1917, Revolution and Mutiny
How the events of 1917 drove the warring powers to the brink of defeat.
The beginning of 1917, saw Germany, Britain and France having spent so much, in both manpower and finance, that it was politically untenable to simply negotiate a peace. The two sides, even when asked by President Wilson what their terms were, were simply too far apart for progress to be made. So much had been sacrificed that each power either needed material rewards to show for their efforts or had to be convinced that they were so exhausted that they could not fight any longer.
As the dominant parties in their respective alliances, Germany, France, and Britain ensured that the war would continue to a clear conclusion, even if their smaller allies would have preferred an end to the struggle. The voices of those who favoured peace, such as US President Wilson and the Pope, were simply not as strong as the hawks.
For each country, the path to potential victory was different. During 1916, the German navy had built 108 new submarines and now was ready to use them by revisiting the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, intending to give the British people a taste of the privations inflicted on the German economy by the British blockade. However, the decision to unleash the submarines came with risks, whilst analysis suggested that the British economy could be brought to its knees, resulting in Britain suing for peace, a return to unrestricted submarine warfare increased the risk that America might enter the war against Germany.
On the 1st of February, Germany declared a zone around Britain and France in which shipping would be sunk on sight. The policy was highly successful to begin with, with over two million tonnes of shipping sunk by the end of the April. However, necessity is the mother of invention and countermeasures were soon identified, such as the development of hydrophones for detecting submarines, depth charges to destroy them and, most importantly, the convoy system to protect shipping. The crisis passed and shipping losses returned to a more sustainable level. The German gamble ultimately failed, and the US moved a step closer to entering the war.
American opinion was divided, with strong isolationist tendencies; not even the sinking of American ships with US citizens on board was enough to swing opinion towards war. Instead, American sentiment was influenced by disastrous German diplomacy. The Germans decided to approach the Mexican government about the prospects of an alliance, promising the state of Texas in exchange for their involvement with the Central Powers. Unbeknownst to the Germans, their secret telegrams were being read by the British, who carefully leaked the contents to the US ambassador in London. Here was the trigger the US Congress needed to tip the US into a formal declaration of war on 6th of April.
The entrance of America into the war sealed Germany’s fate in the long term. The large and capable US Navy provided immediate help in enforcing the blockade against the Central Powers and American finance took over the burden of funding the allies from the British, whose enormous financial reserves were more or less exhausted by the end of 1916. Finally, the US promised enormous reserves of men at a time when manpower shortages were affecting the British and French. However, the shortage of men could not be solved overnight; the Americans needed time to recruit, equip and train rapidly expanding army, and this gave the Central Powers one last chance to win the war; they needed to win in 1917, before the Americans arrived en masse.
Given the lack of prospects in the west and the problems of defending the front lines established in 1914 against British and French attacks, the Germans took the military decision to make a strategic withdrawal to the new, and heavily fortified, “Hindenburg” line. They withdrew from the high-water mark of 1914 between mid-February and mid-March, leaving behind a trail of devastation, poisoning wells, cutting down fruit trees and booby-trapping buildings in an attempt to make the Allied follow up harder.
The German withdrawal had the effect of spoiling Robert Nivelle’s plans to win the war for France in 1917. Having established his reputation at Verdun, he believed he had solved the problems of trench warfare and had sold this vision to the French high command. He planned to attack using a massive preponderance of artillery fire, deployed scientifically in a combined arms effort with air reconnaissance and well-deployed infantry. The German withdrawal meant that the allies had to move forward and begin their preparatory work again. Regardless, by April, the Nivelle Offensive was ready with a main French effort on the River Aisne and a supporting attack from the British.
The British attacked at Arras on the 9th of April, intending to break through the German front line and then exploit the gap, whilst drawing off German reserves from the French effort further south. The British made a significant advance by Western Front standards, with the Canadians achieving a considerable success as they took Vimy Ridge, but casualties were heavy, with over 150,000 casualties and the advance became bogged down before a breakthrough was achieved. However, most of the mistakes of the Somme were not repeated and the British proved that they could take heavily fortified positions if sufficient preparations had been made.
The French main offensive on the River Aisne was, like the Battle of Arras, intended to smash through the German lines and restore a battle of movement in the west. Nivelle had declared that he would suspend his attacks after two days if no progress was being made and the attacks duly failed to break through along most of the line. The Germans were able to absorb the loss of some tactical positions without losing their grip on the defensive battle and inflicted over 100,000 French casualties. The shock to the French Army resulted in mutinies amongst some French units, who refused to go into a battle that they suspected was futile.
It is estimated that around 40,000 French soldiers were involved in the mutinies, but mostly they drew a distinction between attacking and defending their existing lines; few soldiers wanted a German victory and order was soon restored. Nivelle, his grand promises proven false, was dismissed, and replaced with the steady hand of Phillipe Pétain who took control, executing a limited number of men, but also improving arrangements for home leave and supplying the men in the field. He also adopted of a policy of only attacking in small, well planned, operations where there was a genuine reason for the attack and success was likely. The French Army was stabilised but was no longer willing or able to gamble on major war-winning offensives.
On the Eastern Front, a bigger mutiny had already begun in March (all dates are on the Roman calendar, not the Russian orthodox calendar), when protests about bread shortages spilled onto the streets of Petrograd, the Russian capital. The Russian army was brought in to restore order, but the conscript soldiers refused to shoot civilians and went on strike. Factories and soldiers formed workers councils, called “Soviets”, to represent themselves. Within the Russian parliament, the Duma, a faction of politicians decided that they needed to act, starting with their grievances with Tsar Nicholas II. The Tsar had not had a good war. He had been convinced after Russia’s early setbacks that he should take command of the Russian military, but his command had not been a success and he was forced to resign on the 12th of March.
A provisional government was formed, and some limited reforms were pushed through, such as allowing workers Soviets in all walks of life, but these reforms stopped far short of the revolution that some wanted. The Russian state was failing, with inflation, insufficient finances, falling tax revenues and military setbacks combining to create a fertile ground for radical voices to sow their discord. Vladimir Ilych Lenin was the radical who would push the country into full revolution at the head of his Bolshevik movement. Aided financially by the Germans, he began to preach his programme of “peace, land and bread” for the people of Russia. The Russian army was in disarray, only capable of defensive action and, as the Russian state fell apart, only the soviets had the organisational ability to act; and they were now dominated by Bolsheviks. In November, the Bolsheviks took over the government.
With the Russians in disarray, the French in recovery and the Americans a long way off having an effective army large enough to make a difference, it fell to the British to keep the pressure on the Germans to protect her allies. The British also reasoned that, if they could stage a major offensive and bring the war to an early close, then they would be spared American influence over the peace settlement which would spare potentially far-reaching impacts on the British Empire.
The British chose to attack in Flanders, where their supply lines were shortest, where the Ypres salient continued to be a liability and where German submarines continued to operate from Zeebrugge. Learning the lessons from the past, infantry units were trained against specific limited objectives, an enormous expenditure of artillery fire was planned and, to loosen the German grip on the Messines Ridge, high explosive mines were dug out under the enemy lines.
The attack began on the 7th of June when the 19 mines were blown, obliterating any German defences along the ridge and allowing the British to advance and take the high ground, all the while protected by a creeping barrage that screened the vulnerable advancing troops from counterattack. The Germans had no choice but to fall back and, for once, whilst there were around 50,000 casualties on both sides, the attackers had sustained fewer than the defenders.
Whilst the Germans were inching backwards in the west, they were trying new techniques in the east, attacking at Riga on the 1st of September with advanced new tactics such as pre-registering command and control targets, using “storm troopers” to puncture defended positions and deploying box bombardments to isolate the battle areas from enemy reserves. They would employ these new novel tactics in their last desperate attempt to win the war in 1918.
Messines Ridge was seen as a precursor operation for the more significant Third Battle of Ypres, colloquially known as “Passchendaele”. Third Ypres opened on the 31st of July, giving the Germans plenty of time to construct new “in depth” defences. These defences were based on an elastic three-tier system of concrete emplacements, barbed wire and heavy machine guns, layered in forward, reserve and decisive battle zones.
4.3 million shells were fired at the German defensive lines, with one gun for every 6 yards of front, but even this wasn’t enough to wipe out the defenders’ strong points. The initial attacks achieved some success, but then the weather turned, and the rain started to fall. Twice as much rain as on average for the time of year fell on the churned-up ground during August and the small rivers and streams that ran across the battlefield flowed out of their obliterated banks, turning the ground into a quagmire. As multiple attacks failed, the commander, General Gough, was replaced by General Plumer, who was an advocate of “bite and hold” operations. Plumer achieved some success with limited objectives and intense creeping barrages, but never achieved the breakthrough of which Douglas Haig, the British commander in chief, dreamed. Hopes of a breakthrough kept the British pushing on through October and early November as the rains returned and men churned through mud. The German line was pushed back by about 6 miles, but at a cost of around 240,000 British and a similar number of German casualties, a result that meant that political pressure from London increased on Haig and his strategy.
After the slogging match of Passchendaele faded, there was one glimmer of hope for the Allies. The Battle of Cambrai, on the 20th of November, in which tanks were deployed en masse, achieved a stunning success. British artillery focussed on knocking out the German guns, using aerial spotting and range finding that allowed targets to be pre-registered without firing a shot, ensuring that a surprise attack could be launched. Meanwhile 437 tanks advanced over hard ground and broke though the Hindenburg Line to a depth of five miles, but there weren’t reserves available to exploit the success and the Germans were able to counterattack to stabilise the situation. However, crucially, the Allies now knew that they had the key to defeating the German defensive lines.
Meanwhile, the battles of the Isonzo continued between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies, with their 11th iteration occurring between mid-August and mid-September, resulting in modest Italian successes in exchange for enormous casualties. However, the Italians’ success convinced the Germans that their ally needed help and they sent the newly created 14th Army to help. On the 24th of October, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians attacked, in the 12th Battle of Isonzo (or the Battle of Caporetto), having built up artillery and manpower reserves ready for an offensive. The bombardment began at 2am and varied in intensity, tricking the Italians into thinking that it was safe to emerge before engulfing them in intense shellfire. Italian artillery was spotted from the air and suppressed with high explosives whilst gas shells dealt with Italian reserve troops and their transport mules.
The attack began at 8am, with the Austro-Hungarians pushing the Italians back and the Germans taking key mountain strongholds. By the 25th of October, the Italians were collapsing, withdrawing mostly in disarray. By the 27th the Italian government was asking the French and British for urgent reinforcements. The Central Powers captured 300,000 Italian prisoners and about half of the Italian Army’s artillery.
Eventually the front stabilised in early November, over a 100km behind their original front lines, as the Central Powers stretched their supply chains and the Italians, with British and French support, constructed a new shorter line on the River Piave. The offensive ended and, assured that the Italians were unlikely to present a threat for a while, the Germans transferred men to the Western Front where they had alternate plans.
Whilst the Italians reeled back, the Russians were in complete collapse. Although the Bolsheviks were in charge, the Russian army falling apart and there was turmoil in the major cities; they needed an armistice and they needed it fast. A delegation was sent to German headquarters at Brest-Litovsk to arrange a ceasefire which came into force on the 17th of December. As the war moved into 1918, the Germans now had the opportunity to fight on a single major front, just as she had hoped to do in 1914.
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