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.

Call of War

Diary November 2, 1916

British infantry goes over the top i

World War One Diary for Thursday, November 2, 1916: Western Front Battle of the Somme: British capture trench east of Gueudecourt. Verdun: Germans evacuate Fort Vaux (night November 2-3). Sea War Arctic: U-56 sunk by Russian patrol craft gunfire off… learn more

Diary November 1, 1916

Merchant U-boats

World War One Diary for Wednesday, November 1, 1916: Sea War Atlantic: Mercantile U-boat Deutschland reaches New London on second transatlantic voyage. Adriatic: Italian torpedo boats raid Pola. France: 12 Japanese-built Arabe-class destroyers ordered (completed September-October 1917). Western Front Allies:… learn more

Diary October 31, 1916

Words of Lenin

World War One Diary for Tuesday, October 31, 1916: Eastern Front Russia: Russian Sixth Army censor reports soldiers saying ‘after the war we’ll have to settle accounts with the internal enemy’. Russian losses so far 4,670,000 killed and wounded; 2,078,000… learn more

Diary October 30, 1916

Ontranto barrage across the Adriatic

World War One Diary for Monday, October 30, 1916: Sea War Adriatic: Allied Taranto conference on Otranto Barrage ducks single commander question but Italians will transfer 22 trawlers from Tyrrhenian, plus add 18 small torpedo boats and 38 aircraft (30… learn more

Diary October 29, 1916

Fire-ready gun of a German submarine

World War One Diary for Sunday, October 29, 1916: Sea War Aegean: U-boat torpedoes Greek volunteer transport Angeliki. North Sea: 2 RNAS seaplanes reconnaissance Schillig Roads from carrier Vindex but fail to find boom; no CMB attack carried out. Britain:… learn more

Diary October 28, 1916

German fighter ace Oswald Boelcke

World War One Diary for Saturday, October 28, 1916: Air War Somme: Captain O Boelcke (40 victories), first great air combat tactician killed, aged 25, in Albatros mid-air collision over Pozieres with Jasta 2 wingman Lieutenant Erwin Boehme during dog-fight… learn more

Diary October 27, 1916

'The Last Call'

World War One Diary for Friday, October 27, 1916: Home Fronts Australia: Three Cabinet Ministers resign because of conscription, referendum on October 28 defeats it by 72,476 votes. Eastern Front Western Russia: Russians forced to river Shchara east bank. African… learn more

Diary October 26, 1916

Destroyers of German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea.

World War One Diary for Thursday, October 26, 1941: Sea War Channel: 11 German destroyers (Captain Michelsen) from Zeebrugge raid in Dover Straits (night October 26-27). 24 German ships transferred from High Seas Fleet (October 23) to aid U­-boat passage… learn more

Diary October 25, 1916

British biplane defends against German fighters

World War One Diary for Wednesday, October 25, 1916: Air War Somme: Boelcke‘s Jasta 2 shoots down 3 RFC artillery observation aircraft. Balkans: 5 RNAS aircraft leave Imbros to fly to help Rumania, 4 reach Bucharest; 4 more aircraft sent… learn more

Diary October 24, 1916

French soldiers man a German machine gun

World War One Diary for Tuesday, October 24, 1916: Western Front Verdun – First French Offensive Battle of Verdun (until December 18): Nivelle and Mangin send 3 picked and compass-guided divisions (29 battalions) to assault 7 tired and depleted German… learn more

Diary October 23, 1916

'fighter of Verdun'

World War One Diary for Monday, October 23, 1916: Western Front Verdun: Germans evacuate battered Fort Douaumont as untenable (night October 23-24). Battle of the Somme: British capture 1,000 yards of trenches towards Transloy. Eastern Front Rumania: Battle of Tirgu… learn more

Diary October 22, 1916

Portuguese Metropolitan expeditionary troops

World War One Diary for Sunday, October 22, 1916: African Fronts East Africa: Portuguese now 8 miles north of river Rovuma. Major Kraut storms NRFF Hill at Mkapira and invests position (until October 30) until beaten over river Ruhuje after… learn more

Diary October 21, 1916

German machine gun in use as anti-aircraft defence

World War One Diary for Saturday, October 21, 1916: Air War Western Front: RFC helps engage 184 targets and bombs exten­sively. Germans bomb Querrieu, Gorbie and Amiens (night October 20-21). Western Front Battle of the Somme: British advance taking 5,000… learn more

Diary October 20, 1916

12-inch rail gun fires on German positions

World War One Diary for Friday, October 20, 1916: Western Front Verdun: Nivelle commits 603 guns (including two 15.7-in rail guns against forts) and 15,000t of shells to shelling 3 1/2-mile front; they silence all but 100 of c.450 German… learn more

Diary October 19, 1916

Feldkompanie auf Von Lettow's Schutztruppe on the move

World War One Diary for Thursday, October 19, 1916: African Fronts East Africa: Last German post north of Central Railway cleared. Deventer contacts Northey. German attacks in Iringa and river Ruhuje districts. Eastern Front Dobruja – Battle of Topraisar­-Cobadinu (until… learn more

Diary October 18, 1916

Theobald of Bethmann-Hollweg

World War One Diary for Wednesday, October 18, 1916: Politics Germany: Austrian Baron Burian suggests peace initiative to Bethmann at Pless, Kaiser approves it on October 25. Both ministers also agree to proclaim Polish independence as soon as possible. France:… learn more

Diary October 17, 1941

StuG in village combat

WW2 War Diary for Friday, October 17, 1941: Home Fronts India: Arrangements completed to transport Moslem pilgrims to Mecca, despite war-time transportation problems. learn more

Diary October 17, 1916

British Sopwith Tabloid floatplane

World War One Diary for Tuesday, October 17, 1916: Sea War Adriatic: Italian SS Bermuda rams and sinks Austrian U16, after latter sinks Italian destroyer Nembo off Albania. Eastern Front Rumania: Austrian VI Corps reaches Agas 8 miles inside frontier,… learn more

Diary October 16, 1916

T.E. Lawrence

World War One Diary for Sunday, October 16, 1916: Middle East Arabia: Captain T E Lawrence of Arab Bureau lands at Jeddah from HMS Lama; meets Abdulla and Ali (October 17). So far Arabs have received 3,260 rifles, 32 MGs,… learn more

Diary October 15, 1916

burning planes goes down

World War One Diary for Sunday, October 15, 1916: Air War Western Front: Lieutenant N Prince (5 victories), American creator of Esc Lafayette, dies of wounds. Somme: 333 German aircraft support First Army against 293 aircraft of RFC (Western Front… learn more