The Somme and Passchendaele, Poison Gas, Aircraft and U-Boats, German Victories in the East, Russia Unsettled

The Somme and Passchendaele

Both the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Passchendaele (1917) also on the Western Front resulted in enormous loss of life on both sides but minimal progress in the war. It is interesting to note that, when the British attacked on the first day of the battle of the Somme, and lost massive amounts of men to a continuous hail of machine-gun fire, they did succeed in gaining some ground. This caused the German command to order its soldiers to re-take this ground, which resulted in similar losses for the Germans. Hence, instead of a lopsided engagement, with only British soldiers attacking, which would have resulted in large amounts of casualties only for the British, the volume of attacks was rather evenly distributed, which caused an even distribution of the casualties.

Poison Gas

Not even an initially devastating array of new weapons achieved the required victory: poison gas (first used by the Germans on Russian soldiers without much success in battle of Bolimow on January 1, 1915; more often quoted as first use is the attack on Canadian soldiers at Ypres on April 22, 1915); liquid fire, introduced by the Germans at Hooge on July 30, 1915); and armored tanks (first used by the British on the Somme on September 15, 1916) each produced initial panic among the enemy, but failed to deliver a lasting breakthrough.

Aircraft and U-Boats

Military aviation achieved rapid progress, from the development of (initially primitive) forward-firing aerial machine guns by the German air force in the autumn of 1915 to the deployment of bombers against London (July 1917): more dramatic still, at least for Britain, was the use of German submarines (U-boats, from the German Unterseeboote) against Allied merchant shipping in proscribed waters from February 1915. Germany’s decision to lift restrictions on submarine activity (February 1, 1917) was instrumental in bringing the United States into the war on the side of the Allies (April 6). The sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania was a particularly controversial “kill” for the U-boats.

While the Western Front had reached a stalemate in the trenches, the war continued to the east.

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German Victories in the East

The Russian initial plans for war had called for simultaneous invasions of Austrian Galicia and German East Prussia. Although Russia’s initial advance into Galicia was largely successful, they were driven back from East Prussia by the victories of the German generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in August and September 1914.

Russia’s less-developed economic and military organization soon proved unequal to the combined might of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. In the spring of 1915 the Russians were driven back in Galicia, and in May the Central Powers achieved a remarkable breakthrough on Poland’s southern fringes, capturing Warsaw on August 5 and forcing the Russians to withdraw from all of Poland.

Russia unsettled

Dissatisfaction with the Russian government’s conduct of the war grew despite the success of the June 1916 Brusilov offensive in eastern Galicia against the Austrians, when Russian success was undermined by the reluctance of other generals to commit their forces in support of the victorious sector commander. Allied fortunes revived only temporarily with Romania’s entry into the war on August 27: German forces came to the aid of embattled Austrian units in Transylvania, and Bucharest fell to the Central Powers on December 6. Meanwhile, internal unrest grew in Russia, as the Tsar remained out of touch at the front, while the Empress’s increasingly incompetent rule drew protests from all segments of Russian political life, resulting in the murder of Alexandra’s favorite Rasputin by conservative noblemen at the end of 1916.

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