The Third Battle of Ypres – Passchendaele
The initial bombardment for the Third Battle of Ypres commenced on the 17th July 1917, which was phase two of the operation to push the Germans out of the Ypres Salient. On the 30th April 1917, the BEF commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig appointed Sir Herbert Gough to take overall command of the offensive. Gough’s battle strategy was to have a step-to-step advancement to take the German held territory with the ultimate aim being the capture of the Passchendaele Ridge. Phase one was successfully achieved when the Allied Second Army, commanded by Sir Herbert Plumer, took all the high ground at Messines Ridge, south of Ypres on 14th June 1917. Prior to the offensive the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was horrified that Haig’s plan would possibly entail casualties on the scale of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Eventually Lloyd George agreed to the offensive and the first phase at Messines Ridge was successful. However, The Germans who held the high ground to the north and east of Ypres, were observing the attack strategy of the Allied forces and were expecting an attack. They were surprised the attack took so long to commence, but it did give them the opportunity to strengthen their second and third line of defence. Phase two of the offensive was for Gough’s army to attack the German lines east of Ypres, with the French army to the north. At 3.50 am on the 31st July 1917 the attack commenced at Pilckem Ridge. A layer of unbroken low cloud meant it was still dark when the advance commenced at dawn and the creeping artillery barrage was not as effective as was expected. The flank between the British and French armies had the most success and advanced 2,500 – 3,000 yards (2,300 – 2,700 m) but the Germans counter-attacked and pushed the Allied forces back to almost their starting point, As soon as the Third Battle of Ypres began things started to go spectacularly wrong. The first problem was it had started to rain! The summer and autumn of 1917 turned out to be particularly wet in Flanders. The second problem being that the British bombardment across the battlefield had destroyed field drains and stream banks and as a consequence the rain had no means of running away. Finally the Germans had built a network of concrete strong-points which had not been destroyed by the pre-attack bombardment as they were not incorporated into the open trench system. Consequently when the bombardment ended just before the attack the Germans were ready. The Allied forces advanced into deadly machine gun fire and having to cope with troops getting stuck in the mud. The rain, the mud and strong German defences meant that the taking of the Passchendaele Ridge would only be achieved by a series of individual battles.
The Kerensky Offensive started on the 1st July 1917 when Russian troops attacked the Austro-Hungarian and German forces in Galicia, pushing toward Lviv. The offensive, aided by the Kingdom of Romania, was their last initiative of the war. This offensive was ordered by Alexander Kerensky, the Prime Minister in the Russian provisional government, and led by General Alexei Brusilov. The decision was ill-timed because of strong popular demands for peace by some sections of the army whose fighting capabilities were quickly deteriorating. From the outset, two major problems threatened to turn the offensive into a disaster. First, in revolutionary Russia no plan of campaign could remain secret. By the end of May 1917 the Germans had detailed knowledge of the plan, giving them time to prepare defensive positions in depth. Second, Russian preparations were woefully inadequate. Co-operation between artillery and infantry was almost non-existent, reserves were kept too far from the front, and the infantry was minimal, the rear areas were congested with unused cavalry divisions and commanders, staffs and formations changed constantly. Initial Russian success was the result of powerful bombardment, such as the enemy had never witnessed before on the Russian front. At first, the Austrians did not prove capable of resisting this bombardment, and a broad gap in the enemy lines allowed the Russians to make some progress, especially against the Austro-Hungarian army. However, the German forces proved to be far harder to root out, and their stubborn resistance resulted in heavy casualties among the attacking Russian troops. As Russian losses mounted, their infantry was becoming demoralised, and further successes were only due to the efforts of the cavalry, artillery and special “shock” battalions. Other troops, for the most part, refused to obey orders. The Russian advance collapsed altogether by 16th July 1917. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians counterattacked on the 19th July 1917 meeting little resistance and advancing through Galicia and Ukraine as far as the Zbruch River. The Russians had retreated about 240 kilometres (150 miles) by the 23rd July 1917 and the Germans did not pursue them any further as they had over-extended their supply lines. The Kerensky Offensive had failed.
As part of the failed Kerensky Offensive, the Battle of Zborov, the only successful engagement, commenced on the 1st July 1917. The battle was the first significant action of the Czechoslovak Legions on the Eastern Front. Only units that volunteered to attack were used in this offensive. Among those who did was the Czechoslovak Rifle Brigade formed from three regiments of Czechs and Slovaks. The brigade was low on equipment and training. Moreover, this was the first use of the brigade as a single formation. The Russian command had previously only used smaller units of the brigade mostly in reconnaissance actions. On the other hand, amongst the members of the brigade morale was very high. The Brigade was deployed near Zborov, a town in today’s Ukraine, in a sector of secondary importance. The Russian 4th division protected it from the north, the 6th division from the south. They faced the Austro –Hungarian army which had deployed four well entrenched and well equipped infantry regiments. At 5.15 on the 2nd July 1917, the second day of the offensive, after an initial artillery bombardment, small groups of Legionnaires equipped with grenades attacked the enemy. At 8.00 the main attack began where shock troops breached the barbed wire defences and follow-up units took over to continue the attack. By 15.00 the Legion had advanced deep into enemy territory, breaking through the entire Austrian trench line. There were 3,300 Austrian soldiers, taken prisoner, of whom 62 were officers and 20 guns together with large amounts of war material were seized. The Legion’s losses were 167 Killed, 11 missing and around 700 injured out of a total of approximately 3530 men. The only success of the failed Kerensky Offensive, was the Czech Legions and Russian Republic’s victory against the Austrian forces. The Czechoslovak legionaries became famous across Europe for their tenacity.
The Yugoslav Committee of Politicians in exile that represented Slovenes, Croats and Serbs living in Austria-Hungary and representatives of the Kingdom of Serbia, met on the Island of Corfu on the 20th July 1917 to sign the Corfu Declaration, as the first step toward building the “New State of Yugoslavia”. The thirteen point declaration guaranteed the new state their national independence. The two chiefly responsible for devising the wording of the Corfu Declaration were the Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić and the Croatian exile Ante Trumbić who worked to overcome the official Serbian resistance. Pašić and the Serbian Court had remained intent upon the simple expansion of a greater Serbia by means of unilateral territorial gains to be derived from a defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a reult of the declaration, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was created on th 1st December 1918.
In an attempt to support the Kerensky Offensive, the Romanian army launched the Battle of Mărăști on the 22nd July 1917. The battle began at dawn, and took place on the Austro-Hungarian/Romanian border in the Vrancea County. The opponents were Austro-Hungarians/Germans against the Romanian/Russian forces. Three divisions initiated the attack and the offensive succeeded in disrupting the well-organised enemy defences and forcing the Austro-Hungarians and Germans to retreat. By that evening the Romanian divisions had conquered the first defences, the strongest and deepest of the defensive system of the Austro-Hungarian First Army in the Mărăști area. The following day, pursuing the offensive, the Romanian troops forced the enemy into a more disorderly retreat. This created favourable conditions for a deep penetration of the enemy territory. However, the Russian High Command decided to abandon the offensive as a result of the failure of the Kerensky Offensive on the front in Galicia. The Romanian General Headquarters were compelled to discontinue the offensive throughout the entire territory between the Eastern Carpathians and the Black Sea. In the Mărăștii zone, however, the Romanian Units continued their offensive until the 30th July 1917 upon the request of their commander, General Alexandru Averescu. This marked the end of the Battle of Mărăști. The battle had inflicted heavy casualties to the Austro-Hungarian and German armies, who relinquished an area of 35 km wide by 20 km deep, thus creating a salient into their territory. Through this victorious offensive the potential of the Romanian Army was confirmed.
Britain and France had demanded that King Constantine II of Greece should abdicate in June 1917. Immediately, the pro-entente Greek government had declared war on the Central Powers. Whilst Greece was still neutral France had seized most of the Greek naval vessels, but in July 1917 France returned the seized ships to Greece. Sufficient Greek sailors were found to man the fleet as Allied naval bases had long been established at Corfu in the Ionian Sea, NW Crete and the northern Aegean Sea. 23 ships in total were returned to Greece and comprised of:- 2 No. Pre-Dreadnought Battleships (used as depot and training ships), 3 No. Coast Defence Ships, 1 No. Armoured Cruiser, 1 No Protected Cruiser, 14 No. Destroyers and 2 No. Submarines.
By the end of July 1917, Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes was feeling unwell with stomach pains while in the reserve trenches of the Serbian army. She was the English lady who had recently been re-united with her company after having been wounded by a grenade whilst fighting against the Bulgarians. After her regiment went back into the front line, she was still feeling bad, and having been a nurse before enlisting in the Serbian army she self-diagnosed that she was suffering from “acute enteritis”. She applied for leave to go to Salonika to seek medical assistance where the doctors promptly admitted her to hospital after confirming her diagnosis of “acute enteritis”.
The Middle East
The Battle of Aqaba was concluded on the 6th July 1917 and was fought for the Red Sea port of Aqaba (Now in Jordan). The attacking forces of the Arab Revolt, led by Auda ibu Tayi and advised by Thomas Edward Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), were victorious over the Ottoman defenders. With the forces of the Arab revolt under Emir Feisal I on the defensive against the Turks (Ottoman) following an unsuccessful attack on Medina, the Arab forces regained the initiative after travelling north to seize the Red Sea ports of Yenbo and Wejh. A series of successful attacks on the Hejaz Railway convinced the Arabs to contemplate another campaign against Medina. With British troop’s stationary in front of Gaza, it seemed they were not in a position to proceed. The Ottoman government had sent Arab divisions of its army to the frontlines. Lawrence, sent by General Archibald Murray, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to act as a military adviser to Feisal, convinced the latter to attack Aqaba. Feisal suggested that Aqaba be taken as a means for the British to supply his Arab forces as they moved further north. Aqaba was a small village and not a major obstacle, but the Turks kept a small 300-man garrison at the mouth of the Wadi Itm to protect it from any attack from the landward side, believed to be impassable through the Nefud Desert. Without a harbour or landing beaches an amphibious assault was impractical. Feisal lent forty of his men to Lawrence for the expedition. Lawrence also met with Auda ibu Tayi, leader of a northern Bedouin tribe, who agreed to lend himself and a large number of his men to the expedition. Lawrence informed his British colleagues of the planned expedition, but they apparently did not take him seriously, expecting it to fail. The expedition started moving towards Aqaba in May 1917. Despite the heat of the desert, the seasoned Bedouins encountered few obstacles. During the expedition, Auda ibu Tayi and Lawrence’s forces also did severe damage to the Hejaz Railway. Lawrence’s plan was to convince the Turks that the target was Damascus and opted for a land assault as the Ottoman defences were cited for an attack from the sea. Aqaba fell to the Arabs on the 6th July 1917, but the bulk of the fighting was done on the 2nd July 1917, when Auda ibu Tayi led his men in a charge against a nearby Ottoman fortification, killed around 300 men, and took another 300 prisoners. Meanwhile, a small group of British naval vessels appeared offshore of Aqaba itself and began shelling it. The Arab forces avoided Aqaba’s defensive lines, approached the gates of Aqaba, and its garrison surrendered without further struggle. Lawrence travelled across the Sinai Peninsular to inform the British army in Cairo that Aqaba had fallen, and arranged for the Arab forces to be supplied with arms, supplies, payment and several warships.
An open 11-page open letter addressed to King Albert I of Belgium was published on the 11th July 1917. The letter’s author, the philologist Adiel Debeuckelaere, set out a number of grievances relating to the treatment of the Flemish troops within the Belgian army fighting on the Yser front. The letter was especially concerned over the perceived inequality between the French and Dutch languages. It demanded new legislation to equalise the status of the two languages after the war. The letter expressed loyalty to Albert I and demanded autonomy, rather than independence for Flanders within a Belgian framework. It nonetheless provoked an angry reaction from the High Command which viewed the letter as subversive. Within German-occupied Belgium, collaboration with the German authorities was widespread by members of the Flemish Movement and the letter defended their actions. The Flemish Movement was a group of Belgian citizens wishing to promote the Dutch language and Flemish culture in Belgium. Some members of the Flemish Movement welcomed the occupying Germans. Seeing an opportunity to further their own aims and boost their occupying powers the Germans actively encouraged the Dutch language in Belgium. Following the letter’s publication, the Flemish Movement’s ideas spread amongst the ordinary Flemish soldier leading to growing unrest. Armand De Ceuninck was appointed Belgian Minister of War in August 1917 to restore discipline.