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Mutinies Rock French Army, U-Boats Wreak Havoc

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 275th installment in the series.  

May 9, 1917: Mutinies Rock French Army, U-Boats Wreak Havoc 

After almost three years of pointless slaughter, the abject failure of the Nivelle Offensive, with 187,000 casualties including 29,000 dead, pushed the French Army to the breaking point, and it broke with a wave of mutinies in May-June 1917, eventually involving almost half the army. The mutinies threatened to paralyze the Allied war effort on the Western Front, forcing the British Expeditionary Force and Belgian Army to assume larger roles; to keep the pressure up on Germany, in July Britain launched one of the bloodiest attacks of the war at the Third Battle of Ypres, the nightmare Passchendaele.

The French Army had long been simmering with discontent, which grew sharply during the horror of Verdun, reaching dangerous proportions before the Nivelle Offensive. A French officer, Henri Desagneaux, noted in his diary on April 4, 1917: “Many men get drunk. Morale is low. They are fed up with the war. Certain corps court-martial some men for desertion, theft, insolence, etc.; after condemnation (with reprieve in the majority of the cases) they are transferred to another corps. My company is infested with them.” 

Events abroad also appear to have played a role, as the butchery of the Aisne came close on the heels of the Russian Revolution (also the work of disaffected soldiers) as well as the entry of the United States of America into the war. The drama of the Revolution, in particular, appears to have inspired some of the more political mutineers, whose ranks were heavy with socialists. The French soldier Louis Barthas, a barrel-maker from southern France with socialist leanings, noted the influence of the Russian Revolution but also suggested that more mundane issues like home leave were the real driving force behind the mutiny:

At this time the Russian Revolution broke out. Those Slavic soldiers, only yesterday enslaved and bent double under the weight of iron discipline, unknowingly marching off to massacres like resigned slaves, had thrown off their yokes, proclaimed their liberty, and imposed peace on their masters, their hangmen. The whole world was stupefied, petrified by this revolution, this collapse of the immense empire of the czars. These events had repercussions on the Western Front and throughout the French ranks. A wind of revolt blew across almost all the regiments. There were, besides, plenty of reasons for discontent: the painful failure of the Chemin des Dames offensive, which had no result other than a dreadful slaughter; the prospect of more long months of war ahead, with a highly dubious outcome; and finally, the long wait for home leaves – it’s that which bothered the soldiers most, I believe.

The mutinies began on April 17, 1917, when 17 men from the 108th Regiment abandoned their positions before an attack, and reached crisis proportions in early May, when the 2nd Division refused to attack as ordered (although the soldiers remained in the trenches). According to some reports, the mutinies intensified following false rumors that French authorities planned to “decimate,” or kill every tenth man, from two regiments that refused to attack on the Aisne. 

In mid-May disturbances and insubordination spread to the 18th Division and 127th Division, followed on May 19-20 by the 166th and 3rd Divisions, with dozens more joining in the weeks to come, reaching a climax in early June. In many cases mutinying troops simply refused to attack, but agreed to continue defensive duty in informal parlays with officers. Overall 49 divisions out of 113, or 43% of the total, engaged in insubordination to varying degrees before the disorder was effectively suppressed in the summer of 1917 by Philippe Petain, who replaced the discredited Robert Nivelle as chief of the general staff on May 15. 

As the mutiny spread the incidence of violence increased, including drunken rioting and looting of military and civilian goods, burning down tent encampments, and brawling with other soldiers or civilians. Some of the more revolutionary elements urged their comrades to commandeer trains and drive for Paris, but many of the incidents were actually (relatively) peaceful protests focused on specific grievances and concrete demands, including an end to futile attacks, better food and clean water, and more reliable mail service, so vital for keeping in touch with family back home. Calls for full-on revolution appear to have been for the most part drunken bravado (and perhaps a tactic intended to frighten the authorities into making concessions). Barthas recalled a typical incident:

I cannot pretend to tell the whole story of what happened almost everywhere just then. I will stick to writing what I know, regarding our regiment and the repression which followed. There was, at the end of the village, a shopkeeper for whom the war brought only profit. He sold beer, and he had a cute little waitress to serve it to customers – powerful attractions which, every evening after supper, brought a whole crowd of poilus, a well-behaved clientele which plunked down in groups in the big courtyard adjacent to his shop. One evening, some of the soldiers were singing, others were entertaining their fellows with songs and skits, when a corporal began singing words of revolt against the sad life in the trenches, words of farewell to the dear souls whom we might not see again, of anger against the perpetrators of this infamous war, the rich shirkers who left the fighting to those who had nothing to fight for. At the refrain, hundreds of voices rose in chorus, and at the end fervent applause broke out, mixed with cries of “Peace or revolution!” Down with war!,” as well as “Home leave! Home leave!”

Although they fizzled out in the end, the French mutinies during the spring of 1917 inspired real fear in the French government, for good reason. The decision of radical socialist troops to establish councils or “soviets” representing ordinary rank and file soldiers in a number of units, in clear imitation of the Russian Revolution, was bound to alarm conservative French authorities, already primed to think of socialists as the red menace. The situation was only made more alarming by the presence of several brigades of Russian troops on the Western Front, who were suspected of transmitting the revolutionary fervor of their homeland to the mutineers, prompting the French high command to transfer the Russians to La Courtine in rural France in June 1917 (later the site of their own mutiny in September).

As the mutinies approached their climax in early June, rumors also circulated that the French Army high command was prepared to resort to extreme measures against troops that continued to refuse orders. On June 18, 1917, Desagneaux noted: 

We have relieved here the 3rd Artillery Company because they refused to march any more and the Bosches took advantages of this ill-feeling to recapture the terrain. Throughout the region, there is talk of nothing but mutinies, of troops refusing to relieve their comrades. Near Braisne, they have massed Moroccan and Algerian troops whose role will be to force the troops to go to the trenches if the need arises. 

However in the end violence proved unnecessary (for the most part). To restore order with a minimum of bloodshed the French government summoned Petain, the hero of the early days of Verdun, already popular with the troops due to his care for the ordinary soldiers under his command. In a remarkable burst of activity, over several months Petain met with units representing almost the entire French Army, listening to ordinary soldiers’ grievances. As chief of the general staff, he moved swiftly to meet their main demands, while physically separating rebellious units from unaffected ones and weeding out and isolating ringleaders from their less radical followers. 

Petain’s reforms in this “carrot and stick” approach included more regular leave, better rations, a more sympathetic and responsive medical service, and above all an implicit promise to end the futile attacks, allowing the French Army to go on the defensive and rest after three years of continual bloodletting. At the same time the most egregious cases of insubordination from the mutinies ultimately met with the traditional punishment for mutiny: death. Altogether the French Army held 3,427 “conseils de guerre” or court-martials in the wake of the mutinies, which handed down 2,878 sentences for hard labor and 629 death sentences, with just 43 actual executions (a low number, suggesting the government heeded Petain’s advice to err on the side of lenience in order to allow the army’s wounds to heal; top, a memorial to the executed mutineers).

As noted above, the French mutinies threatened to paralyze the Allied war effort on the Western Front, raising the possibility of military collapse and defeat. But the French government’s tight wartime censorship of the press, coupled with aggressive counter-intelligence efforts, allowed the mutinies to pass almost entirely unnoticed by the Germans, who could have easily profited from the disorder by launching a surprise attack – an impressive achievement, considering the number of troops involved and the length of the outbreaks. In strategic terms France was temporarily weakened by the mutinies, forced to wait for “the Americans and the tanks,” as Petain summed it up. 

Nutrition and Nationalism 

The French and Russian Armies weren’t alone in confronting mutinous or revolutionary elements in its ranks. All the main combatants devoted considerable energy to monitoring the opinions of rank and file soldiers, for example through the reports of military censors who read their letters home, and stamped out signs of active resistance wherever they found them. But inevitably low-level dissent, falling short of actual insubordination, continued unabated throughout the war in all the armies, often expressing itself in less dramatic transgressions like desertion. 

Lack of food, bad food, low pay, and incompetent and arrogant officers were common subjects of complaint for ordinary soldiers on all sides of the First World War, to such an extent that most censors didn’t bother trying to suppress these sentiments, as long as there was no incitement to disobedience. One typical example comes from a German soldier who wrote home on May 6, 1916:

Dear Michael! I am still rather healthy and hope the same of you. Here in the field it is all going down, for the provisions are so small that it is hardly enough for us. The food is really crap, but we have to eat it because it is the only food we get. In the morning and in the afternoon we have to work up to the last minute. They are painstakingly exact in that respect, but they don’t care about the food we get… It is high time the swindle comes to an end. I didn’t even get furlough when my brother died. That is so sad. But the duty comes first… We are always hungry. If the officers would get the same provisions as we do, the war would have been finished a long time ago… It is the same with honours and promotion. Whoever deserves it won’t get it. 

Mutiny for national or political causes was a special concern with some colonial troops, as well as within multiethnic empires like Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, where disenfranchised minorities actively resisted military service and often sympathized with the “enemy.” Princess Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, recorded a whispered story from the Balkan charnel house, where some Czech soldiers refused to massacre fellow Slavs: 

Ossip Schubin the novelist (she is a Bohemian, with all the Bohemian hatred of the Germans and Hungarians) told me a terrible story. Some Bohemian soldiers were ordered to enter a Serbian village and shoot all the inhabitants, including the women and children… The lieutenant who had to carry out this order went out of his mind at the horror of it. The soldiers then turned on the captain and shot him, saying, “Do your dirty work yourself.” 

In the case of the British colonial empire, Indian Muslim and Sikh troops mutinied on several occasions because of alleged violations of their religious strictures, and nationalist sentiment was also circulating in the ranks of Indian units deployed across the world, as reflected in some letters home written (but not necessarily delivered) at this time. Early Islamist and jihadist ideology was also circulating alongside traditional caste affiliations and the struggle against colonial rule, as reflected in a letter written by an anonymous agitator to an Indian soldier in March 1916:

You are entangled in a war in which no victory has been gained nor can any be gained in the future. What you ought to do is raise your fellow caste-men against the English and join the army of Islam. If you die in its service it would be better than living as you are doing now. Act as I have advised you, or you will be sorry afterwards. God’s orders have been received to the effect that the destruction of the British Raj is at hand… All the Muslims who have died in this war fighting for the British will spend an eternity in hell. Kill the English whenever you get a chance and join the enemy… Be watchful, join the enemy, and you will expel the Kafir from your native land. The flag of Islam is ready and will shortly be seen waving.

Although it is impossible to make firm statements about the overall feeling Indian troops during this time, most seem to have remained loyal to the British Empire, despite several abortive uprisings in India during this period, including the Ghadar Mutiny in February 1915. A fairly typical sentiment was expressed by a Sirfaraz Khan, who urged his son Alam to serve the British faithfully, even if it meant fighting their co-religionists, in a letter written on April 16, 1916: “Remember this, that you must always do the Sirkar’s work faithfully. It is very difficult to get such a King… The Turks are not our paternal uncle’s children! I firmly rely on you, that you remain the well-wisher of the Sirkar. Still, it is proper that I should advise you. The Turks made war against our Sirkar without any cause.”

However the perceived injustices of war could bring nationalist sentiments bubbling to the surface at unexpected times. A British officer, T.H. Westmacott, recorded the final words of an Indian soldier convicted of murdering an abusive low-ranking officer, who tried to justify his crime in terms of the struggle against colonialism: 

As Sergeant Walsh, my provost sergeant was tying him to the chair, he shouted in Hindustani, “Salaam, O Sahibs! and Salaam, all Hindus and Mahometans of this regiment! There is no justice in the British Sirkar. I did this deed because I was abused. Those of you who have been abused as I was go and do the same, but eat your own bullet and do not be shot as I shall be.”

U-Boats Wreak Havoc

In the evening of May 9, 1917 Lieutenant Johannes Spiess, commander of the German U-boat U-19, finally saw what he had been looking for all day:

At 7 p.m., we sighted a cloud of smoke. I immediately steered toward it and soon discovered that we were near a southward-bound convoy, which comprised eight ships… The ships were sailing in a perfectly straight line, which we had thought impossible for commercial vessels… Every ten minutes, the convoy changes course by about 20 degrees behind its leader, four escort vessels fanned out before the convoy provided it with light, and two destroyers were zigzagging on both sides. The entire convoy gave the impression of a fleet of well-trained warships.

Allied convoy formations, which usually involved a perimeter of destroyers and trawlers escorting a line of merchant vessels, made it difficult for U-19 to approach its pretty – but not impossible. Spiess’ account also gives some idea of how physically taxing submarine warfare could be: 

While was passed the trawlers in the van of the convoy, I had to use the periscope several times, in order to avoid collisions and observe the convoy’s changes of course. For each observation, I stopped one of the engines and ordered the periscope to be hoisted. As soon as it reached the surface, I made a quick circular inspection of the waters. The navigator, who was standing before me, helped me swing it round faster, because it was very hard to turn. This exercise required a great deal of energy, and before every attack I perspired so abundantly that I had to change clothes, even though I always took off my heavy jacket beforehand. 

Finally, after over two hours spent stalking the convoy, Spiess saw an opening and lunged for it:

At 9:04 p.m., I was no longer hindered by the destroyers and had the objective right in my sights. “Tube 2, fire!” I ordered, and immediately afterwards: “Quick, maximum depth!” While the U19 was obeying the hydroplanes, we were intently waiting for the detonation. But not a sound was heard. Damn it, I must have missed! But suddenly: Rrrboum! A powerful explosion shook and swayed our submarine. 

While epic in its own right, every such sinking was just a single, small event in the larger German campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare launched on February 1, 1917, which saw Allied shipping losses soar in April, followed by sustained high losses through the summer of that year. The volume of total tonnage sunk soared from 377,000 tons in January 1917 to 887,000 tons in April, 618,000 tons in May, and 710,000 tons in June, making this by far the worst period of shipping losses for the Allies during the war. 


These numbers exceeded even the German Admiralty’s optimistic predictions for Allied and neutral shipping losses, seeming to hold out the possibility that German U-boats might really succeed in bringing the island fortress of Britain to her knees by cutting off imports of food, armaments, and other necessities. After remaining mostly steady through the earlier part of the war, the total tonnage of British merchant shipping available tumbled from a pre-war average of around 20 million tons in 1913 to 16 million tons in 1917 and 15 million tons in 1918. Other Allied merchant shipping also suffered heavily during this period.


More importantly, the pace of sinkings appeared to be outstripping the ability of British and American shipyards to make up for the losses. This state affairs which would continue through the end of 1917, secretly terrifying Allied officials, until early 1918, when a massive increase in U.S. shipyard output and new tactics and technology finally started to turn the tide, including convoys, “depth charge” submersible explosives, and sonar, first tested in mid-1917.

Shipping net losses

Later in the war Herman Whitaker, an American correspondent, described seeing a submarine forced to the surface by U.S. Navy destroyers based on the west coast of Ireland: 

The submarine had submerged at once; but, rushing along his wake, the Fanning dropped a depth-mine that wrecked the motors, damaged the oil leads, blew off the rudder, tipped the stern up, and sent the “sub” down on a headlong dive of fully two hundred feet. Afterward the commander said that he thought she would never stop. In a desperate effort to check her before she was crushed by deep-sea pressure, he blew out all four water-ballast tanks, and so came shooting back up with such velocity that the “sub” leaped out of the water like a breaching whale. Instantly the Nicholson, which had swung on a swift circle, charged and dropped a second depth-mine as the submarine went down again… Having no rudder, the “sub” was porpoising along, now up, now down; and every time the conning-tower showed the destroyers sent a shot whistling past it. They had fired three each before the hatch flew up, and the crew came streaming out and ranged along the deck with their hands up. 

The Germans were under strict orders not to allow their vessels to fall into enemy hands, leading to a final dramatic twist: 

As the Nicholson and Fanning hove alongside, covering the crew with their guns, two were seen to run back below. They were gone only a minute, but that was sufficient. Undoubtedly they had opened the sea-cocks and scuttled the vessel, for she sank three minutes later. The crew jumped into the water, and were hauled aboard the destroyer as fast as they could catch a line…

Submarine production

While the balance of power on and below the sea remained in flux, civilians and soldiers making the ocean crossing spent the days and weeks with the knowledge that death could befall them at any moment. Reginald Cecil Huggins was an 18-year-old British soldier aboard the British transport Arcadian when it sank in the Aegean after being torpedoed on April 15, 1917 (below, the Arcadian): 

Without one moment’s warning, a terrific explosion occurred, made hideous by the splintering into matchwood of great timbers, the crash of falling glass and the groaning of steel girders wrenched asunder, followed by the hissing rush of escaping steam from the ship’s boilers… [H]aving given one convulsive shudder from end to end, the great ship began to settle down on her port side with the loose deck paraphernalia slithering about in all directions and dropping into the sea. 

Unable to swim, Huggins was more or less helpless in the water as the ship sank nearby: 

Having read about the vortex a sinking vessel will make, I was ruminating on my chances as a survivor. The suspense, fortunately, was brief. For a moment or two the Arcadian partly righted on her keel and then with much hissing of escaping steam and explosions form the boiler rooms, she slid for ever out of sight of human eyes, carrying with her hundreds of troops and her own crew caught like rates on the lower decks. Within three minutes (official Admiralty time) from the time the she was struck all that remained of the ship was bits of floating wreckage. 

Just as he feared, Huggins was sucked down by vortex created by the sinking ship:

It is difficult to describe my sensations during the minute or so following. Down and still further down, I was dragged by the suction till it seemed that I must soon touch bottom. I was spun round with great rapidity and swirled about in an alarming manner. I held my breath and closed tightly both eyes and mouth, until forced by bursting lungs to take in air, I opened my mouth, getting a large helping of Aegean Sea. My mind was functioning normally. I can recollect that I had quite decided that H.M. Army was about to lose one live cavalryman… At last, however, I came with a rush to the surface, and was violently ill for some time… Large numbers of drowned, the survivors, and a quantity of wreckage were close by me. 

Luckily Huggins survived to be picked up by a British rescue vessel. Even when the voyage was uneventful, however, passengers were understandably preoccupied by the danger looming over what was once a straightforward sea journey, leading to some jarring juxtapositions (below, crewmembers in a lifeboat abandon the Aragon, sunk in the Mediterranean with the loss of 610 lives on December 30, 1917).

John Kautz, an American headed to France with other college students to serve as volunteer drivers for French Army supply trucks, wrote in his diary aboard ship on May 30, 1917: 

How beautiful it is out here to-night! I have sat a long time on the deck looking back along our twisting wake to where the up-slanting horizon shuts out the western sea with a veil of pale light and barely showing stars. The moon, three quarters full, makes a broad rippling patch across the easy-rolling water. People here and there upon the deck talk in low tones and laugh subduedly now and then. Above on the boat deck a dozen college fellows are singing songs softly and with harmony. Now a pall hangs over all. The necessity always of restraint and caution lays a heavy hand on hearts that would be gay.

In such circumstances the most reasonable response was sometimes a combination of gallows humor, fatalism and bravado. Julia Stimson, an American nurse traveling to France to serve as chief nurse in a British military hospital, wrote her parents from aboard ship on May 21, 1917:

 

The only time that one can even imagine any danger is at night when on the decks not a single particle of light can be seen, except a dark purple glow at each companion-way. All the portholes are fastened shut and all the windows of the dining-saloon are shut and shaded as soon as it begins to get dark. The main hall, or whatever the place is called, in the center of the boat where the main stairways are, is also entirely dark, so that when the doors to the deck are opened no light will shine out… As one of my nurses said in her slow drawly way: “There isn’t any use worrying about the submarines. If the Germans are going to kill us, worrying isn’t going to prevent it. If the Germans do kill me, I’m going to come back and haunt the whole German army.”

Transatlantic passengers copy

Unsurprisingly the volume of voluntary traffic across the Atlantic Ocean plunged during the war period. At the same time, some civilian passengers brave enough to make the trip frankly enjoyed the suspense of the perilous ocean crossing in wartime, which allowed them to share in some small part the dangers facing men in the trenches – at least once they were back on dry land. Thus Lord Northcliffe, the British newspaper tycoon, described traveling across the Atlantic to observe American preparations for war, noted:

We have all been longing for the voyage to be over, but now that it is nearly ended, we almost regret it… Why is it? This voyage has been longer than any I ever made across the Atlantic. What has made us enjoy it? What is it that will make us look back on it as a voyage of unusual interest? It is the tinge of danger. Travelling has ceased to be humdrum, uneventful. It has become romantic again.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: Surprise Attack At Cambrai
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 294th installment in the series.

November 20, 1917: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

By fall 1917 the basic pattern of attack on the Western Front was well established, with a huge artillery bombardment, sometimes lasting days or weeks, preceding a mass infantry assault across No Man’s Land—the model employed at Passchendaele. Then on November 20, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai, the British tried something radically new: scrapping the lengthy artillery bombardment—which also warned the enemy an attack was coming—in favor of a stealthy surprise attack with tanks.

Since their debut at the Somme in 1916, the new wonder weapons had proved a little less wonderful than hoped—prone to frequent breakdowns, “ditching” or getting swamped in mud, and with limited range under the best of circumstances. However, a number of spectacular successes confirmed the temperamental vehicles’ potential in the right circumstances. Could new tactics, with massed tanks and no preparatory bombardment, deliver a breakthrough, ending the stasis of trench warfare?

With the British Expeditionary Force to the north exhausted after Passchendaele, it was left to General Julian Byng’s British Third Army, including Canadian and South African troops, to execute the giant live fire experiment. They would mount a surprise attack spearheaded by almost 400 tanks and two corps of infantry, using “infiltration” tactics similar to stormtroopers’. The attack targeted the town of Cambrai—a key supply hub for German forces holding the Hindenburg Line to the south.


Erik Sass

The initial attack was more successful than the British could have hoped: at 6 a.m. on November 20, 1917, hundreds of tanks began crossing no man’s land with six divisions of British infantry, supported by a simultaneous bombardment by just over 1000 artillery pieces of various sizes. The tanks cleared the way through barbed wire for columns of infantry who followed close behind, overrunning enemy trenches and surrounding strongpoints while the tanks pushed ahead. Meanwhile a smoke screen helped prevent the Germans from directing artillery fire on to the tanks. William Watson, a British tank officer, recalled:

In front of the wire, tanks in a ragged line were surging forward inexorably over the short down grass. Above and around them hung the blue-gray smoke of their exhausts. Each tank was followed by a bunch of Highlanders, some running forward from cover to cover, but most of them tramping steadily behind their tanks … Beyond the enemy trenches, the slopes from which the German gunners might have observed the advancing tanks were already enveloped in thick white smoke. The smoke-shells burst with a sheet of vivid red flame, pouring out blinding, suffocating clouds. It was as if flaring bonfires were burning behind a bank of white fog. Over all, innumerable aeroplanes were flying steadily to and fro. The enemy made little reply.

The sudden appearance of the tanks, emerging from the early morning mist, took many of the German defenders by surprise, surrendering to British infantry advancing close behind. Watson wrote:

Odd bunches of men were making their way across what had been No Man’s Land. A few, ridiculously few, wounded were coming back. Germans in twos and threes … were wandering confusedly towards us without escort, putting up their hand in tragic and amazed resignation, whenever they saw a Highlander. The news was magnificent. Our confidence had been justified. Everywhere we had overrun the first system and were pressing on.

By the end of the day the British attackers had advanced up to five miles in places—a huge win by the standards of the First World War. Watson described scenes in captured German positions well behind the front line:

We walked up the road, which in a few yards widened out. On either side were dug-outs, stores, and cook-houses. Cauldrons of coffee and soup were still on the fire. This regimental headquarters the enemy had defended desperately. The trench-boards were slippery with blood, and fifteen to twenty corpses, all Germans and all bayoneted, lay strewn about the road like drunken men.

However, the success at Cambrai also highlighted, once again, the shortcomings and basic limitations of tanks: as Watson noted, by the end of the first day four out of his 11 tanks were knocked out, three had ditched, and the remainder were short on gas.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Meanwhile the advantage of surprise had been used up and the Germans were rushing fresh troops to the battlefield to reinforce the beleaguered Second Army under General Georg von Marwitz. On November 23, the British continued the attack with an assault on Bourlon Wood, which they had identified as a key position, but already German resistance was stiffening. Watson left this impressionistic description of the British attack at Bourlon Wood on November 23:

At 10:30 a.m. the barrage fell and we could see it climb, like a living thing, through the wood and up the hillside, a rough line of smoke and flame. On the hillside to the left of the wood we could mark the course of the battle—the tanks with tiny flashes darting from their flanks—clumps of infantry following in little rushes—an officer running in front of his men, until suddenly he crumpled up and fell, as though some unseen hammer had struck him on the head—the men wavering in the face of machine-gun fire and then spreading out to surround the gun—the wounded staggering painfully down the hill, and the stretcher-bearers moving backwards and forwards in the wake of the attack—the aeroplanes skimming low along the hillside, and side-slipping to rake the enemy trenches with their guns.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Once again, tanks delivered some impressive gains but they remained vulnerable to unexpectedly unfavorable ground conditions, mechanical breakdowns, and fuel shortages. Of course, despite their heavy armor they were hardly immune to enemy fire, and a single lucky shot by field artillery could spell the end of a vehicle and its crew. Watson described one terrible scene:

Flames were coming from the rear of the tank, but its guns continued to fire and the tank continued to move. Suddenly the driver must have realised what was happening. The tank swung towards home. It was too late. Flames burst from the roof and the tank stopped, but the sponson doors never opened and the crew never came out … When I left my post half an hour later the tank was still burning.

By the end of November the British had chalked up major gains that threatened German logistics in northern France and jeopardized the integrity of the Hindenburg Line. But between hundreds of casualties, mechanical issues, and dwindling fuel, the tanks were largely a spent force—and there was no way the Germans were going to leave the British to enjoy their conquests. Even worse, the Third Army’s new positions formed a vulnerable salient, exposed to enemy counterattack on both flanks.

On November 30, 1917 the Germans unleashed their biggest attack (or rather counterattack) on British forces on the Western Front since 1915, with a crushing artillery bombardment followed by infantry advances against all fronts of the salient southwest of Cambrai. The German counterattack displayed their own tactical evolution with stormtroop assaults, employing trench mortars, grenades and machine guns, closely coordinated with artillery to break up barbed wire entanglements and force enemy infantry to take shelter.

Over subsequent German counterattacks from December 1-7, the recently captured salient collapsed under the weight of superior numbers, reflecting the determination of the German general staff, which was determined to contain the threat to the Hindenburg Line. Private William Reginald Dick described outnumbered British defenders preparing for a German counterattack at La Vacquerie, a village south of Cambrai, on December 3, 1917:

Around and above is a turmoil of noise; the mighty roar of dropping shells, the incessant rending crashes of the explosions, the scream and thud of whizz-bangs, and permeating all, the booming thunder of the guns. In this battering inferno of sound, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. The earth quivers continuously under the metallic flail. Across the shattered soil behind our position, a barrage is falling, a vast unbroken curtain of spouting bursts, spraying up earth, smoke and steel in a dark and furious barrier, half veiled by dense black fumes that writhe, heave, and trail upward in a mist of dirty grey … The Lewis-gun team beside me crouch below their deadly charge; it is tilted up ready to heave on the parapet; a drum is fixed for immediate firing.

The German infantry, led by stormtroopers, advanced boldly into a wall of British fire:

I see the wide waste of the shell-churned soil, the tattered wire, and, well over, a dark and far-flung line of gray-clad stormers; behind them others rising fast, apparently springing from the drab earth in knots and groups, spreading out, surging forward. Simultaneously from our trench bursts a great roar of fire. I fire with fiercely jerking bolt, round after round merged into the immense noise …

As the German infantry approached, firing and throwing grenades, the British defenders were forced to withdraw to another trench in the rear:

Suddenly I hear faintly a medley of confused shouts. I see the men on the fire-step firing fast again, and up the trench they are firing both to front and flank … I see bomb smoke above the parapet to the right, I see men leap back from the fire-step and merge with another little rush of consumed wounded. The platoon sergeant waves his arm urgently, “Down the trench!”

Of course the formidable German stormtrooper units suffered heavy casualties during the German counterattack as well, according to the German novelist Ernst Junger, who described grenade duels with British troops in adjoining trenches at Cambrai in his novel and memoir, Storm of Steel:

The British resisted manfully. Every traverse had to be fought for. The black balls of Mills bombs crossed in the air with our own long-handled grenades. Behind every traverse we captured, we found corpses or bodies still twitching. We killed each other, sight unseen. We too suffered losses. A piece of iron crashed to the ground next to the orderly, which the fellow was unable to avoid; and he collapsed to the ground, while his blood issued on to the clay from many wounds. We hurdled over his body, and charged forward.

Junger described the unique thrill, and terror, of combat with grenades:

One barely glanced at the crumpled body of one’s opponent; he was finished, and a new duel was commencing. The exchange of hand-grenades reminded me of fencing with foils; you needed to jump and stretch, almost as in a ballet. It’s the deadliest of duels, as it invariably ends with one or other of the participants being blown to smithereens. Or both.

During the course of the Battle of Cambrai, the Germans suffered around 45,000 casualties, compared to around 44,200 British. Today the Cambrai Memorial commemorates 7000 British and South African soldiers who died during the battle and were buried in unknown graves.

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Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: The Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds
Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 293rd installment in the series.

November 6-8, 1917: Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds

“The abyss has opened at last,” wrote Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate Socialist politician in Russia’s provisional government. In his diary, he recounted the incredible events of November 6-8, 1917 (October 24-26 in Russia’s old Julian calendar, which is why they’re known as the “October Revolution”) when Lenin’s radical communist Bolsheviks launched a second coup attempt—and succeeded:

Bolshevism has conquered … it was all very simple. The Provisional Government and the first All-Russian Soviet were overthrown as easily as was the Czarist regime. Through their Military Committees of Revolution the Bolsheviki got control of the regiments. Through the Petrograd Workers’ Soviet they became masters of the working classes. These soldiers and Petrograd workmen commandeered all automobiles in the street, occupied the Winter Palace, Petropavlovskaia Fortress, the railway stations, the telephones, and the posts. To destroy the old government and to establish the new required only a bare 24 hours.

As Sorokin’s stunned account suggests, Lenin’s second attempt succeeded where the first had failed, due chiefly to better planning and organization combined with a more favorable—that is, increasingly disastrous—external political and military situation.

Although the July coup attempt failed, it succeeded in raising the Bolsheviks’ profile, adding tens of thousands of new members and giving it leverage on soviets (councils) representing workers and soldiers across Russia, including the main All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Meanwhile, the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky remained weak and discredited by the failure of the summer offensive.

Other events also favored the Bolsheviks: in September 1917, facing General Kornilov’s “counterrevolutionary” coup attempt, Kerensky was forced to release leading Bolsheviks from prison and allow the Bolshevik supporters in the Red Guard to arm themselves in order to suppress the Kornilov Rebellion. Kornilov’s abortive putsch stirred fears of military-led reaction among soldiers who feared the return of Tsarist discipline, further increasing their support for the Bolsheviks, while Kerensky’s clumsy handling of it alienated whatever support he could still claim in conservative and military circles.

In fact, following the mass resignation of his cabinet, Kerensky ruled as the virtual dictator of the Provisional Government. But his position was weak and he failed to crack down on the Bolsheviks, who had the support of other socialists in the Petrograd Soviet. Impressed by Bolshevik commitment to action, and especially calls for peace, workers and peasants were switching their allegiance from the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary Party to Lenin’s party by the thousands. For his part, Lenin, still working in exile, signaled his commitment to political upheaval with his latest theoretical work, State and Revolution, calling for the destruction of the bourgeois state in its entirety.


Erik Sass

Then, in October (amid falling voter participation) the Bolsheviks won a majority in the workers’ sections of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, reflecting factory workers’ growing disillusionment with the more moderate socialist parties. This gave them political cover to sideline the Ipsolkom, the moderate socialist leadership chosen by the All-Russian Soviet, in effect creating their own parallel Soviet organization—stacked with their own supporters, of course. The Bolsheviks began convening ad hoc local and regional conferences of Soviets, only inviting pro-Bolshevik representatives to create an appearance of democratic unanimity. The other members of the socialist leadership, Ipsolkom, protested the Bolshevik actions as illegitimate but were powerless to stop them, in part because their supporters were now armed and receiving more overt support from rank-and-file troops.

By this time military discipline had deteriorated sharply, according to Anton Denikin, a former Tsarist commander who would become one of the top “White” counter-revolutionary generals. In September 1917, Denikin described how he and his colleagues narrowly escaped a lynch mob, composed of soldiers who openly debated executing one of Denikin’s fellow officers after he injured a rank-and-file soldier:

The meeting continued. Numerous speakers called for an immediate lynching … The soldier who had been wounded by Lieutenant Kletsando was shouting hysterically and demanding his head … The crowd raged. We, the seven of us, surrounded by a group of cadets, headed by Betling, who marched by my side with drawn sword, entered the narrow passage through this living human sea, which pressed on us from all sides … passing the pools left by yesterday’s rain, the soldiers fill their hands with mud and pelt[ed] us with it. Our faces, eyes, ears, are covered with its fetid, viscid slime. Stones come flying at us. Poor, crippled General Orlov has his face severely bruised; Erdeli and I, as well, were struck—in the back and on the head.

A young Russian officer, Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, later recalled an alarming experience as an aristocratic junior officer trying to travel incognito:

I realized that travelling all by myself, in boxcars filled with all kinds of people, mostly deserters and soldiers, and travelling there in the uniform of an officer was very, very risky. So I had my shoulder epaulettes, showing my rank, detached from my coat. It was an officers’ coat lined with sheepskin that every officer was wearing, and many soldiers had stolen or requisitioned similar coats, and they were all undisciplined—just a crowd all staring at me, trying to guess who I might be. Some suggested that I might be an officer and if so, I should be immediately thrown out of the freight car while the train was moving.

Against this backdrop of growing indiscipline, the Bolsheviks had little trouble convincing disaffected soldiers in the soviets, many who had been demanding peace for months, to support its attempt to overthrow the bourgeois Provisional Government. They were aided in this by the Petrograd Soviet’s panicked decision to create a Revolutionary Committee of Defense when the Germans menaced the capital, which the Bolsheviks immediately suborned and turned to their own ends (ironically while receiving financial support from the German enemy themselves).

By the fall of 1917, Lenin felt confident enough to strike at the Provisional Government directly, using Kerensky’s hollow dictatorship as a foil to rally the support of workers and soldiers with the slogan, “all power to the Soviets!” In late October the Bolsheviks sent out invitations for the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, which would form the Constituent Assembly, but once again only pro-Bolshevik deputies were included. After slipping back into Petrograd in mid-October, Lenin brushed aside objections from fellow Bolsheviks Kamenev and Zinoviev and argued in favor of a coup attempt that would precede the Second Congress of Soviets, hopefully taking their opponents by surprise.

The Bolshevik leadership remained divided over the coup plan until the last minute, with Lenin and Trotsky pressing for an immediate attempt to seize power. The Bolsheviks shouldn’t expect the Second Congress of Soviets to seize power on its own behalf, he reasoned, but instead should present it with a fait accompli, leaving the Congress and the Constituent Assembly to ratify the Bolshevik seizure of power. However, the Bolsheviks were forced to delay the coup repeatedly, ultimately launching it during the Second Congress of Soviets.

In early November the Bolshevik-controlled Revolutionary Committee of Defense sent out 200 commissars, most of them former junior officers who had been imprisoned for sedition, with instructions to rally Bolshevik sympathizers in the Petrograd garrison. A relatively small proportion of the garrison would respond to the call—about 8000 men, or 4 percent of all the troops in the Petrograd area—but this was enough, as the rest of the soldiers, who universally loathed Kerensky’s Provisional Government, opted to stay neutral.

With the Bolsheviks openly preparing for a coup, on the morning of November 6, 1917 Kerensky took belated action to defend the Provisional Government—but received no support from the army’s officer corps, which faulted his treatment of the imprisoned General Kornilov, whom they considered a patriot. Thus Kerensky was forced to order young cadets, a handful of Cossacks, and the “Women’s Battalion of Death” to defend key installations, while also ordering the arrest of the Revolutionary Committee of Defense to no avail. This just gave the Bolsheviks an excuse to proceed with the coup, to defend the Soviet against this “counterrevolutionary conspiracy.”

In Petrograd the coup came off so smoothly that many inhabitants didn’t notice at first. Under the direction of Trotsky acting through the Revolutionary Committee of Defense, soldiers and sailors in Bolshevik-controlled units seized control overnight of almost all the key buildings in Petrograd, including the telephone and telegraph exchanges, military staff headquarters, bridges, railroad stations, and post offices—gathering all of Petrograd’s communications and key transportation facilities in one swoop. Only the Winter Palace held out, with some ministers remaining after Kerensky fled the city in disguise on the morning of November 7, 1917, to beg frontline commanders for help.

The defenders of the Winter Palace held out bravely, forcing back several attempts by Bolshevik forces to capture the remaining government ministers, but at 10 a.m. Lenin went ahead with the proclamation of the seizure of power on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet, along with vague promises of a “democratic peace” and “worker control of production.” Lenin presented the coup as a move on behalf of Russian soldiers and workers, aiming to secure the power of the Soviet won in March 1917—even though it was obviously a Bolshevik coup.

Finally, facing fire from both the neighboring Peter and Paul Fortress as well as the cruiser Aurora, both under Bolshevik control, the last holdouts at the Winter Palace gave up shortly after midnight on November 8. As a furious mob looted the palace, the remaining ministers of the Provisional Government were placed under arrest; Kerensky, still trying to drum up support from the Russian army, was deposed in absentia.

Moderate socialists in the Second Congress of Soviets, including Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries, initially denounced the coup, but they were outnumbered by hand-picked Bolshevik delegates and sympathizers from the Left Social Revolutionaries, allowing Lenin to give a democratic veneer to the coup. The Congress of Soviets, in reality a Bolshevik-controlled rump assembly, duly approved his proposals to form a Council of People’s Commissars to run the country until the constituent assembly, immediately begin peace negotiations, and redistribute all commercially owned land. It also voted for a new Soviet leadership, Ipsolkom, which would control the upcoming constituent assembly.

Mayhem in Moscow

Things didn’t go nearly as smoothly in Moscow, Russia’s main industrial city and the center of Russian arms production, where the Provisional Government’s defenders put up a surprisingly stiff resistance from November 7-15 (top, a Bolshevik patrol). Again, young officer cadets played a major role in the defense of the dying liberal regime, this time with more success, while soldiers sympathetic to the Bolsheviks were apparently slower to get involved. Eduard Dune, a young Latvian Red Guard member working at a factory in a Moscow suburb, remembered receiving a breathless report from a fellow Bolshevik recently returned from the city, pleading with the soldiers’ council for help:

Sapronov outlined what he had seen on the streets of Moscow and reported that cadets and officers were laying siege to the Moscow Soviet in the mansion of the governor-general and the party committee in the Dresden Hotel. The district was still holding out, thanks to the selfless efforts of several dozen Red Guards, armed with revolvers, but they had neither rifles nor cartridges. He explained that similar street fighting was going on in Petrograd and asked for the soldiers’ help in overcoming the counterrevolutionary forces.

Of course it probably didn’t help that many of the Red Guards, including Dune himself, had never used firearms before:

We young people had never held a weapon in our hands before, and here we were, face to face with a real “cannon.” The long thick rifle was so heavy that we could barely hold it in a horizontal position on our shoulders. It was made still longer by the bayonet-saber. In addition, the several dozen thick cartridges with lead bullets were heavy enough to tear our pockets. As soon as dawn arrived, we resolved to study our weapons and use one cartridge on a test fire.

On November 8, 1917, after a unit sympathetic to the Bolsheviks briefly seized control of the Kremlin, the cadets successfully counterattacked, recapturing the historic fortress the following day. After a short-lived ceasefire, with more pro-Bolshevik troops on hand, on November 12, 1917 the Moscow Revolutionary Committee ordered a new attack, leading to a wave of violence across the city, including fierce fighting from building to building. Despite his lack of familiarity with his weapon, Dune found himself caught up in his first firefight with defenders of the Provisional Government near Lubianka Square, where he also saw his first combat death:

We ran to the other side, under shelter of the building itself, but couldn’t get inside, as this section of the street was under fire from the opposite direction. We had no alternative but to return fire. It was now daylight and we were clearly visible. The only cover we had were the iron posts of the street lamps, so we returned fire from behind them… Soon, seeing the futility of our shooting, I cried to him: “Come on, let’s get away.” It was only then that I noticed he was stretched motionless on the sidewalk, with his rifle lying across his body. While I ran for the nurse, I thought how easy and quietly a man can die, without words or groans. Perhaps he had had a premonition of something painful, for he had been humming a sad and melancholy tune as we were coming on the train, and he had walked along, weary and silent.

Another participant, Anna Litveiko, then a teenager, remembered nursing wounded Bolshevik fighters in the besieged offices of the Moscow Soviet:

All of a sudden there was a loud noise. Shattered glass fell all over the floor, and someone started moaning. Someone else shouted: “We’re being shot at from an armored car!” Everyone rushed down the street. We did, too. Outside, everybody was shooting at an armored car that was standing right in front of the building. There was so much shooting that I was totally confused. I had my Smith & Wesson in my hand… While I was trying to decide where to aim, the armored car fired one last round and quickly disappeared.

The arrival of artillery on the Bolshevik side finally settled the issue, forcing the pro-government Committee of Public Safety to surrender on the afternoon of November 15, 1917. Spared the fate of cities destroyed by the First World War, much of Moscow lay in ruins after the fighting. Dune described the scene in the Moscow telephone exchange, where pro-government defenders had holed up:

When the occupied building had been cleared of all the prisoners, we were told to go around the rooms in search of any people still hiding and to collect weapons and cartridges that had not been handed over. We couldn’t get to the top floor, as the staircase had collapsed after the explosion of the shell. The other floors were intact, but the windows of all the rooms were either smashed or peppered with bullet holes. Under a layer of dust, plaster, and broken glass, the parquet floors no longer shone. Tables and cupboards had been moved from their original places. Apparently people had been sleeping on some of them, for pillows and stacks of paper were piled on them. Everything else—inkwells, pens, pencils, rulers, a lot of clean paper—was strewn on the floor.

The Bolsheviks had triumphed in Petrograd and Moscow, and soon set to work gaining control of local and regional soviets across Russia. But their support outside the big cities was scant, and large parts of the countryside soon descended into quiet anarchy, as peasants appropriated landlord land and waited for the chaos in the cities to pass. Meanwhile Russia was still at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, and despite their calls for immediate peace talks, Lenin, Trotsky, and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership didn’t have a realistic program for a negotiated settlement (reflecting their hope that the Bolshevik coup would trigger a worldwide communist revolution).

Finally, for ordinary and elite Russians alike, the Bolshevik coup came amid worsening conditions, according to Sorokin, who lamented the situation in Petrograd in the winter of 1917:

Everything is closed, schools, shops, banks, offices. Hunger is everywhere increasing. Kerensky is defeated. The Bolsheviki have taken the banks, state and private, and my former friend Pyatakoff has been made Commissary of Finance. From the front come new tales of horror … Our army is now a wild flying mob which destroys everything that stands in its path. German invasion is inevitable.

It wasn’t long before Lenin’s Bolsheviks showed their true faces, crushing dissent and imprisoning hundreds of “bourgeois” and “liberal” figures without charges. They also moved quickly to stamp out free speech, triggering protests from their Socialist comrades—to no avail. Sorokin himself was forced to go on the run after writing a signed column criticizing the Bolshevik coup:

Invasion of editorial offices and printing plants have become an everyday routine. Bolshevik soldiers destroy copy and even presses. As a matter of form, we obey orders to cease our publications, but they reappear immediately under slightly altered names … Today again I narrowly escaped arrest. As I entered the courtyard of our building a band of persecutors followed me, some going to the office, other remaining at the gate. Fortunately, they did not know me by sight, and as it was dark I lingered outside devising plans of escape.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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