only limited structural damage on Great Britain. Accordingly, the Zeppelin air ships operations were almost entirely superseded by bomber aircraft.

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The Eastern Front

Alexander Fyodorvich Kerensky was a 36 year old Russian lawyer and politician who became the Russian Minster of War on the 16th May 1917. He was a dominant figure in the newly formed socialist-liberal coalition government. He was appointed after the conservative member of the Provisional Government, Alexander Guchov, was forced to resign as Minister of War. It was the Bolsheviks who forced the resignation and they also forced Pavel Milyukov to resign as Foreign minister on the 5th May 1917. Kerensky toured the Eastern Front where he made a series of speeches appealing to the troops to keep fighting. Also during May 1917, Kerensky was persuaded by Maria Bochkareva, known as Yashka, to form a “Women’s Battalion of Death”. Yashka had joined the 25th Reserve Battalion of the Russian army during 1914, and gained the respect of the regiment with her bravery. Kerensky agreed to the Women’s Battalion especially to shame the menfolk to continue the fight. He argued that: “There is no Russian Front. There is only one united Allied Front”. In the meantime Kerensky announced there would be a new offensive. He had appointed General Alexei Brusilov as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army to prepare for the forthcoming offensive. However, there were demonstrations against Kerensky in Petrograd, which were encouraged by the Bolsheviks who favoured peace negotiations.

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The Balkans

The Allied Spring Offensive on the Macedonian Front was designed to break the deadlock of the Bulgarian defences. The attack on Crna Bend was set for the 5th May 1917 with the allied forces up against well-fortified Bulgarian and German units. The allied artillery bombardment began and lasted all day with mixed results. The Bulgarians were defending the plains and shelter for the infantry was not adequate, whereas the Germans had occupied the rugged terrain in the hills providing excellent shelter for the infantry. The day for the main allied attack was scheduled for the 9th May 1917 but the 4 day bombardment did not cause severe damage to the defence system. At 6.30 am the Italian, French and Russian infantry climbed out of their trenches and advanced against the Bulgarian and German positions along an 11-kilmetre long line. The Italians managed to capture a Bulgarian trench that had been evacuated. With a rapid counter-attack the Bulgarians recaptured the trench. The French did not fare any better than the Italians as they too were forced into retreat. After some success the Russian infantry were forced back and the Central Powers of Bulgaria and Germany had regained their defensive line at Crna Bend and achieved a decisive victory. The Allied forces were not able to defeat the Central Powers who held on to the Crna Bend until the end of the war in 1918.

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