Year 1916

The situation at the fronts in 1916:


German infantry attack at Verdun.

The overrunning of Serbia by Central Powers forces (in­cluding Bulgarians), the evacuation of Gallipoli and the siege of Kut in Mesopotamia blighted many of the pet schemes of the ‘Easterners’. Once again, Allied plans for ‘decisive offensives’ on the Western Front received top priority. Massive Anglo-French combined operations were scheduled for spring 1916. But Falkenhayn struck first at Verdun on a quiet sector of the front.

The war’s longest battle began on 21 February and lasted until December. The German preliminary bombardment was the heaviest yet seen in war. The most sanguinary fighting took place for possession of Forts Douaumont (February) and Vaux (June); at Hill 30; and on a hill called Le Mort Homme (‘Dead Man’s Hill’). Douaumont was levelled to the ground and the very earth around it reduced to the consistency of fine talcum powder. The defenders were led by General (later Marshal) Philippe Petain, under the watchwords Ils ne passeront pas ! (They shall not pass!). And they did not pass !
A round-the-clock, week-in week-out shuttle service of motor trucks kept the garrison constantly supplied. The prolongation and ferocity of the fighting soon bore little or no relation to the intrinsic importance of the German objective; 66 French and 42 German divisions were deci­mated. The German Chief of Staff, Falkenhayn, intended to ‘bleed the French Army white’. If the successful French counterattacks of August-September 1917 are included, casualties at Verdun totalled a round million (550,000 French, 450,000 German).

The Allied reply to the Verdun onslaught came in the Somme valley during July-November. But Haig’s unimagi­native frontal attacks and the lamentable performance of the British artillery (despite adequate supplies of shells) brought no decisive result for the toll of 420,000 British and 195,000 French casualties during the Battle of the Somme. The battlefield debut of the tank (15 September) was on too small a scale to affect it. Dis­agreements over the Western Front stalemate and the fall of Rumania helped bring down the Asquith Government; David Lloyd George was appointed Prime Minister by King George V in December 1916.

Russian General Alexey Brusilov

Russian General Alexey Brusilov. He later claimed that if his fantastically successful offensive had been properly exploited, Russia could have won the war for the Allies. Even if he had not won the war he probably prevented the Allies losing it.

On the Eastern Front the now better-equipped and trained Russians under Brusilov had already launched the surprise Brusilov offensive that, in June, made spectacular gains between the Pripet marshes and the Carpathians.

Between 4 June and 15 August 1916, the Austro-Germans suffered 700,000 casualties (including 360,000 PoWs); Russian losses stood at 550,000. In near-desperation, the Central Powers were forced to transfer no fewer than 44 divisions from all fronts to meet Brusilov’s deadly threat. But Rumania’s entry into the war at the end of August, and the disasters which soon befell the cocksure Rumanians’ really brought Brusilov’s offensive to an end, by radically changing his mission, from the destruc­tion of the Austro-Hungarian armies to the preservation of Rumania, about a quarter of the Russian army had been drawn into the task of preventing a total Rumanian col­lapse. It was an ignominious end to an undertaking that had promised so well. By the end of the offensive, Brusi­lov’s armies had lost 1,412,000 men. Brusilov’s offensive was the last flourish of Imperial Russia.

The British force besieged at Kut in Mesopotamia, had to surrender to the Turks in April 1916 (the largest such capitulation since Kabul in 1842). But this was the Ottomans’ only success. Late in the previous winter (February 1916), the Russians under Yudenich had captured the strongly fortified city of Erzerum in Turkish Armenia. A second Turkish attack on the Suez Canal failed in August, while the Arab Sherif of Mecca pro­claimed a revolt and received the assistance of a British mission, which included the extraordinary Captain T E Lawrence. Lawrence helped organize the Arab army and, during 1916-18, gave invaluable assistance to the British forces in Palestine by forming and securing their right flank.

In East Africa, a prolonged British and Belgian offensive directed by Smuts overran most of Germany’s last colony but at heavy cost from disease and without ever decisively defeating Lettow-Vorbeck’s resilient defenders.

battle-cruiser Seydlitz on fire during the Battle of Jutland

The German battle-cruiser Seydlitz on fire during the Battle of Jutland. Although she was heavily damaged by a torpedo and by shellfire, she was not put out of action.

Germany had begun unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1915, but repeated American protests since the sinking of the liner Lusitania and other atrocities forced Berlin to suspend the campaign in April 1916. When Scheer, new commander of the German High Seas Fleet, attempted to repeat the bombardment of English coastal towns earlier carried out by his predecessor, he provoked the one and only general fleet action of the war – Battle of Jutland, or Skagerak as the Germans called it. British losses were heavier but the German fleet never ventured out again with serious intent. In an attempt to force the British to their knees, the all-out U-boat campaign was resumed in February 1917.

The venerable Austrian emperor, Francis Joseph II, died on 21 November 1916, aged 86. He was succeeded by his grand-nephew, the Archduke Charles. Although not previously suspected of having any interest in or aptitude for anything beyond soldiering and devotion to his glamor­ous wife Zita and infant son, Charles was soon making earnest endeavours to save his gravely threatened inheri­tance and conclude peace. Renewing his efforts the follow­ing spring, he employed his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, to act as intermediary between the Aus­trian and French governments. However, neither this initiative nor a ‘peace note’ from Pope Benedict XV (August 1917) bore fruit. Other (less august) ‘peacemakers’ were the British peer, Lord Lansdowne, the German Baron von der Lancken and millionaire American industrialist Henry Ford.

Diary November 22, 1916

merchant raider Seeadler

World War One Diary for Wednesday, November 22, 1916: Sea War North Sea: The only sailing raider of the World Wars; German square-rigged Seeadler leaves Germany for South Seas disguised as Norwegian timber ship (had been British-built 1878 and US­… learn more

Diary November 21, 1916

The emperor is dead

World War One Diary for Tuesday, November 21, 1916: Politics Austria-Hungary: JOSEPH OF AUSTRIA peacefully died, aged 86, having told Prime Minister ‘if that is the case [domestic discontent] we must make peace without taking any ally into consideration at… learn more

Diary November 20, 1916

General Alexeyev, Russian Army Chief of Staff

World War One Diary for Monday, November 20, 1916: Eastern Front Russia: Tsar summons Gourko from Special Army to act as Chief of Staff (Alexeiev ill until March 1917), he arrives at STAVKA on November 23. learn more

Diary November 19, 1916

French troops Monastir

World War One Diary for Sunday, November 19, 1916: Southern Fronts Serbia – Fall of Monastir to Allies: Serb and French cavalry ride in 4 years to the day since Serbs captured town from Turks in First Balkan War, 1912.… learn more

Diary November 18, 1916

Russian soldiers in front of Monastir

World War One Diary for Saturday, November 18, 1916: Southern Fronts Serbia: Despite deep snow Serb Danube Division captures Hill 1378, Italians storm Ostretz Hill and two other features (until November 19), French ford river Viro and Russians capture three… learn more

Diary November 17, 1916

British troops Somme first snow

World War One Diary for Friday, November 17, 1916: Western Front Battle of the Somme: First snow falls, night November 17-18. Air War Germany: French bomber pilot Captain Beauchamp in 1/2 Strutter ‘Ariel’ flies epic 812­-mile first ever ‘shuttle’ raid… learn more

Diary November 16, 1916

Albatros D I fighter

World War One Diary for Thursday, November 16, 1916: Air War Britain: Haig asks for an extra 20 fighter squadrons for 1917. RFC capture first Albatros D1 fighter, forced down by a BE2. Somme: RFC helps knock out at least… learn more

Diary November 15, 1916

The Russian Royal Family

World War One Diary for Wednesday, November 15, 1916: Home Fronts Russia: Grand Duke Nicholas warns Tsar of Tsarina and Rasputin’s harmful influence. Germany: 1918 conscript class, all under 19 year, begins to join for training; malnutrition a problem. Western… learn more

Diary November 14, 1916

village of Beaumont-Hamel Somme battle

World War One Diary for Tuesday, November 14, 1916: Western Front Battle of the Somme: British 190th Brigade (63rd Royal Navy Division) with 2 Tank Mk I capture Beaucourt (Ancre) with 400 PoWs, driving major salient into German Ancre defences.… learn more

Diary November 13, 1916

crater of a single mine explosion

World War One Diary for Monday, November 13, 1941: Western Front Battle of the Somme – Battle of the Ancre begins (until November 18): with 10 divisions, 5 tanks and 282 heavy guns in wet fog at 0545 hours Fifth… learn more

Diary November 12, 1916

Portuguese captain

World War One Diary for Sunday, November 12, 1916: Eastern Front Transylvania: Rumanian First Army retreats in Jiu and Aluta Valleys. Middle East South Persia: Sykes occupies Shiraz, organises 3,700 South Persian Rifles and 6 guns by December 1. African… learn more

Diary November 11, 1916

British 18-pdr field guns deployed

World War One Diary for Saturday, November 11, 1916: Western Front Battle of the Somme – Battle of the Ancre Heights ends: British artillery preparation begins, British infantry capture Farmers Road near Regina Trench. Eastern Front Transylvania – Second Battle… learn more

Diary November 10, 1916

German S or V destroyer

World War One Diary for Friday, November 10, 1916: Sea War Baltic: During attempted raid (night November 10-11) on Russian patrol lines in Gulf of Finland, near Reval, 7 wartime-built German destroyers (V75, 857, V72, G90, S58, S59 and V76)… learn more

Diary November 9, 1916

Air battle of the Western Front

World War One Diary for Thursday, November 9, 1916: Air War Belgium: 6 RNAS Short seaplanes (1 FTR) bomb Ostend docks and Zeebrugge (repeated November 15 and 17), 19 RNAS bombers raid Ostend (November 10; 10 bombers repeat on November… learn more

Diary November 8, 1916

black sergeant of the German Schutztruppe

World War One Diary for Wednesday, November 8, 1916: African Fronts East Africa: Wahle attacks British Malangali post (until November 12) which is relieved by Murray’s 400 British soldiers. Western Front Battle of the Somme: German counter­-attack at Saillisel (slight… learn more

Diary November 7, 1916

Female supporters campaign for US President Woodrow Wilson

World War One Diary for Tuesday, November 7, 1916: Neutrals USA: WILSON RE-ELECTED PRESIDENT. Jeanette Rankin (Montana) first Congress-woman. Greece: Admiral Fournet seizes Salamis naval arsenal, sees King on November 9. Western Front Battle of the Somme: British gain ground… learn more

Diary November 6, 1916

German sailors take aim for mines

World War One Diary for Monday, November 6, 1916: Sea War Black Sea: Coastal submarine UB45 mined off Varna, UC15 also lost to unknown cause in November. UB46 mined off Bosphorus on December 7. Eastern Mediterranean: UB43 (Mellenthin) torpedoes and… learn more

Diary November 5, 1916

French troops under fire at Verdun

World War One Diary for Sunday, November 5, 1916: Western Front Verdun: French 9th Division reoccupies whole of Vaux. Battle of the Somme: British in see-saw action near Butte de Warlencourt. French capture most of Saillisel and attack St Pierre… learn more

Diary November 4, 1916

Italian commander-in-chief Cadorna

World War One Diary for Saturday, November 4, 1916: Southern Fronts Isonzo: After turning move on Salone fails, Cadorna halts offensive due to bad weather and heavy losses (28,000 casualties); 9,000 Austrian PoWs taken. Italian losses in Seventh to Ninth… learn more

Diary November 3, 1916

Loading an Italian 58mm trench mortar

World War One Diary for Friday, November 3, 1916: Southern Fronts Isonzo: 4 Italian brigades take Volkovniak, Dosso Faiti, Hills 123 and 126. Salonika: French War Minister General Roques visits (until November 12) and largely clears Sarrail from Allied complaints.… learn more