1916, The War Of Attrition
How the war developed into a series of attritional contests that left the belligerent powers exhausted.
1916 dawned with the British finally accepting that their attempts to defeat the Turks at Gallipoli had failed. The attempt to force the straights by sea and land petered out and, on the 9th of January, British and ANZAC forces completed their evacuation. The campaign had failed to achieve its objectives and had cost over a 180,000 British, Commonwealth and French casualties, with a slightly lesser toll for the Ottoman Empire. Winston Churchill, one of the key architects of the campaign, resigned and now took up a commission on the Western Front.
As the Allies began to plan for their respective offensives, as agreed at December’s Chantilly conference, the Germans began to execute their own plans. Throughout the entire war, the German overall strategy required them to reduce the number of enemies ranged against her and now, with the Russians temporarily reduced to inaction, they turned their attention to the French.
On the 21st of February, General Erich von Falkenhayn launched the German attack on Verdun, on the River Meuse, beginning with an intense artillery bombardment of two million artillery shells in just an eight-hour period. The plan was to attack in a place where the French would feel compelled to fight, bringing them to a decisive battle where, with superior artillery, the Germans would reduce the forts around Verdun and inflict maximum casualties on the French Army. The Germans advanced several miles and took the great fort at Douaumont, but the French held and were able to respond with artillery fire from heights behind Douaumont.
On the 18th of March, the Russians upheld their part of the Chantilly bargain and attacked around Lake Narotch. The Russian army was a mess and, although the great munitions crisis of late 1915 had now passed, poor leadership, uncoordinated artillery, and a host of other problems, meant that their offensive failed. The Russians suffered around 100,000 casualties, generals were sacked and their armies in the north fell back into immobility and malaise.
Meanwhile, in Verdun, as Falkenhayn tried to deal with French flanking artillery fire and defended against counterattacks, the French General Philippe Pétain took control of the defence of the fortress city. He organised an effective supply chain on the single road, The Voie Sacrée, and rotated troops through the front lines every two weeks to keep their fragile morale intact. Verdun became a battle that neither side felt it could break off and, as the Germans lost sight of their intention to bleed the French army into submission, they began to lose casualties at a similar rate to the French. In the Autumn, the French recovered much of the ground they had lost earlier in the year, however the army had been badly mauled and its own plans for offensives in 1916 lay in tatters.
In mid-May, the Austro-Hungarian army attacked the Italians along a 50km front around Trentino, forcing them back and threatening a breakthrough that could have resulted in Italy’s defeat. However, a new defensive line and the commitment of reserves stabilised the situation. The offensive came to an end in early June when men were needed on the Austro-Hungarian’s eastern front.
On the 31st of May, the German High Seas fleet left the safety of its harbours and sailed out into the North Atlantic, resulting in the Battle of Jutland, the only battleship encounter of the First World War. The German plan was to alter the balance of power at sea by using Hipper’s battlecruisers to lure Beatty’s battlecruiser squadron out into the North Sea and into the jaws of the German High Seas fleet. However, British naval intelligence had forewarned that the High Seas Fleet would be out of its harbours and Admiral Jellicoe sailed from Scapa Flow with the British Grand Fleet. The battlecruisers met in the afternoon and Hipper turned, as planned, and drew the British onto the main fleet. When Beatty saw the German fleet, he turned away, and having lost several ships, fell back onto the approaching British Grand Fleet. The main fleets met in the evening and battle ensued, the British losing 14 ships to the German’s 11. In the night, Jellicoe tried to prevent the Germans from escaping to their home ports but failed. Overall, the Germans got the better of the encounter, but it was never going to be enough to change the balance of power, which belonged decisively to the British Royal Navy.
In the Middle East, June saw the beginning of the Arab revolt against Ottoman Empire rule with a failed attack on Medina. Hoping to create the conditions for a unified Arab state, and promised recognition by the British, the revolt successfully took Mecca and several ports in Hejaz, allowing resupply by the British navy. The Turks were to spend much of the remainder of the year counterattacking to regain the initiative.
In the east, the Russians hoped that a major attack on the Galician front would knock Austro-Hungary out of the war and launched their main effort for 1916 on the 4th of June. Named the Brusilov offensive after its commander, the attack began with a powerful and accurate bombardment that lasted for just four hours before the four Russian armies began their attack. The Russians made quick gains, taking Lutsk on the 8th, and forcing the Austro-Hungarians into full retreat. The Russian advance was fast and avoided being bogged down by strong points by simply bypassing them. Brusilov’s armies advanced 60 miles and captured 350,000 prisoners as the Austro-Hungarians failed to deliver reserves to halt the offensive.
While the French were fully occupied at Verdun, it fell to British and Commonwealth forces, to carry most of the weight of the Allies’ main effort on the Western Front. The Battle of the Somme was intended to break the German defensive hold over French territory with an assault that would break through the three German trench lines and then exploit with reserves to the east and north. At the end of June, a five-day bombardment began, intending to destroy the German defences. The artillery bombardment, whilst impressive, favoured shrapnel shells over high explosive and the Germans, although shaken, were able to retreat to deep dugouts in the Somme chalk and weather the storm. Much of the attacking force came from the British “new army”, recruited from volunteers at the beginning of the war and who had little combat experience. The British suffered 57,470 casualties on the first day alone but did manage to break into the first line of German defences. Over the coming months, subsequent actions saw further limited successes and the deployment of new innovations, such as the first use of tanks, but never the massive breakthrough that had been hoped for. Only about six miles of territory had been taken by the 18th of November when the battle ended, but the effort on the Somme did serve to prevent the French from being overwhelmed at Verdun and reduced German fighting strength.
As Romania joined the Entente in August, Austro-Hungary teetered on the point of defeat. Germany was forced to step in to save her ally. The German high command effectively took over military control of the Austro-Hungarian army, buttressing them with German troops, especially non-commissioned officers, withdrawn from the west. Russian attacks in the north, intended to support the Romanians, failed and by late August, Brusilov has outreached his ability to supply his armies and his offensive ground to a halt. The Russians had achieved a stunning success, but at a heavy cost, losing somewhere between half a million and a million men against Austro-Hungarian and German losses of between three quarters of a million to 1.3 million men. Despite these losses, the Central Powers were able to stabilise the situation and counter-attacked the Romanians successfully, pushing deep into their territory and forcing them back onto a new line in Moldavia.
By December, the great powers were weary. The Battle of Verdun had come to an end leaving a heavily depleted French Army in its wake. Germany continued to balance competing priorities as it kept Austro-Hungary from collapse. The Russians were largely spent, and, after the heavy losses of the Somme, Britain’s Prime Minister Asquith found himself replaced by a new leader who was determined to win the war in 1917.
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