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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

WWI Centennial: Disaster At Caporetto

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 291st installment in the series.

October 24-27, 1917: Disaster At Caporetto

In the spring and summer of 1917, the momentum of events in the First World War seemed to favor the Allies. The U.S. and Greece joined the war, a democratic revolution promised to revive Russia, and the British put the Germans on the defensive again at Passchendaele in Flanders. Just a few months later, however, the tables had turned in dramatic fashion: although American troops began arriving in relatively modest numbers, the British Flanders offensive was flailing in the autumn mud and Russia was teetering on the verge of another (far more radical) revolution.

Then, on October 24-27, 1917, the other shoe dropped. A combined Austro-German force launched a crushing offensive on the Italian front, achieving a successful breakthrough and the near-collapse of the Italian Army. Caporetto is commemorated as one of the worst battlefield defeats suffered by either side during the war, with the virtual destruction of the Italian Second Army ranked alongside debacles like the annihilation of the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, the collapse of Austria-Hungary’s armies during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, and the shattering of the British Fifth Army in March 1918 during the final German onslaught. Thanks to Caporetto and the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, by the end of 1917—after more than three years of war—the fortunes of the Allies had never been at a lower ebb.

Crisis and Complacency

Following the surprise Italian victory at the Sixth Battle of Isonzo, which saw the fall of the town of Gorizia, stasis returned to the front until the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo in August-September 1917, when the Italians once again managed to push the Habsburg defenders of the First and Second Isonzo Armies back near Montefalcone (though once again the gains came at an astronomical cost in human blood, including 30,000 Italian and 20,000 Habsburg dead).

The Italian conquest of the strategic Bainsizza Plateau during the Eleventh Isonzo threatened to isolate several Habsburg mountain strongholds, endangering Austro-Hungarian control of nearby Tolmein and the Slovenian hinterland to the east. Meanwhile, after 11 bloody battles, the Austro-Hungarian armies on the Isonzo Front were finally stretched to the breaking point. In short, the Central Powers could no longer neglect the Italian front.


Erik Sass

At the same time, the Habsburg military had new leadership at the very top. The young, reform-minded Emperor Karl I had succeeded his uncle Franz Josef on the latter’s death on November 21, 1916, and in March 1917 Karl sacked the imperious chief of the Imperial general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf—one of the main advocates of war with Serbia in 1914, who had frequently butted heads with the empire’s civilian leadership, not to mention his equally imperious German colleagues.

Karl replaced Conrad with General Arz von Straussenberg, who had worked closely with the Germans on the Eastern Front and earned their trust. Straussenberg’s good relations with the German leaders, chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his own chief of staff, quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, helped secure seven German divisions from the Eastern Front to bolster the overstretched Austro-Hungarian armies and spearhead a new attack on the Italian Front. The German contribution to the hybrid Austro-German Fourteenth Army, which remained totally under German command, included the elite Alpenkorps, specializing in mountain combat. The Austro-Hungarian Army contributed 10 divisions to the Fourteenth Army, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Second Isonzo Army (previously part of the Fifth Army under Svetovar Boroevic), Tenth Army, and Eleventh Army.

The arrival of 140,000 battle-hardened German assault infantry raised morale among their overtaxed Habsburg allies, and would soon strike fear in the hearts of their foes, according to Ernest Hemingway, whose character Lt. Frederic Henry observes in A Farewell to Arms (based on Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver on the Italian front): “The word Germans was something to be frightened of. We did not want to have anything to do with the Germans.”

The Germans and Austrians took elaborate precautions to conceal the movement of new troops to the front, as recounted by Erwin Rommel, then a 25-year-old lieutenant whose Württemberg Mountain Battalion, an elite assault unit, would play a major role in the victory:

Because of enemy aerial reconnaissance each prescribed march objective had to be reached before daybreak at which time all men and animals had to be concealed in the most uncomfortable and inadequate accommodations imaginable. These night marches made great demands on the poorly fed troops. My detachment consisted of three mountain companies and a machine gun company, and I usually marched on foot with my staff at the head of the long column.

The Central Powers’ attack at Caporetto would enjoy stunning success in large part thanks to storm trooper units like Rommel’s, using new “infiltration” tactics developed by German Army captain Willy Rohr beginning in the spring of 1915, refined at Verdun in 1916, and recently employed by the German Eighth Army under General Oskar von Hutier at Riga in September 1917.

The new combat technique centered on small, highly trained groups of Stosstruppen (stormtroopers) armed with machine guns, rifles, grenades, mortars, and even field guns, who would penetrate deep behind enemy lines following intense but localized heavy artillery bombardments, in order to neutralize enemy machine guns and artillery before the main infantry assault. The stormtroopers typically bypassed enemy strongpoints whenever possible, leaving them to be surrounded and destroyed by a second wave of larger assault squads with heavy weaponry, and enabling the stormtroopers to keep moving to sow chaos in the rear (below, a German assault platoon rests during the battle).


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

For his part the Italian chief of the general staff, Luigi Cadorna, ignored repeated warnings of an impending enemy attack, noting the arrival of snow in the Julian Alps and ordering Italian troops to stay on the defensive before going on holiday in Venice in mid-October. Cadorna was confident that the Austrian attack would come 50 miles south of the Isonzo, on the Carso Plateau. Away from headquarters and distracted by growing political opposition to his command in Rome, he also failed to discern that one of his army commanders, General Capello, hadn’t move the Second Army to a defensive footing—leaving a large number of his troops forward deployed on the far (eastern) bank of the Isonzo River, where they could be stranded if the bridges fell. In many areas Italian defenses were discontinuous, with hillside trenches broken by outcroppings, gorges, and other rough terrain—making them perfect targets for infiltration techniques.

Amid heavy autumn rains the Austro-German hammer blow fell at 2 a.m. on October 24, 1917, when artillery unleashed a terrifying bombardment that some German soldiers said exceeded Verdun or the Somme. Even Rommel and his colleagues seemed impressed:

It was a dark and rainy night and in no time a thousand gun muzzles were flashing on both sides of Tolmein. In the enemy territory an uninterrupted bursting and banging thundered and reechoed from the mountains as powerfully as the severest thunderstorm. We saw and heard this tremendous activity with amazement. The Italian searchlights tried vainly to pierce the rain, and the expected enemy interdiction fire of the area around Tolmein did not materialize.

That was probably due in part to the deadly combination of phosgene and chlorine gas shells that overwhelmed Italian soldiers, many of whom failed to put on their gasmasks because the yellow gas blended invisibly into the heavy mountain fog. By dawn Rommel and his assault team, whose mission was to protect the flank of the Bavarian Life Guards in a dangerous mountain assault, were moving forward to their jumping-up points:

A few shells struck on both sides of the long column of files without doing any damage. The column halted close to the front line. We were frozen and soaked to the skin and everyone hoped the jump-off would not be delayed. But the minutes passed slowly. In the last quarter hour before the attack the fire increased to terrific violence. A profusion of bursting shells veiled the hostile positions a few hundred yards ahead of us in vapor and a gray pall of smoke.

At 6 a.m. Italian secondary lines were under fire, and German and Austrian assault groups began appearing in mountain valleys along the Tolmein portion of the Isonzo front, indicating a major assault was under way. However, Italian communications had already been severed by artillery fire in many places, preventing the still-confident Cadorna from learning how serious the situation really was.


Erik Sass

After jumping off at 8 a.m., Rommel’s unit passed through the smoldering remains of the Italian front line and swiftly ascended the spoke-like ranges around Mount Mrzli, towering over the Isonzo. On encountering a well-sited Italian strongpoint, Rommel simply moved laterally and continued infiltration techniques over the craggy terrain until he found favorable ground for an attack—using vegetation, outcroppings, and other natural features to shield his troop movements from enemy observation and fire, while platoons provided covering fire for each other as they advanced.


German Federal Archives, Image 146-1970-073-25 // CC-BY-SA 3.0

Of course the terrain provided risks of its own. Early in the ascent the Rommel detachment’s armed advance scout, or “point,” accidentally dislodged a small boulder:

At this moment a hundred-pound block of stone tumbled down on top of us. The draw was only 10 feet wide and dodging was difficult and escape impossible. In the fraction of a second it was clear that whoever was hit by the boulder would be pulverized. We all pressed against the left wall of the fold. The rock zigzagged between us and on downhill, without even scratching a single man.

Attracting the attention of large numbers of Italian frontline troops could be fatal, so the stormtroopers focused on enemy units that directly impeded their continuing ascent over the ridgelines. Later in the morning, Rommel used a favorite tactic—deception—to turn a dangerous Italian defensive position protecting an unsuspecting garrison:

I singled out Lance Corporal Kiefner, a veritable giant; gave him eight men, and told him to move down the path as if he and his men were Italians returning from up front, to penetrate into the hostile position and capture the garrison on both sides of the path. There were to do this with a minimum of shooting and hand grenade-throwing … Their rhythmical steps died away and we began to speculate on their success … Again long, anxious minutes passed and we heard nothing but the steady rain on the trees. Then steps approached, and a soldier reported in a low voice: “The Kiefner scouts squad has captured a hostile dugout and taken 17 Italians and a machine gun. The garrison suspects nothing.”

And still Rommel pressed on. After capturing an isolated garrison and taking around 60 prisoners, the German mountain assault team returned to the advance, penetrating deep behind the Italian frontlines:

Our thousand-yard column worked its way forward in the pouring rain, moving from bush to bush, climbing up concealed in hollows and draws, and seizing one position after another. There was no organized resistance and we usually took a hostile position from the rear. Those who did not surrender upon our surprise appearance fled head over heels into the lower woods, leaving their weapons behind. We did not fire on this fleeing enemy for fear of alarming the garrison of positions located still higher up.

Further south, as the Italian defenses collapsed, Caporetto fell to the advancing enemy at 3 p.m., and at 3:30 the retreating Italians blew up the bridge over the Isonzo. However, these defensive measures were belated or irrelevant: the German Fourteenth Army advanced with almost unprecedented speed, and by later afternoon the Germans had occupied the Isonzo Valley while forward units were seizing control of mountain slopes far to the west of Caporetto.

Yet as late as 6 p.m., Cadorna, isolated at his headquarters in Udine, still believed that the attack was a feint to distract from the main enemy offensive on the Carso. Only as October 24 drew to a close did the Italian chief of the general staff grasp the scale of the unfolding disaster, as news arrived that 14 infantry regiments had been pulverized and some 20,000 Italian soldiers taken prisoner, along with ominous reports of mass insubordination and desertion in several divisions.

Over the next three days, from October 25-27, 1917, the Germans brought up artillery and mounted additional attacks to exploit the breakthrough, capturing the plateau around Cividale and threatening Udine itself by October 28—forcing Cadorna and his staff at the Supreme Command to hastily evacuate the town for safer environs to the southwest. Perhaps most spectacularly, Rommel’s 200-man strong assault company scored a legendary battlefield victory on October 25-26, 1917, with the capture of Mount Matajur, the next major peak after Mount Mrzli.

The physical ascent was epic in its own right, and the Germans now faced more determined defenders practiced in mountain warfare. At one point Rommel took characteristically bold action to relieve a surrounded German unit:

The 2d Company held some sections of trench on the northeast slope and was encircled from the west, south, and east by fivefold superiority, an entire Italian reserve battalion … The wide and high Italian obstacles lay in rear of the 2d Company, making retreat to the north slope impossible. The troops defended themselves desperately against the powerful enemy mass; only their unbroken rapid fire prevented an enemy attack. If the enemy ventured to attack in spite of the fire, then the little group would have been crushed … My estimate of the situation was that the 2d Company could be relieved only by a surprise attack by the entire detachment … Under such conditions I believed that the superior combat capabilities of the mountain soldier would prevail.

By the time they conquered Mount Matajur, in two days Rommel’s small force of mountain troops had crossed 18 kilometers of very rough terrain, ascended almost 3000 meters, and captured 9000 Italian prisoners—all at a cost of six dead and 30 wounded.

Meanwhile, the Italian Second Army fell into headlong (though initially orderly) retreat, as described by Hemingway:

The next night the retreat started. We heard that Germans and Austrians had broken through in the north and were coming down the mountain valleys toward Cividale and Udine. The retreat was orderly, wet, and sullen. In the night, going slowly along the crowded roads we passed troops marching under the rain, guns, horses pulling wagons, mules, motor trucks, all moving away from the front.

By October 27 the Second Army under Capello had simply disintegrated, with tens of thousands of beaten, demoralized soldiers streaming towards the rear in pouring rain; the collapse in turn exposed the northern flank of the neighboring Third Army under the Duke d’Aosta, forcing the latter to fall back from Montefalcone before the Habsburg Second Isonzo Army. Within a few weeks Boroevic’s force would advance west to within sight of the lagoons of Venice, now facing the threat that so recently menaced its sister city, Trieste. Will Irwin, an American war correspondent touring the Italian front, described the worried reaction as news of the debacle arrived in Venice:

I was aware that a curious change had come over the appearance of the crowds. Ten minutes before they had been streaming across the plaza. Now there was no movement. They had congealed into groups, talking low and seriously … All that Italy had gained so splendidly in the August offensive gone in one stroke! If it would only stop there!

Elsewhere the Habsburg Tenth Army under Krobatin and Eleventh Army under Conrad (the former Austrian chief of staff, now with a field command) rumbled into action, brushing aside the thin Italian covering force in the Carnic Alps and forcing back the Italian Fourth Army under Giardino—the latter imperiled by the Austro-German advance towards its supply lines. Only the Italian First Army under Giraldi, at the extreme west of the Italian front by Lake Garda, was able to stabilize its position after Conrad’s advance around the Asiago Plateau (the situation was worsened by the decision to dissolve the Italian Fifth Army, a reserve force, in July 1916; below, a retreating Italian 305-millimeter howitzer).


Italian Army Historic Photogalleries // CC BY 2.5

And still the retreat continued amid chaotic conditions well into November, with thousands of Italian troops mixed up with civilians, constantly threatened by the lightning-fast German advance. Hemingway’s narrator Frederic Henry noted: “We were very close to Germans twice in the rain but they did not see us… I had not realized how gigantic the retreat was. The whole country was moving, as well as the army. We walked all night, making better time than the vehicles.”

“I Cannot See When or Where the Awful War Is Going to End”

By the time the Italian retreat finally ended on November 12, as the battered First, Third and Fourth Armies took up strong defensive positions behind the Piave River, Italy had lost most of the country’s northeast, exposing Venice to the enemy, at a cost of 305,000 casualties, including 10,000 dead and 265,000 taken prisoner (top, Italian prisoners of war crammed in an Austrian prison camp; below Italian lancers joining the reforming line at the Piave). By contrast the German and Austrian attacking forces suffered just 70,000 casualties, including killed and wounded. The victory also allowed the Central Powers to defend a much shorter line, running via the Asiago Plateau, Mount Grappa, and the valley of the Piave—helping ease a severe manpower shortage by freeing up German and Austrian troops for service elsewhere.


Italian Army Historic Photogalleries // CC BY 2.5

The severity of the defeat at Caporetto triggered a harsh reaction from Cadorna, who realized that he would be held responsible and swiftly placed the blame on the Second Army, openly accusing officers and ordinary soldiers alike of defeatism and cowardice. In fact morale had been at rock-bottom even before the German attack, and during the chaotic retreat thousands of Italian soldiers deserted, while tens of thousands more surrendered without a fight.

Reports of mutiny and mass desertion prompted arbitrary, draconian measures, including the execution of hundreds of soldiers by drumhead tribunals behind the lines. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry witnesses the execution of an officer who was separated from his troops during the retreat:

"Have you ever been in a retreat?” the lieutenant-colonel asked. “Italy should never retreat.” We stood there in the rain and listened to this. We were facing the officers and the prisoners stood in front and a little to one side of us. “If you are going to shoot me,” the lieutenant-colonel said, “please shoot me at once without further questioning. The questioning is stupid.” He made the sign of the cross. The officers spoke together. One wrote something on a pad of paper. “Abandoned his troops, ordered to be shot,” he said. Two carabinieri took the lieutenant-colonel to the river bank. He walked in the rain, an old man with his hat off, a carabinieri on either side. I did not watch them shoot him but I heard the shots.

Henry narrowly escapes execution himself by throwing himself in the fast-flowing river, swollen with rain. Unsurprisingly he decides to desert: “It was no point of honor. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. There were the good ones, and the brave ones, and the calm ones and the sensible ones, and they deserved it. But it was not my show any more.”

The debacle at Caporetto had a devastating impact on Allied morale, leaving little doubt that Britain and France would have to send reinforcements to shore up the Italian front (probably forcing them to call off the Passchendaele offensive). Many ordinary people felt the defeat personally. Charles Biddle, an American pilot volunteering in the Escadrille Lafayette in France, wrote home as the scale of the disaster became known:

What do you all think at home of the recent Hun invasion of Italy? The outlook is pretty gloomy, is it not, but I hope it may serve to make people in America realize that this war is not won yet by a long sight, and that if it is going to be won they have to got to get into it for all they are worth. We certainly should do our utmost without complaining when one considers what a soft time of it we have had so far.

Clare Gass, an American woman volunteering as a nurse in France, noted simply in her diary on October 29, 1917: “The news that Italy has lost thousands of men & hundreds of guns to the Austrians is very startling, I cannot see when or where the awful war is going to end.”

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.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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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.

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