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’.

Diary December 31, 1917

US troopship in France

World War One Diary for Monday, December 31, 1917: Western Front British took 1,018 PoWs and 4 guns. 183,896 AEF (American Expedition Force) personnel now in Europe. Sea War Allied and neutral December shipping losses to U-boats: 160 ships (76… learn more

Diary December 30, 1917

dressing station on the Italian Front

World War One Diary for Sunday, December 30, 1917: Southern Fronts Piave: French 47th Division (259 casualties) recaptures Mt Tomba in 25 minutes with nearly 1,564 PoWs. Austrians forced to evacuate Zenso bend bridgehead, Lower Piave. Salonika: Sir R Ross… learn more

Diary December 29, 1917

propaganda sees the 'bestial Germans'.

World War One Diary for Saturday, December 29, 1917: Home Fronts Britain: National Labour Convention demands general rationing. Churchill letter ‘I am strongly pressing that the cavalry should be put by regiments into the Tanks’. Masterman of War Propaganda Bureau… learn more

Diary December 28, 1917

Major James Thomas Byford McCudden

World War One Diary for Friday, December 28, 1917: Air War Western Front: ­Royal Flying Corps ace McCudden shoots down 3 LVGs in 20 minutes (4 kills on December 23). Italy: Austrians bomb Padua (until December 30), cause 79 casualties,… learn more

Diary December 27, 1917

Turkish troops at Jerusalem.

World War One Diary for Thursday, December 27, 1917: Middle East Palestine: Turk counter­attack towards Jerusalem fails 3 miles north astride Nablus road despite fresh 1st Division. Deciphered radio message warns Allenby and Chetwode before December 24; British 60th Division… learn more

Diary December 26, 1917

Brandenburg D.I

World War One Diary for Wednesday, December 26, 1917: Air War Italy: Large air battle 18 miles north of Venice, 9 of 30-40 Austrian aircraft shot down bombing Istrana airfield (RFC hangars suffer minor damage, 2 Italian aircraft destroyed). Raids… learn more

Diary December 25, 1917

KAR (Kings African Rufles) Native troops

World War One Diary for Tuesday, December 25, 1917: Africa Mozambique: British patrols pursue Germans 40 miles south of river Rovuma. Lettow receives Christmas dinner from his officers. Eastern Front Ukraine: RNAS Armoured Car Squadron rear party disable remaining cars… learn more

Diary December 24, 1917

Meeting of British Naval Officers

World War One Diary for Monday, December 24, 1917: Sea War Britain: Jellicoe resigns as First Sea Lord at Geddes’ request (made public on December 26). Admiral Sir W Wemyss succeeds, Admiral Sir S Fremantle replaces Oliver as DCNS; Bacon… learn more

Diary December 23, 1917

Austrian 10.4cm Langrohrkanone

World War One Diary for Sunday, December 23, 1917: Southern Fronts Italian Front: French Tenth Army C-in-C Fayolle informs Foch that Italians ‘had recovered their spirit and wanted to fight’. Trentino: Conrad’s final attempt to break through before winter snows,… learn more

Diary December 22, 1917

town of Ypres

World War One Diary for Saturday, December 22, 1917: Western Front Britain: Lieutenant-General Sir R Maxwell BEF QMG since January 1915 resigns; succeeded by Lieutenant-General Sir T Clarke. France: General Debeney in command of French First Army for duration of… learn more

Diary December 21, 1917

Christmas 1917 on the front

World War One Diary for Friday, December 21, 1917: Western Front Alsace: Fierce clashes at Harmannsweilerkopf, Germans ejected. Eastern Front Russia: Antonov, People’s Commissar for War, made C-in-C ‘for the struggle with counter­-revolution’. Home Fronts Italy: now 3,500 munition plants… learn more

Diary December 20, 1917

British field artillery in Palestine

World War One Diary for Thursday, December 20, 1917: Middle East Palestine – Battle of Jaffa (­until December 22): XXI Corps’ 8,100 men and 88 guns surprise cross river Auja on December 21, take 259 PoWs and 5 MGs from… learn more

Diary December 19, 1917

Gigant' bomber

World War One Diary for Wednesday, December 19, 1917: Air War Britain: Air defences finally told of Giant bomber, codenamed Bertie, after its eight raid. Sea War Channel: New Dover Straits minefield claims first victim, coastal submarine UB-56 after Vice-Admiral… learn more

Diary December 18, 1917

mountain gun Italian front

World War One Diary for Tuesday, December 18, 1917: Southern Fronts Piave: Austrian 4th Division captures Mt Asolone (5315 ft) with 2,000 PoWs and view of plains below, farthest Austrian advance. Rommel’s Wurttemberg Mountain Batallion withdrawn from final but local… learn more

Diary December 17, 1917

Don't waste bread

World War One Diary for Monday, December 17, 1917: Home Fronts Britain: Lord Rhondda says ‘Food queues must be stopped’, rationing probably inevitable. No post to neutrals, except to PoWs or under permit. Russia: All Church property to be confiscated,… learn more

Diary December 16, 1917

war donations at Christmas 1917

World War One Diary for Sunday, December 16, 1917: Western Front Artois: British success east of Avian. Sea War Bristol Channel: Sloop HMS Arbutus sunk by U-boat. Home Fronts Britain: Lieutenant-Colonel Freyberg – Victoria Cross – condemns Sassoon’s anti-war attitude… learn more

Diary December 15, 1917

Fraternisation between Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers

World War One Diary for Saturday, December 15, 1917: Eastern Front BREST-LITOVSK 28-DAY ARMISTICE (until January 14, 1918) signed between Russia and Central Powers to begin noon on December 17. Fraternization centres fixed, week’s notice of termination. Germans given police… learn more

Diary December 14, 1917

Italian PoWs

World War One Diary for Friday, December 14, 1917: Southern Fronts Piave: Austrian 4th Divison takes Col Captile on Brenta valley side but shell shortage postpones exploitation. Sea War Naval Allied Council to be formed (ministers and CNSs). Ionian Sea:… learn more

Diary December 13, 1917

Italian propaganda after Caporetto

World War One Diary for Thursday, December 13, 1917: Southern Fronts Italy: After Austrian Czernin status quo peace hint from December 5, Prime Minister Orlando tells deputies in secret session Italy will fight on even if armies have to fall… learn more

Diary December 12, 1917

General Oskar von Hutier

World War One Diary for Wednesday, December 12, 1917: Eastern Front Russia: Bolsheviks fight Cossacks at Rostov, occupy it on December 14. General Kaledin retakes it on December 15 with Alexeiev’s Volunteer Army forcing local Reds to flee to Black… learn more