In This Chapter
- Italy joins the Allied cause
- The frustrations of Isonzo
- New battles in the Caucasus
- The Turks practice genocide
- The Turks abortively attack the Suez Canal
- Misguided military ambition in Mesopotamia
Through 1914 and 1915, where Americans stood on what they called “the war in Europe” greatly varied. Most deplored such acts as the brutal German invasion of “little Belgium,” and, to be sure, everyone was appalled by the ongoing loss of life on both sides, especially along the Western Front. The British intelligence service mounted a masterful propaganda campaign to manipulate the war news published in American papers. Consistently, the Germans were painted as brutal monsters bent on nothing less than the destruction of civilization.
It was unrestricted submarine warfare that did the most to turn American public opinion against Germany, but even so, the United States was home to a very large population of German immigrants and the descendants of such immigrants, many of whom continued to support the interests of the ancestral homeland during the war—not just with rhetoric, but also with financial aid contributed to various fund drives. Pacifists and committed isolationists—people who believed that the United States should not enter the war under any circumstances whatsoever—were in the minority in 1915, but so were those who advocated immediately pitching in against Germany.
The majority of Americans believed that Germany and the other Central Powers were wrong, but they were happy that President Woodrow Wilson had maintained U.S. neutrality. Wilson was carried to a second term in the White House in 1916 in large part on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.”
It was undeniable. Americans could be thankful that their large and bountiful land was one of the few places in the world untouched by the great conflict. By 1915, the “European War” not only was being fought on the Western and Eastern fronts, but it had engulfed just about all of Europe—and many other places as well.
As explained in Chapter 5, “Battle of the Frontiers,” Italy was nominally part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria, but it had refrained from joining them in the war. As Italy stood on the sidelines, the Allies practiced some shrewd, adroit, and highly secret diplomacy, promising Italy territorial gains at the expense of Austria-Hungary in exchange for an alliance.
At last, on April 26, 1915, Italy signed the secret Treaty of London with Great Britain, France, and Russia, by which its obligations under the Triple Alliance were abrogated. The prize was the Italian-populated Trentino and Trieste (both under Austrian control) as well as the South Tirol, Gorizia, Istria, and northern Dalmatia. Less than a month later, on May 23, 1915, Italy formally declared war on Austria-Hungary.
From the Front In 1914, the Italian army had only 595 vehicles and depended on some 200,000 horses and other draft animals for transportation. In 1916, there were only 112,000 rifles to train 228,000 conscripts. When it joined the fighting, the army was allowed only 148 million of the 551 million-lire emergency funding it had requested.
The Italian army was large, at 875,000 men, but was poorly equipped, with particularly severe deficiencies in artillery, ammunition reserves, and transport.
Another problem was at the command level. On July 1, 1914, the eve of war, General Alberto Pollio, chief of staff since 1908, died suddenly of a heart attack. He was hastily replaced by General Luigi Cadorna, a deeply flawed commander on the verge of retirement at the time of his appointment. Stubborn, pugnacious, crusty, and a mean-spirited martinet, Cadorna managed equally to alienate politicians (which resulted in chronic underfunding of the army), his subordinate commanders, and the rank-and-file troops. He was a harsh, even cruel, disciplinarian and an entirely uninspiring leader.
Combatants Luigi Cadorna (1850–1928) was a man obsessed by the Isonzo Front, into which he fed the Italian army as a butcher might feed beef into a meat grinder. The son of an important Italian military family, Cadorna devoted his life and career to the army, yet did not hold a combat command prior to World War I.
Named to the post of chief of staff on July 1, 1914, after the sudden death of General Alberto Pollio, Cadorna—assuming that Italy would join the other Central Powers in a war against the Allies—prepared the army to fight France. Cadorna did succeed in mobilizing a massive army, but never acquired the advanced equipment, especially artillery, needed to defeat the Austro-Hungarian forces. Additionally, he was unpopular with troops, with fellow officers, and with civilian politicians.
Once Italy entered the war, Cadorna focused on defeating the Austro-Hungarians in the mountainous border region. Here the terrain made attack difficult, and the Italian general doomed his forces to a dozen futile and extremely costly battles along the Isonzo River. Despite repeated failure, Cadorna refused to yield to the reality that attacks against the well-defended mountain positions were destined to fail.
In 1917, after the Austro-Hungarian army broke through Italian forces at Caporetto, Cadorna, thoroughly discredited, was relieved of command. A postwar investigation blamed him for Italy’s many failures in World War I, but the dictator Benito Mussolini, in need of a popular hero, officially rehabilitated Cadorna by promoting him to field marshal in 1924.
Cadorna had no combat experience and was, at best, a mediocre military strategist. However, he did have a certain plan, and he shared with other Italian military men a certain dream.
The plan was simple and twofold. Despite the existence of the Triple Alliance, Austria-Hungary, long an enemy of Italy, had heavily fortified its Italian frontier. The risk of an Austrian attack from Trentino, which bordered Venetia to the northwest, was significant. Also vulnerable was the northern Italian region bordering the Carnic Alps. Cadorna adopted a primarily defensive posture in these areas—with some limited advances anticipated—and instead concentrated his main effort on an offensive that would proceed eastward from the province of Venetia across the lower valley of the Isonzo (Soca) River. His objective was to push a salient into Austro-Hungarian territory with the aim of taking the town Gorizia on the east bank of the Isonzo.
That was the stated aim of Cadorna’s strategy. Like other Italian military men, however, he had bigger dreams of an objective much greater than Gorizia. He envisioned the Italian army—like a latter-day Roman legion—marching through Trieste and ultimately into Vienna, capital of the hated Dual Monarchy.
The gulf separating the dream from the reality would prove wide indeed—and initially muddy as well. Concentrating on men and arms, Cadorna ignored the weather. He began his advance eastward in May 1915, only to find his armies halted by seasonal flooding of the Isonzo.
The Allies greeted the entry of Italy into the war with great hopefulness because it opened up a whole new front against the enemy. This would mean more pressure on the Central Powers from a new direction and, therefore, reduced pressure on the Allies’ other fronts. Moreover, they saw in this new front the possibility of movement in contrast to the stalemate of the Western Front. The flooding, which halted the advance, put an end to that possibility. With the halt of the Italian army, both sides dug in, and the Isonzo Front became yet another line of trenches.
Luigi Cadorna was unwilling to accept the permanence of trench warfare, however. Determined to renew his advance at any cost, he ordered what became a brutal series of offensives, known as the Battles of the Isonzo.
Cadorna enjoyed significant superiority of numbers over his opponents, Austrian Archduke Eugene, in overall command of the Italian Front, and General Svetozan Borojevic von Bojna, with 100,000 men, in command of the Isonzo sector of that front. Against this force, the Italian Second and Third Armies (under Pietro Frugoni and the Duke of Aosta, respectively) hurled some 200,000 troops and 200 guns. Despite their greater numbers, in the First Battle of Isonzo (June 23–July 7), the Italians battered in vain against the well-developed Austrian defenses.
From the Front The first two battles of Isonzo cost the Italians 60,000 casualties versus 45,000 for the Austro-Hungarian army. Absolutely nothing was gained by these sacrifices.
From July 18 to August 3, Cadorna made a second attempt, this time backed by more artillery. The Austrians had also augmented the defenders, however, and held firm. Cadorna was forced to break off the attack when his artillery ammunition ran out.
Cadorna need have looked only to the trenches of France for a lesson in the invulnerability of highly prepared positions to frontal assault. But, clearly, common sense and sound judgment were among the earliest of the hundreds of thousands of casualties that this war had already produced. Cadorna heedlessly mounted a third offensive at Isonzo from October 18 to November 4. This time, the Italian general had 1,200 guns at his disposal.
The result? Another costly repulse.
That seemed hardly to matter to the determined Italian. On November 10, Cadorna resumed the fight. He broke off the engagement on December 10, the two battles having cost 117,000 Italian dead and wounded. On the Austro-Hungarian side, almost 72,000 men had been lost. The front had not budged an inch.
Luigi Cadorna’s dream of Vienna bled to death at Isonzo much as Enver Pasha’s fantasy of dealing ruin to Russia had died in the Caucasus (see Chapter 10, “The Sick Man and Serbia”). Although the Turkish army would never fully recover from Enver’s misbegotten invasion attempt, it was by no means finished as a combat force.
Voices of Battle “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards in Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it . . . Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.”
—Ernest Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms (1929), a novel based on experiences on the Isonzo Front
Under one of Enver Pasha’s new subordinates, Abdul Kerim, a Turkish force attacked and defeated a Russian corps at the Battle of Malazgirt, north of Lake Van, not far from the Ottoman Empire’s frontier with Persia.
A Turkish triumph was rare, and General Abdul Kerim pressed his eastward advance with great caution. Russian General Nikolai Yudenich dispatched General N.N. Baratov with a force of 22,000 Cossacks—warriors who had earned a legendary reputation for ferocity—to intercept the Turks.
The Battle of Kara Killisse resulted in heavy Turkish casualties and the withdrawal of the Turks.
By the late 1880s, some 2.5 million Christian Armenians lived within the Ottoman Empire. Russia encouraged those in the eastern provinces to agitate for Armenian territorial autonomy. By 1890, two Armenian revolutionary parties had been formed; in response to Turkish oppression, Armenian radicals rose in revolt. In 1894, when the Armenians in Sasun refused to pay the heavy taxes levied against them, Turkish troops and Kurdish tribesmen massacred thousands of them and burned their villages. Two years later, Armenian revolutionaries seized the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul, provoking an even bloodier response. At the instigation of government troops, mobs of Muslim Turks attacked and killed more than 50,000 Armenians.
Voices of Battle “Who remembers a million Armenians?”
—Adolf Hitler, before ordering the invasion of Poland in 1939
As terrible as these acts of genocide were, even worse came as part of the world war.
Long-oppressed Armenians from the Caucasus eagerly formed volunteer battalions to work with the Russian army against the Turks. In 1915, when the battalions began recruiting Turkish Armenians from behind the Turkish lines, the Ottoman government ordered the mass deportation of some 1.75 million Armenians to Syria and Mesopotamia. Of this number, about 600,000 died of exposure and starvation en route through the desert. Doubtless, many of this number were simply murdered by Turkish soldiers and police.
While the general Turkish Armenian population was being persecuted, deported, and killed, Armenian rebels seized the important Turkish fortress of Van on April 20 and held it until the Russians arrived on May 19.
Against a backdrop of oppression, misery, and murder, the fighting between the Russians and the Turks in the Armenian mountains seesawed erratically. On August 5, the Turks retook the Van fortress, and the Russians withdrew. In September, under the command of the Grand Duke Nicholas, newly appointed Viceroy of Caucasia, the planning began for a major new offensive (see Chapter 17, “Italy, the Eastern Front, and Elsewhere, 1916”).
By 1915, the world-engulfing conflict was just beginning to spread to Egypt and Palestine. The most valuable prize in the region was the Suez Canal. Completed in 1869, the canal runs north-south across the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt and joins the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. Its strategic importance lay in its status as the shortest maritime route between Europe and all the lands around the Indian and western Pacific oceans.
On January 14, 1915, Djemal Pasha, the Turkish Minister of Marine, with German General Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein as his chief of staff, led 22,000 men in a secret march across the Sinai Peninsula from Beersheba. Their objective was the Suez Canal.
On February 2, advance elements of the expedition reached the canal and began an assault, but they were quickly beaten back. After losing 2,000 men, Djemal Pasha withdrew to Beersheba.
This abortive action would be the war’s only Turkish attack against the canal. Although the canal remained under British control, fear of a renewed attack tied down large numbers of British troops that had been intended for service as reinforcements for the Dardanelles campaign (see Chapter 14, “The Gallipoli Disaster”). In this way, the Turkish attack, inconsiderable in itself, produced a lasting drain on British strength in the region and contributed to the miserable failure at Gallipoli.
In the world of 1915, the most important fuel for war was coal, which fed the fires that heated the boilers of the great battleships. Oil was a distant second to coal in strategic importance, but it was important nevertheless as a fuel for land vehicles and as a lubricant. Accordingly, the British Cabinet had prevailed on the Indian colonial government to mount a modest expedition to protect the flow of oil from the great Anglo-Persian pipeline. At Qurna, this force easily brushed aside Turkish resistance (April 12–14), an achievement that prompted British military planners to order a further advance, with the ultimate object of capturing Baghdad.
The enterprise was yet another symptom of military frustration. At every front, progress was slow or nonexistent. Here, in this out-of-the-way corner of the war, a victory had been quickly and easily won. The temptation to achieve more victories proved irresistible, even though the strategic value of pressing on to Baghdad was dubious at best. Taking Baghdad would certainly result in no immediate advantage. In the long term, there were oil sources to be gained, as well as the political advantage of extending British imperial influence into territories held by the Ottoman Empire. Traditionally, too, the British had always been keen on defending the approaches to India.
Major General Charles V.F. Townshend led a reinforced division and naval flotilla up the Tigris River, took a Turkish outpost near Qurna on May 31, and then proceeded to Amara, which he occupied on June 3.
Coordinating his movements with those of Townshend, Major General George F. Gorringe led a small force up the Euphrates to protect Townshend’s flank. At Nasiriya, beginning on July 24, he hammered away at strong Turkish defensive positions, which took a month of hard fighting to neutralize.
Townshend, who had been sent reinforcements, was now ordered to attack and capture Kut-el-Amara, a village at the confluence of the Tigris and Shatt-el-Hai rivers. His 11,000 men and 28 guns arrived just below Kut by September 16. Townshend saw that he was facing a very well-defended position manned by a force of 10,000 and well-furnished with 38 guns. The British general realized that his communications and supply lines were highly strained and vulnerable, and he decided to await supply before attacking.
While awaiting supplies, Townshend intensively studied the situation at Kut and concluded that, although it was very substantially fortified, the Turkish position had a key weakness. The Turkish forces were divided astride the Tigris River, with the only bridge five miles upstream. This meant that the Turks had severely limited their own lateral mobility. Townshend exploited this weakness by ordering two brigades to conduct a demonstration on the right bank of the Tigris to decoy the Turkish reserves. This accomplished, he then moved the two decoy brigades back north of the river under cover of darkness on the night of September 27. With his full forces, he attacked and enveloped the left flank of the divided Turkish army, driving two-thirds of the defenders out of their positions.
It was a textbook instance of effective maneuver, but combat in the desert made demands far beyond any textbook. Although Townshend had achieved a neat and efficient victory, his troops were too worn out by contending with bad weather and marching great distances to press their advantage. The defeated Turks withdrew, but they did so intact and in good order, taking up new positions farther up the Tigris at Ctesiphon.
After resting, reorganizing, and doing his best to resupply his spent troops, Townshend commenced an advance to Ctesiphon during November 11–22. The military wisdom of this move was highly questionable, but the emotional lure of Baghdad—the prospect of capturing a major city—proved overwhelming.
Words of WarRegulars are members of a nation’s permanent, standing army, maintained in peace as well as war. They do not include reservists or auxiliary troops, who are called on exclusively in emergencies or time of war.
Unfortunately, once he arrived at Ctesiphon, Townshend found that the Turks had fortified their positions formidably and had been reinforced by tough Anatolian infantry to a total strength of 18,000 regulars in addition to various Arab auxiliaries. Townshend led a significantly smaller force of 10,000 infantry, mostly Indian colonial troops, in addition to a thousand cavalry and 30 guns. He also had a squadron of seven airplanes—the first time this weapon had appeared on the Mesopotamian Front. (The planes were used mainly for reconnaissance.)
Despite his disadvantage in numbers, Townshend attacked on November 22 with great ferocity—and with absolutely everything he had. Nothing was kept in reserve.
Initial results were highly encouraging, as the first Turkish line crumpled before the Anglo-Indian onslaught. But then came the Turkish counterattacks, which were unremitting. Over the next four days, Townshend held out against wave after enemy wave. At last, he decided that no choice remained but to withdraw, which he did only after evacuating his wounded.
Fortunately for Townshend, the Turks were too battered to pursue his retreat with any degree of enthusiasm. He fought a single substantial rear-guard action at Umm-at-Tubal on December 1 and then arrived back at Kut on December 3. Realizing that his infantry was too exhausted to retreat farther, Townshend sent his cavalry to the rear and holed up at Kut to await reinforcements. Beginning on December 7, the Turks returned to Kut to lay siege to this position. (The outcome of this action is discussed in Chapter 17.)
Words of War A rear-guard action is combat conducted primarily to protect a retreat main force, which is always vulnerable at its rear.
Perhaps the most remote front in this world war was in Persia. Although that nation proclaimed its neutrality at the outset of the conflict, Russian troops quickly occupied most of northern Persia, and the British rushed in to occupy the northwestern Persian Gulf coast as soon as Turkey entered the war. The British purpose was to protect oil supplies and to create a base of operations for action in Mesopotamia. In the meantime, the Turks seized almost all of Persian Kurdistan.
As we saw in Chapter 10, the Battle of Sarikamish, in the Caucasus borderlands of Russia and Persia, resulted in initial Turkish gains at the expense of the Russians before the Turks were driven out with disastrous losses by January 30, 1915. After this, fighting continued sporadically in western Persia—mainly on the periphery of action in the Caucasus and Mesopotamia—throughout the rest of the year.
From the Front The Anglo-Indian forces suffered 4,600 casualties out of 11,000 men engaged at Ctesiphon. The Turks lost 6,200 killed and wounded.
Although the fighting in Mesopotamia was gallant and sometimes even brilliant—a dramatic contrast to the bloody monotony of the Western Front—it cost far more than it gained. The British War Office, remote in London, was out of touch with the realities of combat in Mesopotamia, where distances were great, water and other supplies were scarce, travel was difficult, and communications were nearly nonexistent.
The lure of “exotic” fronts in Mesopotamia and Persia, especially for the British, was precisely because they were remote from the Western Front. While that unspeakably grim battlefield was frozen in a perpetual death grip, it seemed that the peripheral fronts still offered scope for action, for conquest, and for measurable results beyond the mere tally of corpses. Few planners paused to weigh the strategic worth of prosecuting the war in these regions. After all, what would have been gained by taking Baghdad? Little of any concrete value. Certainly, such a victory would have been welcome to the Allies, but it would not have shortened the war.
The Least You Need to Know
- Promised large territorial gains at the expense of Austria-Hungary, Italy abrogated the Triple Alliance and joined the Allied cause.
- The Italian army was large, but it was underfunded, poorly equipped, and poorly led; its commander-in-chief, Luigi Cadorna, committed the army to a long series of costly and fruitless offensives along the Isonzo sector of the Austro-Italian front.
- For hapless Turkish Armenians in the Caucasus region, World War I became an excuse for mass deportation and genocide at the hands of the Turks; the Armenian massacres were among the worst civilian atrocities of the war.
- The chief military target in the Middle East was the Suez Canal, which the British successfully defended against the Turks throughout the war.
- The British conducted gallant but costly campaigns in Mesopotamia with the ultimate goal of taking Baghdad, a military objective of dubious value.