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 21, 1917

British reserves are waiting

World War One Diary for Wednesday, November 21, 1917: Western Front Cambrai: British advance to Cambrai resumed and with 12 tanks captures Cantaing (300 PoWs) and Tadpole Copse; 2 tanks and 6th Division recapture Noyelles. At Fontaine-Notre­ Dame they are… learn more

Diary November 20, 1917

Britsih tanks advance during the Battle of Cambrai

World War One Diary for Tuesday, November 20, 1917: Western Front Cambrai – BATTLE OF CAMBRAI (until December 3). FIRST MASSED TANK ATTACK: Reinforced British Third Army (Byng) with 19 divisions and entire Tank Corps led by Brigade-General Elles in… learn more

Diary November 19, 1917

British tanks loaded on trains

World War One Diary for Monday, November 19, 1917: Western Front Cambrai: British Tank Corps, moved up by train, begins to move to start line (night November 19-20). Flanders: German trench raids on British sector. Lorraine: Captain Patton joins US… learn more

Diary November 18, 1917

Burial of General Sir Frederick Maude at Baghdad

World War One Diary for Sunday, November 18, 1917: Middle East Mesopotamia: Death of Maude of cholera in Baghdad, aged 53. Lieutenant-General Marshall succeeds, has 69,500 men and 302 guns near Baghdad (total MEF strength 254,924 soldiers plus 158,428 followers).… learn more

Diary November 17, 1917

Battlecruiser 'Glorious'

World War One Diary for Saturday, November 17, 1917: Sea War North Sea – Last cruiser action off Heligoland: Vice-Admiral T Napier’s battlecruisers Glorious, Courageous and Repulse, 8 cruisers and 10 destroyers chase 4 German light cruisers, which were covering… learn more

Diary November 16, 1917

German lancers in Palestine

World War One Diary for Friday, November 16, 1917: Middle East Palestine: NZ Mounted Brigade occupies Jaffa and Australian Mounted Division Latrun. Turk Eighth Army behind river Auja to north. Sea War North Sea: Royal Navy K1 steam submarine has… learn more

Diary November 15, 1917

Turkish cavalrymen retreat through Palestine

World War One Diary for Thursday, November 15, 1917: Middle East Palestine: Anzac Mounted Division occupies Ramleh and Ludd. Yeomanry charge against Turk rearguard at entry to Judean Hills. Eastern Front Russia: Reds win fight for Kremlin. Southern Russia: Alexeiev… learn more

Diary November 14, 1917

Column of Italian soldiers who had been captured

World War One Diary for Wednesday, November 14, 1917: Southern Fronts Trentino: Conrad and Krauss’ Austrians armies link up at Fonzaso. Salonika: British begin 50­-mile Stavros light railway, with 4,000 Turk PoWs in batches from Cyprus, to replace uncertain shipping… learn more

Diary November 13, 1917

abandoned Turkish field gun in Palestine

World War One Diary for Tuesday, November 13, 1917: Middle East Palestine: Allenby attacks towards Jctn Station of Jerusalem railway with 25,000 men and 136 guns against 9000 Turks with c.60 guns. 800 Yeomanry (130 casualties) charge and storm EI… learn more

Diary November 12, 1917

Dismounted Australian mounted infantrymen open fire

World War One Diary for Monday, November 12, 1917: Middle East Palestine: Falkenhayn drives back Australian Mounted Divusion 4 miles with 5,000 Turks (10,000 rallied at Ramleh on November 10). Hejaz Railway: Lawrence mines troop train at Minifer, captures 60… learn more

Diary November 11, 1917

war material left by the Italians Piave

World War One Diary for Sunday, November 11, 1917: Southern Fronts Piave: FIRST BATTLE OF THE PIAVE (until December 30). Austrians gain small bridge­head at Zenson (night November 12-13) 17 miles from river mouth, 20 miles northeast of Venice and… learn more

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