WORLD WAR ONE - 1916

World War One was supposed to have been a short and glorious war. But by 1916, a new kind of industrialised warfare had seen the death toll soar into the millions, with no end in sight. Naval blockades were beginning to cause shortages of food and fuel across Europe, while thousands of women had entered the workforce, replacing the men sent to fight in their millions. All sides were preparing for a long war.

The war has raged for a year and a half, as the Allies continue to battle the Central Powers, recently joined by Bulgaria.

At sea, the British maintain their naval blockade of Germany, preventing the import of food and other vital raw materials. Germany has retaliated with a U-boat blockade of Britain, but has to limit its attacks to avoid provoking the neutral USA, whose citizens have already been caught in the crossfire.

On the Western Front, French, British and Belgian troops are dug in opposite the Germans, both sides trapped in the bloody stalemate of trench warfare.

On the Eastern Front, the Russians have ended their long retreat and stabilised the line, but their army has suffered huge losses.

On the Italian Front, Italian troops have launched a series of costly, unsuccessful attacks against strong Austro-Hungarian defences.

While on the Balkan Front, the Central Powers have overrun Serbia, whose army is forced to make a bitter retreat through the Albanian mountains.

Now, on 5th January, Austro-Hungarian troops attack Montenegro. They are delayed at the Battle of Mojkovac, but three weeks later Montenegro is forced to surrender.

10 Jan: On the Caucasus Front, the Russians launch a surprise winter offensive against Ottoman Turkish forces. Six weeks later, Russian troops occupy the city of Erzurum. In April, they capture the Black Sea port of Trebizond.

9 Feb: Meanwhile the British transport two motor boats to Lake Tanganyika in Africa. They finally arrive after a 10,000 mile trip by sea and land, and help the British seize control of the strategic lake from local German forces.

18 Feb: The same month, in German Cameroon, German troops, besieged on Mora mountain for 18 months, finally surrender to the Allies. It marks the end of the Cameroon campaign.

21 Feb: On the Western Front, the Germans unleash a devastating assault on the French fortress-town of Verdun.

German General Erich von Falkenhayn knows France will defend this symbolic town to the last man. His plan, in his own words, is to 'bleed France white' in its defence. It is the strategy of attrition.

Verdun becomes one of the most terrifying battles of the war: a mincing machine, where infantry divisions are destroyed almost as fast as they can be fed into the line.

2 Mar: In Britain, one million men have already volunteered for military service. But the government realises it won't be enough: so in March 1916, Britain becomes the last major power to introduce conscription.

That spring on the Western Front, British troops are the last to be issued with steel helmets.

The nature of trench warfare produces a high proportion of head wounds: the German Stahlhelm, the French Adrian helmet, and the British Mark 1 steel helmet, offer limited protection from shell splinters and shrapnel.

9 Mar: Neutral Portugal has been co-operating with the British, which seems to offer the best chance of holding onto her African colony, Portuguese Angola. On 9th March, Germany retaliates by declaring war on Portugal.

18 Mar: On the Eastern Front, Russia launches an attack near Lake Naroch, to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. But it's a disaster. There are 100,000 Russian casualties, and the attack fails to divert any German troops from the fighting at Verdun.

24 Apr: In Dublin, Irish republicans launch an armed revolt against British rule. It becomes known as the Easter Rising, and is put down after six days of street fighting.

29 Apr: In the Middle East, after a five month siege, British forces at Kut surrender. General Townshend leads 9,000 British and Indian soldiers into captivity. About half later die from starvation or disease.

9 May: Britain wants Arab support in its fight against the Ottoman Empire, so it's promised Arab leaders an independent Arab state after the war.

But now Britain and France secretly sign the Sykes-Picot Agreement, planning, after the war, to divide the Middle East into British and French zones of control.

Unaware of this deal, in June, Hussein bin Ali, Sherif of Mecca, leads the Arabs in revolt against Turkish Ottoman rule: in the Battle of Mecca, his forces seize control of the holy city.

15 May: On the Italian front, Austro-Hungarian forces launch a surprise attack at Asiago. Italian defences give way; Austro-Hungarian troops are poised to break through into northern Italy.

31 May: In the North Sea, the German High Seas Fleet clashes with the British Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland. In the only major naval battle of the war, the British suffer heavier losses, but claim victory, as the German fleet withdraws, and does not re-emerge from its base for the rest of the war.

For the summer of 1916, the Allies have planned major, simultaneous offensives against the Central Powers from east and west. Now they are needed more than ever, to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun, and the Italians at Asiago.

4 Jun: The Russians launch their attack first: on the Eastern Front, General Alexei Brusilov has carefully maintained the element of surprise. His troops break through the enemy lines, in some places advancing 60 miles, and taking 200,000 prisoners.

This brilliant though costly Russian attack achieves its aim, as the Central Powers are forced to redeploy troops from other fronts to shore up the line.

5 Jun: At sea, British cruiser HMS Hampshire, en route to Russia, hits a mine and sinks off Orkney. Among the 650 dead is Britain's iconic Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.

8 Jun: Three days later in the Adriatic, Italian troopship Principe Umberto is sunk by a German submarine: it's the deadliest sinking of the war, with 1,900 lives lost.

A column of Russian infantry on the move, Eastern Front, 1916.

A column of Russian infantry on the move, Eastern Front, 1916.

British heavy guns in action on the Western Front, 1916.

British heavy guns in action on the Western Front, 1916.

1 Jul: On the Western Front, Britain and France launch their major summer offensive: the Battle of the Somme. Hopes are high for a breakthrough, but the first day is a disaster: a long Allied artillery bombardment fails to knock out German defences, and waves of British infantry are cut down by machinegun fire as they advance into No Man's Land. In the space of a few hours, the British suffer 57,000 casualties, a third of them killed. It's the worst day in the history of the British army. But more attacks are ordered, and the battle will rage for another five months.

27 Aug: Encouraged by the Russian advance, Romania joins the Allies. But despite an initially successful advance into Transylvania, Romania quickly faces a counter-offensive from German, Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian forces.

12 Sep: The Allied force at Salonika tries to support Romania, by launching their own offensive towards Monastir. With Serbian troops in the lead, there are small gains, but dogged Bulgarian resistance prevents a breakthrough.

29 Aug: On the Western Front, General von Falkenhayn finally calls off the attack at Verdun.

The French army has honoured their commander, General Nivelle's, promise – 'Ils ne passeront pas' – they shall not pass... But victory comes at a terrible price: 365,000 casualties. The Germans lose almost as many. Verdun remains one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

For his defeat at Verdun, Falkenhayn is sacked, and Germany's heroes of the Eastern Front, von Hindenburg and Ludendorff, take command in the west.

15 Sep: Meanwhile, the Battle of the Somme continues. Near the village of Flers, the British introduce a new weapon they hope can break the deadlock of the trenches: it is called the tank. But despite some small successes, the first tanks are are too few in number, and too prone to mechanical failure, to make any real impact.

20 Sep: On the Eastern Front, Russia's Brusilov Offensive comes to an end. Casualty estimates vary wildly, but it's clear both sides have suffered catastrophic losses. Neither the Russian nor the Austro-Hungarian army ever fully recovers.

9 Oct: On the Italian front, heavy fighting rages throughout the autumn, as Italian forces make repeated, costly assaults against Austro-Hungarian positions along the Isonzo River.

18 Nov: The Battle of the Somme comes to an end amid autumn rain and mud. The Allies have advanced ten miles at the cost of 600,000 casualties. German losses are about 450,000. The Allies reassure themselves that this is a winning strategy, because at this rate, Germany will run out of men first.

David Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister of Great Britain in December 1916.

David Lloyd George, who became Prime Minister of Great Britain in December 1916.

Meanwhile, that autumn disaster engulfs Romania, as the country is overrun by the Central Powers. Romanian forces suffer a quarter of a million casualties. The remnants of its army take position alongside the Russians on the Eastern Front.

21 Nov: Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria since 1848, dies. He is succeeded by his great-nephew, Karl.

7 Dec: In Britain, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith is forced from office, and is succeeded by David Lloyd George.

13 Dec: General Joffre is replaced as French commander-in-chief by General Nivelle, who promises victory through bold, aggressive action.

Amid the comings and goings, US President Woodrow Wilson's attempts to mediate a peace settlement come to nothing: neither side is willing to make concessions.

 

©Toby Groom 2016