Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 244th installment in the series.
JULY 23-25, 1916: BATTLE OF POZIERES, ROMANIA AGREES TO JOIN ALLIES
Impressed by the success of the surprise nighttime attack opening the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig and his subordinate, British Fourth Army commander Henry Rawlinson, decided to employ the same tactics in a fresh assault all along the northern half of the Somme battlefield.
However they ignored many other important lessons of Bazentin Ridge, especially the crucial role played by the devastating multi-day bombardment preceding the attack, which obliterated the trenches of the German second defensive line (aided by the absence of the deep dugouts found in the German first line, the cause of so much grief on the first day of the Somme). Determined to attack again before the Germans had a chance to strengthen their defenses, Haig and Rawlinson didn’t leave enough time for aerial reconnaissance to map out German defenses, making the British bombardment that much less effective this time; indeed in their haste they simply ignored an entirely new enemy trench dug before the village of Bazentin le Petit. Furthermore, the British went ahead despite the refusal of their French allies to commit to a coordinated attack by the Sixth Army in the south, leaving the British right flank exposed. Finally, last-minute changes and miscommunication meant various British divisions would attack at different times, forfeiting the element of surprise and allowing the Germans to shuffle troops to strengthen local defenses.
While the new attack unfolded all along the British sector of the Somme, some of the fiercest fighting centered on the village of Pozières (now a village in name only, like dozens of other settlements reduced to rubble across the Somme battlefield; see below), assigned to the Reserve Army under General Hubert Gough. A stronghold in the original German second defensive line, the capture of Pozières would allow the British to threaten German control of the Thiepval Ridge, a key defensive position between the village of Thiepval and the village of Courcellete further east. But first they would have to get there.
After a relatively brief three-hour-long final bombardment beginning at 7 p.m. on the evening of July 22, the first attacks by British troops on German positions near Delville Wood (the scene of intense ongoing fighting since the attack on Bazentin Ridge) and the village of Guillemont, west of Combles, met with fleeting success before German bombardments and infantry counter-attacks forced them out of the captured positions. Here the British attackers paid a heavy price for the failure of their own artillery to silence the German guns.
Bloody as they were, these engagements would prove mere sideshows compared to the attack by the Reserve Army’s Australian 1st Division on Pozières, which opened with an intense bombardment of the German trenches followed by the now-standard “creeping barrage,” with the guns gradually increasing their range to lay down a protective wall of fire in front of the advancing infantry. An Australian war correspondent, C.E.W. Bean, recalled surreal scenes amid the final round of shelling:
That night, shortly after dark, there broke out the most fearful bombardment I have ever seen. As one walked towards the battlefield, the weirdly shattered woods and battered houses stood out almost all the time against one continuous band of flickering light along the eastern skyline… About midnight our field artillery lashed down its shrapnel upon the German front line in the open before the village. A few minutes later this fire lifted and the Australian attack was launched.
Paul Maze, a Frenchman serving as an interpreter with the British Army, painted a similar picture of the final moments before the attack on Pozières:
Suddenly a crash fell like a thunderbolt and the earth shuddered. Hundreds of guns had opened fire from the valley on our left. In hundreds, shells came shrieking and burst over Pozières, where now tongues of flames were rising, flaring on lines of waiting men mesmerised by this unprecedented burst of sound. Chromatically the German artillery retaliation swelled the row into a mad road, and the general tac-tac of machine-guns became discernible like the beat of a steady pulse. I heard the clash of steel as men near me fixed their bayonets.
As soon as the British guns shifted their elevations to lay down the creeping barrage, the Australian infantry surged into no-man’s-land. Maze described the scenes that followed:
With a rush, every man went forward. Bullets hissed past as we followed. A man in front of me tottered and fell. I could hardly control my legs as I leapt to avoid his body. The ground seemed to quake under me. Everything appeared to be moving along with me, figures were popping up and down on either side over the convulsing ground, and I felt the rush of others coming on behind. The waves in front were merged in smoke, moving like animated figures projected on a glaring screen.
Here, at least, the British bombardment had succeeded in smashing the first and second German trenches, and the brave Australians quickly poured over the wrecked earthworks of the first enemy trench into Pozières itself (below, a captured German trench at Pozières).
The situation was chaotic to say the least, as the Australians fought German defenders holding craters and ruins amid pitch black darkness, illuminated only by bursting shells and the burning remnants of houses. Maze remembered:
Again we pushed forward and quickly made for the second trench, our next objective… Everything seemed to be going up around us. We passed the first crumbled walls of houses, against which bullets were spattering like hailstones. Men were hardly discernible in the darkness. Lashed by sprays of dust and broken brick, we stumbled over stones and plunged into shell-holes… Then our progress slowed down. Everything was swaying. Musketry firing and machine-guns were making a terrific din to our right and left; trees were falling across each other. Shells bursting on the ruined houses hurled the walls sky-high, filling the vibrating air with more dust and smoke.
The success of the British artillery in destroying the first and second German trenches had the unintended consequence of leaving the attackers disoriented and defenseless, according to Bean, who claimed that many Australian troops essentially wandered into Pozières by mistake:
The Australian infantry dashed at once from the first position captured, across the intervening space over the tramway and into the trees. It was here that the first real difficulty arose along parts of the line. Some sections found in front of them the trench which they were looking for--an excellent deep trench which had survived the bombardment. Other sections found no recognisable trench at all, but a maze of shell craters and tumbled rubbish, or a simple ditch reduced to white powder. Parties went on through the trees into the village, searching for the position, and pushed so close to the fringe of their own shell fire that some were wounded by it.
Even worse, German artillery left intact by the inaccurate preparatory bombardment now turned on the easy targets occupying Pozières, raking the village and its approaches in an attempt cut off the Australians and prevent reinforcements and supplies from coming forward. Maze described the attackers’ (now turned defenders) dazed reaction as dawn broke over battlefield on the morning of July 23:
As the sun came over the ridge we were dazzled by its brilliant rays. Where were we? We were much farther into the village than we at first thought. In front of us the earth was being rapidly shovelled out of a trench, and we could see the heads of a few men busily consolidating the position. No movement in the open ground seemed possible. The shelling had increased… Some German dead were still clasping their hand grenades. Near us and Australian and a German, killed at the moment they had come to grips, hung together on the parapet like marionettes embracing each other.
As the scant remains of the village were pulverized beyond recognition (below, the site of the village after the battle), the Australians sought shelter in shell holes and hastily dug trenches, while valiant ration parties ran the gantlet of German artillery to bring supplies across the desolation of the recently captured no-man’s-land.
The ferocity of the continuous German bombardment made it almost impossible for fresh troops to reach Pozières, leaving the outnumbered Australians clinging to their hard-won gains in the face of the inevitable German counter-attack, which finally arrived on the morning of July 25, 1916, and left Australian 1st Division a worn-out shell of its self. By now the British artillery managed to hit their German counterparts with enough suppressing fire to allow the 1st Division to be relieved by the Australian 2nd Division, but further progress beyond Pozières proved impossible for the time being. Another week of preparation was needed before the next major attack, on Pozières Ridge, in early August.
For the Australians left holding Pozières, it seemed like they had landed on the moon. Bean described the bizarre landscape left by relentless shelling:
Over the whole face of the country shells have ploughed up the land literally as with a gigantic plough, so that there is more red and brown earth than green. From the distance all the colour is given by these upturned crater edges, and the country is wholly red… Dry shell crater upon shell crater upon shell crater--all bordering one another until some fresh salvo shall fall and assort the old group of craters into a new one, to be reassorted again and again as the days go on… Every minute or two there is a crash. Part of the desert bumps itself up into huge red or black clouds and subsides again. Those eruptions are the only movement in Pozières.
And still the living nightmare continued with futile attacks and furious counterattacks elsewhere on the Somme front. Fred Ball, a British soldier in the Liverpool “Pals,” remembered approaching the frontline to participate in one such assault on night of July 29, 1916:
Now we found ourselves approaching the monster. Gradually, as we moved, we were enwrapped in that almost homogenous sea of sound, and shells burst nearer and nearer. Stumbling along in the inky darkness, the intensity of which was preserved by frequent explosions, I can hardly attempt to describe my thoughts and feelings… Darkness may be awful, but when duty tells you to go and be killed and, in the going, to walk past wounded men, right and left, in the eerie light of military fireworks, the horror of it becomes almost unbearable.
After hearing a wounded man shrieking “Mother of God,” Ball was jolted into the kind of cosmic reflections that many men doubtless experienced during the First World War, although relatively few were as frank about their conclusions:
“Mother of God!” I reiterated, scarcely knowing what I was saying. Then I realized the meaning of the words. In a flash of violent emotion I denied Her right there and then. If She existed, why were we here? She didn’t exist. There was no such thing. My strength was in my three to one odds. It was all chance. Oh for a Blighty one. Even the fourth chance, death, was becoming less dreadful. It would take me out of it all, whatever else might happen…
The experience was little different for soldiers on the other side of the battle, as ordinary German infantrymen suffered the unremitting terror of Allied bombardments, gas attacks, and massed infantry assaults day after day, week after week, often with no hope of relief (the six fresh divisions dispatched by chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn were barely sufficient to hold the line at the Somme, in addition to spelling the end of the Verdun offensive).
Friedrich Steinbrecher, a soldier in the German Army, described rushing to the front with his unit to help repel a French attack during the first week of August 1916:
… we were rushed up through shell-shattered villages and barrage into the turmoil of war. The enemy was firing with 12-inch guns. There was a perfect torrent of shells. Sooner than we expected we were in the thick of it. First in the artillery position. Columns were tearing hither and thither as if possessed. The gunners could no longer see or hear. Very lights were going up along the whole Front, and there was a deafening noise: the cries of wounded, orders, and reports.
Steinbrecher next witnessed one of the horrifying sights that had become all too common during the First World War:
At noon the gun-fire became even more intense, and then came the order: “The French have broken through! Counter-attack!” We advanced through the shattered wood in a hail of shells. I don’t know how I found the right way. Then across an expanse of shell craters, on and on. Falling down and getting up again. Machine-guns were firing. I had to cut across our own barrage and the enemy’s. I am untouched. At last we reach the front line. Frenchmen are forcing their way in. The tide of battle ebbs and flows. Then things get quieter. We have not fallen back a foot. Now one’s eyes begin to see things. I want to keep running on – to stand still and look is horrible. “A wall of dead and wounded!” How often I have read that phrase! Now I know what it means.
ROMANIA AGREES TO JOIN ALLIES
The First World War, likened by many to a monster or natural phenomenon growing out of control, continued to suck in more countries as time went on, including Italy and Bulgaria in 1915 and Portugal in March 1916 (the latter resulting from Portugal’s confiscation of German ships, which provoked a German declaration of war). In August 1916 the list would grow to include Romania, which joined the Allies following a preliminary agreement signed in at Allied headquarters in Chantilly, France, on July 23, 1916.
Romania had long been a secret member of the Triple Alliance with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, but like Italy its reasons for joining (in Romania’s case, protection against Russia) had ceased to matter, following a rapprochement with Russia in the final years before the war. Even more importantly, public opinion was strongly against Austria-Hungary, where the Hungarian Magyar aristocrats forcefully suppressed the Dual Monarchy’s three million ethnic Romanian citizens. Again like Italy and Serbia, the Romanians dreamed of liberating their ethnic kinsmen and forming a Greater Romania, and the German-born King Ferdinand (despite being a member of the same extended Hohenzollern family as Kaiser Wilhelm II) responded to the will of his people.
The final decision to enter the war on the side of the Allies was made by Prime Minister Bratianu, who ended two years of vacillation in July 1916, strongly influenced by Russia’s success in the Brusilov Offensive, as well as Germany’s failure in Verdun and the major Allied push at the Somme – all of which seemed to indicate that the war might end in the near future, leaving Romania out in the cold when it came to divide up the spoils.
In the military convention signed at Chantilly on July 23, Romania and the Allies tentatively agreed to a plan that would divide the Romanian contribution evenly between an attack on Hungary and a thrust to the south against Bulgaria, with the French and British advocating the latter option in hopes of forcing Bulgaria to remove some pressure from their own troops at Salonika in northern Greece. They could also benefit (at least theoretically) from Romania’s massive supplies of grain and oil.
In mid-August the military convention of July 23 would be scrapped in favor of an all-out attack on Hungary, which had always been the focal point of Romanian ambitions anyway. However the change in direction proved moot, as the Allies had egregiously overestimated Romania’s fighting power.
Although Romania had 800,000 troops on paper, it only had enough equipment for around 550,000 of them, and officers and ordinary soldiers alike were inexperienced in trench warfare, unlike their foes. Meanwhile to make up for the equipment shortages the Allies promised to supply additional weapons and ammunition – but the only possible route for delivering these to the isolated country lay through Russia, which had logistical and supply problems of its own. In short, the stage was set for utter disaster in the second half of 1916.
RASPUTIN OUSTS ANOTHER FOE
Elsewhere July 23 brought another setback for the Allies, but this one took place far away from any battlefield – in Petrograd, to be specific, where the malignant holy man Rasputin scored yet another victory in his relentless campaign of court intrigue, aided by his all-important ally, the Tsarina Alexandra.
Following the defenestration of Minister of War Alexei Polivanov, one of Rasputin’s many personal enemies in the imperial capital, in March 1916, he next turned his sights on another rival, Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, who had played a central role in bringing Russia into the war in 1914. Sazonov apparently fell into disfavor with the reactionary Tsarina – and through her, her husband Tsar Nicholas II – because of his support for a relatively liberal policy of self-government in Poland, which would supposedly become an autonomous kingdom under the rule of the Tsar after the war, uniting Russia’s Polish Grand Duchy with the ethnic Poles of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
This gave Rasputin all the leverage he needed to dispose of Sazonov, despite the fact that he enjoyed the strong support of the Western Allies, France and Britain, who worried that his successor, Rasputin’s ally Prime Minister Boris Stürmer, had little experience in foreign affairs and wouldn’t be an enthusiastic advocate for continuing the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Even worse, members of the Russian Parliament understandably feared that Stürmer, who continued as Prime Minister and was also serving as Interior Minister, was accumulating dictatorial powers – and rumors had long circulated of his pro-German sympathies (obviously not dispelled by his German name). It was all too easy to connect the dots with the alleged German sympathies of Alexandra and Rasputin to draw a picture of a treasonous pro-German conspiracy seizing control of the Russian government.
There was no question French and British diplomats viewed the removal of Sazonov and appointment of Stürmer as a fresh disaster for the Allied cause. Thus the French ambassador, Maurice Paleologue, wrote his conclusion in his diary on July 23, 1916:
This morning the Press officially announces the retirement of Sazonov and Sturmer’s appointment in his place. No comments. But I hear that first impressions are a wave of amazement and indignation… His sensational dismissal cannot therefore be explained by any admissible motive. The explanation unhappily forced upon us is that the camarilla, of which Sturmer is the instrument, wanted to get control of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. For several weeks Rasputin has been saying: “I've had enough of Sazonov, quite enough!” Urged on by the Empress, Sturmer went to G.H.Q. to ask for Sazonov's dismissal. The Empress went to his rescue, and the Emperor gave way.
On August 3, Paleologue commiserated with Sazonov, who confided:
“It’s a year since the Empress began to be hostile towards me,” he said. “She’s never forgiven me for begging the Emperor not to assume command of his armies. She brought such pressure to bear to secure my dismissal that the Emperor ultimately gave way. But why this scandal? Why this ‘scene’? It would have been so easy to pave the way for my departure with the excuse of my health! I should have given loyal assistance! And why did the Emperor give me so confident and affectionate a reception the last time I saw him?” And then, in a tone of deepest melancholy, he more or less summed up his unpleasant experience in these words: “The Emperor reigns: but it is the Empress who governs ---under Rasputin's guidance. Alas! May God protect us!”