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Beleaguered Russia: 1915

By the start of 1915 Russia is at war with three powerful neighbours (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey) and is effectively cut off from any contact with her allies in the west, except through the icy northern waters to Archangel.

The weakest in the triple alliance of the Central Powers is Turkey. So at the turn of the year Russia sends a message to the British and French urging them to attack Turkey and thus create a useful diversion on one of the three fronts (a request which in the event has disastrous results at Gallipoli).

Russia at first holds her own on the border with Austria-Hungary and even makes certain gains (capturing the important fortress of Przemsyl in March). But a sudden German push in the north, endangering four Russian divisions, is a foretaste in February of much worse to come. The first major German campaign of the year begins in May, breaking through the Russian line of trenches in a surprise attack at Gorlice and advancing the 150 miles to Lvov within a few weeks (retaking Przemsyl on the way).

A third advance comes in September. By the end of the year the Russians have lost Poland and have been driven back to a line from Riga to Chernovtsy. Moreover, in adition to heavy casualties, 750,000 of their troops have been taken prisoner.

The Russian front with Turkey is less disastrous. West of the Black Sea their territories are separated by Romania and Bulgaria, both still neutral, so there is only one region where the confrontation can take place. This is in the Caucasus, where the Russo-Turkish frontier runs on a line between the Black Sea and the Caspian. Russia is at a considerable advantage here because her navy controls the Black Sea, forcing the Turks to carry all their supplies to the front through the mountainous terrain of central Anatolia.

As a result Russia makes a gradual though difficult advance. By July 1915 Russian troops have reached a line from Trabzon to Erzincan. But their success triggers one of the war's worst atrocities, in Armenia.

The Armenian people live in a region divided between Russia and Turkey. With a proud history of independence (achieved intermittently as far back as the 6th century BC), the Armenians have no wish to be in either empire. But if forced to choose between them, their inclination as Christians would be to Russia's side. The Armenians in Turkey therefore have good reason to hope that the Russian border will be extended west, to reunite them with their Armenian cousins and give them access to their historic capital at Yerevan.

The disaster of 1915 derives from a Turkish fear that the Armenians in Turkey represent a danger, straddling their already precarious supply lines to the front.

The decision is taken to move the entire Turkish Armenian population (some 1.6 million people) from their homeland to the desert regions of Syria, 250 miles to the south.

In the rush to implement this policy, and in the face of inevitable resistance, Turkish troops massacre in cold blood many tens of thousands of Armenians. Even more men, women and children perish from hunger, disease and exhaustion as they are driven south. There are no reliable figures for the number who die, but a probable estimate is between half and three quarters of a million. The Armenian atrocities, targeting a specific ethnic group, are the first major example of the genocide which disfigures the twentieth century.

Gallipoli: 1915

Early in 1915 a dramatic new strategy is under discussion among the Allies. There are two reasons. Many British and French strategists feel that the trench warfare on the western front is settling into a gridlock which cannot be resolved by continuous frontal attacks, and that therefore a bold alternative is required. And on 2 January 1915 a request is received from Moscow for an attack on Turkey, to relieve pressure on the Russian armies fighting on three fronts.

The result is the gradual formation of a plan to try and force a passage through the Dardanelles (the heavily defended straits leading into the Sea of Marmara), in order to reach and capture Istanbul.

If this could be achieved, there would be numerous advantages. Turkey would be crippled. An easy supply route from the west to Russia would be opened up. An attack could be launched up the Danube against Austria-Hungary. Relief could be brought to beleagured Serbia. And this demonstration of power might well persuade Greece, Bulgaria and Romania - all at this stage still neutral - either to stand aside from the conflict or to join the Allies.

The plan of a purely naval attack on the Dardanelles is strongly supported by Winston Churchill in his role as first lord of the admiralty, the cabinet member responsible for the navy.

The scheme is opposed by Lord Fisher, the first sea lord (the senior serving officer in the navy) unless it is heavily supported by an invasion on the ground. But at a meeting of the War Council, on 13 January 1915, Churchill's view prevails.

On March 18 six British and four French battleships, bombarding the Turkish defences on either shore, begin to make their way through the straits. Minesweepers successfully clear the water in front of them. But disaster strikes when the leading battleships reach a line of mines which have remained undetected. Three ships are sunk, with the loss of 620 French sailors on one of them (the Bouvet).

This disaster causes a change of plan. It is decided that there must after all be a land invasion, to clear the Turkish defences from the Gallipoli peninsula (the thin strip of land separating the Dardanelles from the Aegean Sea) so that the battleships can next time steam through the straits in greater safety.

A multinational force arrives on April 25. Australian and New Zealand troops land on the west shore of the peninsula (at a point subsequently known as Anzac Cove, the initials standing for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). British troops come ashore at the southern tip of the peninsula. A French contingent, as a diversion, takes up a position on the other side of the straits.

Both the Anzacs and the British are confronted by much stronger opposition than expected (the Anzacs lose 2000 men on the first day). Only very limited beachheads are established. Large reinforcements later in the year, in August, make little difference.

Eventually it is decided to abandon the campaign. The armies slip out of Gallipoli in December 1915 in a skilfully achieved retreat. But the previous eight months have cost the Allies more than 200,000 casualties, to absolutely no advantage. In November 1915 Churchill resigns from the government. For the next six months he exchanges his cabinet post for active service as a lieutenant colonel at the front in France.

Trench warfare: 1915-1917

By the start of 1915, on the western front, the pattern of trench warfare is established. It will trap all the combatant nations for the next three years in an insoluble deadlock in which the lifeblood of their young men drains unquenchably away.

The commanders-in-chief - John French and then Douglas Haig for Britain, Joseph Joffre and Philippe Pétain for France, Erich von Falkenhayn followed by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff for Germany - all agree on one thing. The only way forward is to wear the opposing forces down in a ceaseless war of attrition, weakening them to the point where a sudden strategic breakthrough can be achieved.

Never in history have so many men, so heavily armed, remained for so long confronting each other in a restricted area of open ground. All the great battles of the war, some of them lasting several months, take place along a crescent stretching less than 200 miles from Ypres to Verdun. The few major advances made in either direction are less than 50 miles and are soon reversed. Most of the time it is a matter of winning, losing, clawing back a few hundred yards of shell-churned mud.

Yet in this blighted area, during the four years of the war, millions of men lose their lives. In one day alone, at the start of the four-month battle of the Somme in 1916, 20,000 British soldiers die and another 40,000 are wounded.

The pattern of attack, from one line of trenches to the other across no man's land, becomes more sophisticated as the months roll by but remains essentially the same. The trenches are protected by lethal rolls of barbed wire. These need to be flattened before there is any hope of the advancing infantry reaching the enemy. This is achieved by a preliminary bombardment from artillery behind the lines, lasting days and sometimes weeks.

In the early part of the war the bombardment ends when the infantry go over the top of their trenches, armed with rifles, bayonets and hand grenades, to stagger and slither towards the machine guns awaiting them.

Later a slight improvement is made in the form of the rolling barrage, in which the artillery gunners steadily raise their sights as the troops advance. The purpose is to lay down ahead of them a carpet of high-explosive shells, forcing the enemy to keep their heads down. Reconnaissance aircraft fly overhead, equipped with radio, to report back to the gunners where their shells are landing and what enemy targets are available.

Even when this softening-up procedure succeeds, the infantry are left with a lonely final assault on the trenches followed by close combat, unless (always the hoped-for result) the bombardment has in itself persuaded the enemy to withdraw to a secondary line of defence.

Battles along the western front: 1915-1917

In each year of this gargantuan contest both sides mount offensives, usually more costly to them than to the defenders. In 1915 the Germans move first, in April, in the northwest section of the line near Ypres. In May the French retaliate further south, between Lens and Arras. In the autumn the Allies launch twin campaigns, the British in the north near Loos and the French in the southeastern part of the line around Reims.

The first offensive of 1916 is a German thrust towards Verdun, a town behind the Allied lines at the eastern end of the trenches. Beginning in February, the battle for Verdun lasts for the rest of the year and severely stretches the resources of the French defenders - commanded by Philippe Pétain, who becomes a national hero.

The pressure on Verdun is eased in July, when the Allies advance in the valley of the Somme, in the centre of the line, in what becomes the most deadly single engagement of the entire war. On the very first day 60,000 of the British troops running forward from their trenches are mown down by enemy fire. Four months later, when torrential rain brings the battle finally to an end with little gained, the British have lost 420,000 men, the French 195,000 and the Germans more than 600,000.

Allied strategic plans are dislocated in March 1917 by a surprise German move. The line of trenches has given the Germans a southwest bulge between Arras and Reims. Deciding not to hold this, the Germans now make an unexpected withdrawal.

They pull their troops back to a newly prepared line, reinforced with a very effective innovation - concrete pillboxes to house machine-guns. This defensive barrier becomes known as the Hindenburg Line, after the recently appointed German commander-in-chief. The territory which has been abandoned is left as a heavily mined wasteland.

By this stage of the war both French and Germans have learnt the value of taking a defensive stance in this new form of warfare, but the British commander, Field Marshal Haig, is still convinced that aggression must ultimately prevail. After attempting to soften up the opposition with a bombardment of 4,500,000 shells, he launches on 31 July 1917 a massive attack from Ypres at the northern extremity of the line of trenches.

As so often previously in the war, three months of horror end with nothing achieved. The campaign lasts until early November, when a macabre last-ditch advance by British and Canadian infantry, wading through knee-deep mud churned up by constant bombardment in the autumn rain, results in the capture of a trivial but by now symbolic prize - the village of Passchendaele. It stands just five miles from where the attack began in July. Since then some 250,000 British soldiers have died.

There is one briefly effective campaign in late November 1917. A suitable terrain is chosen near Cambrai for the first serious outing of a British innovation, the tank. These strange vehicles achieve a rapid advance. But there are not enough infantry in support to consolidate the gain.

Innovations on the western front: 1915-1917

There are occasional innovations on the western front, when radically new weapons are brought to the battlefield in an attempt to clear the enemy more effectively from their trenches.

The Germans first try the use of chlorine gas against the Russians in Poland in January 1915, but the extreme cold makes it ineffective. They make a second attempt at Ypres in April 1915. This time the creeping poisonous green vapour immediately empties the French trenches. But the Germans, not anticipating such an immediate success, fail to take advantage of their opportunity. Five months later the British use chlorine gas, at Loos in September - again to little advantage, partly because the wind changes and blows the gas back over their own men.

By the end of the war both sides make frequent use of even more alarming gases (phosgene and mustard). The damage is limited by the gas mask, soon part of the basic equipment of every soldier, though mustard gas also causes severe burns to the skin.

From 1916 poison gas is no longer released from canisters, to drift with the wind across the enemy's position. Now it is fired in compressed form in shells and mortars, to expand on impact. During one advance, in the Ypres region in March 1918, the Germans fire half a million mustard gas shells into the Allied lines. But protective measures by now ensure that even such a heavy bombardment results in only 7000 gas casualties and less than 100 deaths.

Poison gas has been relatively little used in subsequent wars, for fear of retaliation in kind. But modern warfare has been transformed by another innovation on the western front.

During the battle of the Somme, on 15 September 1916, the British send into action eleven vehicles of an entirely new kind, the Mark I tank. On this first occasion they make relatively little impression. But on their second outing, at Cambrai in November 1917, they prove their unmistakable value in clearing the battleground for the infantry following behind them. Unlike foot soldiers, tanks can advance against the dreaded machine gun and can crash through the barbed wire barricades protecting the enemy trenches.

Balkan alliances: 1915-1916

During 1915, as the war first settles into stalemate on the western front, the European theatre with the greatest volatility is the Balkans - where there is much unfinished business in the aftermath of the two recent Balkan Wars (1912-13). The immediate concern of the various countries is local – how best to preserve recent territorial gains or recover recent losses.

At the outbreak of war, in 1914, all but one of the nations in this turbulent region keep their options open with declarations of neutrality. The exception is Serbia, at the heart of the conflict from the very start and surprisingly resilient during the rest of 1914 in keeping the armies of Austria-Hungary at bay.

Serbia and Bulgaria become a high priority for both sides. For the Central Powers, if Serbia can be occupied and Bulgaria brought into their alliance, a crucial railway link can be made between Vienna and the Turkish capital at Istanbul. For the Allies there is strategic value in preventing this happening, and an important element of prestige in being seen to protect Serbia.

During the summer of 1915 both sides promise Bulgaria the return of territory in Macedonia lost in the Bucharest treaty of 1913. It is a more convincing promise from the Central powers, since much of the land went to Serbia. Moreover the king of Bulgaria is strongly pro-German. In September Bulgaria takes the plunge by declaring war on Serbia.

This act places the focus firmly on Greece. A friendly Greece is essential to the Allies, since an expedition north from the Greek coast is the only practical way of bringing assistance to land-locked Serbia. Moreover Greece can reasonably be expected to enter the fray. After the First Balkan War, in 1913, she signed a treaty with Serbia in which each promised to help the other if attacked by Bulgaria.

However opinion in Greece is deeply divided. The king and his senior commanders are pro-German, while the prime minister sympathizes with the Allies. The result is that Greece fails to side with Serbia, but Allied troops nevertheless land at Salonika for a push inland (claiming to have been invited to do so by the prime minister).

French and British divisions are rushed from Gallipoli to land at Salonika on October 5 (the Greek king dismisses his insubordinate prime minister on the same day). But the expedition proves a fiasco. Advancing up the Vardar river, the Allies finds the Bulgarians ahead of them in Serbia. An Austrian and Bulgarian attack from both flanks is finally subduing this small country, with Belgrade falling to the Austrians on October 9. The Serb army, abandoning an unequal struggle, escapes through the mountains into Albania.

The Allied forces, having failed in their mission, withdraw in December back to Salonika. At this same moment the British and French are also pulling ignominiously out of Gallipoli.

It would make tactical sense to abandon both these unsuccessful ventures, but it is decided that there are strategic reasons for staying in Salonika. One is prestige in this important part of Europe. The other is the hope that Romania, still neutral, may soon join in on the Allied side. As a result further French and British divisions are sent in 1916 to Salonika. They are joined by the escaped Serbian army and by Italian contingents.

The Germans decide not to disturb this quiet encampment, which at times ties up nearly 500,000 Allied troops - until at last they go into action in 1918.

Romania does eventually join the Allies, in August 1916, on being promised much of Hungary after the defeat of the Austrian empire. Romania's decision pays off after the war, but in the short term it brings disaster. Early in December the capital city, Bucharest, falls to an Austro-Hungarian army. The king and his ministers flee to exile in the neighbouring Russian province of Moldavia.

Meanwhile the split in Greece between the factions of the king and his dismissed prime minister become more extreme. In September 1916 the prime minister moves from Athens to Salonika to set up an independent Greek government under Allied protection. This government, in November, declares war on Bulgaria. The rival Balkan alliances are at last complete.

The Battle of Jutland: 1916

The early summer of 1916 brings the only major sea battle of the entire war. Since the loss of the Blücher at Dogger Bank in January 1915, the German High Seas Fleet has been content to remain in the safety of German waters in the Baltic, leaving the U-boats to carry on the war at sea. Meanwhile Britain's larger Grand Fleet watches over the North Sea from its base at Scapa Flow.

However in 1916 the Germans devise a plan which they hope will entice into a trap one half of the British fleet, which can then be destroyed in isolation. The scheme has two related parts.

First a small force of cruisers is despatched to bombard the east coast ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. It is hoped that this will prompt Admiral Jellicoe to send down less than the whole fleet from Scapa Flow, to end this annoyance. He does just that, despatching one battle squadron.

The next step in the German plan is to send a scouting group of cruisers up the Norwegian coast, tempting the British across the sea to move south of them and cut them off. But the cruisers are to be followed at a distance of fifty miles by the entire High Seas Fleet under its admiral, Reinhard Scheer.

A succession of accidents frustrate and alter these plans. British listening devices intercept a message on May 30 suggesting that the High Seas Fleet is on the move. Jellicoe responds by steaming south with the rest of the Grand Fleet from Scapa Flow, heading for a rendezvous near the entrance to the Skagerrak (the channel to the north of Denmark's province of Jutland, leading into the Baltic Sea). This accidentally brings the British and German fleets into the same area.

They fail to notice each other until a chance encounter in the early afternoon of May 31. At that stage the battleships of both fleets are still miles apart. By about 4 p.m. the cruisers of both sides are in combat. Two hours later the battleships open fire.

In the gathering dusk these massive vessels, armed with enormous guns, cumbrously manoeuvre and wheel about with the same objective as the old ships-of-the-line - to be in position to fire a broadside at an enemy less well placed. In the event the chaos is such that neither side has a decisive advantage before night falls and contact is lost.

When the tally is taken, the Germans are the winners. The British lose marginally more ships and twice as many men (about 6000). But in another sense the German effort fails. After the battle of Jutland (known to the Germans as the battle of the Skagerrak) the Grand Fleet is still in command of the North Sea - while the German fleet prefers once again to remain safely at home, shy of the high seas after which it is named.

Mesopotamia: 1914-1916

With the collapse of the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, the only untried route of attack against the Turkish empire is in the Middle East, up through Mesopotamia or Palestine.

From the start of the war Mesopotamia has been the site of British muddle and disaster. As soon as Britain and Turkey are at war, early in November 1914, a British force is despatched to seize the Turkish port of Basra on the Shatt-al-Arab (the confluence of the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Tigris and the Euphrates). The purpose is precise and limited. Basra is a mere fifty miles upstream from the Persian port of Abadan, where the recently established Anglo-Persian Oil company refines and ships out its precious commodity. Britain needs to protect its supply of diesel for the navy.

This limited objective is rapidly achieved. Basra is taken on 22 November 1914, and a defensive outpost is established some fifty miles further north at the junction between the Tigris and the Euphrates. But during 1915, as the campaign in Gallipoli gets bogged down, an impressive advance up the Tigris becomes politically attractive.

Amara is taken on 3 June 1915, followed by Kut on September 29. This is more than half way towards the mesmerizing prize of Baghdad. A British and Indian advance party, too small for the task and too far from reliable sources of supply, pushes on up the river.

It finally reaches strong Turkish opposition at the historic site of Ctesiphon, a mere twenty miles from Baghdad. The date, 22 November 1915, is exactly a year after the successful capture of Basra. With heavy losses (half the 8500 men are killed or wounded), the Allied force withdraws to join its supporting troops in Kut. There they find themselves trapped. For five months they are besieged by a Turkish army until, on 29 April 1916, the British commander finally surrenders. 10,000 British and Indian soldiers are taken into Turkish captivity.

This adventure against the Turks has been as humiliating as the contemporary events at Gallipoli. But meanwhile a new development in Arabia seems to offer greater hope.

Arabia and Palestine: 1916

When the Turks enter the war, in 1914, the hereditary emir of Mecca (Husayn ibn Ali) sees a chance of extricating his territory from Ottoman rule. He secretly begins negotiating with the British. By June 1916 he is ready to launch an Arab revolt along the Red Sea coast.

The most effective part of this uprising is conducted by Faisal, one of Husayn's sons, in conjunction with T.E. Lawrence, a young British officer seconded for the purpose. Together they attack the most strategically important feature in the region, the railway which runs south from Damascus, through Amman and Ma'an, to Medina. This is the only route by which the Turks can easily send reinforcements to Arabia.

The policy succeeds and by the summer of 1917 the Arabs have moved far enough north to capture Aqaba. This is achieved on July 6 in a dramatic raid by Lawrence and some Arab chiefs with a few hundred of their tribesmen. Together they kill or capture some 1200 Turks at a cost of only two of their own lives.

The port of Aqaba occupies an important position at the head of the gulf of the same name. It offers relatively easy access up towards the Dead Sea. Faisal's army is now well placed to support a British thrust into Palestine, by operating from the desert region of the Negev to bring pressure on the eastern flank of the Turks.

During the winter of 1916 the British have been laying a railway along the northern coast of the Sinai peninsula. This makes possible an attack on Gaza, the gateway into Palestine. But on two separate occasions - in March and April 1917 - the campaign is seriously bungled. As a result a new commander, Edmund Allenby, is brought in.

Allenby succeeds in taking Gaza on November 7. He follows this with the capture of Jerusalem a month later, on December 9. Meanwhile Britain's fortunes in Mesopotamia have also been transformed by a new commander, Stanley Maude. Maude retakes Kut on 24 February 1917 and captures Baghdad on March 11.

So by the end of 1917 the Allies, occupying both Jerusalem and Baghdad, have completed half the necessary task in the Middle East. But they are still a long way from the frontier of Turkey itself. On the Mediterranean front Damascus and Aleppo lie ahead, in Mesopotamia there is still Mosul to be taken. And even then there is the almost impenetrable terrain of Anatolia before one can reach Istanbul.

With massive armies confronting each other on the western front, this all seems a long way from the centre of the action. But this year of 1917 has meanwhile brought two major developments, in the usa and Russia, which in their very different ways profoundly alter the equation of the war.

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