(The WAR to DECEMBER 1916 – continued)
For the year 1916, Britain, France, Italy and Russia planned for simultaneous offensives, assuming this would overwhelm the Germans. Britain and Canada needed more men in the military. They had been relying on volunteers and had seen military conscription as something for feckless Latins and servile Germans. But they put those opinions aside and began ordering into military service men between the ages of 18 and 41 and extending the service of those whose enlistments had expired. In Britain, 16,000 men would declare themselves as conscientious objectors to war. Of these, 819 would spend more than two years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.
Germany's plan for 1916 was to hold its line in the east and knock France out of the war. Germany transferred a half million men from the Eastern to the Western Front and planned to launch an attack at Verdun in hope of luring French forces into a salient where they would be more vulnerable to German firepower. The French military command received ample warning of Germany's plan to attack at Verdun, and they saw holding the salient there as militarily useless. A pullback to a shorter line would have strengthened France's position, but public opinion in France played into the hands of the Germans. The French public was sentimental about the old fort and assumed it was of great defensive significance. No effort was made to convince the public otherwise. France's premier, Aristide Briand, was afraid of public opinion. He feared that if Verdun fell to the Germans, public outrage would bring down his precarious government. So he decided to defend the fort. And the commander-in-chief of France's armies, Joffre, needed Briand's support against politicians who thought him incompetent and wanted to replace him.
The Germans launched their attack against Verdun in late February, more than three months before the planned coordinated offensives by France and its allies. The French pushed troops through the salient they would call The Sacred Way, and the slaughter of French troops began as Germany had planned. But now it was German public opinion that interfered with military strategy. The German public demanded a more aggressive effort at Verdun. For them, Verdun had also acquired symbolic significance, and they wanted Verdun's capture. German forces led by the son of Kaiser Wilhelm, Crown Prince Wilhelm, were eager for glory and went on the offensive.
In March, the Russians and Italians launched offensives to relieve pressure on the French. The Russian offensive was along ninety miles of front and lasted only ten days before it got bogged down, stopped by German machine guns and artillery. The Russians suffered over 100,000 more casualties – about 10,000 a day – and gained 40 miles. The Italian offensive went nowhere and lasted through the year, with the Italians losing 147,000 men and Austria-Hungary 81,000.
By the end of June the French at Verdun had suffered 315,000 casualties and the Germans 281,000. The wider offensive planned by France and Britain began on July 1 at the Somme River about 100 miles north of Paris. It began with heavy artillery bombardments that lasted a week, giving the Germans warning of the coming infantry assault and time to prepare their line. The British lost 60,000 men on the first day. From the beginning the offensives were a disaster, but it was too much for the British and French commanders to admit their error in judgment, so they stayed the course to mid-November, the British losing over 400,000 men, the French 200,000 and the Germans another 450,000. The Battle of the Somme has been described as one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
Russia's June offensive was in its empire, the Ukraine, beginning on the 4th – 633,000 men along a 200-mile front opposite troops of Austria-Hungary and only a few German divisions. The Germans were too involved at Verdun to give Austria-Hungary additional support. The Russian offensive was led by Russia's most able general: Brusilov. He lacked artillery shells and could not begin his offensive with the usual bombardment that warned the enemy of a coming infantry assault. Brusilov's attack caught his enemy off-guard. And rather than strike at their enemy's strongest point, as military tradition demanded, the Russians struck at a weak point. Slipping past the enemy, the Russians gained fifty miles. Austria-Hungary lost 200,000 as prisoners in the first week. The offensive lasted until September 20 and ended with the arrival of more German armies. Austria-Hungary's total casualties (wounded, prisoners, killed) has been estimated at 1,325,000. Russia's casualties according to Wikipedia were 1,446,334.
During the Russian offensive, the Romanians had been impressed with Russia's success, and the British, French and Russians had promised Romania territory at the expense of Hungary, territory to the Tisza River just sixty miles short of Budapest. In late August, Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary, but with unhappy results. The Germany's fifteen divisions from the Western Front dashed Romanian hopes. The Germans and Bulgarians launched an invasion of Romania, and on December 6 the Germans overran Romania's capital, Bucharest.
Germany's efforts at Verdun, meanwhile, had tapered off, and the fighting there ended in mid-December. France's total dead at Verdun in December reaching 156,000, the Germans 143,000. Germany's military commander on the Western Front, Eric von Falkenhayn, was held responsible for the failure of Germany's strategy for 1916, and in late August he was been replaced by Paul von Hindenburg, of consequence in Germany's future.
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