October 1917

October 1917

Passchendaele

 

The Battle of Broodseinde began on the 4th October 1917, using the “bite and hold” tactics of September 1917, which General Sir Herbert Plumer utilised with the successful attacks on the Menin Ridge and Polygon Wood. The battle was the last assault launched by Plumer in good weather. The operation’s aim was to complete the capture of Gheluvelt Plateau and occupy Broodseinde Ridge. The British attacked along a 14,000 yards front and by coincidence, Australian troops met attacking troops from the German Reserve Division in no man’s land. The Germans were attempting to re-capture their defensive line when the assaults commenced simultaneously. The Germans had reinforced their front line in an effort to delay the British capturing their forward positions, until reserve divisions could intervene. The German reinforcements were in the most vulnerable area to British artillery who inflicted devastating casualties on the Germans opposite. The capture of  Zonnebecke and Broodseinde was another advance that had been made into the German positions, which seemed at long last, to be on the verge of collapse. Plumer had achieved remarkable success. Inflicting three major defeats in two weeks and creating enormous damage to the German Army. The Germans began to plan for a slow withdrawal from the Ypres salient, even at the risk of uncovering German positions further north and the Belgian coast.

At the Battle of Poelcappelle on the 9th October 1917, the French First Army and British Second & Fifth armies attacked on a 13,500 yards front, from south of Broodseinde to St. Jansbeek. They advanced halfway from Broodseinde Ridge to Passchendaele, on the main front. Both sides suffered many casualties. Advances in the north of the front were retained by the British and French troops but most of the ground taken in front of Passchendaele and on the Becelaere and Gheluvelt spur was lost to the German counter-attacks. The return of the heavy rain and resulting mud was the main cause of the failure to hold captured ground. The fighting strained German fighting power to the limit but the German forces managed to prevent a breakthrough although it was becoming far harder to replace their losses.

The First Battle for Passchendaele, starting on the 12th October 1917, was another Allied attempt to gain ground around Passchendaele. Heavy rain and mud again made movement difficult and little artillery could be brought closer to the front. Allied troops were exhausted and morale was beginning to falter. After a modest British advance, German counter-attacks recovered most of the ground opposite Passchendaele. There were 13,000 Allied casualties, including 2,735 New Zealanders, 845 of whom had been killed, wounded or missing. This was the worst day for losses in New Zealand history. At a conference on the 13th October 1917, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and the army commanders agreed attacks should stop until the weather improved and roads could be extended. On the 22nd October 1917, the 18th Division of XVIII Corps attacked the east end of Passchendaele, while the XIV Corps alongside the 34th & 35th Division attacked northwards into Houthulst Forest. The attack was supported by a regiment of the French 1st Division on the left flank of the 35th Division. The intention was to block a possible German counter-attack on the left flank of the Canadian Corps as they attacked Passchendaele and the ridge. The artillery of the Second and Fifth armies conducted a deception bombardment to simulate a general attack. Poelcappelle was captured but the attack at the junction the 34th & 35th divisions was repulsed. German counter-attacks pushed back the 35th Division in the centre. The French attack captured all its objectives. Attacking on ground soaked by rain and cut up by bombardments, the British had struggled to advance in places and lost the ability to move quickly to outflank German pillboxes. The 35th Division infantry reached the fringes of Houthulst Forest but were pushed back in places after being outflanked. German counter-attacks made after the 22nd October 1917 were at an equal disadvantage and were also costly failures. The German 4th Army was prevented from transferring troops from the Fifth Army and from concentrating its artillery fire on the Canadians as they prepared for the next   Battle for Passchendaele.

Four divisions of the Canadian Corps had been transferred from Lens to the Ypres salient in preparation for the Second Battle for Passchendaele. The Canadians relieved the Australian II Anzac Corps on the 18th October 1917, and the operation was scheduled to be three limited stages. On the 26th October 1917, the Third Canadian Division captured its first stage objective at Wolf Copse, then swung back its northern flank to link with the adjacent division of the Fifth army. The Fourth Canadian Division captured its objectives but was forced to retire from Decline Copse. The German counter-attack and the failure of the communication between Canadian and Australian units was the cause of the Canadian retirement. The second stage began on the 30th October 1917, to complete the previous stage and gain a foothold for the final assault on Passchendaele. The attackers on the southern flank quickly captured Crest Farm and sent patrols beyond the final objective into Passchendaele. The attack on the northern flank met with exceptional German resistance. The Third Canadian Division captured the two farms, Vapour and Furst, together with the crossroads at Meetcheele but remained short of its objective, which was the devastated village of Passchendaele. The Battle continued into November 1917.

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Western Front

On the 17th October 1917, the Battle of La Malmaison began. The Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig had requested numerous times that the head of the French Army General Philippe Pétain should begin the long-delayed French attack on the Chemin des Dames. The French artillery preparation started on the 17th October 1917 and on the 23rd October 1917, their Sixth Army commanded by General Paul Maistre began the attack.  The German defenders were swiftly defeated. The French advanced 3.7 miles (6.0 km) capturing the village and fort of La Malmaison, gaining control of the Chemin des Dames Ridge. As the French paused to prepare their second attack, the Germans thinking they had the French beaten launched a counter-attack. They ran headlong into the second French barrage and were forced back. The Germans withdrew to the north of the Ailette Valley early in November 1917. On the 25th October 1917, Pétain called a halt to his operation as he believed he had achieved all that was requested of him. Haig was pleased with the French success but regretted the delay as it had kept Allied forces at Passchendaele maintaining support for the French at La Malmaison.

On the 21st October 1917, the first American soldiers entered combat when units of the U.S. Army 1st Division were assigned to Allied trenches in the Luneville sector near Nancy in France. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) had started to arrive in June 1917 and they were sent to training camps as the troops were untrained, ill-equipped and far from ready for fighting on the Western Front. Commander-in-Chief of the AEF General John Pershing established bases in France to train his new arrivals with their new British and French supplied equipment. Each American unit was attached to a corresponding French unit. On the 23rd October 1917, Corporal Robert Bralet of the 6th Artillery was the first U.S. soldier to fire a shot in anger when he discharged a French 75mm gun into a German trench. On the 2nd November 1917, Corp. James Gresham and Privates Thomas Enwright and Merle Hay of the 16th Infantry became the first American soldiers to die when the Germans raided their trenches near Bathelemont, France.

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Other Theatres

On the morning of 15th October 1917, Mata Hari was taken from her prison cell in Paris to an army barracks for her execution. Dutch born Margarethe Zelle had married a Dutch army officer but the marriage failed.  She took on the name of Mata Hari in the role of an Indian Temple dancer and moved to Paris. By 1914 her exotic dances had allowed her to become a successful courtesan to many high ranking military officers and politicians. With Holland being a neutral country she was able to cross European borders freely. The French secret police induced her to travel to Spain to develop relationships with German naval and army attachés and report back to Paris any intelligence she received. The French secret police suspected her of being a double agent and on her return to Paris in February 1917 she was arrested, and charged with being a German spy. At her trial in July 1917 she was found guilty of being a spy, convicted and sentenced to death. She was executed by firing squad on the 15th October 1917.

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In the East African Campaign, the Battle of Mahiwa was fought from the 15th to 18th October 1917, between German and British Imperial forces. The battle began when the South African and Nigerian troops engaged a column of German forces at Mahiwa in German East Africa, which is present day Tanzania. With German Major-General Kurt Wahle’s force at Nyangao separated from Commander General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck’s main body, the British hatched a plan to cut-off and surround Wahle’s column by flanking it with their Nigerian force. They would then commit a large body of troops on a frontal attack and encircle the force. Three battalions of Nigerians, of Lieutenant General Jacob van Deventer’s South African army, were sent against Wahle’s troops at Nyangao and engaged him there on the 15th October 1917. Von Lettow-Vorbeck brought up re-enforcements to support Wahle. The Nigerians were soon threatened with encirclement and suffered severe casualties. A larger force had been sent by the British to attack the Germans from the opposite side. This was met with stubborn resistance while the Germans withdrew from Nyangao on the 16th October 1917 and dug in at Mahiwa 2 miles (3.2 km) from the their previous position. Despite attacks from the newly arrived British force, the Germans were able to hold their ground and counter-attacked on the 17th and 18th October 1917. The British Imperial forces were defeated taking over 2,700 casualties, out of 4,900 men involved, and were forced to withdraw. Although von Lettow-Vorbeck had inflicted the greater number of casualties on the Allies, the battle did not go as he had hoped. The German army suffered between 500 and 600 casualties, which was over thirty per cent of the force engaged. German supplies were extremely limited and four days of fighting had expended nearly all of their supply of smokeless cartridges. Without sufficient ammunition for their modern weapons the Germans were reduced to using rifles which fired black powder cartridges. Low on supplies and fearing another attack, von Lettow-Vorbeck decided to withdraw from German East Africa and continue his guerrilla war by invading Portuguese East Africa where he hoped to regain strength by capturing supplies from the ill-prepared Portuguese Army.

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The Battle of Caporetto, also known as the 12th Battle of the Isonzo, began on the 24th October 1917 along the Austro/Italian front near the town of Kobarid (now in NW Slovenia). All previous battles of the Isonzo were Italian offensives along the Austrian border. In a bid to keep Austro/Hungary in the war Germany had to help defeat the Italian army. A new 14th Army was formed using Austrian and German divisions, commanded by German Otto von Below. The battle was a demonstration of the effectiveness of the use of Stormtroopers and infiltration tactics. The use of poison gas by the Germans also played a key role in the collapse of the Italian Second Army. In September 1917, three experts from the German Imperial General staff went to the Isonzo front to find a suitable site for a gas attack. They proposed attacking the quiet Caporetto sector, where a good road ran west through a mountain valley to the Venetian plain. Foul weather delayed the attack for two days but on the 24th October 1917 there was no wind and the front was misted over. At 02.00 am, 894 metal tubes dug into the reverse slope were triggered electrically to simultaneously fire canisters of chlorine-arsenic agent and diphosgene, smothering the Italian trenches in the valley in a dense cloud of poison gas. Knowing their gas masks could protect them only for less than two hours, the defenders fled for their lives, creating a gap in the line, though 500-600 were still killed. At 6.41 am, 2,200 guns opened fire, targeting Italian reserves who were advancing to plug the gap. At 08.00 am two large mines were detonated under Italian strong points on the heights bordering the valley and the Austro/German infantry attacked. Soon they penetrated the almost undefended Italian fortifications in the valley, breaching the defensive line of the Italian Second Army. Forces had to be moved along the Italian front in an attempt to stem von Below’s breakout, but this only weakened other points along the line and invited further attacks. At this point the entire Italian front was threatened. The attackers in the Valley marched almost unopposed along the road toward Italy. Either side of this road, the Italians were able to force back the attacking troops, but the Italian Second Army commander Luigi Capello realized that his forces were ill-prepared for this attack and were being routed. Capello then requested permission to withdraw back to the Tagliamento. He was overruled by Chief of Staff General Luigi Cardorna who believed that the Italian force could regroup and hold out. Finally, on the 30th October 1917, Cardorna ordered the majority of the Italian force to retreat to the other side of the Tagliamento.

On the 30th October 1917, Paolo Boselli resigned as Prime Minister of Italy. Following Italy’s entry into the Great War against Austro-Hungary in 1915 Boselli made an important speech in support of giving full powers to Premier Antonio Salandra. After the Austrian offensive of May -July 1916, Salandra’s government fell and 78 year old Boselli became premier. He formed a coalition government and after recovering territory lost in the Austrian offensive, Italy had declared war on Germany in August 1915. Following Italy’s disastrous defeat at Caporetto, Boselli’s government fell. Boselli resigned and on the 30th October 1917, Vittorio Emmanuelle Orlando became Prime Minister, and continued in that role through the rest of the war.

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Middle East

The Battle of Wadi Musa was fought on the 23rd October 1917, when Ottoman soldiers were sent to deal with the Arab Sharifan Army, the military force behind the Lawrence of Arabia led Arab Revolt. The  Sharifan Army was camped at Wadi Musa in Jordan. The Ottoman Army was based at Ha’an in Jordon and was sent to deal with the North Arab Army. Turkish General Djemal Pasha ordered his forces to secure the Hejaz Railway by “any and all means”. Before the Ottoman forces reached Wadi Musa they were intercepted and ambushed by 700 Arab troops under the command of Maulood Mukhlis. 400 Ottoman troops were killed and another 300 were captured. The remaining Ottoman forces retreated leaving the railway intact and uncaptured.

Early in the morning of the 31st October 1917, Allied forces under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby launched an attack on Turkish positions at Beersheba, in Palestine, beginning the Third Battle of Gaza. With Allenby’s appointment to command the Egyptian Expeditionary  Force (EEF) in the wake of two failed attacks at Gaza in March and April 1917, he was tasked by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with the capture of Jerusalem by Christmas 1917. In order to ensure the fall of Jerusalem however, Allenby needed first to break the Turkish line at Gaza-Beersheba overseen by the recently arrived Erich von Falkenhayn, the former German Army Chief of Staff. The previous two attacks at Gaza had to some extent foundered on account of water shortages. Allenby understood that establishing command of water supplies would be a key factor in his wider plan of capturing Jerusalem. Reinforcements were called in, including Italian and French troops, to support a renewed offensive against the Gaza-Beersheba line, which stood formidably between the Allies and the all-important city of Jerusalem. For nearly a week before the attack, three artillery divisions with over 200 guns bombarded the Turkish troops in order to trick the latter into believing that a full frontal attack would follow, similar to the previous offensives. The bombardment was the heaviest artillery attack of the war outside of Europe. Instead of a frontal attack, Allenby’s men launched a surprise attack at dawn of the 31st October 1917. Allenby sent 40,000 troops, which included the Light Horse Brigade of Australian Desert Mounted Corps, against the damaged Turkish lines. At 4.50 pm on the 31st October 1917, the Light Horse Brigade was in position and assembled behind rising ground 6 km south-east of Beersheba. The Australian Light Horse was used purely as cavalry for the first time, and though they were not equipped with cavalry sabres their long bayonets were equally effective. The Light Horse moved off at a trot, and almost at immediately quickened into a gallop. As they came over the ridge and onto the long open slope to Beersheba, they were seen by the Turkish gunners, who opened fire with shrapnel. After 3km Turkish machine-guns opened fire from the flank, but they were detected and silenced by British artillery. The rifle fire from the Turkish trenches was wild and high as the Light Horse approached. The front trench and the main trench were jumped and some men dismounted and attacked the Turkish defenders with rifle and bayonet from the rear. Some galloped ahead to seize the rear trenches, while other squadrons galloped straight into Beersheba. Beersheba and its crucially important water supply were captured that same day, before the Turks could execute a plan to contaminate it. Falkenhayn was forced to pull his Turkish troops back into the hills north of Jerusalem. The capture of Beersheba meant that the Gaza-Beersheba line was now occupied by the Allies. The casualties for the Light Horse were thirty-one killed and thirty-six wounded, and they captured over 700 Turkish defenders. Gaza fell a week later.

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