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 September 14, 1917

Bolshevik Colossus

World War One Diary for Friday, September 14, 1917: Home Fronts Russia: Kerensky proclaims Republic and Council of Five, but power really passing to Petrograd Soviet. USA: $2 billion naval spending in last year. Canada: War-Times Election Act enfranchises close… learn more

Diary September 13, 1917

war blinds demonstrate in Russia

World War One Diary for Thursday, September 13, 1917: Eastern Front Germany: Hoffmann diary ‘A German advance on Petersburg now would bring about the complete collapse of Russia’. Galicia­: Germans evacuate Gusiatyn on border. Russia: Rebel Kornilov surrenders to Alexeiev… learn more

Diary September 12, 1917

Killed Italian soldiers.

World War One Diary for Wednesday, September 12, 1917: Southern Fronts Italian Front: Italian losses since August 10 a record of 166,000 men (18,000 PoWs) so far. Austrians c.85,000 (29,000 PoWs). Albania: French advance ends after 414 Austro-Bulgar PoWs and… learn more

Diary September 11, 1917

French fighter ace Georges Guynemer

World War One Diary for Tuesday, September 11, 1917: Air War Ypres: Legendary French ace Guynemer (54 victories) missing over Poelcapelle aged 22, first revealed in London (September 27) on a day Germans claim 6 Allied single-seaters. Eastern Front Russia:… learn more

Diary September 10, 1917

British ships of the Orion class

World War One Diary for Monday, September 10, 1917: Sea War North Sea: US Atlantic Fleet C-in-C Admiral Mayo visits Grand Fleet (since September 9). Mediterranean: German U-boats ordered not to attack unescorted Allied hospital ships (Spanish naval officer commissioners… learn more

Diary September 9, 1917

Etaples training camp

World War One Diary for Sunday, September 9, 1917: Western Front France­: c.2,000 British troops mutiny at Etaples Infantry Base Depot (until September 14) due to poor conditions and Third Ypres reinforcement system, 3 sentenced to death after GHQ detachments… learn more

Diary September 7, 1917

soldiers of the Austro-Hungarian army

World War One Diary for Friday, September 7, 1917: Southern Fronts Albania: General Jacquemot’s mixed French division begins advance on Austrian-held Pogradec, having been joined by Essad Pasha’s 500 Albanians from Salonika on September 6. France: Petain ordered to send… learn more

Diary September 6, 1917

rear gunner of a Halberstadt CLII ground-attacker

World War One Diary for Thursday, September 6, 1917: Air War Western Front: 6 Squadrons of newish German Halberstadt CLII ground-attack aircraft decimate British division reserves crossing Somme bridges. Eastern Front Russia: Provisional Government decree restores death penalty in interior… learn more

Diary September 5, 1917

Berlin 1917

World War One Diary for Wednesday, September 5, 1917: Home Fronts Russia: Grand Dukes Michael and Paul arrested. USA: Federal agents raid IWW offices in 23 cities (168 arrests). 687,000 draftees begin assembling by rail. Turkey­: Army Commissariat put in… learn more

Diary September 4, 1917

aftermath of a German bomber raid on London

World War One Diary for Tuesday, September 4, 1917: Air War Britain: 5 of 11 Gotha bombers sent (1 lost due to anti-aircraft fire) bomb London (night September 4-5, 90 civilian casualties, Cleopatra’s Needle scarred). British think 26 raiders bombed,… learn more

Diary September 3, 1917

German troops in Riga

World War One Diary for Monday, September 3, 1917: Eastern Front Baltic Provinces: German 2nd Guard and 1st Reserve divisions enter Riga, claim many thousand PoWs and 150 guns, but Russians still held south of highway and railway. Rumania –… learn more

Diary September 2, 1917

bombing raid on Pola

World War One Diary for Sunday, September 2, 1917: Air War Adriatic: Pola bombed by 148 Caproni bombers and 11 flying boats; Austrians bomb Venice (September 7) which has balloon barrage defence. Gales abort RNAS attempt to attack Cattaro naval… learn more

Diary September 1, 1917

German troops cross the Dvina

World War One Diary for Saturday, September 1, 1917: Eastern Front Baltic Provinces: HUTIER’S GERMAN RIGA OFFENSIVE (until September 5) begins with 2-hour Bruchmueller gas shelling (116,400 gas shells inflict over 1,000 Russian casualties) causing panic. By 0840 hours 3… learn more

Diary August 31, 1917

submarine detains a merchant vessel

World War One Diary for Friday, August 31, 1917: Sea War North Sea: Royal Navy Air Service raids Belgian coast airfields. Allied and neutral August shipping losses to U-boats, 186 (84 British) ships worth 509,142t (U-Boat figure 472,372t including 79,549t… learn more

Diary August 30, 1917

Eddie Rickenbacker with his Spad XIII

World War One Diary for Thursday, August 30, 1917: Air War France: Government agrees to supply US with 5,000 aircraft and 8,500 engines (Spad and Breguet). Western Front Artois: British troops repulse night raid on trenches southeast of Lens. Politics… learn more

Diary August 29, 1917

Italian women munition workers

World War One Diary for Wednesday, August 29, 1917: Southern Front Isonzo: Cadorna orders Bainsizza operations suspended except for blow north and east of Gorizia. Italian Front: General Waldstatten submits Austrian offensive plan to General Arz for offensive with 13… learn more

Diary August 28, 1917

French officers awarding medals to Rumanian troops

World War One Diary for Tuesday, August 28, 1917: Eastern Front Russia: CoS Kornilov appeals at Moscow National Conference for restoration of Army’s discipline and supply. Kerensky tells General Barter that troops will winter in trenches and regain discipline. Rumania:… learn more

Diary August 27, 1917

Turkish reservists

World War One Diary for Monday, August 27, 1917: Southern Fronts Salonika: British artillery shelling until August 30 and small raids on Lake Doiran sector. Home Fronts Turkey: ‘Armenian Conspiracies’ Report published. learn more

Diary August 26, 1917

field gun in mud at Ypres

World War One Diary for Sunday, August 26, 1917: Western Front Ypres: 4 British divisions and 12 tanks fight north of St Julien; sea of mud restricts progress to 2,000 yards. Somme­: British III Corps captures 1/2 mile of position… learn more

Diary August 25, 1917

Delegates from the Russian army

World War One Diary for Saturday, August 25, 1917: Home Fronts Russia: Kerensky opens Moscow National Conference (­until August 29), Bolsheviks boycott. Western Front Ypres: Second phase of Third Ypres ends. Haig decides to transfer battle from Gough to Plumer… learn more