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 November 10, 1917

Canadian and German 'walking wounded'

World War One Diary for Saturday, November 10, 1917: Western Front Flanders – Second Battle of Passchendaele ends: 1st Canadian Division (1,094 casualties) advances 500 yards north along main ridge east of Passchendaele-Westroosebeke highway despite 3 German counter-attacks, over 500… learn more

Diary November 9, 1917

Russian soldiers reading propganda leaflets

World War One Diary for Friday, November 9, 1917: Eastern Front Russia: 4 million copies of Bolshevik Peace Decree sent to Front. Kerensky occupies Gatchina (28 miles south of capital) with 600 wavering Cossacks, having reached General Krasnov’s III Cavalry… learn more

Diary November 8, 1917

Red Guard in Winter Palace

World War One Diary for Thursday, November 8, 1917: Eastern Front Russia – BOLSHEVIK REVOLUTION: Red Guards overrun Winter Palace at 0100 hours. c.1,800 Red sailors arrive by train from Helsinki. Military Revolutionary committee cables all fronts to accept revolution… learn more

Diary November 7, 1917

shot fired from Aurora

World War One Diary for Wednesday, November 7, 1917: Eastern Front Petrograd: Kerensky leaves by car to find loyal troops, other ministers in Winter Palace with 1,000 troops surrounded by 18,000 Reds. Red cruiser Aurora signals bombardment from 2210 hours.… learn more

Diary November 6, 1917

Turks captured at Beersheba

World War One Diary for Tuesday, November 6, 1917: Middle East Palestine: 17,000-strong XX Corps (1,300 casualties) storms central Turk Sheria position (c.4,000 men + c.40 guns) without prelim barrage, takes over 600 PoWs and 12 guns. Hejaz Railway: Lawrence… learn more

Diary November 5, 1917

Retreat of Italian troops after the Battle of Caporetto

World War One Diary for Monday, November 5, 1917: Southern Fronts Italian Front: At Rapallo conference Italians ask for 15 Allied divisions, but settle for 11. Temporary British C-in-C Italy Lieutenant-General Lord Cavan arrives at Pavia with ADC Prince of… learn more

Diary November 4, 1917

Kaiser Karl crossing this bridge over the Tagliamento

World War One Diary for Saturday, November 4, 1917: Southern Fronts Italian Front: Austrians take 10,000 PoWs and 24 guns cut off south of Tolmezzo from Italian XII Corps (Tassoni) until November 5 retreating from Carnia. Italians begin retreat from… learn more

Diary November 3, 1917

first Ameriican PoWs

World War One Diary for Saturday, Npvember 3, 1917: Western Front France: First 3 AEF US troops killed and 11 made PoWs in German storm coy trench raid. Aisne: French patrols reach south bank of river Ailette. Eastern Front Baltic… learn more

Diary November 2, 1917

Turkish troops attack in Palestine

World War One Diary for Friday, November 2, 1917: Middle East Palestine: 6 Turk battalions compel Newcombe’s surrender. Turk Seventh Army counter-attacks DMC 10 miles north of Beersheba until November 7. Mesopotamia – Battle of Daur on Tigris 85 miles… learn more

Diary November 1, 1917

King Victor Emmanuel III meets the Allies

World War One Diary for Thuersday, November 1, 1917: Southern Fronts Italian Front: Italians hold river Tagliamento (up to 3,000y yards wide) line until November 2 to allow time for Carnia and dilatory Fourth Army retreat plus Piave preparations. Austrian… learn more

Diary October 31, 1917

Australian and NZ troops of the Desert Mounted Corps

World War One Diary for Wednesday, October 31, 1917: Middle East Palestine – THIRD BATTLE OF GAZA (until November 7): after 24-30 mile march, DMC (11,000 men and 28 guns) captures Beersheba from 5,400 Turks with 28 guns. XX Corps… learn more

Diary October 30, 1917

Disarmed Italion PoWs are hurried into captivity

World War One Diary for Tuesday, October 30, 1917: Southern Fronts Italy: Foch visits Cadorna’s new Treviso headquarter and tells him ‘You’ve lost only one army, fight hard with the others!’, as first French troops arrive in Italy. General Duchene… learn more

Diary October 29, 1917

Blown-up bridges, such as the railway viaduct of Salcano near Gorizia

World War One Diary for Monday, October 29, 1917: Southern Fronts Isonzo: Below orders Tagliamento bridges’ seizure; Italians blow Codroipo bridges prematurely leaving 12,000 men on wrong side, but XXIV Corps holds off pursuit to cross flooding river lower down.… learn more

Diary October 28, 1917

Infantry crosses a river in Northern Italy

World War One Diary for Sunday, October 28, 1917: Southern Fronts Isonzo: Despite rain and snowstorms German 200th Division crosses river Torre at 0400 hours and occupies Udine 20 hours after Comando Supremo and Second Army headquarters evacuate, latter formation… learn more

Diary October 27, 1917

Italian mechanized transport coloumn retreats

World War One Diary for Saturday, October 27, 1917: Southern Fronts Isonzo: Cadorna orders general retreat at 0230 hours, already widely happening on jammed roads. German Alpenkorps and 2 other divisions reach river Torre beyond Cividale. Cadorna accepts Foch’s offer… learn more

Diary October 26, 1917

Canadian gunners at Passchendaele

World War One Diary for Friday, October 26, 1917: Western Front Flanders – SECOND BATTLE OF PASSCHENDAELE (until November 10): ‘The enemy charged like a wild bull against the iron wall which kept him from our U-boat bases’ (Ludendorff). Main… learn more

Diary October 25, 1917

Italian trench unit is captured by Austrians.

World War One Diary for Thursday, October 25, 1917: Southern Fronts Isonzo: Austro-German pincers close behind Mt Nero. Lieutenant Rommel’s Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion from Alpenkorps seizes Mts Kuk and Cragonza on Kolovrat Ridge with 3,600 Italian PoWs including 4th Bersaglieri… learn more

Diary October 24, 1917

German mortar at the Isonzo

World War One Diary for Wednesday, October 24, 1917: Southern Fronts Italian Front: BATTLE OF CAPORETTO (TWELFTH ISONZO, until November 9) begins on misty, rainy day with 0200 hours hurricane bombardment of 4 hours (including 2 hours of gas shells… learn more

Diary October 23, 1917

Schneider tank

World War One Diary for Tuesday, October 23, 1917: Western Front Germany – OHL appreciation: ‘The guiding principle of our general military situation remains … that the decision lies in the Western theatre of war’; Major Wetzell of operations section… learn more

Diary October 22, 1917

Austrian 'Sturmpatrouille

World War One Diary for Monday, October 22, 1917: Southern Fronts Dolomites: Italians repulse strong Austro-German attack. Isonzo: German Fourteenth Army now in start positions. Tapped telephone warns Italians of artillery barrage from 0200 hours on October 24. Western Front… learn more