Battle of Lemberg, 20-22 June 1915

Battle of Lemberg, 20-22 June 1915

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Battle of Lemberg, 20-22 June 1915

The battle of Lemberg, 20-22 June 1915, was a short-lived Russian attempt to defend the great fortress of Lemberg against advancing German and Austrian troops during the aftermath of the great German victory at Gorlice-Tarnow. That battle had seen the Germans break through the Russian lines at the western end of the Carpathian front and advance east along the line of the mountains, forcing the Russians to abandon their attempt to invade Hungary.

Lemberg was a great Austro-Hungarian fortress at the eastern end of that front. It had been captured by the Russians during the battles of Lemberg of 1914, which had seen the Austrians first forced back to the Carpathians. In June 1915 it was defended by two tired Russian corps (VIII and XVIII) under General Brusilov. His army had been fighting in the Carpathians since the winter and was significantly under strength.

On 20 June the German XLI Reserve corps and Austrian VI corps launched an attack on Lemberg. These were relatively fresh units – the Germans in particular had been at close to full strength at the start of the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive and the Russians in Lemberg were outnumbered.

The battle was short-lived. On 22 June the Germans and Austrians broke into the outskirts of Lemberg, and to avoid being trapped Brusilov pulled his corps out of the city. The Russian retreat would continue until mid-September, and their new front line would be fifty miles east of Lemberg.

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In World War I Lemberg (German: Lemberg, Ukrainian: Lviv, Polish: Lwów) played an important role as a political and administrative center of Galicia and was of great strategic significance as one of the biggest garrisons of Austria-Hungary in the east. The focus of Polish and Ukrainian national movements, Lemberg saw rising nationalist and antisemitic tensions, which were fostered by an ever more precarious supply situation and led to a fraternal war at the end of World War I.


In the early months of war on the Eastern Front, the German Eighth Army conducted a series of almost miraculous actions against the two Russian armies facing them. After surrounding and then destroying the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg in late August, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff wheeled their troops to face the Russian First Army at the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes, almost destroying them before they reached the protection of their own fortresses as they retreated across the border. [8]

When these actions petered out in late September, much of two Russian armies had been destroyed, and all Russian forces had been ejected from the Masurian Lakes area of modern north-east Poland after losing almost 200,000 killed or captured soldiers.

The Russians did far better in the south where they faced the Austro-Hungarians, who mobilized more rapidly and started their own offensive in late August from Galicia, their province in partitioned Poland, initially pushing the Russians back into what is now central Poland. However, a well-executed Russian counter-stroke in late September, when they had brought more men to the front, pushed their enemy back over their own borders in disarray, leaving a large garrison besieged in the fortress city of Przemyśl.

The Germans came to their aid by forming a new Ninth Army which advanced from German Silesia into Poland in the Battle of the Vistula River. Although initially successful, the attack eventually petered out and the Germans returned to their starting points, as they retreated destroying the Polish railways and bridges to make it harder to invade German Silesia. The Russians repaired the damage and then were poised to invade. The German Ninth Army was redeployed to the north, allowing them to put serious pressure on the Russian right flank in what developed as the Battle of Łódź in early November. The Germans failed to encircle the Russian units, and the battle ended with an orderly Russian withdrawal to the east near Warsaw, the German occupation of Łódź, and the end of the immediate threat to Silesia.

In fierce winter fighting General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the chief of staff of the Austro-Hungarian Army, attacked the Russians who had forced their way into the Carpathian passes in the south of Galicia. Both sides suffered appallingly, but the Russians held their line. [9] By this time half of the Austro-Hungarian Army that had entered the war were casualties. Conrad pleaded for additional German reinforcements to hold the passes. German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn refused, but in April 1915 Conrad threatened a separate peace if the Germans would not help. [10] Conrad and Falkenhayn met and planned a joint strike on the Russian left flank at the far southern end of the Eastern Front, in the Gorlice-Tarnów front,130 km (81 mi) southeast of Kraków. A successful advance from there would force the Russians to retreat from the passes to save themselves from being cut off.

German intelligence detected no signs of an imminent Allied attack on the Western Front. Moreover, their field army was still growing. They were removing an infantry regiment from each division, leaving them with only three, but not reducing the numbers of essential divisional specialists, a better allocation of forces for an artillery war. Each reconfigured division was reinforced with 2,400 new men, recruited since the outbreak of the war, who were dispersed among the veterans. The released infantry regiments were formed into 14 new reserve divisions.

Conrad had to bow to Falkenhayn’s conditions. The joint attack would be by an Austro-German Army Group commanded by a German, whose orders from Falkenhayn would be transmitted via the Austro-Hungarian command. The Group would contain the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army (eight infantry and one cavalry divisions) under Archduke Joseph Ferdinand, an experienced soldier. The Germans formed a new Eleventh Army made up of eight divisions, trained in assault tactics in the west. They were brought east on 500 trains. [11] The Army was led by the former commander of the German Ninth Army, General August von Mackensen, with Colonel Hans von Seeckt as chief of staff. Mackensen, whose political sensitivities had been polished as an adjutant to the Kaiser, would also lead the army group. They would be opposed by the Russian Third Army (18½ infantry and five and a half cavalry divisions, under General D. R. Radko-Dmitriev).

Mackensen was provided with a strong train of heavy artillery commanded by Generalmajor Alfred Ziethen, which included the huge German and Austro-Hungarian mortars that had crushed French and Belgian fortresses. Airplanes were provided to direct artillery fire, which was especially important since ammunition was short on both sides: only 30,000 shells could be stockpiled for the attack. [12] Another significant plus was the German field telephone service, which advanced with the attackers, thereby enabling front-line observers to direct artillery fire. [13] To increase their mobility on the poor roads, each German division was provided with 200 light Austro-Hungarian wagons with drivers. [14]

Falkenhayn moved German Supreme Headquarters, OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung), to Pless in Silesia, an hour's drive from Austrian headquarters. To prevent spying, the local inhabitants were moved out of the buildup area. In the north the German Ninth and Tenth armies made diversionary attacks that threatened Riga. [15] On 22 April, the Germans launched the first poison gas attack near Ypres, divulging what might have been a decisive weapon merely to distract the Allies in the west. Mackensen had ten infantry and one cavalry divisions (126,000 men, 457 light guns, 159 heavy pieces, and 96 mortars) along the 42 km (26 mi) length of the breakthrough sector. Facing him were five Russian divisions consisting of 60,000 men but desperately short on artillery. For firesupport the Russians could only count on 141 light artillery pieces and four heavy guns. And one of the four burst as soon as the battle began. [16]

The Russian supreme commander, the Grand Duke Nicholas Nicholaevitch, learned that Germans had arrived on their flank but did not make a counter-move. [17]

On 1 May, the Central Powers’ artillery opened harassing fire, zeroing in their guns. The following morning at 0600 they began a sustained bombardment, at 0900 the heavy howitzers joined in. The huge mortar shells were especially terrifying, their blast killed men tens of meters from the explosion. The Russian fortifications were ". more ditches than trenches." [18] so they were easily smashed and their feeble barbed wire belts torn apart by howitzers firing high explosive. At 1000 the Austro-German infantry attacked in thick skirmishing lines. Mackensen’s orders were for his entire front to move forward as one, regardless of local opposition: each unit was set a minimum distance to advance each day. If a machine gun held them up, a field gun was brought up to destroy it. When driven back the Russians almost invariably counterattacked in dense formations, only adding to their losses.

Opposing forces Edit

Central Powers (arrayed north to south):

Austro-Hungarian 4th Army (Austro-Hungarian units unless otherwise indicated):

  • Combined Division “Stöger-Steiner”
  • XIV Corps (German 47th Reserve Division, Group Morgenstern, 8th & 3rd Infantry Divisions)
  • IX corps (106th Landsturm & 10th Infantry Divisions)
  • In reserve behind IX Corps: 31st Infantry Brigade (“Szende Brigade”), 11th Honved Cavalry Division.

German 11th Army (German units unless otherwise indicated):

    (1st & 2nd Guards Divisions)
  • Austro-Hungarian VI Corps (39th Honved Infantry & 12th Infantry Divisions) (81st & 82nd Reserve Divisions)
  • Combined Corps “Kneussl” (119th and 11th Bavarian Infantry Divisions)
  • In reserve: X Corps (19th & 20th Infantry Divisions).
    (3 militia brigades, 3 regiments of 5th Infantry Division, 2 militia brigades, 3 regiments of 42nd Infantry Division, 70th Reserve Division, 7th Cavalry Division [in reserve]) (31st Infantry & 61st Reserve Divisions, 3 regiments of 9th Infantry Division) (3 regiments of 49th Infantry Division, 48th Infantry Division & 176th (Perevolochensk) Infantry Regiment of 44th Infantry Division) (12th Siberian Rifle Division, 12th & 19th Infantry Divisions & 17th (Chernigov) Hussar Regiment) (3 regiments of 33rd Infantry Division & 173rd (Kamenets) Regiment of 44th Infantry Division) (Brigade of 81st Infantry Division, 3rd Rifle Brigade, 175th (Batursk) Infantry Regiment of 44th Infantry Division & 132nd (Bender) Infantry Regiment of 33rd Infantry Division) .

Behind the Russian front lines: Scattered across the rear of 3rd Army:

  • 3rd Caucasus Cossack Division, 19th (Kostroma) Infantry Regiment of 5th Infantry Division, 33rd (Elets) Infantry Regiment of 9th Infantry Division 167th (Ostroisk) Infantry Regiment of 42nd Infantry Division
  • Brigade of 81st Infantry Division, 3 regiments of 63rd Reserve Division, Composite Cavalry Corps (16th Cavalry Division (less 17th Hussar Regiment), 2nd Consolidated Cossack Division) 3rd Don Cossack Division

Radko Dimitriev quickly sent two divisions to stem the Austro-German breakthrough, but they were utterly annihilated before they could even report back to headquarters. From the Russian point of view, both divisions simply disappeared from the map. On 3 May the Grand Duke Nicholas was sufficiently concerned to provide three additional divisions and to authorize a limited withdrawal . [19] The attackers surmounted the first major geographical obstacle, the Wisloka river, on a captured bridge. [20] By 5 May the attackers were through the three trench lines that had opposed them, by 9 May they had reached all assigned objectives. Grand Duke Nicholas permitted a limited withdrawal, but rejected advice to construct a well fortified position far behind the frontline and then to pull back to it. At this point the Russian counterattacks grew ever more desperate, often throwing brand new recruits into battle, some armed only with grenades or wooden clubs. [21] The Austro-Hungarian Third and Fourth Armies pressed forward in the Carpathian passes, the Russians retreated before them while they still might. On 12 May a conference at Pless decided that Mackensen should continue to advance to the San River and take bridgeheads on the east bank. Sustaining the attack required meticulous organization: relieving surviving but worn-out infantry, moving forward artillery, ammunition, and all other supplies along roads and rail lines that had to be repaired as they advanced. Each new assault followed the pattern of the first, a hail of artillery fire blasted a passageway for the infantry.

When Army Group Mackensen reached the San his front was more than 150 km (93 mi) from his rail-heads, as far as they could go until the newly reconquered railways were operating again. Once this was done they established bridgeheads over the San on 16 May. On the east bank the old city of Przemyśl was surrounded by 44 forts. After a prolonged siege its Austro-Hungarian defenders had surrendered it –for a second time— on 22 March. On 30 May Eleventh German Army’s artillery began to duel with the guns in the forts. The huge mortars easily smashed the concrete. On 1 June the infantry occupied three large forts. A Russian counterattack failed. Two days later the victors marched into Przemyśl, the Austro-Hungarian troops were cheered exuberantly by its citizens, and the triumph triggered high-spirited celebrations throughout Austro-Hungary. The same day the Austrian Fourth and Seventh armies struck the flank of the Russian Eleventh Army, driving for the River Dniester.

Falkenhayn provided replacements to bring the depleted Eleventh Army ranks back close to their initial strength. The Russians also reinforced their defenders. Lemberg, the Galician capital, was set as the next objective, 100 km (62 mi) further east. An attack on 13 June sent the Russians into a headlong retreat and on 21 June the Grand Duke Nicholas ordered them to abandon Galicia. On 22 June Mackensen’s Austro-Hungarians entered Lemberg after an advance of 310 km (190 mi), an average rate of 5.8 km (3.6 mi) per day. The Galician oil fields, crucial for the German navy, were soon back in production and 480,000 tons of badly-needed oil was captured. [22]

The Russian Third Army left about 140,000 prisoners in enemy hands, and almost ceased to exist as a fighting unit. The 3rd Caucasian Corps, for example, brought up to establishment of 40,000 men in April, was reduced to 8,000. It was thrown into the battle on the San against the Austrian First Army, and succeeded in taking some 6,000 prisoners and nine guns, but one of their divisions was down to 900 men by 19 May.

Seeckt proposed that now the Eleventh Army should advance north towards Brest-Litovsk, with their flanks shielded by the rivers Vistula and Bug. [23] Hindenburg and Ludendorff agreed and proposed that simultaneously their Tenth and their new Nieman army should take Kovno and then drive toward Vilna. With the Germans in both Vilna and Brest all the major railway lines from Poland to Russia would be cut. The Russian Army in the Polish salient would be snared in a pocket such a massive defeat might bring peace. Falkenhayn decided that this bold plan exceeded their means and instead ordered frontal attacks all along their present front in Poland.

The Grand Duke Nicholas issued orders that yielded to the pressure step by step, evacuating both Galicia and the Polish salient to straighten out their front line, hoping to buy the time to acquire the weapons they so desperately needed, for example 300,000 rifles. [24] This enormous movement is known as the Great Retreat of 1915. Warsaw was evacuated and fell to the new Twelfth German Army on 5 August, and by the end of the month Poland was entirely in Austro-German hands. [1]

The victors asked the Danes to offer to host a peace conference. Tsar Nicholas refused to participate: he had pledged his allies not to make a separate peace. Mackensen continued to lead Austro-German armies throughout the war, first conquering Serbia and then occupying Romania. The Tsar himself replaced the Grand Duke Nicholas as supreme commander.

Battle of Jutland, greatest naval battle of WWI, begins

Just before four o𠆜lock on the afternoon of May 31, 1916, a British naval force commanded by Vice Admiral David Beatty confronts a squadron of German ships, led by Admiral Franz von Hipper, some 75 miles off the Danish coast. The two squadrons opened fire on each other simultaneously, beginning the opening phase of the greatest naval battle of World War I, the Battle of Jutland.

After the Battle of Dogger Bank in January 1915, the German navy chose not to confront the numerically superior British Royal Navy in a major battle for more than a year, preferring to rest the bulk of its strategy at sea on its lethal U-boat submarines. In May 1916, however, with the majority of the British Grand Fleet anchored far away, at Scapa Flow, off the northern coast of Scotland, the commander of the German High Seas Fleet, Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, believed the time was right to resume attacks on the British coastline. Confident that his communications were securely coded, Scheer ordered 19 U-boat submarines to position themselves for a raid on the North Sea coastal city of Sunderland while using air reconnaissance crafts to keep an eye on the British fleet’s movement from Scapa Flow. Bad weather hampered the airships, however, and Scheer called off the raid, instead ordering his fleet� battleships, five battle cruisers, 11 light cruisers and 63 destroyers—to head north, to the Skagerrak, a waterway located between Norway and northern Denmark, off the Jutland Peninsula, where they could attack Allied shipping interests and with luck, punch a hole in the stringent British blockade.

Unbeknownst to Scheer, however, a newly created intelligence unit located within an old building of the British Admiralty, known as Room 40, had cracked the German codes and warned the British Grand Fleet’s commander, Admiral John Rushworth Jellicoe, of Scheer’s intentions. Consequently, on the night of May 30, a British fleet of 28 battleships, nine battle cruisers, 34 light cruisers and 80 destroyers set out from Scapa Flow, bound for positions off the Skagerrak.

At 2:20 p.m. on May 31, Beatty, leading a British squadron, spotted Hipper’s warships. As each squadron maneuvered south to better its position, shots were fired, but neither side opened fire until 3:48 that afternoon. The initial phase of the gun battle lasted 55 minutes, during which two British battle cruisers, Indefatigable and Queen Mary were destroyed, killing over 2,000 sailors. At 4:43 p.m., Hipper’s squadron was joined by the remainder of the German fleet, commanded by Scheer. Beatty was forced to fight a delaying action for the next hour, until Jellicoe could arrive with the rest of the Grand Fleet.

With both fleets facing off in their entirety, a great battle of naval strategy began among the four commanders, particularly between Jellicoe and Scheer. As sections of the two fleets continued to engage each other throughout the late evening and the early morning of June 1, Jellicoe maneuvered 96 of the British ships into a V-shape surrounding 59 German ships. Hipper’s flagship, Lutzow, was disabled by 24 direct hits but was able, before it sank, to sink the British battle cruiser Invincible. Just after 6:30 on the evening of June 1, Scheer’s fleet executed a previously planned withdrawal under cover of darkness to their base at the German port of Wilhelmshaven, ending the battle and cheating the British of the major naval success they had envisioned.

The Battle of Jutland—or the Battle of the Skagerrak, as it was known to the Germans𠅎ngaged a total of 100,000 men aboard 250 ships over the course of 72 hours. The Germans, giddy from the glory of Scheer’s brilliant escape, claimed it as a victory for their High Seas Fleet. At first the British press agreed, but the truth was not so clear-cut. The German navy lost 11 ships, including a battleship and a battle cruiser, and suffered 3,058 casualties the British sustained heavier losses, with 14 ships sunk, including three battle cruisers, and 6,784 casualties. Ten more German ships had suffered heavy damage, however, and by June 2, 1916, only 10 ships that had been involved in the battle were ready to leave port again (Jellicoe, on the other hand, could have put 23 to sea). On July 4, 1916, Scheer reported to the German high command that further fleet action was not an option, and that submarine warfare was Germany’s best hope for victory at sea. Despite the missed opportunities and heavy losses, the Battle of Jutland had left British naval superiority on the North Sea intact. The German High Seas Fleet would make no further attempts to break the Allied blockade or to engage the Grand Fleet for the remainder of World War I.

New Offensive on Eastern Front, First Battle of the Isonzo

The unraveling of the Russian armies that began with the breakthrough at Gorlice-Tarnow in May 1915 accelerated in the months that followed, as the German Eleventh Army under General August von Mackensen (below) launched a series of major offensives supported by the Austro-Hungarian Second, Third, and Fourth Armies. The new attacks widened the gap in the Russian lines and forced the Russians to withdraw again and again in what became known as the Great Retreat.

While hardly a blitzkrieg of the type unleashed on the Soviet Red Army in the Second World War, the Austro-German advance through Poland and Galicia in May-September 1915 was methodical and relentless, following a cyclical pattern with occasional pauses to consolidate and regroup. First punishing artillery bombardments blasted apart Russian defensive works (top, a German 30.5 centimeter gun on the Eastern Front), followed by massed infantry charges that captured huge numbers of prisoners (below, German uhlans escort Russian prisoners) then the Russians would withdraw to a new line of trenches further back, their pursuers would bring forward the heavy artillery, and it would start all over again.

Mackensen’s success allowed German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn and his Austro-Hungarian counterpart Conrad von Hötzendorf to withdraw some troops for operations elsewhere, including the Western Front and the Balkans. After the fall of Przemyśl on June 3, on June 10 the Austro-Hungarian Third Army was dissolved and many of the troops were sent to the Italian front a new Third Army would be formed in September for the fall campaign against Serbia.

However Mackensen still had plenty of manpower to continue the offensive: on June 13 he launched an all-out assault along a 31-mile front, aided by the composite Austro-German Südarmee (South Army). By June 15 the Russian Third Army was reeling back, allowing Mackensen to turn on the Russian Eighth Army, which also beat a hasty retreat. After a six-day battle the Central Powers recaptured Galicia’s capital Lemberg (today Lviv in western Ukraine) on June 22, while the Russian Eleventh Army joined the general withdrawal.

Meanwhile in Petrograd the blame game was heating up. On June 26 Minister of War Vladimir Sukhomlinov (below, left) resigned amid allegations of incompetence stemming from the string of defeats as well as the critical shortage of artillery shells, which he had totally failed to remedy he was succeeded by Alexei Polivanov (below, right) who would himself be removed in March 1916 due to the animosity of the Tsarina, egged on by the sinister holy man Rasputin.

A New Direction

There would be no respite for exhausted Russian soldiers. On June 29, 1915, Mackensen launched the biggest offensive yet, attacking in a surprising new direction that forced the Russians to accelerate the Great Retreat.

After the fall of Lemberg, Falkenhayn and the overall commanders on the Eastern Front, Paul von Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff, met to consider options for the next stage of the campaign. Thus far the Austro-German advance had followed a straightforward west-to-east direction, more or less dictated by the need to pursue the withdrawing Russian armies. However the liberation of most of Galicia opened up a new possibility: Mackensen’s chief of staff Hans von Seeckt pointed out that they could now exploit a gap between the Russian Third and Fourth Armies to attack north into Russian Poland, capturing the important rail hub at Brest-Litovsk and cutting off the Russian First and Second Armies defending Warsaw further to the west. To fill the gap left by the Eleventh Army they would also transfer the Austro-Hungarian First Army across the rear of the advancing Eleventh and Fourth Armies, while Army Detachment Woyrsch took over the First Army’s lines.

At first advance units of the German Eleventh Army faced virtually no resistance as they crossed north into Russian Poland on June 29, 1915, supported by the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army on its left flank. By July 2 however the Russian Third Army had rumbled into action, launching a fierce counterattack against the Eleventh Army’s advancing right flank along the Bug River, while Mackensen’s forces also encountered elements of the newly formed and short-lived Russian Thirteenth Army (above, Russian troops in a temporary defensive position). Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described a nighttime battle along the Zlota Lipa river on July 1-2:

When the sun had already dipped below the horizon, I thought that we would be spending the night behind the embankment and that the attack would not take place until the following morning. It turned out that I was wrong. Behind us artillery shots could be heard the shells whizzed over us and exploded further up at the Russian position… “Advance!” called the Commander of our Regiment from the back of the embankment. How these words made me shudder! Each of us knew that it would be the death sentence for some of us. I was most afraid of being shot in the stomach, as the poor pitiful people would normally live on, suffering the most terrible pain, for between one and three days before breathing their last. “Fix bayonets! Forwards to attack! March! March!” Everyone ran up the hill.

Richert was lucky enough to survive the charge on the Russian trenches, although the terror and confusion continued:

Despite everything we made progress. Amidst the roar of the infantry fire you could hear the rattle of the Russian machine guns. Shrapnel shells exploded overhead. I was so nervous that I did not know what I was doing. Out of breath and panting we arrived in front of the Russian position. The Russians climbed out of the trench and ran uphill towards the wood nearby, but most of them were shot down before they got there.

To deal with the threat to Mackensen’s right flank, on July 8, 1915 Falkenhayn formed a new composite Austro-German army, the Army of the Bug (named for the Bug River area where it would operate) commanded by Alexander von Linsingen, formerly of the Südarmee. He also gave Mackensen direct control over the Austro-Hungarian First and Fourth Armies, much to the chagrin of Conrad, who found himself and his officers increasingly sidelined by the imperious Prussians of the German general staff. Conrad’s position wasn’t helped by the embarrassing (but temporary) rebuff of the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army by the Russian Fourth Army near Krasnik on July 6-7.

The Central Powers commanders also faced growing logistical difficulties, as their advance took them further away from their rail supply lines and deeper into territory where the retreating Russians had destroyed the railroads as well as most – but not all – sources of food (above, a Russian wheat field burning). Richert recalled hungry German troops finding scraps of food in an abandoned Russian trench: “In their trench were still pieces of bread left lying around and we eagerly consumed them. Many soldiers pulled the grains from the green heads of wheat, blew away the chaff and ate them, in order to overcome their pangs of hunger.”

After pausing to move up supplies and reinforcements, the Central Powers returned to the attack on July 13-16, 1915, with advances by the Austro-Hungarian First and Fourth Armies and the Army of the Bug setting the stage for the main push by the Eleventh Army on July 16. Elsewhere Army Group Gallwitz attacked south from East Prussia, smashing the Russian First Army, while the Ninth Army and Army Detachment Woyrsch tied down the Russian Second and Fourth Armies near Warsaw. As usual, the new offensive opened with a huge artillery bombardment. Helmut Strassmann, a gung-ho junior officer, described the furious barrage unleashed by the German guns on July 13:

From 8 to 8.30 there was rapid-fire and from 8.30 to 8.41 drum-fire – the quickest of all. During these twelve minutes there fell into the Russian trenches, on a breadth of about 200 yards, about 10 shells per second. The earth groaned. Our chaps were keen as mustard, and our blessed guns simply rushed them along… When our bayonets began to get to work the enemy surrendered or bolted. Very few got away, for we were so near that every bullet reached its mark… The Company shot down quite 50 men and took 86 prisoners. Our own casualties were 3 killed and 11 wounded. One of our best men fell close to me during the attack, in the very act of shouting “hurrah”. He was shot through the head, so had a lucky death, being killed instantly.

After heavy fighting, by July 19 Mackensen’s main force had advanced up to seven miles along a front stretching 20 miles west and south of Lublin. A Russian soldier, Vasily Mishnin, described the chaotic evacuation of Makov, a village west of Lublin on July 16, 1915:

It is raining heavily. Shells are already exploding nearby. Refugees are walking and driving from all directions. We are ordered to pull out of Makov immediately… The battle is raging, everything is shaking. In Makov there is a crush of people, an endless procession of carts, no way to get out of here fast. Screaming, noise and crying, everything is confused. We are supposed to be retreating, but in two hours we only make it down one street… Everyone is desperate to avoid being taken prisoner by the Germans.

Meanwhile to the east the Army of the Bug and the Austro-Hungarian First Army had established bridgeheads across the River Bug, clearing the way for further advances towards Chelm, another key transportation junction on the way to the main objective of Brest-Litovsk (below, a Russian hospital train).

The Central Powers’ advance slowed somewhat in the face of fierce Russian resistance beginning July 20, but it still posed a clear threat to the rest of the Russian forces to the west, prompting the Russian commander on the northwestern front, Mikhail Alekseyev, to order the evacuation of Warsaw on July 22. This was the first step towards the final Russian withdrawal from all of Poland, leaving thousands of square miles of scorched earth in its wake.

Indeed, the fighting inflicted a heavy toll on the region’s inhabitants, as hundreds of thousands of Polish peasants abandoned their homes to flee with the retreating Russian armies into what are today Ukraine and Belarus. Ironically the German advance also destroyed the livelihoods of German settlers who had lived throughout the region for centuries. Richert recalled the scene in one small settlement:

We came to a village, half of which had been set on fire by the German artillery. The inhabitants were standing around bemoaning the loss of their burnt out homes, from which smoke was still rising. Most of the inhabitants of the village were German settlers. A woman who was standing by her burnt out house told us that her house had already been burnt out the previous autumn when the Russians advanced. They had rebuilt it in the spring, and now she was homeless again.

Not everyone fled: some Polish peasants decided to stay behind and take their chances with the conquering Germans and Austrians, as Richert discovered when he wandered into a peasant hut he believed to be empty, only to find a terrified woman with her child. Luckily for her, he was a co-religionist – and happily for him, she had food to share:

When she saw me, she fell to her knees from fear and held her child towards me. She said something in her language – probably that I should spare her for the sake of her child. In order to calm her down I gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder, stroked her child and made a sign of the cross to it, so that she should see that I too was a Catholic, like herself. Then I pointed at my gun and then at her and shook my head to show her that I would not do anything. How happy that made her! She told me a great deal, but I did not understand a word of it… She gave us boiled milk, butter and bread.

However most interactions probably weren’t quite so friendly for one thing the Germans and Austrians, while still hoping to woo the Poles to their side, couldn’t conceal their racist disdain for “backwards” Slavs. Helena Jablonska, a Polish woman living in Przemyśl, complained in her diary:

It pains me to hear the Germans bad-mouth Galicia. Today I overheard two lieutenants asking “Why on earth should the sons of Germany spill blood to defend this swinish country?”… I had managed to keep quiet up till then, but this was really too much for me. I told them they were forgetting that it was to defend their Berlin from a Russian onslaught that we had been made to sacrifice Lwow [Lemberg] and devastate Galicia. I said that, in fact, we had deserved their help much sooner than it came.

Although few Poles welcomed the occupiers with open arms, as Jablonska’s comment indicates they weren’t necessarily afraid of arbitrary acts of violence either, in marked contrast to the capricious barbarity of Nazi German troops in the Second World War. In fact most rank and file soldiers were probably too tired and hungry to expend much energy on oppressing the locals, beyond requisitioning any food they might have. By mid-July some German troops had marched over 200 miles in the previous two months, and the advance was set to continue unabated through the hot Eastern European summer. Richert remembered:

We marched on. As a result of the intense heat, we suffered greatly from thirst. As a result of the dry weather, there was a great deal of dust on the poorly made-up roads and tracks the marching columns of men stirred it up so much that we were advancing in a real cloud of dust. The dust landed on your uniform and pack, and worked its way into your nose, eyes, and ears. As most of us were unshaven, the dust gathered in our beards, and the sweat ran down continuously, forming streams in the dust-covered faces. On marches like this, the soldiers looked really disgusting.

While many Polish peasants fled voluntarily, that wasn’t the case for hundreds of thousands of Jews, as the Russians – angered by the fact that the Jews obviously preferred German rule and collaborated with the German military – continued their policy of forcible mass deportations into the Russian interior (below, Polish Jewish deportees). Ruth Pierce, a young American woman living in Kiev, witnessed the arrival of Galician Jews who were confined to camps before being shipped onwards to Siberia:

And down the hill was passing a stream of people, guarded on either side by soldiers with bayonets… They were Jews, waxen-faced, their thin bodies bent with fatigue. Some had taken their shoes off, and limped along barefooted over the cobble-stones. Others would have fallen if their comrades had not held them up. Once or twice a man lurched out of the procession as though he was drunk or had suddenly gone blind, and a soldier cuffed him back into line again. Some of the women carried babies wrapped in their shawls. There were older children dragging at the women's skirts. The men carried bundles knotted up in their clothes. “Where are they going?”--I whispered to Marie. “To the Detention Camp here. They come from Galicia, and Kiev is one of the stopping-places on their way to Siberia.”

Italy Defeated at First Battle of the Isonzo

As the Central Powers pushed deeper into Russian territory on the Eastern Front, to the south the Allies suffered another defeat on the Italian front, where chief of the general staff Luigi Cadorna flung his armies against well-entrenched Austrian defenders at the First Battle of the Isonzo, with predictable results. As its name indicates this was just the first of twelve battles along the Isonzo River, most employing massed infantry charges that produced huge casualties for minimal gains (below, the Isonzo River valley today).

After Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915, the Austrians immediately withdrew to strong defensive positions built along foothills and mountainsides over the preceding months in expectation of an Italian attack, giving up a small amount of low-lying territory in return for a huge tactical advantage. Over the following weeks four Italian armies crept forward cautiously until they reached the Austrian defenses, in what became known – rather inaccurately – as the “Primo Sbalzo” or “first leap” (it was less of a leap and more of a crawl). The advance then halted until the disorganized Italians could complete their mobilization and bring up artillery and shells. Finally, by June 23, 1915, everything was ready, more or less, for the first major Italian offensive.

The main Italian war aim was capturing the port city of Trieste, with its mostly Italian population, and the first attack was accordingly carried out by the Italian Second and Third Armies, under General Frugoni and the Duke of Aosta, respectively, against the Austro-Hungarian Fifth Army under Svetozar Boroević von Bojna, entrenched on the high ground above the Isonzo River. The attack would focus on the defensive positions above Tolmein (Tolmino in Italian, today Tolmin in Slovenia) and Gorizia, now part of Italy as a result much of the fighting would take place in rough, craggy terrain at elevations over 2,000 feet.

Cadorna doesn’t seem to have benefited much from the lessons learned by Allied generals at painful cost over almost a year of war on the Western Front, but he at least understood the value of prolonged artillery bombardments to soften up the enemy’s defenses. Thus the opening week of the First Battle of the Isonzo was devoted to heavy shelling, which however failed to break up the massive barbed wire entanglements in front of the Austro-Hungarian trenches, sometimes literally dozens of meters wide. Conditions were made worse be heavy rains that turned hillsides into slippery cascades of mud, which somehow had to be scaled beneath Habsburg machine gun and rifle fire.

The big infantry charge sent 15 Italian divisions forward along a 21-mile front on June 30, but despite a numerical advantage of almost two-to-one the assault failed almost completely, gaining a single bridgehead across the Isonzo through a huge expenditure of blood and ammunition (above, crossing the Isonzo below, Italian wounded).

On July 2 the Italians launched another attack towards the Carso (Karst) Plateau, a strategic elevated plain riddled with pits and caves, and managed to capture Mount San Michele on the western edge of the plateau. A third attack against the Doberdò Plateau advanced less than a mile elsewhere the Italians were pushed out of their hard-won positions in the hills above Gorizia. By July 7, 1915, it was all over the Italians had suffered 15,000 casualties, compared to 10,000 for the Austro-Hungarians, for negligible gains. With every hour that passed the Habsburg defenders were receiving reinforcements and digging in deeper (below, Austrian troops in the Isonzo).

However none of this deterred Cadorna from launching another offensive, again relying on overwhelming numerical superiority and using substantially similar tactics, in the Second Battle of the Isonzo from July 18-August 3, 1915. The Italians scored some modest successes in this battle, but as so often in the First World War it proved a Pyrrhic victory, costing 42,000 Italian casualties.

Battle of Lemberg, 20-22 June 1915 - History

The interactive parts of this resource no longer work, but it has been archived so you can continue using the rest of it.

The Eastern Front, 1914-17

Russia's decision to embark prematurely on military operations on the Eastern Front in mid-August 1914 bought its Western allies welcome breathing space in Belgium and France. But it produced mixed results on the battlefield.


In Eastern Prussia, the northern Russian armies were crushed by German forces at the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in late August and early September. Tannenberg, in particular, became an early symbol of Great War carnage: almost 70,000 Russian soldiers were killed and wounded during the five days of fighting, with a further 100,000 taken prisoner.

Further south, in the Habsburg province of Galicia, Russian forces fared much better, winning an important victory at the Battle of Lemberg (23 August-1 September 1914) and forcing Germany to send reinforcements to support its stumbling Austrian ally.

A war of movement

By late 1914, the war on the Western Front had settled into a grinding pattern of trench warfare. In the East, where fighting took place on a much longer front line, a war of movement continued throughout 1915. On 22 March, the Russians captured the Habsburg garrison of Przemysl, resulting in the surrender of 120,000 soldiers and forcing the Germans to bail out the Habsburg army again.

German troops under General Mackensen launched a counter-offensive at the nearby Galician towns of Gorlice and Tarnow in May. This local attack triggered the collapse of the entire southern flank of the Russian line. Przemysl was retaken in early June, by which time hundreds of thousands of Russian troops had been killed, wounded or captured. Further north, German troops also forced back their Russian counterparts, seizing Warsaw in early August, Brest-Litovsk on 25 August and Vilna on 19 September.

The heavy losses sustained in this 'great retreat' destroyed the pre-war Russian army, forcing military commanders to rely more heavily on inexperienced and uncommitted conscripts. On 22 August,Tsar Nicholas II, a man with little military experience and few leadership skills, appointed himself the new supreme commander of the Russian army in place of his uncle, the Grand Duke Nicholas.

Soldiers and civilians
in Galicia (150k)

Galicia: despatch on fighting (273k)

Fall of Przemysl: despatch and photographs

The Brusilov offensive

In 1916 Germany turned its military focus westwards, pouring men and resources into the Verdun and Somme campaigns. The Habsburg army, too, was distracted from the conflict with Russia by war with Italy in the south. Indeed, it was in response to Italian pleas for help that Russian forces under General Aleksei Brusilov launched a new attack on the southern part of the Eastern Front in June. Thanks to a combination of tactical innovation and Austro-Hungarian incompetence, the surprise 'Brusilov offensive' was the most successful Russian operation of the entire war.

On reaching the edge of the Carpathians in mid-August 1916, however, Brusilov's exhausted troops ran out of steam. German reinforcements from the Western Front provided a sterner test than their demoralised and under-manned Austro-Hungarian counterparts.

Encouraged by the Russian successes, Romania declared war on the Central Powers in late August. But German forces under Mackensen and Falkenhayn quickly routed its under-prepared army. Bucharest was occupied on 6 December 1916, leaving Germany in control of Romania's valuable oil and grain resources.

Russia exits the war

After the abdication of Nicholas II in March 1917, the new Provisional Government pledged to continue the Russian war effort. But the Russian army was no longer a viable fighting force. Two million men deserted in March and April. Bolshevik agitators - including Lenin, who had returned to Russia from exile on 3 April - spread effective anti-war propaganda. A major new Russian offensive in Galicia in July 1917 failed, and by September, the northern Russian army had collapsed.

After the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917, Russia's continued participation in the First World War was doomed. An armistice signed by Germany and Soviet Russia on 15 December 1917 ended hostilities on the Eastern Front. In March 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk - a 'shameful peace' in the eyes of many Russian patriots - confirmed the extent of the German victory in the East.

It was a victory achieved despite the weaknesses of the Habsburg army and despite the fact that the German military leadership generally prioritised men and resources for the Western Front. In the spring of 1918, the German army was finally free to concentrate its efforts solely on defeating Russia's former allies, Britain and France.

By the end of the year, however, none of the three great empires that had fought the war on the Eastern Front - German, Habsburg and Russian - existed any longer. The bloody struggle in the East played a decisive role in this dramatic reshaping of the European political map.

Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

Abolition of slavery announced in Texas on "Juneteenth"

A mix of June and 19th, Juneteenth has become a day to commemorate the end of slavery in America. Despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863, a lack of Union troops in the rebel state of Texas made the order difficult to enforce. 

Some historians blame the lapse in time on poor communication in that era, while others believe Texan slave-owners purposely withheld the information.

Upon arrival and leading the Union soldiers, Major Gen. Gordon Granger announced General Order No. 3: "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

On that day, 250,000 enslaved people were freed, and despite the message to stay and work for their owners, many left the state immediately and headed north or to nearby states in search of family members who had been taken to other regions during slavery.

For many African Americans, June 19 is considered an independence day. Before 2021, nearly all 50 states recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday. On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed legislation officially declaring it a federal holiday. 

Combat chronicle [ edit | edit source ]

After organizing and training in the Champagne region of France, the division was transported to the Eastern Front. It participated in the Gorlice-Tarnów Offensive of 1915, and the Battle of Lemberg. At the end of June 1915, the division was transported back to the Western Front. Ώ]

The division saw action from September through November 1915 in the Second Battle of Champagne. After a period in the trenchlines and then rest in the army reserve, in May 1915, the division entered the Battle of Verdun, fighting in the struggle for the Dead Man's Hill. The division joined the Battle of the Somme at the end of August 1916. In October 1916, the division received the 47th Ersatz Infantry Brigade as reinforcement, and returned to the final phase of the Battle of the Somme in November. The 47th Ersatz Infantry Brigade was transferred from the division in January 1917. The division remained in positional warfare along the Somme and in Flanders in early 1917. It faced the British offensive at Arras in April and May, and then after more time in the trenchlines, it returned to Verdun in August. The division remained at Verdun into early 1918, and then returned to the Flanders region. It ended the war in battle before the Antwerp-Maas defensive line. Ώ]

Allied intelligence rated the division as a second class division, mainly due to the heavy fighting it had seen and the losses it had taken. ΐ]

Battle of Lemberg, 20-22 June 1915 - History

1917 : The Rage of Men

January 19, 1917 - The British intercept a telegram sent by Alfred Zimmermann in the German Foreign Office to the German embassies in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City. Its message outlines plans for an alliance between Germany and Mexico against the United States. According to the scheme, Germany would provide tactical support while Mexico would benefit by expanding into the American Southwest, retrieving territories that had once been part of Mexico. The Zimmermann telegram is passed along by the British to the Americans and is then made public, causing an outcry from interventionists in the U.S., such as former president Teddy Roosevelt, who favor American military involvement in the war.

February 1, 1917 - The Germans resume unrestricted submarine warfare around the British Isles with the goal of knocking Britain out of the war by cutting off all imports to starve the British people into submission.

February 3, 1917 - The United States severs diplomatic ties with Germany after a U-Boat sinks the American grain ship Housatonic. Seven more American ships are sunk in February and March as the Germans sink 500 ships in just sixty days.

February 25, 1917 - In the Middle East, newly reinforced and replenished British troops retake Kut al-Amara in Mesopotamia from outnumbered Turks. The British then continue their advance and capture Baghdad, followed by Ramadi and Tikrit.

Russian Revolution

March 8, 1917 - A mass protest by Russian civilians in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) erupts into a revolution against Czar Nicholas II and the war. Within days, Russian soldiers mutiny and join the revolution.

March 15, 1917 - The 300-year-old Romanov dynasty in Russia ends upon the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. In his place, a new democratically minded Provisional Government is established. Great Britain, France, the United States, and Italy rush to recognize the new government in the hope Russia will stay in the war and maintain its huge presence on the Eastern Front.

March 15, 1917 - Germans along the central portion of the Western Front in France begin a strategic withdrawal to the new Siegfried Line (called the Hindenburg Line by the Allies) which shortens the overall Front by 25 miles by eliminating an unneeded bulge. During the three-week long withdrawal, the Germans conduct a scorched earth policy, destroying everything of value.

April 1917 - British combat pilots on the Western Front suffer a 50 percent casualty rate during Bloody April as the Germans shoot down 150 fighter planes. The average life expectancy of an Allied fighter pilot is now three weeks, resulting from aerial dogfights and accidents.

America Enters

April 2, 1917 - President Woodrow Wilson appears before the U.S. Congress and gives a speech saying "the world must be made safe for democracy" then asks the Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.

April 6, 1917 - The United States of America declares war on Germany.

April 9, 1917 - The British Army has one of its most productive days of the war as 3rd Army, supported by Canadian and Australian troops, makes rapid advances north of the Hindenburg Line at Arras and Vimy on the Western Front. The expansive first-day achievement in snowy weather includes a 3.5 mile territorial gain and the capture of Vimy Ridge by Canadians. However, similar to past offensives, the inability to capitalize on initial successes and maintain momentum gives the Germans an opportunity to regroup and further gains are thwarted. The British suffer 150,000 casualties during the offensive, while the Germans suffer 100,000.

Nivelle Offensive

April 16, 1917 - The French 5th and 6th Armies attack along a 25-mile front south of the Hindenburg Line. The new offensive comes amid promises of a major breakthrough within 24-hours by the new French Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle, who planned the operation. Nivelle once again utilizes his creeping barrage tactic in which his armies advance in stages closely behind successive waves of artillery fire. However, this time it is poorly coordinated and the troops fall far behind. The Germans also benefit from good intelligence and aerial reconnaissance and are mostly aware of the French plan. Nivelle's offensive collapses within days with over 100,000 casualties. French President Poincaré personally intervenes and Nivelle is relieved of his command. He is replaced as Commander-in-Chief by General Henri Petain, who must deal with a French Army that is now showing signs of mutiny.

April 16, 1917 - Political agitator Vladimir Lenin arrives back in Russia, following 12 years of exile in Switzerland. Special train transportation for his return was provided by the Germans in the hope that anti-war Lenin and his radical Bolshevik Party will disrupt Russia's new Provisional Government. Lenin joins other Bolsheviks in Petrograd who have already returned from exile including Joseph Stalin.

May 18, 1917 - The Selective Service Act is passed by the U.S. Congress, authorizing a draft. The small U.S. Army, presently consisting of 145,000 men, will be enlarged to 4,000,000 via the draft.

May 19, 1917 - The Provisional Government of Russia announces it will stay in the war. A large offensive for the Eastern Front is then planned by Alexander Kerensky, the new Minister of War. However, Russian soldiers and peasants are now flocking to Lenin's Bolshevik Party which opposes the war and the Provisional Government.

French Mutiny

May 27-June 1, 1917 - The mutinous atmosphere in the French Army erupts into open insubordination as soldiers refuse orders to advance. More than half of the French divisions on the Western Front experience some degree of disruption by disgruntled soldiers, angry over the unending battles of attrition and appalling living conditions in the muddy, rat and lice-infested trenches. The new Commander-in-Chief, Henri Petain, cracks down on the mutiny by ordering mass arrests, followed by several firing squad executions that serve as a warning. Petain then suspends all French offensives and visits the troops to personally promise an improvement of the whole situation. With the French Army in disarray the main burden on the Western Front falls squarely upon the British.

June 7, 1917 - A tremendous underground explosion collapses the German-held Messines Ridge south of Ypres in Belgium. Upon detonation, 10,000 Germans stationed on the ridge vanish instantly. The British then storm the ridge forcing the surviving Germans to withdraw to a new defensive position further eastward. The 250-foot-high ridge had given the Germans a commanding defensive position. British, Australian and Canadian tunnelers had worked for a year to dig mines and place 600 tons of explosives.

June 13, 1917 - London suffers its highest civilian casualties of the war as German airplanes bomb the city, killing 158 persons and wounding 425. The British react to the new bombing campaign by forming home defense fighter squadrons and later conduct retaliatory bombing raids against Germany by British planes based in France.

June 25, 1917 - The first American troops land in France.

July 1, 1917 - Russian troops begin the Kerensky Offensive attempting to recapture the city of Lemberg (Lvov) on the Eastern Front. The Germans are lying in wait, fully aware of the battle plans which have been leaked to them. The Russians attack along a 40-mile front but suffer from a jumble of tactical problems including a lack of artillery coordination, poor troop placement, and serious disunity within the ranks reflecting the divisive political situation back home. The whole offensive disintegrates within five days. Sensing they might break the Russian Army, the Germans launch a furious counter-offensive and watch as Russian soldiers run away.

July 2, 1917 - Greece declares war on the Central Powers, following the abdication of pro-German King Constantine who is replaced by a pro-Allied administration led by Prime Minister Venizelos. Greek soldiers are now added to the Allied ranks.

Third Battle of Ypres
July 31-November 6, 1917

July 31, 1917 - The British attempt once more to break through the German lines, this time by attacking positions east of Ypres, Belgium. However, by now the Germans have vastly improved their trench defenses including well-positioned artillery. Although the British 5th Army succeeds in securing forward trench positions, further progress is halted by heavy artillery barrages from the German 4th Army and rainy weather.

August 10, 1917 - The British resume their attack at Ypres, focusing on German artillery positions around Gheluvelt. The attack produces few gains as the Germans effectively bombard and then counter-attack. Six days later, the British try again, with similar results. The entire Ypres offensive then grinds to a halt as British Army Commander Douglas Haig ponders his strategy.

September 1, 1917 - On the Eastern Front, the final Russian battle in the war begins as the Germans attack toward Riga. The German 8th Army utilizes new storm troop tactics devised by General Oskar von Hutier. Bypassing any strong points as they move forward, storm troop battalions armed with light machine-guns, grenades and flame throwers focus on quickly infiltrating the rear areas to disrupt communications and take out artillery. The Russian 12th Army, under General Kornilov, is unable to hold itself together amid the storm troop attacks and abandons Riga, then begins a rapid retreat along the Dvina River, pursued by the Germans.

September 20, 1917 - A revised British strategy begins at Ypres designed to wear down the Germans. It features a series of intensive, narrowly focused artillery and troop attacks with limited objectives, to be launched every six days. The first such attack, along the Menin Road toward Gheluvelt, produces a gain of about 1,000 yards with 22,000 British and Australian casualties. Subsequent attacks yield similar results.

October 12, 1917 - The Ypres offensive culminates around the village of Passchendaele as Australian and New Zealand troops die by the thousands while attempting to press forward across a battlefield of liquid mud, advancing just 100 yards. Steady October rains create a slippery quagmire in which wounded soldiers routinely drown in mud-filled shell craters.

Attack at Caporetto

October 24, 1917 - In northern Italy, a rout of the Italian Army begins as 35 German and Austrian divisions cross the Isonzo River into Italy at Caporetto and then rapidly push 41 Italian divisions 60 miles southward. By now, the Italians have been worn down from years of costly but inconclusive battles along the Isonzo and in the Trentino, amid a perceived lack of Allied support. Nearly 300,000 Italians surrender as the Austro-Germans advance, while some 400,000 desert. The Austro-Germans halt at the Piave River north of Venice only due to supply lines which have become stretched to the limit.

October 26, 1917 - At Ypres, a second attempt is made but fails to capture the village of Passchendaele, with Canadian troops participating this time. Four days later, the Allies attack again and edge closer as the Germans slowly begin pulling out.

October 31, 1917 - In the Middle East, the British led by General Edmund Allenby begin an attack against Turkish defensive lines stretching between Gaza and Beersheba in southern Palestine. The initial attack on Beersheba surprises the Turks and they pull troops away from Gaza which the British attack secondly. The Turks then retreat northward toward Jerusalem with the Allies in pursuit. Aiding the Allies, are a group of Arab fighters led by T. E. Lawrence, an Arab speaking English archeologist, later known as Lawrence of Arabia. He is instrumental in encouraging Arab opposition to the Turks and in disrupting their railroad and communication system.

November 6, 1917 - The village of Passchendaele is captured by Canadian troops. The Allied offensive then ceases, bringing the Third Battle of Ypres to an end with no significant gains amid 500,000 casualties experienced by all sides.

October Revolution

November 6-7, 1917 - In Russia, Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky overthrow the Provisional Government in what comes to be known as the October Revolution (Oct. 24-25 according to the Russian calendar). They establish a non-democratic Soviet Government based on Marxism which prohibits private enterprise and private land ownership. Lenin announces that Soviet Russia will immediately end its involvement in the war and renounces all existing treaties with the Allies.

November 11, 1917 - The German High Command, led by Erich Ludendorff, gathers at Mons, Belgium, to map out a strategy for 1918. Ludendorff bluntly states he is willing to accept a million German casualties in a daring plan to achieve victory in early 1918, before the American Army arrives in force. The goal is to drive a wedge between the British and French armies on the Western Front via a series of all-out offensives using Germany's finest divisions and intensive storm troop tactics. Once this succeeds, the plan is to first decimate the British Army to knock Britain out of the war, and then decimate the French Army, and thus secure final victory.

November 15, 1917 - Georges Clemenceau becomes France's new Prime Minister at age 76. Nicknamed "The Tiger," when asked about his agenda, he will simply answer, "I wage war."

British Tank Attack

November 20, 1917 - The first-ever mass attack by tanks occurs as the British 3rd Army rolls 381 tanks accompanied by six infantry divisions in a coordinated tank-infantry-artillery attack of German trenches near Cambrai, France, an important rail center. The attack targets a 6-mile-wide portion of the Front and by the end of the first day appears to be a spectacular success with five miles gained and two Germans divisions wrecked. The news is celebrated by the ringing of church bells in England, for the first time since 1914. However, similar to past offensives, the opportunity to exploit first-day gains is missed, followed by the arrival of heavy German reinforcements and an effective counter-attack in which the Germans take back most of the ground they lost.

December, 7, 1917 - Romania concludes an armistice with the Central Powers due to the demise of Imperial Russia, its former military ally.

December 9, 1917 - Jerusalem is captured by the British. This ends four centuries of its control by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

December 15, 1917 - Soviet Russia signs an armistice with Germany. With Russia's departure from the Eastern Front, forty-four German divisions become available to be redeployed to the Western Front in time for Ludendorff's Spring Offensive.

Russian Czar in Captivity

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WWI Centennial: New Allied Attack at Gallipoli

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 185th installment in the series.

June 4, 1915: New Allied Attack at Gallipoli

Like many of the other great battles of the First World War, Gallipoli was actually a series of clashes, any of which would have qualified as a huge battle by itself in a previous era. After the first wave of amphibious landings failed to conquer the Gallipoli Peninsula in late April 1915, the Allies mounted new attacks but were frustrated by Turkish defenses around the village of Krithia on April 28 and again on May 6-8. On the night of May 18-19 the Turks launched a huge assault against the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) trenches on the peninsula’s western shore, but this also failed at great cost.

After these initial failures the commanders on the scene – Sir Ian Hamilton, in charge of the Allied Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, and Liman von Sanders, the German general commanding the Turkish Fifth Army – issued desperate demands for reinforcements, which they duly received. By the end of May there were ten Turkish divisions on the peninsula (many badly depleted) numbering 120,000 men, while the Allies had the equivalent of around seven divisions plus a brigade, including British, Indian, ANZAC and French troops for a total 150,000 men.

Although fewer in numbers the Turks benefited from the same tactical advantage enjoyed by entrenched defenders on every front of the Great War, with barbed wire entanglements, machine guns, and massed rifle fire inflicting disproportionate casualties on Allied attackers. Even worse for the Allies, the ANZAC units suffered from a serious artillery shortage, both in guns and ammunition, while naval support was curtailed when the Royal Navy withdrew its battleships to its base at the nearby island of Mudros following the sinking of HMS Triumph and Majestic in late May – so they could no longer count on bombardments from the sea to help make up for the lack of artillery on land.

“No Reaction, No Feelings At All”

Nonetheless the Allies were determined to keep pushing forward, and in particular to capture a hill called Achi Baba behind the village of Krithia, which gave the Turks a vantage point to direct relentless shelling on to the Allied camp. The result was yet another frontal attack against the Turkish positions on June 4, 1915, in what became known as the “Third Battle of Krithia.”

On the Allied side the attack would pit an Indian Infantry Brigade, the 88 th Brigade, the 42 nd Division, a Naval Brigade from the Naval Division (a force of naval infantry) and two divisions of the French Corps Expeditionnaire d'Orient under Henri Gouraud, altogether numbering 34,000 men, against 18,600 Turkish defenders from the Ottoman 9 th and 12 th Divisions. With a local advantage of almost two to one, the Allies managed to advance up to a kilometer in places and by some accounts came close to a breakthrough – but once again victory proved elusive.

Due to continuing shell shortages for British artillery – the French 75mm guns were well supplied – the attack was preceded at 11am June 4 by a brief bombardment using shrapnel shells rather than high explosives, which (like the recent disastrous attack on Aubers Ridge) failed to cut the barbed wire in front of the Turkish trenches in many places (above, a British gun in action). In a bit of subterfuge the Allied bombardment paused to lure the Turks back to their trenches in expectation of an imminent infantry assault, then resumed a few minutes later, causing considerable casualties.

However the Turkish defenses remained unbroken and the first Allied infantry assault produced wildly uneven results, as the British 42 nd Division punched a hole in the Turkish 9 th Division to gain around a kilometer, while Allied attacks on the flanks mostly failed to advance (top, the King's Own Scottish Borderers go over the top above, British infantry charge). A British soldier, George Peake, remembered the fight in the center:

And over the top we went at the Turks… We all shouted as we went over… I don’t know how many fell, but we kept on running… You’ve no reaction, no feelings at all except to go for him. I wouldn’t say it was fright or anything like that – it’s either you or him. Really you can’t tell what your feelings are like… I didn’t kill anyone with a bayonet. Before I got to them, I pressed the trigger and got a bullet into them. That stopped them.

Fighting was particularly intense on the left flank, where Indian and British troops faced the daunting task of advancing up Gully Ravine, a valley containing a dry riverbed leading up to the Turkish trenches (below). Here the rough terrain caused some units to lose touch with their neighbors, opening those in the lead to flank fire from the Turks. Oswin Creighton, a chaplain with the British 29 th Division, joined a field ambulance following the advancing infantry up the gulley:

The gully was in a perfect turmoil, of course, guns going off on all sides, and the crack of the bullets tremendously loud. They swept down the gully, and one or two men were hit. I cannot imagine anything much more blood-curdling than to go up the gully for the first time while a fierce battle is raging. You cannot see a gun anywhere, or know where the noise is coming from. At the head of the gully you simply go up the side right into the trenches.

On the right flank the two French divisions advanced several hundred meters early in the attack but were later forced back. This started a chain reaction, as the French retreat left the right flank of the British Naval Brigade exposed, forcing them to retreat, which in turn left the right flank of the 42 nd Division exposed, eventually forcing it to the withdraw as well.

Unsurprisingly losses were heavy along the entire front, but especially on the left flank, where some Indian and British regiments advancing up Gully Ravine were almost completely wiped out. Sir Compton Mackenzie, an observer with the 29 th Division, recorded the results of a gallant, courageous, but ultimately futile charge:

That morning the Fourteenth (King George’s Own) Sikhs moved out to the attack with fifteen British officers, fourteen Indian officers and five hundred and fourteen men. On the morning after, three British officers, three Indian officers, and one hundred and thirty-four men were left. No ground was given: no man turned his back: no man lingered on the way. The trenches of the enemy that ran down into the ravine were choked with the bodies of Turks and Sikhs… On the slope beyond, the bodies of those tall and grave warriors, all face downward where they fell indomitably advancing, lay thickly among the stunted aromatic scrub.

Creighton recorded similar losses for another regiment: “They had lost five of the six remaining officers, all the ten officers who had recently joined them, and somewhere about 200 of the remaining men. Of the original regiment, including transport, stretcher-bearers, etc., 140 were left.” The next day Creighton noted that hundreds of wounded men were left in no-man’s-land, dying slowly within sight of their comrades:

The whole situation was terrible – no advance, and nothing but casualties, and the worst was that the wounded had not been got back, but lay between ours and the Turks’ firing line. It was impossible to get at some of them. The men said they could see them move. The firing went on without ceasing… I buried eighteen of them in one grave while I was there… The majority of the bodies are still lying out there. In the gully I buried four more who had died of wounds.

The Turks had also suffered very heavy casualties and abandoned their frontline trenches in the center, where the 42 nd Division advanced almost half the distance towards Krithia. Later this led some supporters of Sir Ian Hamilton to argue that victory was within reach, if only the Allies had more troops and artillery to throw at the overstretched Turks. But there were no Allied reserves, while the Turks were able to hurry more reinforcements, including the 5 th and 11 th Divisions, the front to contain any Allied breakthrough and then to mount a counterattack.

In a stunning reversal, on June 6 the Turks unleashed an onslaught against the Allied left wing that almost succeeded in breaking through the British lines and sent the defenders reeling back, as whole units retreated despite orders to hold their positions. Disaster was only narrowly averted by a British officer who shot four British soldiers leading this unauthorized retreat – a severe but legal measure (in fact the officer later received the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration in the British Army). The Allies then managed to establish a new defensive line just a few hundred yards in front of their original starting position (below, Gurkhas take up position in Gully Ravine on June 8, 1915).

Routine Horror

As on other fronts of the Great War, at Gallipoli fighting continued at a lower intensity between major battles, with shelling, snipers, grenades, and mines producing a steady stream of killed and wounded on both sides. Meanwhile no-man’s-land, only recently cleared of corpses during the truce on May 24, was once again littered with bodies from the Third Battle of Krithia as well as occasional trench raids. George Peake, the British soldier, recalled:

The whole place was full of dead, unburied. In one trench I was lying down on the firing step, and I’d have to peep up every now and again. There were three Turks buried in the parapet with their legs sticking out, and I had to get hold of their legs to pull myself up just to peer over… They were everywhere, absolutely everywhere, and the bluebottles [flies] were feeding on them.

The scenes were especially shocking for newly arrived troops sent from Britain to bolster the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, including the 52 nd Division, which landed at Gallipoli in June. However the newcomers soon grew used to death as part of the daily routine, or at least tried to affect the same blasé indifference as hardened veterans. One green recruit, Leonard Thompson, recalled his first encounter with dead bodies shortly after disembarking, when the men from his unit looked under a large piece of canvas doubling as a makeshift morgue, followed by their introduction to burial duty:

It was full of corpses. Dead Englishmen, lines and lines of them, and with their eyes wide open. We all stopped talking. I’d never seen a dead man before and here I was looking at two or three hundred of them. It was our first fear. Nobody had mentioned this. I was very shocked… We set to work to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trench but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly made bed. Hands were the worst: they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging – even waving! There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying “Good morning”, in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath.

Natural Adversaries

Soldiers also had to contend with a whole array of environmental privations, including vermin and overpowering heat. Body lice in particular were ubiquitous in Gallipoli as elsewhere in the war zone, inflicting endless torment from itching and infected rashes caused by scratching, while also raising the specter of diseases like typhus – not to mention the sheer embarrassment felt by many of the afflicted. The “cooties” tended to congregate and reproduce in the seams of their shirts, pants and underwear, and soldiers tried to drown them by soaking their clothing in seawater or scouring their bodies and picking through their clothing to kill them by hand (below). Neither strategy proved particularly effective in the long term, and most men resigned themselves to suffering from the lice until they could be deloused before going on leave.

During the summer months Gallipoli was also covered with swarms of flies, which fed on dead bodies and made life unbearable for the living. Another British chaplain, William Ewing, recalled trying to do basic tasks surrounded by flies, as well as the inescapable dust:

The table was black with them. They came down upon the food likes hives of bees. When you ventured to take a helping, they rose with an angry buzz, and violently contested the passage of each bite to your mouth… They explored your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. If you tried to write, they crawled over the paper, and tickled your fingers till you could hardly hold the pen. Meantime you breathed dust, and swallowed dust, and your teeth gritted upon dust in your food.

Another natural adversary was the heat, with temperatures sometimes exceeding 100° Fahrenheit. According to some accounts many soldiers coped by simply disrobing and spending the hottest parts of the day nearly – or even entirely – naked. On June 11, 1915, British officer Aubrey Herbert noted: “The Australians and New Zealanders have given up wearing clothes. They lie about and bathe and become darker than Indians.”

To escape the heat and insects soldiers also spent a great deal of time bathing and swimming in the sea (already a favorite activity for many Australian soldiers). However this was risky too, as the beaches were exposed to Turkish artillery fire in many places. Mackenzie described the odd, cosmopolitan scene he encountered walking along the supply road behind the beach at Cape Hellas:

The sea was thronged with bathers in spite of the shrapnel which was continually bursting over them… The road itself was thronged with promenaders of every kind – tall grave Sikhs, charming dapper little Gurkhas, button-headed Egyptians, Zionist muleteers, Greek hawkers, Scottish Borderers, Irish Fusiliers, Welshmen… and as many different types besides… The dazzle of the water was blinding. Occasionally stretcher bearers would pass with a man who had been hit, as you may see stretcher bearers jostle through the crowds at Margate [an English seaside resort] with a woman who has fainted on a torrid August bank holiday.

Unable to endure the heat and insects any more than their men, officers set aside their dignity and joined the naked bathers, leading to some amusing scenes, especially among the more egalitarian Australians and New Zealanders (below, ANZAC commander General William Birdwood). Herbert was present when a portly ANZAC officer fleeing biting flies disrobed and waded in amongst the rank and file:

Instantly he received a hearty blow upon his tender, red and white shoulder and a cordial greeting from some democrat of Sydney or Wellington: “Old man, you’ve been up among the biscuits!” He drew himself up to rebuke this presumption, then dived for the sea, for, as he said, “What’s the good of telling one naked man to salute another naked man, especially when neither have got their caps?

British Advance in Mesopotamia

As the fighting ground to a stalemate in Gallipoli, 1700 miles to the east the Anglo-Indian force dispatched by the Government of British India appeared to be making rapid progress in its conquest of Mesopotamia (now Iraq) thanks to the ambition of Mesopotamian theatre commander-in-chief Sir John Nixon and the boldness of Major General Sir Charles Townshend – but events would later reveal their daring was really just sheer recklessness.

Having foiled the Turkish attempt to recapture Basra at the Battle of Shaiba in April, Nixon ordered Townshend, commanding the Indian 6 th (Poona) Division, to begin advancing up the Tigris River after the retreating Turks – in the middle of flood season. Scraping together a ragtag force of old steamboats, barges and local Arab river craft, Townshend first attacked Turkish outposts north of Qurna, where rising floodwaters had isolated the Turkish defensive positions on small islands. One anonymous British junior officer remembered the odd battle that resulted on May 31, 1915: “Was there ever such astonishing warfare – attacking trenches in boats!”

After driving the Turks out of Qurna, Townshend led his motley flotilla upriver almost unopposed, taking control of town after town in the midst of seasonal floods – a slightly absurd episode with carefree holiday overtones, later remembered as “Townshend’s Regatta.” Believing the Turks were in full flight, and impatient with the slow pace of his supporting infantry, Townshend now took a small force of around 100 men and raced ahead in his fastest boat, the HMS Espeigle (above).

On June 3, 1915 Townshend’s tiny crew of sailors and soldiers sailed into the strategic town of Amara and, incredibly, convinced the garrison of 2,000 Turkish soldiers to surrender by claiming that the larger infantry force was about to arrive (in fact it was over two days’ march away). Townshend’s capture of Amara was one of the great bluffs of the First World War – but eventually his luck was going to run out.

Meanwhile Anglo-Indian troops in Mesopotamia had to endure even worse conditions than their comrades in Gallipoli. As the Mesopotamian summer drew near temperatures rose to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade by midday, so the advancing troops could only march in the early morning end evening hours, sheltering in tents for most of the daytime. As at Gallipoli, some men tried to deal with the stifling heat by simply giving up wearing clothing altogether. Edmund Candler, a British war correspondent, recorded an officer’s account of the approach to Ahvaz in southwest Persia (Iran) in late May 1915:

From eight to eight it was hell… You lay under your single fly [mosquito net] naked. You soaked your handkerchief in water and put it on your head. But it was dry in five minutes. The more you drank the more you wanted to drink. We were on the edge of the marsh all the way. We used to sit in it. The water was as warm as soup and about the same colour. It was very brackish, and got salter and salter every day. One’s body became impregnated with salt. You could scrape it off your arms, and the dried sweat on your shirt was as white as snow.

The same anonymous British officer cited above described the daily routine in Ahvaz:

From 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. it was hot. From 9 a.m. to 12 damned hot. From 12 to 5.30 much too damned hot. From 5.30 to 6 p.m. one could venture out… In the afternoon, from 3.30 to 5.30, there was usually a hot dry wind and a sandstorm blowing, and once could not see more than five yards… the only thing to do was to lie on one’s bed and drink lots of water and sweat.

Again like Gallipoli, immersion was a popular method for escaping both heat and biting insects, especially sandflies, although here as well there were risks associated with the water, as recounted by Colonel W.C. Spackman, a British medical officer who accompanied Townshend’s river fleet upstream:

The sandflies were so small that they could get in through a mosquito net… It was far too hot to try to protect yourself with even a thin cotton sheet so I spent most of that night lying uncomfortably in the shallow waters of the shelving river bank, risking taking a mouthful of dirty Tigris water if I dozed off. Next night I gave up any idea of repeating this procedure when I heard that one of our sepoys had gone fishing with a baited hook and caught a shark!

Przemysl Falls, Again

The Russian Army’s capture of Przemyśl on March 23, 1915 would prove to be a short-lived victory. Following the strategic breakthrough by the Austro-German Eleventh Army at Gorlice-Tarnów from May 3-7, the retreating Russians were forced to abandon their recent conquest on June 5. The loss of Przemyśl was a major blow to Allied prestige, but its strategic importance was diminished by the fact that the most of the fortifications had been destroyed by Russian bombardment or the Austrians themselves at the end of the previous siege. And in any event, it was just a small part of the territory surrendered by the Russians during the Great Retreat, when their armies on the central Eastern Front were forced to fall back hundreds of miles.

Under Germany’s new rising star August von Mackensen, the new Eleventh Army had punched through the Russian defensive line in the first week of May, forcing the Russian Third Army back and eventually exposing the flank of the neighboring Russian Eighth Army. Meanwhile the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army rumbled in to action, following on the Eleventh Army’s flank, signaling an even wider offensive to come. By May 11 th the Third and Eighth Armies were in full-scale retreat, opening a 200-mile gap in Galicia and southern Russian Poland that threatened to unravel the entire Eastern Front in mid-May the Galician city of Jaroslaw fell to the advancing Germans, who brushed aside a counterattack on May 15, inflicting massive losses on the Russian Caucasian Corps.

By this point the Russian Third Army, dragging itself across the River San, had been reduced from its original strength of 200,000 to 40,000, with tens of thousands of men killed or wounded and still more taken prisoner. On May 17 the Russian high command, called Stavka, relieved Third Army commander Radko Dimitriev of command and replaced him with General Leonid Lesh – but it was too late. The Austro-German offensive had torn a huge hole and it was only going to get wider. After the failure of desperate counterattacks on May 27, Russian commander-in-chief Grand Duke Nicholas had no choice but to order a fighting withdrawal to a new defensive line.

The Russians would receive no respite from Mackensen, who kept driving forward with a series of new offensives (above, German troops advance in Galicia), using overwhelming artillery power to smash through Russian defenses again and again. To the north he was aided by the German Fourth Army, to the south by the German Südarmee (South Army) as well as the Austro-Hungarian Second Army and newly formed Seventh Army.

The southern theatre saw another round of fierce fighting over the bitterly contested passes through the Carpathian Mountains, down into the foothills and then further north on to the plains along the Dniester River. Anton Denikin, a Russian general, recalled the fighting here:

Those battles south of Peremyshl were the bloodiest of all for us… The 13 th and 14 th Regiments were literally blown away by incredibly heavy German artillery fire. The first and only time I saw my brave Colonel Markov in a state approaching despair was when he brought the remnants of his squad out of battle. He was covered with blood which had gushed all over him when the 14 th Regiment commander, walking beside him, had his head torn off by a bomb splinter. The sight of the colonel’s headless torso standing for several seconds in a living pose was impossible to forget.

Although they were advancing victoriously, for ordinary German and Austrian soldiers this renewed war of movement was just as confusing and terrifying as the static conflict in the trenches. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described a battle which took place in late May outside an unnamed village south of Lemberg (today Lviv in western Ukraine):

We had to occupy a hollow in a wheat field outside the village. Nobody knew what was actually happening. Suddenly the German batteries roared out a terrible salvo, and then the heavy barrage started… From up ahead we heard the detonation of the shells. Soon the Russians answered, firing shrapnel, and a number of men were wounded. We sat on the ground with our backpacks over our heads. The young soldiers who were experiencing their baptism of fire were all shaking like leaves.

The effect on its intended victims was even more remarkable:

In the smoke of the exploding artillery and shrapnel shells the Russian position was almost invisible… First as individuals, then in greater numbers, and finally in masses, the Russian infantrymen came running towards us with their hands in the air. They were all trembling as a result of having had to endure the terrifying artillery fire. Across the whole territory you could see lines of advancing German and Austrian infantry, and in between them were groups of Russian prisoners who were being led back.

By early June the Russians had lost an astonishing 412,000 men, including killed, wounded, and prisoners – but the Russian Army could draw on the massive manpower of the Tsarist empire to make good these losses. It should also be noted that the Russian retreat was not chaotic, but took place in stages and for the most part in good order. As during Napoleon’s invasion, the retreating armies and fleeing peasants enacted a policy of scorched earth, destroying crops, vehicles, buildings and bridges – and anything else of use – to deny the invaders any advantage (above, Russian troops retreat through a burning village). Manfred von Richthofen, who later won fame as the “Red Baron,” described the scene from the air: “The Russians were retiring everywhere. The whole countryside was burning. A terribly beautiful picture.”

Measures of Success

The 1915 offensives were a huge success for the Germans. In places, they pushed the Russians back 300 miles. A new front line was established, giving the Central Powers control of Poland and Galicia. The Germans suffered 250,000 casualties and the Austro-Hungarians 715,000, but the Russian suffered a staggering 2.5 million casualties, a million of them taken prisoner.

The Western Front might have been a stalled quagmire, but in the east, the Germans were on the march, one in a series of steps that would eventually knock Russia out of the war.

Watch the video: Two Steps From Hell - Victory feat. Austro-Hungarian Army