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 11, 1917

Allenby enters Jerusalem

World War One Diary for Tuesday, December 11, 1917: Middle East Palestine: Allenby enters Jerusalem on foot via Jaffa Gate with Allied parties including Major TE Lawrence and Lieutenant-Colonel Wavell (film released in Britain in February 1918). . Eastern Front… learn more

Diary December 10, 1917

MAS torpedo boat of the type 'Grillo'

World War One Diary for Monday, December 10, 1917: Sea War Adriatic: 2 Italian MAS boats penetrate Trieste, MAS9 (Lieutenant Rizzo) sinks Austrian battleship Wien, worst Austrian warship loss so far. North Sea­: Royal Navy Air Service seaplanes bomb Bruges… learn more

Diary December 9, 1917

British artillery in Palestine

World War One Diary for Sunday, December 9, 1917: Middle East Palestine – FALL OF JERUSALEM: Mayor hands keys to Ptes Church and Andrewes (mess cooks), then to GOC 60th Division which storms Mt Scopus. Mott’s Department occupies Bethlehem. Eastern… learn more

Diary December 8, 1917

Turkish cavalry in a camp near Jerusalem

World War One Diary for Saturday, December 8, 1917: Middle East Palestine: British advance on Jerusalem begins despite heavy rain, 60th Division takes two villages, 297 PoWs, 3 guns and 12 MGs. Turk XX Corps (12,000 soldiers with c.50 guns)… learn more

Diary December 7, 1917

Captured British tanks Mark IV

World War One Diary for Friday, December 7, 1917: Western Front Britain: BEF GHQ Intelligence predict German 1918 offensive no later than March 1918. Battle of Cambrai ends: British 2-2 1/2 miles in advance of November 20 line in north… learn more

Diary December 6, 1917

Italian women dig trenches

World War One Diary for Thursday, December 6, 1917: Southern Fronts Trentino: Austrian 21st Rifle Division storms Mt Sisemol (2,000 PoWs). Italians consolidate new line farther south across Valstagna and Frenzela valleys. Eastern Front RUMANIAN CEASEFIRE WITH CENTRAL POWERS Ukraine:… learn more

Diary December 5, 1917

Conrad von Hoetzendorf inspecting troops

World War One Diary for Wednesday, December 5, 1917: Southern Fronts Trentino: Conrad drives towards Foza, but delayed by Bersaglieri and Alpini troops rearguard. Middle East Palestine: First British trains reach Ramleh. Mott’s Detachment occupies Hebron, 17 miles south of… learn more

Diary December 4, 1917

Melee scene Italian front

World War One Diary for Tuesday, December 4, 1917: Southern Fronts Trentino: Scheuchenstuel’s Eleventh Army (35 battalions) eliminates Mts Meletta­-Badenecche salient northeast of Asiago in 4 hours, taking 16,000 PoWs, 90 guns and 200 MGs until December 5, helped by… learn more

Diary December 3, 1917

Turkish field artillery, equipped with German 75mm howitzers

World War One Diary for Monday, December 3, 1917: Middle East Palestine: British 74th Division battalion (286 casualties) takes but loses Beit-Ur-el Foka. Mesopotamia – Third Action of Jebel Hamrin: Egerton’s 20,000 men with 116 guns and Colonel Bicharakov’s 1,000… learn more

Diary December 2, 1917

Arrival of Trotzky at Brest-Litovsk

World War One Diary for Sunday, December 2, 1917: Eastern Front CEASEFIRE begins on dates fixed by local army commanders. Russian Armistice Commis­sion crosses German lines at Dvinsk and continues to Brest­-Litovsk welcomed by German C-in-C Prince Leopold. Russia: Kornilov… learn more

Diary December 1, 1917

company of Turkish storm-troopers

World War One Diary for Saturday, December 1, 1917: Middle East Palestine: Turk 19th Division’s German-style storm battalion destroyed attack of ALH and 52nd Division at El Burj. Kress hands over Eighth Army to Djevad Pasha. 2 Australian armoured cars… learn more

Diary November 30, 1917

German soldiers before the counterattack at Cambrai

World War One Diary for Friday, November 30, 1917: Western Front Cambrai – GERMAN SURPRISE COUNTER­ATTACK BEGINS with 0830 hours barrage including much gas shell: Second Army, reinforced to 20 divisions, employs infiltration tactics and close air support, tested at… learn more

Diary November 29, 1917

Albatross fighter in the Alps

World War One Diary for Thursday, November 29, 1917: Air War Italian Front: First British flight over Italian lines (Montello area) shoots down 1 Austrian single-seater but fighter attacks prevent RE8 photo-reconnaissance. 500 US trainee pilots begin course at Foggia… learn more

Diary November 28, 1917

cannibalism in Russia

World War One Diary for Wednesday, November 28, 1917: Eastern Front Russia: Lenin and Trotsky radio and telegram proclamation ‘The Russian Army and the Russian people cannot and will not, wait any longer.’ ESTONIA DECLARES INDEPENDENCE. Western Front Cambrai: 16,000… learn more

Diary November 27, 1917

by artillery destroyed tank

World War One Diary for Tuesday, November 27, 1917: Western Front Cambrai: Exhausted British disengage at Cambrai after Guards Division (with 32 tanks) driven back in Bourlon and Fontaine sectors. Ludendorff and Rupprecht confer at Le Cateau as 20 fresh… learn more

Diary November 26, 1917

PoWs collection point for Italians

World War One Diary for Monday, November 26, 1917: Southern Fronts Trentino: Austrian Edelweiss Division (only 2,000 strong by November 27) fails to capture Col della Berretta against 2 Italian brigades, Alpini Val Brenta battalion and 60th Bersaglieri. Mt Pertica… learn more

Diary November 25, 1917

exchange trade between the trenches

World War One Diary for Saturday, November 25, 1917: Eastern Front Western Russia: Fraternization near Baranovichi. At Orsha railway junction anti-Bolshevik troops going for Moscow are stopped. Home Fronts Russia – Constituent Assembly elections (until November 27): Bolsheviks win only… learn more

Diary November 24, 1917

Emperors Charles (far left) and Wilhelm II,

World War One Diary for Saturday, November 24, 1917: Southern Fronts Trentino: Emperor Charles ends attacks in Asiago sector, Conrad’s losses 15,030 (nearly 7,000 sick) since November 10. Western Front Cambrai: British fail to storm Bourlon Hill, but Colonel Wade… learn more

Diary November 23, 1917

Zeppelin L59

World War One Diary for Froday, November 23, 1917: Africa East Africa: Zeppelin L59 (left Jamboli, Bulgaria on November 21 with 15t supplies including 30 MGs after vain attempts on November 13 and 16) turns back west of Khartoum during… learn more

Diary November 22, 1917

German troops move through a village in northern Italy

World War One Diary for Thursday, November 22, 1917: Southern Fronts Piave: Crisis day in key Mt Grappa sector as Austro­-Germans storm onto Mt.Tomba (3,176 ft), but Laderchi’s IX Corps’ final effort drives them off (one Italian regiment reduced to… learn more