Year 1917

The situation at the fronts in 1917:

British tanks moving into the tank battle of Cambrai

British tanks moving into the tank battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917.

During this ‘Year of Agony’, that in so many ways began the modern world as we know it, Russia discarded absolute monarchy, underwent two revolutions and submitted meekly to an Austro-German ‘peace’ Diktat. Britain’s Army was bled white in Flanders and U-boats slaughtered her merchant sailors; the French Army was rent by mutiny and defeatism; Germany suffered increasingly severe shortages, sparking off food riots and acts of disobedience in the blockaded fleet; Austria experienced near-famine and serious unrest among her subject nationalities; worst of all Italy sustained a near-fatal blow in the field. In East Africa, Germany’s last colony was lost but the indefatigable Lettow-Vorbeck took his surviving troops into Portuguese Mozambique, prolonging this side-show by a year.

The war had become’ an ever-widening all-consuming siege of peoples in which fighting fronts and home fronts were merged in a single, indivisible ordeal’. The Allies made contradictory promises of independence to Arabs and Jews as Turkey lost Baghdad and Jerusalem to ably­-commanded British armies. ‘Its only independent event, so to speak still prompted by free will and not by necessity, and ultimately its outstanding and decisive event, was America’s declaration of war on Germany.’

The severe attrition experienced during the Battle of the Somme, had induced the German High Command to abandon their advanced positions in France and withdraw to a strong fortified line which they could hold with limited forces while giving Russia a knock-out blow. This ‘Hindenburg’ (or ‘Siegfried’) Line was constructed during the winter of 1916-17. More accurately, the ‘Line’ was a complex zone of trenches, concrete shelters, gun emplacements, and barbed (or ‘razor’) wire. It was ex­tended even farther to the rear by the ‘Hunding’ and ‘Brunhilde’ lines completed in 1918. Germany’s propagan­dists and apologists trumpeted the ‘impregnable’ character
of the Line during 1917-18 to counteract the growing war­ weariness of their undernourished people. Ludendorff ventured the opinion that the Line could be held until the unrestricted U-boat campaign had brought the English to their senses (and their knees!).

Early in 1917 German forces withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, carrying out ruthless deportations and demolitions as they did so. Army Group Commander Prince Rupprecht protested against this unnecessary and self-defeating savagery and threatened to resign. Allied offensives in April freed Vimy Ridge, but appalling French losses during the excessively promoted and inept Nivelle Offensive on the Aisne sector sparked off large-scale mutinies. Thanks to the masterly intervention of Petain, these outbreaks were quickly and secretly suppressed.

In June, the British, under Plumer seized the Messines Ridge and other key points in the Ypres Salient. But pro­ longed attempts from 31 July to advance eastward from Ypres towards the U-boat bases on the Flanders coast (Third Battle of Ypres or Battle of Passchendaele) achieved very little at appalling cost. Many hundreds (if not thou­sands) of British and Empire soldiers simply disappeared, drowned in the bottomless mud. Perhaps the British offen­sive did (as Haig and Robertson claimed) hold German attention at a critical period while the battered French Army staged a slow recovery. But surely similar results could have been achieved with superior strategy (for example, detailed plans existed for an amphibious assault on the German-occupied Belgian coast, utilizing special landing craft and tanks) at far less cost in human life.
During August-October, the French made significant gains before Verdun and took the Chemins des Dames Ridge in well-planned and executed limited attacks.

The Italians had continued their repeated offensives against the Austrian line along the Isonzo River north-east of Venice. Small gains had resulted and the Italian line be­ came overextended. Repeated appeals for the despatch of Anglo-French heavy guns had elicited a meagre response. Italian C-in-C Cadorna had suspected an impending Austro-German offensive but his precautionary measures had not been implemented by dilatory corps commanders. The Italian gas masks offered only limited protection, and Italian airmen were, in general, outclassed by German veterans from the Western Front. Unbeknown to the defenders, a crack German expeditionary force of seven divisions had been railed secretly from the moribund Eastern Front. Its junior leaders – all converts to the novel ‘storm troop’ infiltration tactics associated with General Hutier – included a certain infantry officer from Wurttemberg, Erwin Rommel.

On 24 October 1917 the blow fell at Caporetto. The Italian line collapsed and was pushed back 70 miles to the Piave river with the loss of 320,000 men and 3000 guns. Eleven divisions of British and French reinforcements were rushed to the Piave and a ‘Supreme War Council’ was established to secure a unified strategy. At this dark hour, a ray of hope was provided by the surprise attack of massed British tanks at Cambrai (20 November). True, the breakthrough was short-lived and soon eliminated by German reinforcements railed from the Eastern Front and from Italy, but the poten­tial of massed armour had been proved beyond a doubt. It was, according to the Daily Mail correspondent, H W Wilson, ‘the vindication of mechanical war’.

Related Reports:

Diary July 21, 1917


World War One Diary for Saturday, July 21, 1917: Home Fronts Russia: Kerensky orders arrest of only 6 Bolsheviks (excluding Trotsky) and allows only voluntary disarming. Britain: Lloyd George says 1917-18 food supplies already secured. Churchill speech at Dundee ‘We… learn more

Diary July 20, 1917

Turkish troops in Palestine

World War One Diary for Friday, July 20, 1917: Middle East Turkey: Army Group Kommando F formed to control German troops. Palestine: British 54th Division (over 100 casualties) trench raids southwest of Umbrella Hill causing over 118 casualties and MG… learn more

Diary July 19, 1917


World War One Diary for Thursday, July 19, 1917: Home Fronts Russia: Kerensky succeeds Prince Lvov as Prime Minister after news of German breakthrough. In Petrograd last 500 rebels surrender to General Polovtsev. Finnish Scim proclaims Finland’s autonomy. Germany: Crown… learn more

Diary July 18, 1917

Russian PoWs move with their machine guns

World War One Diary for Wednesday, July 18, 1917: Eastern Front Western Russia – Battle of Dvinsk (until July 25): German Armeeabteilung D (Kirchbach) repels Denikin’s West Front. Sea War Mediterranean: French tell Greek Minister of Marine, Fleet to be… learn more

Diary July 17, 1917

Bolshevik rising attempt

World War One Diary for Tuesday, July 17, 1917: Home Fronts Russia: Justice Ministry documents allege Lenin a German agent (until July 18) as do other sources. 6,000 Kronstadt sailors join Red rising but Cossacks begin charges as troops arrive… learn more

Diary July 16, 1917

July demonstartion in Petrrograd

World War One Diary for Monday, July 16, 1917: Home Fronts Russian ‘July Days’ Rising (­until July 19): abortive part-Trotsky inspired revolt in Petrograd, Lenin returns on July 17 and calls it off. Southern Fronts Salonika: Mutinies in French 57th… learn more

Diary July 15, 1917

Short seaplanes

World War One Diary for Sunday, July 15, 1917: Air War Southern Turkey: 4 Royal Navy Air Service Short seaplanes from HMS Empress report hits on cotton factories near Adana. Empress aircraft later starts fires in Beirut quay warehouses in… learn more

Diary July 14, 1917

Gas victims

World War One Diary for Saturday, July 14, 1917: Western Front Flanders: Between July 14 and August 4 German artillery fire 1 million rounds (2,500t) of mustard gas shell at British between Nieuport and Armentieres; 14,726 gassed (500 deaths). Champagne:… learn more

Diary July 13, 1917

Dr Michaelis

World War One Diary for Friday, July 13, 1917: Politics Germany: Bethmann resigns as Imperial German Chancellor, Dr Michaelis (unknown to Kaiser) succeeds on July 14. Foreign minister Zimmermann resigns on July 15. Home Fronts France: General Petroleum Committee formed.… learn more

Diary July 12, 1917


World War One Diary for Thursday, July 12, 1917: Western Front Flanders – FIRST USE OF MUSTARD GAS: Germans fire 50,000 rounds (125t) at British near Ypres (Allies dub it Yperite), 2,490 gassed (87 deaths), mainly in 15th Division. Sea… learn more

Diary July 11, 1917

Airco DH-4 bomber

World War One Diary for Wednesday, July 11, 1917: Air War Britain: Cabinet decides to set up committee including Smuts on air defence and organization. Western Front: After bad weather delay, Royal Flying Corps Flanders pre-Third Ypres offensive begins, including… learn more

Diary July 10, 1917

Gasmask for men and donkey

World War One Diary for Tuesday, July 10, 1917: Western Front Flanders – German dusk 15 battalion attack on Nieuport: Fierce artillery duels. German marines advance near Lombaertzyde on 1,400-yard front east of Yser mouth and take over 1,000 PoWs;… learn more

Diary July 9, 1917

Handley Page 100 biplane

World War One Diary for Monday, July 9, 1917: Air War Turkey: An RNAS Handley Page (flown out to Mudros in May) bombs (8 x 112lb) Constantino­ple (Golden Horn area) and Turco-German Fleet for 35 minutes after 7hr flight; destroyer… learn more

Diary July 8, 1917

Middlesex Regiment Territorial at Baghdad

World War One Diary for Sunday, July 8, 1917: Middle East Mesopotamia: British occupy Dhibban on Euphrates during hottest summer in memory (122°F in shade at Baghdad). learn more

Diary July 6, 1917

wounded Richthofen

World War One Diary for Friday, July 6, 1917: Air War Western Front: Guynemer scores first victory with his new 37-mm Puteaux cannon-armed Spad S12, DFW downed with a single shot (Fonck achieves 6 kills with this powerful but dangerous… learn more

Diary July 5, 1917

High Seas Fleet in Wilhelmshaven

World War One Diary for Thursday, July 5, 1917: Sea War Germany: Hunger and coaling strike by ratings beginning with High Seas Fleet flagship secures the establishment of food supervisory committees aboard most ships during July. Western Front Flanders: Slight… learn more

Diary July 4, 1917

'HMS Furious' with a Sea Scout Z anti-submarine balloon

World War One Diary for Wednesday, July 4, 1917: Sea War North Sea: Redesigned light battlecruiser HMS Furious joins Grand Fleet (rebuilt since March 19) as carrier with 10 aircraft. Baltic: Dreadnought Petropavlosk at Helsinki issues anti-government ultimatum threatening to… learn more

Diary July 3, 1917

German infantryman of an assault unit

World War One Diary for Tuesday, July 3, 1917: Western Front Aisne: Larger scale German attacks on 11-mile front north of the Aisne. Eastern Front Galicia: Russian Eleventh Army has taken 14,000 PoWs and over 30 guns so far, but… learn more

Diary July 2, 1917

Asia Corps

World War One Diary for Monday, July 2, 1917: Middle East Turkey: German c.6500-strong Asia Corps (3 battalions, 3 cavalry troops, 18 guns, 18 MGs, 12 mortars, 4 air squadrons) formed, as elite help under Colonel Frankenburg for Turks. Politics… learn more

Diary July 1, 1917

The Convoy.

World War One Diary for Sunday, July 1, 1917: Sea War Britain: 3,000 British merchant ships have guns; 2,180 guns mounted in 1917 only 190 under 12-pounder (3-inch) calibre. ASW depth charge issue doubled to 4,6 by August. 100-300 used… learn more