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“The Balkans for the Balkan Peoples”

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 118th installment in the series.

May 23, 1914: “The Balkans for the Balkan Peoples”

The European alliance system was a major cause of the First World War, but even in the last months of peace it was still far from certain that the Triple Entente of France, Russia, and Britain would hang together in the face of the looming cataclysm, prompting politicians in all three countries to cast doubt on the commitment of their foreign allies.

On May 23, 1914, a right-wing Russian aristocrat named Nikolai Yevgenyevich Markov (above, right) questioned the trustworthiness of France and Britain in a speech to the Duma, predicting that the democratic Western powers would leave the Tsarist Empire in the lurch in a showdown with Germany and Austria-Hungary, embroiling Russia in war only to let her bear the brunt of the fighting.

Markov, an anti-Semitic monarchist who advocated closer relations with authoritarian Germany, pointed out that British interests conflicted with Russian goals in Persia and the Turkish straits, and warned of an impending cataclysm: “Are we not becoming involved in an inevitable war … for no other reason than that we are associated with France and England against Germany and Austria? Is there no practical way out? ... Are the conflicts between Russia and Germany really unavoidable? What is there to divide us and Germany?” 

Of course Markov was perfectly aware of the issue dividing Russia from Germany: the threat posed to Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary by Slavic nationalism in the Balkans, backed by “Pan-Slav” ideologues in Russia. On this subject Markov (a reactionary leery of Pan-Slavism’s liberal, international bent) criticized Russia’s support for Serbia as “Don Quixotian,” adding, “It is time for us to abandon this policy, even though it be called Slavophilism.” Instead of antagonizing Austria-Hungary, he concluded, Russia should focus on reaching an agreement with Germany, “since this is the only way of averting a most terrible war, the consequences of which no one can predict.” 

Markov’s speech required a response from Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov (above, left), who had to reassure Russia’s foreign allies that he had no intention of heeding Markov’s policy suggestions. First of all Sazonov reminded the Duma that France and Britain had backed up Russia during the crises resulting from the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, helping produce a peaceful outcome, reiterating that “Russia continues to rest on her steadfast alliance with France and on her friendship with England.” As far as recent tensions with Germany, Sazonov blamed nationalist rabble-rousers on both sides, particularly in the press, adding that both governments should try to restrain their newspapers from stirring up trouble.

Finally the foreign minister turned to Markov’s critique of Russian policies in the Balkans. Previously the Russian government had come under fierce attacks from the “Pan-Slavs” for selling out their Slavic cousins in Serbia during the First Balkan War, and Sazonov couldn’t afford to be seen as weak or vacillating on Balkan issues; as a wily politician, he also realized he could take the heat off the government by directing the Pan-Slavs’ anger against Markov.   

Thus Sazonov concluded his speech by affirming the principle, “The Balkans for the Balkan peoples!” This stirring slogan, dating back to at least the nineteenth century, originally summed up the ideal of self-determination that fueled the nationalist revolutions against Ottoman rule in the Balkans. But what, exactly, did the slogan mean now that Serbia and Bulgaria had achieved independence and liberated their kinsmen suffering under Ottoman rule? 

At the very least Sazonov was warning Austria-Hungary not disturb the current balance of power in the Balkans, an area of vital interest for Russia. As Sazonov explained in his memoirs (drawing on the Social Darwinist racial views then in vogue): 

“The Balkan Peninsula for the Balkan peoples” was the formula which comprised the aspirations and aims of Russian policy; it precluded the possibility of the political predominance, and still more of the sovereignty in the Balkans, of a foreign power hostile to Balkan Slavdom and to Russia. The Bosnia-Herzegovina crisis [when Austria annexed the provinces in 1908] revealed with unmistakable clearness the aims of Austro-German policy in the Balkans and laid the foundations for an inevitable conflict between Germanism and Slavism.

However, taking a darker view, the Russian foreign minister’s speech of May 23, 1914, could be interpreted as coded encouragement for  “Pan-Serb” or “Yugoslav” (South Slav) nationalists in Serbia to push ahead with their efforts to liberate their Slavic brothers in Austria-Hungary, triggering the final dissolution of the Dual Monarchy. 

In this case, as in many others, prewar diplomatic history is ambiguous. On a number of occasions Sazonov tried to restrain Serbia—but in February 1913 he privately told the Serbian ambassador that Serbia and Russia would together “lance the Austro-Hungarian abscess.” Ultimately the political gray area where Sazonov and his master Tsar Nicholas II tried to maneuver – between pro-German reactionaries on one side, and pan-Slav ideologues on the other—still left plenty of room for disaster.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: First Passchendaele, Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 290th installment in the series.

October 12-18, 1917: First Passchendaele, Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic

The success of the “bite and hold” strategy employed by the British at the Third Battle of Ypres in September and early October 1917, which yielded incremental advances at the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde, fed hopes that a few more attacks would push the Germans off the Gheluvelt Plateau east of Ypres, threatening their railroad and communication network in Flanders and maybe even forcing them to withdraw from western Belgium altogether.

Western Front, October 12, 1917: First Battle of Passchendael
Erik Sass

In reality the plan was already beginning to unravel at the battle of Poelcapelle on October 9, 1917, due mostly to the arrival of autumn rains that once again turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, making it almost impossible to move up artillery, fresh troops, ammunition, and supplies – the key to the “hold” part of the strategy, which called for attackers to immediately dig in in order to rebuff enemy counterattacks. The immobility of British artillery also meant that in many cases German barbed wire entanglements remained intact. Nonetheless British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig believed (against the advice of Second Army commander Herbert Plumer) that the main objective, the high ground around the village of Passchendaele, was still within reach.

The result was the nightmarish First Battle of Passchendaele on October 12, 1917, which saw the I and II ANZAC corps of the British Second Army mount an increasingly desperate attempt to dislodge the German Fourth Army from its defensive positions around Passchendaele in order to seize Passchendaele Ridge, with supporting attacks by the British Fifth Army to the north – only to meet with almost total defeat.

“No One Could See Any Purpose In It”

The British employed the same tactics as in previous battles, especially the “creeping barrage,” in which field artillery created a moving wall of fire just in front of the advancing troops, forcing enemy troops to take cover until the attackers were upon them. Meanwhile pioneer units worked feverishly to build roads of duckboard planks across the muddiest areas behind the frontlines to facilitate movements of artillery and troops (below, troops carrying duckboards).

One British soldier, P. Hoole Jackson, described the lurid scenes as they marched to the front along roads constantly shelled by German artillery:

Up the other side of the road a slow procession of vehicles crawled, one behind the other: new guns going up to the positions, ammunition wagons full of shells, ambulances bound for the clearing stations, ration carts for the troops in line. Piccadilly could not have been more crowded, and over all these the German shells moaned and whined. Now and then a cart would have to pull round a heap of wreckage that had once been men, horses, and wagons. By the side of the road lay the stiffening carcases of horses and mules, and around, on every hand, the big guns crashed.

Conditions only worsened as they approached the frontlines:

On three sides was the arching Salient, marked out as though on a mighty map by the ring of flaming flashes from the German guns. A peninsula of death and terror. As we drew nearer to the Ridge, the howling in the sky grew more fierce. We had to pause while a shell dropped before us; rush on as one hurled down almost on top of us; dive for cover in the slimy ditch. All along the road were the skeletons of shattered trees… and over all was the livid light of the gun-flashes, which rose and fell like a fiery, ceaseless tide.

George F. Wear, an officer in the Royal Field Artillery, left a similar portrait of the battlefield around this time:

I doubt if anyone who has not experienced it can really have any idea of what the Salient was like during those “victories” of 1917. The bombardments of the Somme the year before were nothing to those around Ypres. Batteries jostled each other in the shell-marked waste of mud, barking and crashing night and day. There were no trees, no houses, no countryside, no shelter, no sun. Wet, grey skies hung over the blasted land, and in the mind a gloomy depression grew and spread. Trenches had disappeared. “Pill-boxes” and shell holes took their place. We never went up the line with a working party with any real expectation of returning, and there was no longer any sustaining feeling that all this slaughter was leading us to anything. No one could see any purpose in it.

The attack got off to a bad start with heavy rain on the night of October 11-12, followed by high winds in the pre-dawn hours; the Germans also unleashed a preemptive bombardment on the New Zealanders’ front line positions at 5 a.m., just before the planned time of the attack. At the same time the British preparatory bombardment and creeping barrage were rendered less effective by the deep mud, which muffled the impact of high explosive shells, again leaving German barbed wire intact in many places. Further German “counter-battery” fire exacted a heavy toll on British artillery, which was also vulnerable to mud and misfires. Jackson described the British field artillery in action, along with the horrible conditions:

The gunners were working stripped almost to the waist. The pound and crash of the noisy little guns was terrific, deafening. If a gun failed or was knocked out another was soon in its place. Mud and slime; a night in a shell hole that was little better than a hollow of ooze. There were no proper shell holes, no communication trenches. All around was the most desolate landscape of shell-harrowed land. Shell hole merged with shell hole; many were death traps in which the wounded slipped and died.

At 5:25 a.m. the ANZAC troops started going over the top, but German machine gunners protected by concrete fortifications, or pillboxes, exacted a heavy toll on the advancing troops (above, evacuating a wounded soldier). Although the attackers reached the first objective in many places, many were forced to retire by heavy German fire; this in turn left gaps in the British frontline, leaving the flanks of neighboring units exposed to German counterattacks and forcing them to withdraw as well. By the afternoon of October 12 it was clear that the attack had failed.

Once again the attackers paid a heavy price in blood for negligible gains, in conditions that many participants described as the worst they had seen in the war so far. In one day the Second Battle of Passchendaele resulted in around 4,200 Australian casualties, 2,800 casualties in the New Zealand Division, and 10,000 casualties in the British Fifth Army. The British could take some comfort in the fact that the Germans also suffered steep losses. However German chief strategist General Erich Ludendorff, encouraged by the defensive victory and anticipating more inclement weather, ordered the Fourth Army to dig in and hold the Passchendaele Ridge, setting the stage for the Second Battle of Passchendaele – the final phase of the Third Battle of Ypres.

As elsewhere in the First World War, the unending bloodshed and climate of constant danger combined to produce a pronounced fatalistic attitude among troops on both sides of no-man’s-land. Wear, the British artillery officer, remembered:

I had all sorts of escapes; in fact they were so frequent that I got into a strange frame of mind, and became careless. It seemed as if I couldn’t bother to try and avoid unnecessary danger. The only matters of importance were whether they rations would come up promptly and if the bottle of whisky I had ordered would be there. It was for me the worst part of the War. Even now it looms like a gigantic nightmare in the back of my mind.

Meanwhile the total destruction of the Flanders landscape proceeded apace. Charles Biddle, an American pilot with the volunteer Escadrille Lafayette, noted in his diary on October 16, 1917 (below, an aerial view of the village of Passchendaele before and after the battle):

You can trace the advance by the slow changing of green fields and woods into a blasted wilderness which shows a mud brown color from the air. Fields become a mass of shell holes filled with water and a wood turns from an expanse of green foliage into a few shattered and leafless trunks… It is the same way with the little Belgian towns. By degrees they are obliterated until their sites are only distinguishable by a smudge a trifle darker in color than the brown of the torn fields which once surrounded them.

The Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic Ocean

After declaring war in April 1917 and implementing the draft in June, the U.S. government was eager to show the Allies that its contribution to the war effort would be more than financial support or a mere symbolic demonstration. The arrival in France of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, accompanied by around 100 officers and enlisted men, in June 1917, marked the beginning of the buildup – at first gradual, then increasingly rapid – of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, which would number around two million by the end of the war and play a decisive role in defeating Germany.

One of the first big American units to arrive in Europe was the 42nd Division, better known as the Rainbow Division because it included men from 26 states and the District of Columbia. Created at the suggestion of Major Douglas MacArthur, who was soon promoted to colonel, the division was 28,000 strong with its full complement (American divisions were around twice the strength of European divisions), all drawn from state militias. After being activated in August 1917, the Rainbow Division troops received crash course training to form it into a cohesive unit, then was immediately dispatched to France, where it received additional training in trench warfare before joining Allied troops in the frontline.

Elmer Sherwood, a soldier in the Rainbow Division, described troops traveling from their camp in Long Island to board the ships for France – including the President Lincoln and President Grant – in New York City in his diary on October 18, 1917:

We arose at three o’clock this morning and in two hours were marching with full pack and rifle to the station where we entrained for the river docks where ferry boats carried us up the river, to the piers, where the big ocean liners flying the U.S. flag were waiting to carry us to foreign soil. All day long thousands of Sammies [soldiers] who were to make the voyage were arriving and going up the gangplank in single file. Each of us was given a slip of paper on which was printed the deck compartment and bunk each was to occupy and where to eat and wash.

Like the millions of American troops who would follow them, for most of the militiamen and volunteers of the Rainbow Division the voyage to France was their first journey outside the United States. On that note many viewed the war as an exciting adventure, but unsurprisingly they also suffered from homesickness and anxiety. Another soldier in the Division, Vernon Kniptash, described his feelings on leaving New York Harbor – and America – in his diary entry on October 18, 1917:

It’s night now and I can see the New York skyline from the upper deck. Every window ablaze and a million windows, the most wonderful sight I’ve seen since I left home. The boat is slipping away and the Statue of Liberty is getting fainter and fainter. It sure makes a fellow feel funny under these conditions. How many of us will get to see that statue when this war ends? The boys were unusually silent, and all were thinking of the same thought, I guess. All is blackness now and the states are “somewhere out there.” I’ve been blue at times, but never as blue as I am right now.

Once at sea, however, their moods seemed to improve. On October 22, 1917, as the Lincoln was carried along by the tropical Gulf Stream, Kniptash wrote:

The weather is so warm that it’s almost unbearable. I was on guard tonight and I enjoyed every minute of it. On land during my second shift I usually have to pinch myself to keep awake, but tonight I was wide awake and enjoyed salty breezes and [the] big moon to the limit. Early in the evening four old sailors formed a quartette and sang silhouetted against that big yellow moon. It was just like a stage setting. I’m seeing the things I used to read about in books and it’s all like a dream to me. I’m always afraid someone will come along and wake me.

Sherwood also found the voyage across the Atlantic exhilarating, at least at first, writing in his diary on October 19, 1917:

I had planned all my life to make a voyage across the sea, but I little thought it would be under the conditions existing now… Here on the top of the ship I lie between my blankets in silence. All have gone to their bunks except some like myself who prefer to lie on deck. What an opportunity for one to think. He cannot help it. The great waves dash against the sides of the ship but one does not notice them for their monotony. I can realize now why so many boys leave their homes to seek adventure on the high seas…

Of course the sense of adventure was tempered by the ever-present threat of U-boat attacks, which increased as the convoy approached Europe (although no ships were sunk on this journey). On October 27, 1917, Kniptash wrote:

The Captain gave us orders to sleep in our clothes tonight. That means everything but blouse and gun. All these articles want to be where a fellow can reach them and put them on without the loss of a second. The Capt. said to expect a call at any time now. It means we are right in the center of the war zone and all the chance in the world of taking a nice cold bath before morning.

As they approached France the troops, almost all young men in their late teens and early 20s, received a stern warning from their commanding officer, as described by Kniptash on October 30, 1917:

The Captain assembled the battery and gave the boys a heart-to-heart talk. He said that all indications seemed to be that we reach port tomorrow. He talked about the women in this town [St. Nazaire] and the chances the men were taking in case they had sexual intercourse. He said that the women that hung around the camps were all diseased and that the soldiers in case they should contract the disease could not receive the proper medical attention and stood a good chance of ruining their lives…. I promised myself that I’d return to the States in just the good condition I left them… I think the training Mumsey gave me will make me walk the straight and narrow over here.

Plenty of troops in the Rainbow Division disregarded this advice, as reflected in high rates of sexually transmitted disease, but many men were simply happy to have a few moments of female companionship – especially if the women in question happened to be Americans too. Marjorie Crocker, an American volunteering as a Red Cross nurse, described meeting American soldiers, all volunteers from the New York Telephone company and Western Union, laying telephone wires for General Pershing’s new headquarters, in provincial France:

… we heard English-speaking voices calling us, and on turning saw several American soldiers. We waved vigorously and went on, but were stopped by two of them running up and taking off their hats, offering their hands, and saying, “Do you folks speak English?” On our replying that we did, they let a yell, and calling their pals announced that they had “caught ‘em, and you bet they can talk the lingo!”… They were nice men, and they were so pitifully glad to hear some English!

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: Broodseinde and Poelcapelle

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 289th installment in the series.

October 4-9, 1917: Broodseinde and Poelcapelle

Following successful “bite and hold” attacks at the back-to-back Battles of Menin Road and Polygon Wood from September 20-October 3, 1917, the nightmarish Third Battle of Ypres (better known as Passchendaele) continued with British assaults at Broodseinde on October 4 and Poelcapelle on October 9, which continued British Second Army commander Herbert Plumer’s strategy of limited incremental gains.

Like the previous battles, the British assaults at Broodseinde and Poelcapelle were supported by huge bombardments and counter-battery artillery fire, while advancing infantry were preceded by the “creeping barrage,” a protective wall of artillery fire that forced enemy troops to take cover until the attackers were already upon them. After reaching certain pre-determined objectives, the British infantry would immediately dig in to fend off German counterattacks to recapture lost trenches.

The incremental strategy yielded another victory at Broodseinde, raising the possibility of a forced German withdrawal from western Belgium, giving up the U-boat bases on the Belgian coast – but with the change of seasons, the clock was quickly running down for further offensive operations by either side. Crucially the British had enjoyed relatively dry weather during most of this, sparing both sides immersion in a sea of mud (as in the opening phase of Third Ypres) allowing fresh troops, guns and ammunition to reach the front. But on October 2 the rains returned, plunging both sides into the cold, muddy hell of Flanders in fall.

Broodseinde

Despite the bad weather, at Broodseinde the British were initially favored by a bit of luck – or rather good intelligence work – as the attackers happened to catch the Germans unawares while preparing an attack of their own around Zonnebeke. As a result the British artillery inflicted considerable casualties among German assault troops concentrated in frontline trenches (although the Germans returned the compliment with their own preemptive bombardment of the I ANZAC Corps).

As British artillery rained destruction on German frontline and support trenches, at 6 a.m. on October 4, 1917 twelve British and ANZAC divisions went over the top and advanced in good order against enemy positions along a 14,000-yard-long stretch of front. By the late afternoon of that day the attackers had advanced around 1,000 yards and held the conquered battlefield against multiple German counterattacks, marking a decisive tactical victory by the standards of the First World War. However Plumer remained reluctant to exploit the victory by attempting a decisive breakthrough, citing over a dozen additional enemy divisions guarding rear areas.

The fighting in Flanders remained a horrible ordeal for ordinary soldiers on both sides of the conflict (above, an Australian ambulance in action at Broodseinde). Edward Lynch, an Australian private, described the aftermath of an attack in early October:

The first batches of the wounded are coming back. Walking, staggering, lurching, limping back. Men carrying smashed arms, others painfully limping on shattered legs. Laughing men and shivering men. Men walking back as if there’s nothing left to harm them and others who flinch and jump and throw themselves in shell holes at every shell burst and at each whistle of a passing bullet.

A soldier wounded in the same attack told Lynch an even more horrifying story:

‘Saw a terrible thing up there. A few of us rushed a Fritz post, but as we were right on top of it, a Fritz fired a flare gun at us and the flare went right into a man’s stomach. He was running round and round trying to tear the burning flare out of his inside and all the time we could smell his flesh burning, just like grilled meat. He gave an awful scream and fell dead, but that horrible smell of burning flesh kept on. I can smell it still.’ And he shudders and shakes at the memory of it all. ‘Did you get the Fritz?’ ‘Too true we got him. Seven or eight bayonets got him, the flamin’ mongrel!’ And the man gets up and goes away, vomiting.

Lynch himself received a “Blighty” – a wound severe enough to require treatment at a hospital in Britain – while attempting to carry a message under artillery fire. He described his near miss with an enemy artillery shell (above, Australian troops carry a wounded German):

The ground under my feet is heaving upwards. I’m surrounded by a shower of mud and blue, vicious flame. My feet are rising, rising, my head is going down, down, I’m falling, falling, through a solid cloud of roaring round… Gnawing pain shoots through me. My hip, my knee, my leg, my foot… I realise that a shell has burst under me and tossed me into the trench. I know my leg is smashed… I can feel my boot is full of blood.

Poelcapelle

Encouraged by the victory at Broodseinde, Plumer and British Expeditionary Force commander General Douglas Haig became more ambitious, planning deeper advances with an eye to a breakthrough – just as nature was turning decisively against them, with endless rain turning the heavily shelled fields into a quagmire. The rain forced the British to once again accept limited goals, but they were still determined to keep up the pressure on the Germans.

The result was a draw at the Battle of Poelcapelle on October 9, where some attacking units managed to advance but were generally forced to withdraw by German counterattacks. One British tank commander, William Watson, described the initial advance at dawn on October 9:

We went outside and stood in the rain, looking towards the line. It was still very dark, but, though the moon had left us in horror, there was a promise of dawn in the air. The bombardment died down a little, as if the guns were taking breath, though far away to the right a barrage was throbbing… Then suddenly on every side of us and above us a tremendous uproar arose; the ground shook beneath us; for a moment we felt battered and dizzy; the horizon was lit up with a sheet of flashes; gold and red rockets raced madly into the sky, and in the curious light of the distant bursting shells the run in front of us appeared and disappeared with a touch of melodrama…

By the end of the day only the Guards Division, attacking near the village which gave the battle its name, made a significant advance. All across the battlefield, the British and ANZAC attackers found it impossible to bring up artillery, ammunition, and fresh troops due to the mud, which also canceled out much of the advantage conferred by the new British weapon, the tank. Watson remembered one ill-fated sally by a tank unit, quickly swamped by mud:

It was a massacre. The tanks could not turn, even if they had wished. There was nothing for it but to go on and attempt to pass in a rain of shells the tanks which could not move, but each tank in turn slipped off into the mud. Their crews, braving the shells attached the unditching beams – fumbling in the dark with slippery spanners, while red-hot bits flew past, and they were deafened by the crashes – but nothing could be done. The officers withdrew their men from the fatal road and took cover in shell holes. It was a stormy cheerless dawn.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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