Chapter 17 Italy, the Eastern Front, and Elsewhere, 1916 – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 17 Italy, the Eastern Front, and Elsewhere, 1916

In This Chapter
  • The failure of Austrian offensives against Italy
  • The Brusilov Offensive almost knocks out Austria-Hungary
  • Romania enters the war—and suffers disaster
  • The Allies recruit Arab aid against the Turks
  • British defeat at Kut-el-Amara
  • Russo-Turkish battles in the Caucasus

Historians speak of the Allied effort versus the effort of the Central Powers, as if World War I had been a contest between two great opposing teams. Often, however, the conflict was also intramural, with the “teams” breaking down as different constituents pursued individual agendas.

As Verdun and the Somme raged on the Western Front, the Austrian high commander, Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf, went his own way, consumed with what amounted to a vendetta against Italy, a nation that he personally hated. He also believed that a single massive blow might knock Italy out of the war, thereby eliminating the Austro-Italian Front and allowing Austria-Hungary to turn its attention exclusively to helping Germany defeat Russia. Conrad pressured Germany’s commander-in-chief, Erich von Falkenhayn, to coordinate a joint German-Austrian assault against Italy.

Falkenhayn, heavily burdened on the Western and Eastern Fronts, refused, but Conrad, undeterred, decided to proceed on his own. He formulated an offensive in the Trentino, behind the main Italian armies on the Isonzo front. He believed that he could drive through Trentino’s mountain passes, occupy the plain of northern Italy, and, by so doing, entrap the Italians who were on the Isonzo Front as well as those stationed in the Carnic Alps.

More Battles on the Isonzo

Field Marshal Conrad’s plan would come to be known as the Asiago Offensive. It was set into motion after the Fifth Battle of the Isonzo (see Chapter 15, “The Other Fronts, 1915,” for the first four) during March 11–29. Like the other Isonzo engagements before it, the battle consisted of a series of inconclusive and bloody assaults on well-defended Austro-Hungarian lines.

Like Conrad, Luigi Cadorna, Italy’s overall commander, labored under an obsession: that the Austrian lines at Isonzo had to be breached and could be breached. Yet Cadorna was not so thoroughly obsessed that he failed to notice that Conrad was assembling no fewer than 15 divisions to menace the Trentino. Accordingly, Cadorna ordered General Roberto Brusati’s First Army to prepare for an anticipated Austro-Hungarian offensive.

It was a prudent and highly astute move from a commander who previously had demonstrated precious little acuteness of judgment or prudence. Unfortunately, if allies were sometimes inclined to pursue their own agendas, so were generals. Brusati chose largely to ignore Cadorna’s orders and instead conducted local operations to improve his local front. The result was that Brusati’s men were unprepared for the onslaught of Austrian Archduke Eugene’s Eleventh and Third armies.

 From the Front The Italians lost 147,000 men, including 40,000 taken prisoner. In addition, 300 valuable artillery pieces and other equipment were sacrificed. Austrian losses totaled 81,000, 26,000 of which were POWs.

At first, the Austrians made very substantial gains, although the rugged terrain introduced immediate problems with keeping the advance supplied. Then Cadorna surprisingly rose to the occasion. Fearing a massive invasion, the Italians panicked—and called on the Russians to mount an offensive that would draw the Austrians away from Italy—but Cadorna kept his head. Quickly and deftly, he broke off the Fifth Battle of Isonzo to transfer half a million men to the threatened front in the Trentino. By June 2, the Austrian advanced had been checked.

Before 1916 closed, four more Isonzo battles would take place. The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo was fought during August 6–17. Because the Austrian lines were now depleted by the Trentino Offensive and by transfers to the Eastern Front (see the next section, “An Italian Appeal”), the Italians managed to take Gorizia.

This did not represent a genuine breakthrough of strategic importance, but it did boost flagging Italian morale—at the cost of 51,000 Italian dead and wounded, versus 40,000 Austrian casualties.

The Seventh (September 14–26), Eighth (October 10–12), and Ninth (November 1–4) Battles of the Isonzo continued to wear away at the Austro-Hungarian army, but they took an even greater toll on the Italians, who lost 75,000 men versus 63,000 Austrians, killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

An Italian Appeal

Russia, always eager to be a good ally, responded to a French request for an offensive drive in the Vilna-Naroch area of what today is Lithuania. The French needed all the help they could get to relieve the pressure against Verdun (see Chapter 16, “ ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ ”).

The March 18 Battle of Lake Naroch was preceded by a two-day artillery preparation—the heaviest yet on the Eastern Front—but the Russian infantry follow-up bogged down in the mud of a spring thaw. While the German defenders lost 20,000 men, the Russians suffered 70,000 casualties at Lake Naroch and another 30,000 in action farther north.

Despite this crushing failure, the Russians again responded to a call for aid, this time from the Italians, who feared imminent invasion by the Austrians through the Trentino. The results of this Russian offensive, however, would be quite different from Lake Naroch.

The Brusilov Offensive

General Aleksey A. Brusilov was a rarity among the czar’s high commanders. He was not only a courageous commander, but he also was a highly skilled one. In contrast to his colleagues, he understood the value of surprise and had the imagination to devise ways by which to achieve it.

On June 4, he moved against the Austro-German line in two places. He did so in a series of well-planned and well-executed maneuvers that were not preceded by any of the usual preliminaries: the massing of troops or the use of artillery preparation. Thus, surprise was total, complete, and devastating. For once, the Russians had benefited from excellent intelligence work and aerial reconnaissance, which located weaknesses in the Austro-Hungarian trench systems and front lines.

Austrian Rout

Almost immediately, the entire Austrian Fourth Army was routed, and the Seventh Army soon followed it. Seventy thousand prisoners fell to Brusilov’s offensive.

 Combatants Aleksey A. Brusilov (1853–1926) was the only Russian field commander of World War I who could be called brilliant. He was born in the Caucasus to a military family, graduated from the military academy, and quickly distinguished himself as a young officer in fighting against Turkey during 1877.

Brusilov became associated with the Cavalry School at St. Petersburg and was appointed its commandant from 1902 to 1906. By the outbreak of World War I, he was a full general and given command of the Eighth Army in Galicia. After initial defeats, he went on the offensive with great success against the Austro-Hungarian forces. Superiors recognized his ability and gave him command of the entire Southwestern Front in March 1916.

He planned and executed two extraordinary offensives against the Austro-Hungarians, which embodied advanced tactical thinking unknown throughout the rest of the Russian army. While the first offensive (1916) was highly successful, nearly knocking Austria-Hungary out of the war, the second (1917) was hampered by lack of supply and the effects of the Russian Revolution.

After Soviet Russia concluded a separate peace with Germany in the fall of 1917, Brusilov retired from active duty. Although he was an aristocrat, he embraced the new communist government and joined the Red Army in 1920, but never accepted a field command.

Had higher command or Brusilov’s colleagues acted to coordinate with the offensive, Austria-Hungary might well have been knocked out of the war, thereby freeing Russian troops to concentrate exclusively on the Germans, and freeing Italian forces for direct aid to the effort on the Western Front.

But this was not to be. German General Alexander von Linsingen led his army group in a counterattack against Brusilov on June 16, which succeeded in checking the Russians’ northern advance. Although Brusilov was able to renew the offensive on July 28, achieving further gains, he began to run short of ammunition and other supplies. In the meantime, German reinforcements were transferred from Verdun (see Chapter 16) and propped up the reeling Austro-Hungarians. Brusilov’s offensive petered out in exhaustion on both sides.

Romania’s Entry

Although it was not decisive, the Brusilov Offensive had major consequences. It significantly weakened the Central Powers’ ability to maintain offensives in Italy and Verdun. Austria-Hungary continued to fight, but it had suffered such severe losses that it would never again figure as a major military power in this war.

Yet, despite its gains, the Brusilov Offensive had also cost Russia dearly. Russian casualties topped a million men, a figure so appalling that the nation was driven with increasing velocity to the precipice of a revolution that it had been approaching all along.

The Brusilov Offensive had at least one additional effect. Romania had declared itself neutral even as it allowed the Allies to court its entry into the war. Despite Allied promises of substantial territorial acquisition, Romania continued to hold itself aloof, largely unimpressed by Allied performance in the war until the early results of the Brusilov Offensive. On August 27, 1916, Romania at last declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The nation’s first act of war was to invade Transylvania, an Austrian-controlled territory that it had long eyed jealously. Erich von Falkenhayn, relieved as chief of the Imperial German General Staff and now assigned to command of the Ninth Army, met and repelled the Romanian invaders. In the meantime, General August von Mackensen led the German-reinforced Bulgarian Danube Army across the Danube River on November 23 into the Dobrudja region.

 Voices of Battle “ . . . the Brusilov offensive was, on the scale by which success was measured in the foot-by-foot fighting of the First World War, the greatest victory seen on any front since the trench lines had been dug on the Aisne two years before.”

—John Keegan, in The First World War (1999)

The Romanian commander, General Alexandru Averescu, now found himself trapped between the forces of the two Germans, Falkenhayn and Mackensen. Averescu’s response was bold and desperately aggressive. He divided his forces in an attempt to envelop Mackensen’s left flank while simultaneously blocking Falkenhayn’s advance. His objective was to prevent the two enemy armies from linking up and thereby crushing him—and he might have succeeded in doing just this, had the Russian forces in the area properly coordinated action with him. But the Romanians had even greater supply and coordination problems than the Russians, and Falkenhayn and Mackensen were able to break through to each other. Together they hammered the Romanians at the Battle of the Arges River during December 1–4.

Defeat for the Romanian army was very nearly total and absolutely disastrous. What was left of the army fled north into Russia, clutching at the tiny portion of their own country that they still controlled. Although some 60,000 troops of the Central Powers had become casualties, 300,000 to 400,000 Romanians were killed or wounded—about half in combat and half as a result of disease. Of even greater importance, the rich grain and oil fields of Romania were now in German hands. This was a great gain in a war of attrition.

In the Bird Cage

As we saw in Chapter 10, “The Sick Man and Serbia,” the French had placed the quarrelsome and politically unpalatable General Maurice P. Sarrail in command of Allied forces sent to aid Serbia against Bulgar-German forces. Sarrail and his troops arrived too late to be of any help to Serbia, whose army, badly crippled, was pushed back to Albania. In December 1915, the remnants of that army were shipped to the island of Corfu. In the meantime, the Allies had obtained control of the Greek port of Salonika, and it was to this city that the Serbian survivors were transported from Corfu.

By July, the Serbian army had been reconstituted at Salonika as a force of 118,000 men. Sarrail’s troops were added to this to make an army of a quarter-million men. With this force, Sarrail decided to leave the fortified “Bird Cage,” a ring of forts around Salonika, to conduct an offensive up the valley of the Vardar River (which flows through Serbia down into Greece and into the Gulf of Salonika).

Attack and Counterattack

By the time Sarrail got under way, the Bulgarians had taken the initiative and, in cooperation with German forces, attacked the Allies at the Battle of Florina (a Greek village a few miles south of the Serbian frontier) during August 17–27. The Allies were pushed southward until Sarrail mounted a counteroffensive from September 10 to November 19. This slowly drove the Bulgar-German forces northward, out of Greece and into Serbia. On November 19, the Allies took the southern Serbian town of Monastir.

At this point, however, the Allied offensive lost steam. Sarrail, a troublemaker in France, proved a troublemaker in the Balkans. He fell to disputing with his subordinates, and the campaign ended in disarray at the cost of 50,000 Allied lives. The Bulgar-German forces lost some 60,000 killed and wounded.

Operations in Albania

Beginning in July and lasting through November, a corps of Austrians dueled with an Italian corps in Albanian territory west of Greece. The Italians succeeded in pushing the Austrians north and then joined forces with Sarrail’s army at Lake Ochrida.

Little came of these actions in Greece and Albania during 1916, and disease proved a far more formidable foe than bullets. Yet neither side wanted to pull out of this very peripheral front, lest such an action be interpreted as an admission of defeat. Pride and propaganda were fed with human lives.

Action on the Turkish Fronts

Action on the “Turkish Fronts,” encompassing the region of Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia, as well Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, became more intense in 1916 than in the previous year.

Sinai Bridgehead

Early in 1916, General Sir Archibald Murray began work on extending the Suez Canal defenses eight miles into the Sinai Desert. The intention was to prevent Turkish forces from firing on the canal itself. The extension required a tremendous amount of work to create adequate entrenchments and fortifications, as well as to establish communications and a supply of water. In the midst of this activity, the Senussi tribes of western Egypt staged an anti-British insurrection, which required a diversion of Murray’s forces to suppress. Work resumed on the canal defenses in March and was completed in July.

 From the Front Advanced technology enabled the British to rapidly construct a road through the desert. Instead of pavement, impossible to lay on the desert sand, engineers used prefabricated steel mesh to create a ribbon deck across the sand over which wheeled vehicles could easily travel. Such mesh substitutes for pavement would be widely used by U.S. forces in World War II, especially to construct airfields on captured Pacific islands.

The Arab Revolt

In the autumn of 1915, British and French officials negotiated an agreement with Hussein, the grand sherif of Mecca, pledging (albeit vaguely) to help him gain territory and to support Arab independence from Turkey. In return, Hussein would cooperate with the Allies in operations against the Turks.

On June 5, 1916, Hussein attacked the Turkish garrison at Medina. Hussein then proclaimed independence for the Arabs and stormed the Turkish garrison at Mecca, which surrendered on June 10. Although Medina withstood the onslaught, Hussein’s actions greatly hampered the Turkish war effort in the region.

 Words of War The grand sherif was the chief magistrate of Mecca when that place was controlled by the Ottoman Turks.

Attached to General Murray’s staff was a young captain named T.E. Lawrence. Assigned to observe the ultimately unsuccessful Arab operations at Medina, he concluded that the Arab cavalry could not reasonably challenge the well-defended Turkish positions. With the permission of his superiors, Lawrence persuaded Hussein’s third son, Feisal, field commander of the Arab army, to break off direct attack against Medina and instead to use his forces to disseminate propaganda among the Arabs and to raid the overextended Turkish lines of communications. These indirect battle tactics proved highly effective. The Turks had no choice but to halt their offensive operations south of Medina, and they also had to assign valuable troops to defend long stretches of the Hejaz railway.

 Voices of Battle “Our tactics were always tip and run, not pushes, but strokes. We never tried to maintain or improve an advantage, but to move off and strike somewhere else. We used the smallest force, in the quickest time, at the farthest place.”

—T.E. Lawrence, on guerilla tactics, in “The Evolution of a Revolt,” Army Quarterly, 1920

Lawrence’s brilliant advice earned him an instant reputation among his British colleagues and, more important, obtained for him a position as Feisal’s chief adviser. As we will see in Chapter 23, “The War Beyond the Trenches, 1917–1918,” Lawrence—dubbed Lawrence of Arabia—became one of the few figures of truly heroic, even mythic, proportions to emerge from World War I. His early work with Feisal was the basis of this legendary reputation, as the tall, handsome, and enigmatic Englishman fought side by side with the Arabs, attired not in British khaki, but in the flowing robes of an Arab warrior.

Battle of Rumani

On August 3, 1916, German General Kress von Kressenstein led 15,000 Turkish troops with German machine gunners in an attack on the railhead that the British had built in Sinai. Although the attack came as a surprise, the British forces responded swiftly, repelling the attackers and inflicting more than 5,000 casualties on them. British losses amounted to no more than 1,100 men killed and wounded.

In Mesopotamia

In Chapter 15, we left British General Charles Townshend and some 8,000 troops besieged by Turkish forces at Kut-el-Amara, to which they had taken refuge after exhaustion and lack of supplies put an end to British dreams of capturing Baghdad. Riding to his rescue was General Fenton J. Aylmer leading two Indian divisions. Aylmer, checked by Turkish resistance in January, was replaced by General George F. Gorringe. His tactic was a March 7 surprise attack against the Turks on the south bank of the Tigris.

Turkish forces, repeatedly underestimated by the British, often proved highly effective under the skilled leadership of German officers. The aged Kolmar von der Goltz commanded the Turkish Sixth Army, which handily repulsed Gorringe’s attack, successfully preventing his rescue of Townshend.

The British tried several more times to reach Kut but were foiled in every attempt. By April, Townshend’s food supply failed. With starvation looming, the British general surrendered Kut and his force of 2,070 British and approximately 6,000 Indian troops. The cost to the British relief forces had been high—21,000 casualties—but General von der Goltz, aged 73, was not able to relish his victory. He succumbed to cholera just before Townshend surrendered.

Despite the brilliant and daring performance of Townshend and his men, the gains to be made on the Mesopotamian Front had never been worth the risks, and the entire campaign had been a foolish, tragic waste of resources.

In August, Sir Frederick S. Maude was appointed to the Mesopotamian command but was restricted to an entirely defensive role while the British War Office in London debated with the Indian Army command on whether to abandon the chaotic Mesopotamian Front altogether. On December 13, Maude was given permission to try a new offensive, and he embarked up both banks of the Tigris with an army of 166,000 men, most of them Indian troops. Where they went and what they did early in 1917 is covered in Chapter 23.

 From the Front India contributed mightily to the British war effort. Added to some £80 million in military supplies was a cash gift to the Empire of £100 million. About a million Indian troops served in the war, on the Western Front as well as in German East Africa, the Middle East, and Mesopotamia. Indian casualties numbered at least 100,000 killed and wounded.

The Caucasus: Russia’s Winter Offensive

As we have seen, competence was a rare and precious commodity among Russian commanders. By luck of the draw or poor planning, the Russians deployed two of their very best commanders not on the major sectors of the Eastern Front against the Germans, but against the Austrians (with the Brusilov Offensive) and on the peripheral fronts. Like Brusilov, General Nikolai N. Yudenich was a highly competent commander who was used against lesser opponents. In January, he advanced from Kars in northeast Turkey to defeat the Turkish Third Army at the Battle of Köprukov on January 18. When the Turks retreated to the fortified town of Erzurum, Yudenich successfully stormed the defenses in a three-day battle spanning February 13 to 16. While fighting here, he also made an amphibious assault on the Black Sea port of Trebizond, which fell on April 18.

The Caucasus: Turkey Counterattacks

During the summer, the Turks staged counteroffensives against Yudenich. The Turkish Third Army, now under new command, attacked along the Black Sea littoral plain, while a new Turkish Second Army attacked Yudenich’s left flank.

A lesser commander than Yudenich would have been caught between the two Turkish armies and might well have suffered defeat because of the flanking attack. Yudenich, however, moved adroitly and aggressively on July 2, splitting the Turkish Third Army at the Battle of Erzinjan and then routing it on July 25. The already battered Turkish force suffered 34,000 new casualties.

With the Third Army disposed of, Yudenich turned against the Second Army. He was less successful here—although he prevented envelopment of his own forces—and Mustafa Kemal, commanding a Turkish corps, captured two towns, Mus and Bitlis, on August 15. Yudenich soon retook both, however, on August 24. With this, both the Russians and Turks retired to winter quarters, exhausted.

 Words of War A littoral plain is the flat region adjacent to the sea; the coastal region.

On all of the peripheral fronts—the Italian, the Middle Eastern, the Balkan, and the so-called Turkish Fronts—action was costly (with disease typically claiming even more victims than bullets did) and almost always inconclusive. Nevertheless, military planners continued to cling to the belief that because these fronts offered at least some room for maneuver, they might well prove to be the source of measurable progress denied at the deadlocked Western Front. In fact, proportionate to the number of men engaged, they were no more productive and just as prodigal in waste of human life as was combat in the trenches of France.

The Least You Need to Know
  • Austro-Hungarian commander Field Marshal Conrad von Hötzendorf pursued a costly and fruitless campaign against Italy in defiance of Austria’s ally Germany, even as Italy’s Luigi Cadorna continued to waste lives in battle after battle on the Isonzo River.
  • The Brusilov Offensive against Austrian forces was not only one of Russia’s few World War I successes, but, in terms of territory gained and casualties inflicted, it was perhaps the most successful offensive of the war.
  • The Allies enticed Romania into the war with promises of territorial gains; that nation’s army was all but completely destroyed, and most of Romania was overrun by Bulgar-German occupiers.
  • The Allies successfully recruited Arab aid against the Turks in Egypt, but the Quixotic British expedition dispatched to capture Baghdad, held under siege and brought near starvation, surrendered at Kut-el-Amara.
  • The peripheral fronts saw much action in 1916—a good deal of it very costly, and none of it decisive.

Part 4Troubled Seas and Fiery Skies

World War I claimed as its battlefield not just the earth, but the sea and the sky as well. Much of the seaborne action took place underwater, when Germany unleashed the destructive force of U-boat torpedo attacks. However, the sea was also the scene of the biggest naval battle in history, at Jutland, where the great dreadnoughts and battle cruisers of the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet clashed in a combat of unparalleled scope and violence.

World War I greatly accelerated the development of military aviation, and the warring parties struggled to claim the sky as a kind of ultimate high ground from which to observe the enemy’s every move. “Winged knights” jousted in gossamer aircraft to win supremacy in the skies, their one-on-one combats capturing the imagination even of a war-weary world.