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More Failure: 1917

German workers were now putting in fourteen-hour days. And, according to official German counting, 121,114 Germans had starved to death in 1916, up from 88,232 in 1915 – deaths the Germans attributed to the British blockade. But it was also the result of a decline in Germany's farm production because men and horses had been taken from farms for the war effort. During 1916, food riots had occurred in approximately thirty German cities. And premature frosts came that killed the potato harvest. The coming winter would be known as the Turnip Winter. And short of coal like the French, German civilians were shivering in their homes.

In Russia in early March, tsar Nicholas, Emperor or Russia, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland, had no military that would defend him against the unrest that had erupted. At the Kronstadt naval base just outside the Petrograd, sailors were killing their officers, and In Petrograd were wild celebrations and the sacking of mansions. The tsar abdicated for himself and his young son. Nicholas wrote a message of good-bye to his "dearly beloved" troops. In late March the Provisional Government had Nicholas arrested at his headquarters and put on a train that took him to his palace just outside Petrograd. Here Nicholas and his family were under house arrest, but they were pleased to be united again and living in the comfort that his private wealth and servants made possible.

Also around this time, France's General Robert Nivelle thought he had a formula for a successful offensive against the Germans: a massive, denser, creeping bombardment that would break down the German defenses. He declared that if he did not create a breakthrough within the first 48 hours he would stop the offensive rather than shed more blood. He opened his offensive on April 5. It didn't work. He couldn't face the reality of his failure and pushed on. Weary French soldiers, fed up with what they believed were government lies about the war, mutinied, led by older veterans of the war. Soldiers being transported to the front ganged up on their officers, against military policemen and against railway men taking them to the front. An entire division that had fought at Verdun refused to go into battle, and the revolt spread to half the French army.

The British in France were also on offensive, hoping to pull Germans away from the French offensive, and it was costly in British lives. Stretches along the French front were undefended, but the Germans were still pursuing defensive warfare on the Western Front and were not appraising the enemy lines. The French high command managed to keep the rebellion a secret from the outside world. Nivelle was replaced by someone who in a defensive strategy: General Henri Pétain.

A British offensive in Flanders began on June 7, the primary goal of which was to clear the Belgian coast of Germany's submarine bases. But it won no appreciable ground. Bombardments had destroyed water drainage in the area, and with the heavy rains the battlefields had become soft mud and contiguous pools of water-filled shell holes. Men easily sank up to their waists. Movement was most difficult, but the British commander, Douglas Haig, ordered the advance to continue anyway, and by November the British had lost another 300,000 as dead or wounded.

In May, 38 Italian divisions were massed along its mountainous front against 14 Austrian divisions. An Italian offensive gained little ground. The Italians lost 157,000 in dead and wounded and the Austrians 75,000 (approximately the number of Union and Confederate dead in the entire US Civil War.) In August, Italy launched its second offensive for the year. The Austrians fell back. German troops went to their rescue. In October, a combined German and Austrian counter-offensive broke through the Italian line, with a great battle being fought at the little town of Caporetto. The Italians fell back in a rout – more the fault of Italy's military leaders than its rank and file. Some Italian units fought with bravery and determination, but the break down of their front against Austria broke their morale.

The unexpected collapse of the Italian front was more than the Germans had been prepared for. The Germans and Austrians were unable to exploit it. Six French and five British divisions arrived in Italy and shored up the Italian defense line along the Piave River. Meanwhile, the war had become more popular with the Italian public as they sought revenge against their nation's humiliation.

By the end of 1917, the Germans still had their submarine bases in Belgium, but the British and Americans, using the convoy system, depth charges and underwater listening devices, had brought a dramatic drop in the rate of ships being lost to German submarines. And, with the United States in the war, the Allies had an overwhelming superiority in numbers of people. The US could produce enough to sustain the Allied cause indefinitely while Germany's economy was strained and blockaded. But those in command in Germany were not calculating comparable economic strengths, and they found some hope in Russia's collapse as a military power.


Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.