February 17, 2020
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In this war, men have attacked the enemy from
the front, from behind, from the air, and from the sea, and this week they attack them
from beneath the earth. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week the big news was mutiny in the French
army that only grew in size as the days passed. Italy continued its offensive against the
Austrians, and the British High Command prepared for a huge summer offensive that would see
its first act unfold when General Sir Herbert Plumer detonated his 19 mine tunnels, packed
with explosives, under German positions at Messines Ridge. That detonation came this week. It came after a week long artillery barrage
with the heaviest concentration of artillery seen on any front so far, so the heaviest
in history. Plumer had one big gun for every 7 meters
of front. At 3:10 AM on June 7, 1917, the mines were
detonated, almost simultaneously. The entire ridge went straight up into the
air. You could feel tremors from the blast in London,
and apparently British Prime Minister David Lloyd George heard a faint boom while working
through the night at 10 Downing Street (World Undone). The concussion at the scene was tremendous
and one soldier recounted, “… the whole earth seemed to rock and sway… several of
the men and myself being thrown down violently. It seemed to be several minutes before the
earth stood still again… Flames rose to a great height- silhouetted
against the flames I saw huge blocks of earth that seemed to be as big as houses falling
back to the ground…. It was awful, a sort of inferno.” A man from a tank crew said, “You’d never
seen anything like the size of it, you’d never believe that explosives could do it. I saw about 150 Germans lying dead there…
the mine had killed them all… The mine had won the battle before it started.” 10,000 German soldiers are believed to have
been killed or buried alive right off the bat (Gilbert), thousands more were totally
stunned, and 7,354 prisoners were taken. The British infantry took possession of a
chain of craters over 20m deep where much of Messines Ridge had been. This was a spectacular success, achieving
its objective with virtually no cost in men, but it was actually only a limited success. The British had penetrated the German positions
no more than 2 or 3 km and they did not try to push deeper. British Commander Sir Douglas Haig wanted
this operation only as a contribution to his main offensive planned for a month from now,
and he ordered it stopped once the “ridge” was taken. This wasn’t actually foolish – he didn’t
want his men to outpace the artillery and he certainly wanted to dig in before the Germans
could counterattack, but some scholars, G.J. Meyer for example in “A World Undone”,
claim that for a few hours there was a real chance to cut deeply into or maybe even through
the German defenses. “The Great War Generals on the Western Front”
echoes this, but lays the blame on General Hugh Gough for not moving his Fifth Army to
attack the Ghevault Plateau when they had the momentum on their side. I can’t say one way or another – go read
up on it and tell me what you think in the comments. Anyhow, the British may have had momentum
on their side, but for the Italians, that moment had passed. The 10th Battle of the Isonzo River was now
over three weeks old, and the Italian attack had run out of steam and shells just when
it seemed like the enemy might collapse. This week, though, the battle flared to life
anew on the 4th with a huge Austro-Hungarian counterattack north of Hermada, taking back
lost territory and inflicting heavy casualties. The next day the battle came to an end. It had followed a familiar pattern; masses
of Italian infantry attacking and taking huge casualties for the occasional small gain,
followed by Austro-Hungarian counterattacks that were mostly successful, but there were
differences now. The Austrians were outnumbered in men, sure,
but they had doubled their artillery and the bulk of it was on the Carso Plateau, so General
Svetozar Borojevic von Bojna’s guns fired nearly two millions shells during the battle,
a big increase from the earlier ones, though this put serious pressure on Austro-Hungarian
industrial production, which was barely keeping up anyhow. Another big difference was in morale. It had reached an all-time low on both sides,
and you saw many cases of infantry refusing to launch another attack. Troops were also surrendering a lot more easily. In fact, 27,000 Italians were taken prisoner. The battle was an Italian victory, technically,
since they had advanced, but it was the deadliest of the ten battles of the Isonzo. The official casualty list was 159,000 for
the Italians and 80,000 for the Austrians. There’s no way that sort of fighting can
continue, something would have to give. And crumbling morale in another army had led
to open mutiny. The French army. And this week in France there was chaos in
the war zone, as the mutineers would not go back into the lines. They certainly weren’t going to go over
the top either. On June 4th, French Minister of War Paul Painlevé
estimated there were only two reliable divisions between the front line and Paris, a distance
of just over 100km. Tens of thousands of soldiers had joined the
mutiny, and in spite of the variety of their mutinous behavior, the average complaints
concerned lack of leave and low pay. The military authorities under French Commander
Philippe Petain now began to crack down and arrest the mutineers. But morale was actually on the rise in one
rather surprising place- Romania. Romania, you may remember, was invaded by
all four Central Powers simultaneously last fall, the capital fell, the oil fields fell,
and that campaign ended at the beginning of this year with the Romanian state reduced
to about one third its former size. Gathered there was what was left of the army,
with about 20,000 new recruits, refugees from Wallachia and Transylvania, enemy prisoners,
and the Russian army that helped the Romanians defend the territory they had left. That was about 1.5 million people in addition
to the local population. The food situation was not as desperate as
you might guess, though, since food reserves had been sent there in late 1916, along with
200,000 cattle and 500,000 sheep. Every bit of available land was farmed and
the army worked the land and cut trees for firewood. There had been a really bad period in early
1917 when a typhus epidemic had broken out, causing an estimated 300,000 deaths (PDF),
but things had calmed down. The Romanian army had been reorganized and
trained and there were 400,000 men in fighting units, equipped with French weapons sent through
Russia, and it had some big differences from the army of a year earlier. Last year each regiment had from zero to 6
machine guns, now each one had 24. They had no light machine guns and only 24
grenadiers back then. Now, each regiment had 96 light machine guns
and everyone was trained with grenades. It was Constantin Prezan, the Chief of Staff,
who presided over the reorganization, but a French military mission under Henri Berthelot
made up of 289 officers, 37 pilots, and over 1,000 soldiers opened military schools to
give the Romanian troops the French knowledge of three years of modern war. Romania also found soldiers from another source. Around 400,000 ethnic Romanians living in
the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been conscripted into the Imperial Army. By now, around 120,000 of them were prisoners
in Russian POW camps. A few months ago, for those that wanted it,
Russia agreed to organize them into units to fight for Romania and set up a camp for
Romanian POWs near Kiev. This week on June 8th, the first two battalions
of those soldiers arrived and were sworn in to the Romanian army. Romania, it seems, was not finished yet. And far across the sea, the United States
was also raising an army. On June 5th registration began for the draft
of all men between 21 and 30. The New York Times, in a little piece of anti-Semitism
(Gilbert), declared that this was “…a long and sorely needed means of disciplining
a certain insolent foreign element.” They were referring to America’s Jewish
community, who were in reality not only NOT more pacifistic than other Americans, but
within two months Jews made up 6% of the American armed forces, even though they only made up
2% of the general population. Also in American news, General John J. Pershing
arrived in Britain as the week came to an end. And it was a busy week of war, with an Italian
army offensive coming to an end, the Romanian army refitting itself from an enemy army,
the US beginning to build its own army, mutiny continuing to plague the French army, and
the British blowing up the German army. What Plumer had done there was one of the
most successful attacks of the war, make no mistake. The planning was both colossal and meticulous,
and the execution near flawless, but imagine being a soldier there that day. The gigantic boom assaulting your ears, seeing
an area the size of a village blast into the air, seeing a huge column of flame ignite
the sky, seeing thousands of the men die in an instant. Just try to imagine being there that day. You’d been fighting in the trenches in muddy
miserable Flanders for years, unquestionably living in hell, and then today – hell got
even worse. If you want to learn more about mining and
tunnel warfare during World War 1, check out our special episode right here. Our Patreon supporter of the week is Laurie
Jones – thanks for your support on Patreon! It makes this show possible and we couldn’t
do it without it. Don’t forget to subscribe, see you next
time.

Tony wyaad

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