September 1917

September 1917

Passchendaele

Due to the terrible weather conditions, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), postponed further operations in Flanders on the 25th August 1917. Haig had been assured German morale was deteriorating and was therefore determined to continue the battle. He decided to place the next phase in the hands of General Sir Herbert Plumer, the commander of the Allied Army who had taken Messines Ridge in June 1917. For the first time infantry from Australia and South Africa were to play a major role at the centre of the Salient; they were joined later by New Zealanders, veterans of Messines. Plumer was directed to take the Gheluvelt Plateau, and proposed a four-phase operation, spearheaded by X and I Anzac Corps with II Anzac in reserve. The southern part of his front was entrusted to IX and VIII Corps with only three divisions between them. He had 1,295 guns to support the assault, and requested three and a half million shells. Although he had been required to take over the 5th Army’s front as far as the Ypres-Roulers railway line, he was still attacking with twice the force over half the frontage assailed on the 31st July 1917, with double the artillery support. The Battle of Menin Road Ridge developed according to plan. When the sun broke through the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) maintained constant air patrols, reporting on German movements and giving field-headquarters a clearer appreciation of the battle. The bombardment began on the 31st August 1917 and the infantry attacked at 5.40 on the morning of the 20th September 1917. They moved quickly behind the creeping barrage, and by midday the 2nd Army had reached most of its objectives on the ridge, overrunning much of the German second line. Attacking on the left, the 5th Army also made good progress.  When the German counter-attack was launched, British guns threw a curtain of fire in front of the newly captured positions and raked the German forces as they came up rendering them inefficient. The Germans came up against a defensive position already organised in depth and protected by an artillery barrage. Most remaining objectives were seized in the next few days, and Plumer’s first phase had taken much of the vital ground.

 

At Pilkem Ridge at approximately 10.30 pm on the 22nd September 1917, Harry Patch who was part of a five-man Lewis gun team was crossing open ground in single file when a shell exploded near them. Harry was hit in the stomach by a piece of flying shrapnel, but the three crew members who carried the ammunition were not so fortunate as they were killed. Harry was transferred to a Casualty Clearing Station where the shrapnel was removed and he was ordered to be returned to Britain (Blighty) to recover from his injuries. This injury was to effectively end Harry’s war. In October 1916, whilst serving as an apprentice plumber, Harry received notice that he was required for conscription into the army. He already had some idea what he would be facing as his as his brother had just been released from hospital after having been wounded. Upon entering service Harry was accepted as a member of a Lewis gun team. Having finished his training in May 1917, he embarked for France in June 1917, where he entered service with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He joined a Lewis gun crew as No. 2 gunner, and the five-man crew were ordered to the front line at Ypres. The crew served from June to September 1917 and fought at the Battle of Langemarck during the heavy rains of August 1917, and their next action was at Pilkem Ridge from mid-August to September 1917. It was this action when the shell exploded and Harry was seriously wounded. Having been told he was going home to Blighty to hospital he was taken to Rouen whence he was ferried across to Southampton, then on to a hospital in Liverpool. He was allowed home for Christmas leave but had to go back to Birmingham to convalesce. Eventually, in August 1918, he returned to the Regimental depot at Bodmin but the ligament damage he had sustained when he landed on the machine gun parts were still troubling him and he was transferred to Handsworth Hospital for treatment. On the 11th November 1918, the Armistice was signed and the war was over. When he was released from hospital he went back to his profession as a plumber. Harry died on the 25th July 2009 (aged 111 years), and his claim to fame was his long life and the fact he was the last British “Tommy” who had fought in the trenches. His front-line experience was relatively short, landing in France in June 1917 and being wounded in September 1917, but he remembered the constant danger, the rats, the lice and the fear of attacking or crawling through the mud. He stayed in touch with Bob Haynes, his No. 1 gunner, from 1918 until Bob’s death in the 1970’s although they were actually never to meet up again. Harry always saw the 22nd Sept as his Rembrance Day, not Armistace Day on the 11th November, and when he received The French Légion d’Honneur in 1999 he wore the medal as a dedication to three friends he had lost at Pilkem Ridge.  Harry didn’t speak about his experiences until he was in his 90’s then felt he should speak out to honour his fallen comrades so they would not be forgotten and that their sacrifice would be remembered.

The second phase, taken on the 26th September 1917, saw Plumer’s Australian forces take Polygon Wood while the 5th Army took Zonnebeke. These gains made it easier for British observers to see German counter-attack divisions moving up. The Germans revised their counter-attack plans, before moving more troops forward, full artillery preparation was required before any counter-attacks were despatched. The new system was put to the test when Plumer took his third phase on 4th October 1917.

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The Eastern Front

The Battle of Jugla was a defensive battle of the Russian Republic’s 23th Army from the 1st to 3rd September 1917. Jugla is a river near the Latvian town of Riga and Latvia is on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. To the north is Lithuania, to the south is Estonia and Russia is in the west. The main objective for the Russian 12th Army was to prevent the German 8th Army from crossing the Daugava River and besieging Russian troops. The battle took place at the banks of the river Jugla. One of the main units involved was a brigade of 6.000 Latvian Riflemen from the 2nd Latvian Rifles. German generals began to prepare for the battle as early as December 1916. It was decided to cross the Daugava River and quickly advance north and northwest. This had two intended purposes, to cause the surrender of the Russian 12th Army and to capture Riga. This would allow the Germans to straighten their front line and to release up a number of German divisions, which would then be deployed to France. On the morning of the 1st September 1917, after a three-hour artillery bombardment,   the Germans launched an assault and began the construction of three wooden pontoon bridges over the river Daugava. The 66 Russian artillery guns were fully suppressed by the 1159 German opposing guns, and the artillery fire forced the Russian 187th Division to withdraw from the right bank of the Daugava. This allowed the Germans to successfully cross the river. The Russian commander ordered the Russians, together with the 2nd Latvian Rifle Brigade, to counter-attack the German bridgehead. The combined Russian/Latvian force started to move against the Germans on the 1st September 1917 the 5th Zemgale Latvian Riflemen Regiment reached the fortified German positions along the Jugla river in the late afternoon. After heavy shelling at midday on the 2nd September 1917 by German artillery, the German attack against the Latvian Riflemen positions began. The Germans used aviation, flamethrowers and gas along the 14 km front line of the bridgehead. Despite all this the Latvian Riflemen managed to hold back the German advance for 26 hours. This allowed the 12th Russian Army and the 1st Latvian Rifleman Brigade to safely withdraw from Riga which was lost to the advancing Germans. In the morning of the 3rd September 1917, the Latvian units were ordered to retreat and they took up their defensive positions near Sigulda and Césis. The Battle of Jugla inflicted heavy casualties upon the Latvian riflemen units. The 5th Zemgale and the 6th Tukums regiments lost more than half of their forces. The 7th Bauska’s and 8th Valmiera regiments also suffered heavy casualties. However, an important objective had been achieved, as the Russian 12th Army had managed to withdraw intact from Riga and safely retreat to Vidzeme.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, General Lavr Kornilov attempted a military coup d’état against the Russian Provisional Government in August 1917. Alexander Kerensky, Russia’s Prime Minister had fallen out with Kornilov over military policy. On the 7th September, Kornilov demanded the resignation of the Cabinet and the surrender of all military and civil authority to the Commander-in-Chief. Kerensky responded by dismissing Kornilov from office and ordering him back to Petrograd, but Kornilov sent troops under the leadership of General Krymov to take control of Petrograd. Kerensky was now in danger and so he called on the Soviets and the Red Guards to protect Petrograd. The Bolsheviks, who controlled these organisations, agreed to this request, but in a speech made by their leader, Vladimir Lenin, he made it clear they would be fighting against Kornilov rather than for Kerensky. Armed recruits were enlisted to defend Petrograd, trenches were dug, the city fortified, and delegations of troops were sent to talk to the advancing Krymov soldiers. After meetings were held Kornilov’s soldiers refused to attack Petrograd. Krymilov committed suicide and Kornilov was arrested and taken into custody. Kerensky’s next move, on the 15th September 1917, was to proclaim to proclaim Russia a republic. Kerensky’s major challenge was that Russia was exhausted after three years of its participation in the Great War. The provisional government offered very little motivation for victory but would continue its obligations towards the Allies. The continued involvement in the war was not popular among the civilians and especially the soldiers. They all believed Russia would stop fighting when the Provisional Government took power, and now they felt deceived. Lenin and his Bolshevik party were promising “peace, land and bread” under a communist system. Lack of discipline in the army led to desertion in large numbers.  By autumn 1917, an estimated two million men had unofficially left the army. In the meantime, Kerensky and the other political leaders continued their obligation to Russia’s allies by the continual involvement in the war, but the arrest of Kornilov and other officers left him without strong allies against the Bolsheviks, who ended up being Kerensky’s strongest and most determined adversaries.

Operation Albion was the German land and naval operation from September to October 1917 to invade and occupy the West Estonian Archipelago, then part of the Autonomous Governorate of Estonia. In the Russian Republic. At the beginning of the Great War the islands were of little importance to either Imperial Russia or Germany. After the revolutionary turmoil in Russia during 1917, the German high command believed capturing the islands would outflank Russian defences and lay St. Petersburg vulnerable to attack. After extensive German naval activity to clear the mines and subdue coastal artillery batteries, the Germans managed to land on the island of Hiiumaa on the 19th September 1917 and capture the island on the following day after two failed attempts.  The land campaign opened with landings at the coast at Tagalaht, on the island of Saaremaa on 11th October 1917, after extensive naval activity to clear mines and to subdue coastal artillery batteries. The Germans secured the island by the 18th October 1917, and the Germans claimed 20,000 prisoners and 100 guns captured during Operation Albion from the 12th October 1917. The Russian army evacuated the islands of Saaremaa and Muhu on the 18th October 1917.

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Other Fronts

Alexandre Ribot was a French politician, who held office as Prime Minister on four separate occasions. Ribot’s final premiership lasted from 20th March to 12th September 1917. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by Paul Painlevé. Ribot’s final ministry was during the most dismal part of the Great War, seeing the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the following mutiny of the French soldiers. Following the decision to dismiss Interior Minister Louis Malvy, his government resigned office on 2nd September 1917. Ribot resigned as Prime Minister on the 12th September 1917 but accepted the position of Ministry of Foreign affairs in the Painlevé cabinet six days later. Following the violent criticism of his refusal to fall into the trap of the German peace offer, he finally resigned office on 16th October 1917.

In terms of the Great War, the name Zeppelin is more commonly known for the lighter-than-air hydrogen gas filled airships that terrorised parts of England and London from January 1915 to August 1918. However, due to increasing losses from the British homeland air defences, they were largely replaced by the Gotha IV and V bomber aircraft. There was another Zeppelin product that was to terrorise the British population from the 17th September 1917. This was the Zeppelin Staaken R.VI. “Giant” heavy bomber which joined the bombing raids on London and Southeast England. The first delivery of the R.VI. Was made in June 1917 to the Eastern Front against Russia. In September 1917, some R.VI.’s were transferred from the Eastern to the Western Front where they began operations against French and British targets. The Germans created a special bomber squadron dedicated to bombing England. In its final form the squadron flew both ‘Gotha’ and ‘Zeppelin Staaken’ (Giant) bombers in air raids. However, most of the raids were made with Gotha aircraft. The attacks using the R.VI. Against mainland Britain began in September 1917. Sorties using five aircraft were flown at night against the capital. As was the case in the Second World War, the River Thames provided an ideal navigation tool, and individual R.VI.’s were able to make their independent way to their specified targets in London.

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The Balkans

Whilst leading her Romanian Army platoon on a counter-attack, Romanian Ecaterina Teodoroiu, “The Heroine of Jiu”, was hit by machine gun fire on the 3rd September 1917. The Romanian lines had been attacked in force by the German 40th Reserve of the 115th Infantry Brigade. Some accounts state Ecaterina had been had been hit in the chest while other accounts state she had been hit in the head. Whatever version is correct, her last words before dying were supposedly: “Forward, men, don’t give up, I’m still with you”.

At the end of September 1917, after a having had a few weeks inactivity in both front line and reserve trenches, Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes, felt embedded shrapnel had moved in her body and she was forced to undergo another operation to remove it. Flora was the only English lady to serve in in the Serbian army and had been wounded by the explosion of a Bulgarian grenade in November 1916. After the operation her doctor confined her to bed, and when she requested being discharged to return to the front line, she was informed she would have to convalesce. She stated that if that was the case she might as well convalesce in England, at least she could be with her family at Christmas. After six weeks of being bedridden she was finally ready for convalescence and arrangements were made for her to return home by boat.

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The Caucasus and the Middle East

The second Battle of Ramadi was fought between the forces of the British and Ottoman Empire on 27th/28th September1917. The two sides contested the town of Ramadi in central Iraq, about 100km (62 miles) west of Baghdad on the southern bank of the Euphrates River. The first battle in July 1917 resulted in a British defeat. This was caused by a combination of factors, including extreme heat, bad weather, faulty British communications and an effective Turkish defence. The lessons learned were utilized in the second battle two months later, when Ramadi was consequently captured almost in its entirety with large amounts of ammunition and supplies. The British launched the Second Battle of Ramadi on the 27th September 1917. The Ottoman forces had been joined by German troops to form the Yilderim Army group (Thunderbolt) which had intended to march   into Iraq and Baghdad. The threat of the Yilderim Army Group spurred the British to make another attempt to take Ramadi. The British commander General Frederick Stanley Maude ordered the commander of the 15th Indian Division to undertake the operation, and join up with the 50th Indian Brigade at Fulluja.By the 20th September 1917, they were to set up forward positions just east of Ramadi at Madhij.  The Ottoman forces were dug in along a line of sand dunes known as the Muskaid Ridge, west of Madhij, with their main defensive positions just south of Ramadi itself. At 21.45 hrs on the 27th September 1917, after a series of false tactics to confuse the enemy the British infantry advance began with a march to the Muskaid Ridge. The 6th Cavalry Brigade had ridden across the desert to the south and west of Ramadi and reached the road where they dug in to block any Ottoman retreat. With artillery support, British forces advanced up two ridges to the south of Ramadi and both were taken by the early afternoon of the 28th September 1917. The garrison’s last escape route was now the Aziziya Bridge just west of Ramadi and the Ottoman infantry attempted to fight its way out of the trap and at 03.00 hrs on the 29th September 191, British machine gun and artillery fire repelled them and drove the survivors back to Ramadi. The 39th Garhwal Rifles attacked the bridge and took it by 07.30 hrs despite suffering heavy casualties. The Garhwal advance convinced the Ottoman defenders the battle was lost, and by 11.00 hrs the Ottoman commander, Ahmed Bey, and the rest of the garrison surrendered. The Ottoman surrender came just in time, as a powerful sandstorm began shortly afterwards which reduced visibility to a few metres. The garrison could easily have slipped away had the sandstorm struck earlier. There were 120 Ottoman troops killed in the battle and another 190 were wounded. British forces captured 3,456 prisoners, including 145 officers. British casualties numbered 995, although many of these had received slight wounds. A great deal of material was seized, including 13 artillery pieces, 12 machine guns and large quantities of ammunition. The town was deemed sufficiently secure that on the following day the British decided to continue their advance on towns along the Euphrates.

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