August 1917

 

August 1917

Passchendaele

On the 4th August 1917, Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse VC, son of the Bishop of Liverpool, died of wounds sustained whilst attending wounded troops in no-man’s land during the early stages of the Battle for Passchendaele. Two days prior, on the 2nd August 1917, Chavasse had been treating the wounded but whilst doing so he sustained a head wound. He removed his tin helmet, put a bandage around his head and continued through the day and into the night. He received another wound in his side and he went back to the bunker where he continued treating wounded soldiers. A German artillery shell came through the back door of the bunker either killing or wounding nearly everybody inside. He was badly wounded in the stomach but continued trying to help his colleagues from the Liverpool Scottish, but his injuries were so severe he died two days later. For these courageous deeds he was awarded the Victoria Cross for the second time. A soldier from Liverpool who was with him on the day he was killed remarked that the VC was “too small a reward for such a man” who had shown such unselfish courage. Born in Liverpool, Captain Noel Chavasse was a qualified doctor with the 10th Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment – a kilted territorial battalion known as the Liverpool Scottish. When he was buried in Brandhoek’s New Military Cemetery, his whole regiment and many other medical officers attended his funeral. On the 9th/10th August 1916, Chavasse had performed similar rescue deeds in no-man’s land during the Battle of the Somme at Guillemot where he was awarded his first Victoria Cross. He had previously been awarded the Military Cross for similar deeds and had also been mentioned in despatches.

The Battle of Passchendaele was fought between the Allied and the German Armies from the 31st July 1917 to 10th November 1917. The Germans were entrenched on the high ground surrounding Ypres, from which the British were trying to dislodge them and Passchendaele Ridge being the ultimate aim. The initial attack at Pilckem Ridge ended with the British forces suffering 70% losses with the mud, artillery and machine-gun fire being the cause for the failure of the attack. On the 10th August 1917, the British attempted to capture Westheok on the Gheluvelt Plateau and were initially successful. German artillery fire and infantry counter-attacks isolated the British infantry which had captured Glencorse Wood. At approximately 7.00 p.m., German infantry attacked behind a smokescreen and recaptured all but the north-west corner of the wood, and only the gains by the 25th Division on Westheok Ridge being held. The Battle of Langemarck was fought from the16th to 18th August 1917, intending to take the line from Polygon Wood to Langemarck.  The disappointment of the 10th August 1917 was repeated, with the infantry advancing, then being isolated by German artillery and forced back to their start line by German counter-attacks. Attempts by the German infantry to advance further were stopped by British artillery fire causing many German losses. The British advance further north retook and held the north end of St. Julien and the area south-east of Langemarck. The XIV Corps captured Langemarck and the German held area, north of the Ypres-Staden railway near the Kortebeek. The French First Army had similar results, pushing up to the Kortebeek and St Jansbeck stream. Smaller British attacks between the 19th to 27th August 1917 also failed to hold captured ground, although a XVIII Corps attack supported by tanks succeeded on the 19th August 1917. German observation from higher ground to the east enabled the Germans to inflict many losses on the British divisions holding the new line beyond Langemarck. After two fine dry days from the 17th -18th August 1917, XIX Corps and XVIII Corps began pushing closer to the German third position. On the 20th August 1917, an operation by British tanks, artillery and infantry captured strong points along the St. Julien-Polcappelle road and two days later, more ground was gained by the two corps but they were still overlooked by the Germans in the uncaptured part of the Third Position. II Corps resumed operations to capture Nonne Boschen, Glencorse Wood and Inverness Copse around the Menin Road on the 22nd-24th August 1917. This operation failed and the cost in terms of casualties were heavy for both sides. Following the Battle of Langemarck, the British general offensive on the 25th August 1917 was delayed because of the failure of previous attacks to hold ground. Further operations were postponed due to more bad weather. Haig called a halt to all operations amidst tempestuous weather. In August 1917, 127 mm (5.0 ins) of rain fell, the weather was also overcast and windless, which meant evaporation was greatly reduced. The weather in August 1917 was exceptionally bad. Haig had been justified in expecting that the weather would not impede offensive operations, as any rain would have been dried by the expected summer sunshine and breezes.

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The Western Front

The battle for Hill 70, outside of Loos, was fought from the 15th to 25th August 1917, and was the first major action by the Canadian Army under a Canadian commander in the Great War. The battle gave the Allied forces a crucial strategic position overlooking the city of Lens, a coal-mining city in France, which had suffered terribly during the war. British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig ordered newly appointed Canadian Lieutenant General Arthur Currie to capture Lens which is located 30 miles south of Ypres. Currie’s plan was to make Hill 70 the Canadians’ main objective allowing them to aggravate the Germans in surrounding positions in the city and provoke them to come out of their dugouts and attack. The Canadian Corps launched its bid for Hill 70 at 4.25 a.m. on the 15th August 1917. Drums of burning oil were fired into the German positions with heavy artillery fire. The Germans saw the attack coming and were ready with defensive fire, but by 6 a.m. the Canadian infantry had captured several of its first goals. German resistance stiffened on the hill. The smoke screen of the burning oil drifted away and German machine guns and rifles killed and wounded many attacking Canadians. Slowly the Canadians captured German machine-gun posts and advanced up the hill. The German forces counterattacked before 9 a.m., but the Canadians broke each enemy attempt to reclaim ground. A second wave of afternoon counter-attacks was likewise repelled. The Canadians eventually turned back 21 German counterattacks and held onto Hill 70. About 9,000 Canadians were killed or wounded in the action while an estimated 25,000 Germans were killed or wounded. Six Canadians won the Victoria Cross as their forces pinned down German troops reserved for the relief of tired divisions on the Flanders front at Passchendaele.

Head of the French Army, General Philippe Pétain had committed the French Second Army to an attack at Verdun in mid-July 1917, in support of the operations in Flanders. The attack was delayed, partly due to mutinies which had effected the French army after the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and also because of a German attack at Verdun from the 28-29th June 1917. The German attack had captured some of the ground intended as a jumping-off point for the French attack. From mid-July to mid -August 1917 the ground was fought over with the Germans finally having taken the area. The battle began on the 20th August 1917 and by the 9th September 1917, the French had taken 10,000 prisoners. Fighting continued spasmodically into October 1917, adding to the difficulties on the Western Front, but no German counter-attack was possible because the local reserve divisions had been transferred to Flanders.

 

The Balkans

On the 4th August 1917, Romanian Ecaterina Teodoroiu, “The Heroine of Jiu”, of the Romanian Army, was preparing to re-join the oncoming offensive along with the 43/59 Infantry Regiment. Ecaterina had been wounded in both legs, whilst serving as a front line soldier in November 1916 and on the 23rd January 1917 she was released from hospital. Whilst convalescing she requested, and was granted, a transfer from the 18th Infantry Regiment to the 43/59 Infantry Regiment. On the 17th March 1917, she was awarded the Military Virtue Medal, 1st Class, made honorary Second Lieutenant and given command of a 25-man platoon in the 7th Company (43/59 Infantry Regiment, 11th Division). She had previously been awarded the “Scout Virtue” Medal and the Military Virtue Medal, 2nd Class on the 10th March 1917. The 43/59 Infantry Regiment moved from reserve to close to the front line at Secului Hill, in the Muncelu-Varnița area on the 5th August 1917. The regiment was dug in on the Secului Hill on the 20th August 1917.

The salient created by the Romanian troops at Mărăști, was followed by the Battle of Mărășești which began on the 6th August 1917. The High Command of the Central Powers had to bring forces from other sectors of the Moldavian front and change the main direction of the offensive initially planned for the Focșani-Nămoloasa region. The Central Powers plan was to encircle and smash the Romanian and Russian forces to the northwest in the direction of Focșani, Mărășești and Adjud. Another force would start from the mountains through the Oituz and Trotuș valleys toward Târgu Ocna and Adjud. Germans troops aimed at occupying the whole of Moldavia, thereby knocking Romania out of the war. Coupled with a deep penetration of the Austro-Hungarian troops on the front in Bukovina, they proposed to push the Russian forces eastwards, beyond Odessa. The Battle of Mărășești had three distinct stages. During the first stage, between the 6th and 12th August 1917, the Romanian First Army troops together with Russian forces managed to arrest the enemy advance. The German direction of the attack was forced toward the northwest. In the second stage, between the 13th and 19th August 1917, the Romanian Command completely took over the command of the battle from the Russians. The re-directed German attack reached its climax on the 19th August 1917, when the advance was completely halted by the Romanians. The third stage, from the 20th August to 3rd September 1917, had the Romanians successfully thwarting the last German attempt to improve their positions. The Battle of Oituz, an Austro-Hungarian/German offensive, started on the 8th August 1917, saw the Romanian troops holding out against superior opposition. The Germans were not surprised the Russian Fourth Army would leave their positions on the Siret River to reinforce their front to the north of Moldavia. They also expected the Romanian First Army to replace the Russians, thinking the Romanians would provide minimal resistance. The response of the Romanian Army created the strongest blow to the Central Powers in Eastern Europe when, on the 30th August 1917, the cessation of the general offensive on the Romanian front by the Central Powers marked a strategic defeat and a considerable weakening of the forces on the south-Eastern front. Nearly 1,000,000 Central Powers troops were tied down, and The Times was prompted to describe the Romanian front as “The only point of light in the East”.

On the 15th August 1917, Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes, the only English lady to serve in the Serbian army, was discharged from hospital after having suffering from “acute enteritis” to convalesce in Vodena.  Finally at the beginning of September 1917 she was fit enough to re-join her company in the trenches. She wrote in her diary, “They all seemed glad to see me, sat up all night, lovely moonlit night, we are in the front line trenches”.

 

Other Campaigns

By early August 1917, Vera Brittain was anxious to get back with the field nursing unit of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) at Etaples. She had broken her contract with the VAD to nurse blinded Victor Richardson but he had since died of his wounds. Back at the field hospital at Etaples she was nursing German prisoners, which she found confusing, as it may well have been possible that her brother Edward had been doing his best to kill them. Vera and Edward had a very close relationship and communicated regularly. After Edward had been wounded at the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, for which he was awarded the Military Cross, he had recovered sufficiently to return to France in June 1917. His valise had been mislaid, with all his trench equipment including his revolver, at Boulogne. On the 30th June 1917, he went straight to the front line and was in an attack the following morning. Nobody seemed to know what was supposed to be happening as total confusion seemed to prevail. Edward wrote to Vera to say what a mess this all was and nothing like the patriotism he expected and consequently what on earth we were fighting for. Coupled with the deaths of their three friend Roland Leighton, Geoffrey Thurloe and Victor Richardson, together with Vera’s mixed feelings over nursing German prisoners, she started to have the first seeds of doubt. The utter futility of war gradually turned her into a total pacifist, which she practised for the rest of her life.

The Eleventh Battle of Isonzo was fought by the Italian and Austro-Hungarian Armies on the Italian Front between the 18th August and the 12th September1917. The Tenth Battle of the Isonzo was to coincide with and synchronise the attack on Arras and the Chemin des Dames (The Neville Offensive), but the lateness of the spring of 1917 delayed the planned battle. When the Eleventh Battle of Isonzo began on the 18th August 1917 the Italians originally secured the mountains barring the way to the Bainsizza Plateau but the Austro-Hungarians, regained some of the territory after a counter-attack and the battle was effectively a stalemate. On the Isonzo River, Luigi Cadorna, the Italian Chief of Staff, concentrated three quarters of his troops: 600 battalions with 5,200 guns facing the Austro-Hungarian Army of Commander Svetozar Boroevic’s 250 battalions and 2,200 guns. The Austro-Hungarian Army would shortly be receiving troops transferred from the Eastern Front when the after-effects of the Russian February Revolution started to materialise. The Eleventh Battle of Isonzo was fought along a front from Tolmin on the upper Isonzo valley to the Adriatic Sea. The main objective was to break the Austro-Hungarian lines into two segments, isolating the strongholds of Mount Saint Gabriel and Mount Hermada. After fierce fighting, the Italian Second Army pushed back the Austro-Hungarian Isonzo Armee, conquering the Bainsizza and Mount Santo. Other positions were taken by the Italian Third Army. However, Mount Saint Gabriel and Mount Hermada turned out to be impregnable, and the offensive petered out on the 12th September 1917. After the battle, the Austro-Hungarians were exhausted, and could not have withstood another attack. Fortunately for them so were the Italians, the consequence being the final result of the battle was an inconclusive bloodbath. The casualties at the end of the battle were horrendous, the Italians with 158,000 of whom 30,000 were killed. The Austro-Hungarians/Germans had 115,000 casualties with 20,000 killed. Moreover, the end of the battle left the Italian Second Army split in into two parts across the Isonzo, a weak point that proved to be decisive in the subsequent Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo.

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