Tag Archives: Britain

Last of the True Welsh

Little known facts:

Personal Arms of Llywelyn ap Gruffyd, the last native Prince of Wales.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Today in 1282, the English completed the extinction of the Welsh Royal dynasty when they captured and killed  Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last independent Prince of Wales.

Book Review: Kirov by John Schettler

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Kirov by John Schettler is the Philadelphia Experiment in reverse.  It is the tale of a Russian cruiser that through some anomaly that is never fully explains finds itself catapulted eighty years backwards in time from 2021 to 1941 to just weeks prior to the meeting of Roosevelt and Churchill at Argentia Bay in Newfoundland.  The cruiser in the novel is the resurrected, upograde, and fully modernized guided missile cruiser Kirov that currently exists in the Russian Navy today.  Of course the cruiser used in the book is a fictionalized version but realistic.  A very good aspect was the use of historical figures and the convincing way they are portrayed.  I am  not normally someone that likes historical fiction, you could even say that I despise it as a genre but Mr. Schettler does a good job of making the reader forget he is writing historical fiction.

I very much enjoyed reading this book.  The plot is fantastic enough to be Sci-Fi but realistic enough to be good fiction and my favorite, there is plenty of well researched and portrayed action.  The action scenes in the book are very well written and it is some of the best naval combat fiction I have read.  I would compare the quality of naval combat portrayal with that of David Weber in the Honor Harrington books.  Fantastic, but gripping enough to keep you reading.  The plot moves smoothly along for the most part and I was not tempted to put it down until it was finished.  I could wish there was more of an epilogue but the one that is there leaves plenty of room for the readers imagination while setting a stage for that imagination.

I have only one complaint about the book and it may be minor and is definitely a personal quirk of mine.  When the main characters are introduced he tends to be fairly long-winded (or penned?) when describing the character’s history and motivations.  It is almost as if each main characters ends up an excursion from the main plot instead of these elements being interwoven into the narrative.

Overall, I have to say I enjoyed this book immensely.  There is plenty of action along with plenty of introspection on motives and human nature.  I also have to say that I don’t understand why one of the bigger publishing houses hasn’t picked up this book or others by Mr. Schettler.  It is currently published by The Writing Shop Press and as is all too often true in the world of publishing, great books get overlooked because the big publishers can’t or won’t pick them all up.  I would probably never have found this work had the author not contacted me directly asking if I would be willing to read one of his books and review it on my site.  I am glad he did, Kirov is an excellent work and fans of authors, such as David Drake, David Weber, Eric Flint, Tom Kratman, and John Ringo can confidently add John Schettler to the roster of authors putting out excellent military Sci-Fi.

Happy Veterans Day

Veterans Day POster

Today is Veteran’s Day in the US and Armistice Day in Britain and France. It is a day to remember the end of the fighting in World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. It is also the day set aside in the US to remember all veterans, not just those of World War I but also those that served in our nation’s other wars and those that served during peacetime. It takes something special to serve your country and a little bit more to do so voluntarily. There is always the possibility of going to war and giving your life for your country while in the military. I hope that everyone takes a moment today and remembers the sacrifices of all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who have served and fought for the United States. If you meet a vet today, shake his hand and thank him for his service. Remember, less than 1% of the US public serves, yet they do so to protect that other 99%.

US Department of Veterans Affairs site about Veterans Day

The Fronts of World War I in 1917 & 1918

The tactical and strategic situation at the beginning of 1917 was little changed from that at the beginning of 1916.  All that the offensives on the Western Front had managed to accomplish the previous year were minor changes in the trace of the trenches and massive loss of life.  Both the British and French planned further offensives in the west during the years but events would intervene to ensure that only the British committed themselves to large-scale offensives on the Western Front in 1917.

The spring and summer saw the French army undergo a crisis of confidence that has come to be known as the French mutinies, thought they were not mutinies, as the term is generally understood.  After the abortive assault on the Chemin des Dames ridge in April 1917, a large part of the French army refused to go on the offensive.  Although the mutineers continually made it plain that they would defend, what they would not do, was attack.

German shell bursting between advancing French troops: Image Courtesy www.firstworldwar.com

Keegan theorizes that at that point in the war the infantry collectively decided their chances of survival were less than even and that this precipitated the mutinies.[1] This theory holds that French had suffered as many dead in battle as their pre-war infantry strength and somehow the infantry sensed this, it led to their refusal to fight.  This glosses over many of the grievances the French infantry had, which included the pay, rations, and leave policy of the French army.  These last reasons are enough on their own to account for the low French morale; there are numerous examples of sacrifice in history, but few examples of an army that subsisted entirely on horrible rations or low pay with little chance of leave.  Even Alexander the Great’s army finally demanded to return home after an unbroken string of victories and the carving of an empire, the French army of 1917 hardly had a string of victories to show for its exertions.

The British however, did launch a series of attacks on the Western front during the year, at Arras, Messines Ridge, and a major effort in Flanders, the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele.  The British attacks were launched largely because General Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had the feeling that while the French would not fight, something must be done.  This led to the launching of Third Ypres between June and August 1917.  This attack was designed to sweep all the way to the channel coast and liberate a large parcel of Belgian territory south of Brussels.  Passchendaele ended in failure, with the British suffering 70,000 dead and 170,000 wounded for marginal gains in the Ypres salient.

The year of 1917 would be one of crisis for the Allies, not only did the French suffer a moral collapse, but the Italians and Russians experienced their own crises as well.  The Russian collapse began in the rear of the armies and spread forward.  In late February 1917, the civilians in Petrograd rioted due to food shortages and the Petrograd garrison refused to put down the demonstrations.  The people set themselves up in local councils or Soviets, under many different political groups among them the radical Marxist Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, who agitated for an end to the monarchy.  The Tsar abdicated on 2 March and his handpicked successor refused the crown while the Duma refused to accept the Tsarevitch thus leaving Russia without a head of state.[2]

A leader of the Provisional Government emerged in the person of Alexander Kerensky who attempted to continue the war.  Kerensky launched an offensive in June but it failed and the army rapidly began to disintegrate in the face of German and Austrian counter-attacks.  Kerensky barely managed to suppress a revolt at Petrograd in July but his days were numbered, as the political currents in the country were unpredictable.  Throughout the summer, the Bolsheviks were constantly working to undermine the Provisional Government and planning a revolution of their own.

In September, the Bolsheviks made their bid for power and the country descended into chaos.  Initially they were successful with Bolshevik units using the nation’s rail network to rapidly gain control of Russian population centers.  Simultaneously, the Russians declared an armistice and began to negotiate with the Germans at the fortress town of Brest-Litovsk in Poland for an end to hostilities.  The Germans presented their demands and set a time limit and when the Russians prevaricated, the Germans attacked all along the front in February 1918, and in a panic the Bolsheviks let the Germans dictate terms and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918, ceding a huge amount of Russian territory in return for peace.[3] The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk ended Russia’s role in the First World War, though the Russian Civil War would drag on until the 1920’s.

The collapse of the Italian army was of a different nature entirely than that of either the French or the Russian armies.  The Italians had been pounding along the Isonzo front in the Alps since 1915, mounting 12 offensives, an average of one every three months for the gain of only sixty miles.[4] The Italians had driven up the valley floor but failed to adequately secure the peaks on their flanks.  There was also a systemic failure and societal failure in the Italian army; the officers were mainly northern Italians, while the lower ranks and especially the infantry were largely made up of poor peasants from the agricultural south.  This, along with the draconian discipline imposed on the peasant infantry, made for poor cohesion in the Italian army.

The German and Austrian armies attacked at Caporetto on 25 October 1917, and rapidly achieved a breakthrough.  The Italian units in the front lines cracked by the third day and what had been a retreat quickly turned into a rout.  Entire units surrendered enmasse to the advancing Austrian and German troops.  The Italian retreat did not end until 3 November, when they reached the river Piave, a distance of eighty miles from their initial positions.[5]

The year was not all bad for the allies though as 1917 was the year in which America entered the war on the Allied side.  America had maintained a policy of neutrality despite several provocations, including the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915, after which the Germans ceased unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman affair with Mexico.  The final straw that ended American neutrality was the German resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, the U.S. formally declared war with Germany on 6 April 1917.  The Germans had calculated that they could bring England to the brink of starvation and end the war before the American presence made itself felt on the continent, unfortunately for them, they were wrong.  Soon after declaring war the Americans began shipping soldiers to France and enacted universal conscription, 318,000 American troops had arrived by March 1918 in Europe without the loss of a single soldier while crossing the Atlantic.[6] The American Army would not become a decisive factor until later in 1918, though individual American units were used in stopping the German offensives in the spring of 1918.

The Germans had hoped to starve the English out of the war, but with the intervention of America and the addition of her navy, transatlantic shipping was finally rationalized and a convoy system was worked out which prevented a collapse on the English home front.  After the failure of the submarine offensive, the Germans once again turned to their army.  The fall of Russia had released almost a million veteran troops for use in the West.  Ludendorff planned a great spring offensive to cut the British off in Flanders and finally rupture the front separating Britain from her allies.

The first German offensive opened in March 1918, and caused a crisis at the front, the allies retreated over forty miles, and the Germans were only seventy-five miles from Paris when they were stopped.  Ludendorff tried several more assaults that were tactically successful, but failed to break the front.  After the final offensive in July, all the Germans had managed to accomplish was the loss of over 1,000,000 irreplaceable casualties, and extension of the German lines, which stretched the army thin in trying to defend.

The allies counterattacked in August and were spectacularly successful, driving the Germans all the way back to the start line of the spring offensives and beyond.  In October, a new civilian government was formed to seek an armistice and the Kaiser abdicated on 9 November and went into exile in Holland.  The allied attacks continued and they were within fifty miles of the German border when the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.  The First World War was over but its effects would be felt for the next 30 years and the problems it created would cause a new, more destructive war, while some of the problems remain unresolved to the present.

[1] Keegan, John, The First World War, pp. 329-332

[2] Ibid, p. 336

[3] Ibid, p. 342

[4] Ibid. pp. 344-345

[5] Ibid, p. 349

[6] Ibid, p. 372

The Fronts of World War I in 1915 & 1916

After Turkey’s entry into the war towards the end of 1914, the Dardanelles was closed to allied shipping and thus the only warm water route to Russian ports was closed.  The allied solution to this dilemma was to use the powerful British Navy in concert with a French battle group to force the Dardanelles and reopen the route to the Black Sea.  This operation gained added impetus with the massive Russian losses suffered in the previous year and because of the Turkish opening of a new front against Russia along their common frontier in the Caucasus.

The first naval attempt to force the Dardanelles in February 1915 ended inconclusively because of bad weather.  The allies renewed their assault in March with the culminating battle fought on March 18.  The attempt to force the Narrows ended with the loss of three battleships to a previously undetected line of Turkish mines laid perpendicularly to the Asian shore.  After the failure of March 18, the planning for a land offensive on the Gallipoli Peninsula was definitively decided upon and a tentative date in late April was set.

The landings on Gallipoli began on April 25 at several locations around the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula with the main effort coming at Cape Hellas on the southern tip.  Subsidiary and supporting landings at “y” Beach and what would come to be known as ANZAC Cove just south of Suvla Bay on the European side of the peninsula.  There was limited initial success and almost none of the first day’s objectives were met.

Over the next few months, there were periodic renewals of the offensive by the allies in an effort to reach the heights of Achi Baba, which not only dominated the landing beaches but also dominated the Narrows; the allied failure to capture this key objective on the first day doomed the expedition to ultimate failure.  After the initial advances, the fighting at both Cape Hellas and ANZAC subsided into stalemate.  In August the British commander General Ian Hamilton landed another force north of ANZAC Cove at Suvla Bay in an attempt to break the stalemate.  The attack at Suvla bogged down into stalemate as well, and in November 1915, the decision was made to evacuate the beachhead.  The evacuation was completed by January 9 1916, which ended the allied attempt to force the Dardanelles during the war.[1]

After the failure of the Gallipoli campaign, the allies turned elsewhere in an effort to bolster their allies and one place they chose to do this was to reinforce their garrison in the Greek port town of Salonika.  The Salonika front was seen as a way for the allies to support the Serbs against the Central Powers, but the support came too late to help the Kingdom as the combined Austrian and Bulgarian armies invaded in October 1915, and quickly routed the tiny Serbian army.[2] Salonika shortly became stalemated just like most of the other theaters of the war, a stalemate that would not substantially change until 1918.

The New Year would bring many battles on all the fronts and also at sea.  The navies of the world, but especially those of Britain and Germany had embraced technology during the nineteenth century and these technologies had borne fruit in the battleship, typified by the HMS Dreadnought commissioned in 1906.[3] The all big-gun battleship was to become the queen of the seas and pride of the navies that possessed them.  Other ship types that multiplied prior to the outbreak of war were the battlecruiser, armed like a battleship, but faster and with less armor, and the destroyer, initially designed to counter torpedo boats but increasingly being used in other roles as escorts and pickets.

The year 1916 would see the largest surface naval engagement of history comprising the most heavily armed and armored ships that have ever put to sea between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet on June 1 1916.  Jutland as the battle would be named was not the only battle fought at sea during the war, only the most dramatic and decisive.  Earlier engagements such as the Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank had been German defeats but had also been costly to the British.  The new German commander in 1916, Admiral Scheer chose to use his fleet aggressively in hopes of provoking a fleet action against an inferior British force, which could then be overwhelmed.

The British, who had broken the German codes, were forewarned of the German sortie into the North Sea, which was planned for the end of May.[4] The British knew as soon as the High Seas Fleet sortied and promptly left port in a bid to intercept them before the Germans could escape.  The Grand Fleet engaged the Germans on June 1 and through the night into the morning of June 2 when the Germans finally escaped.  The British suffered the loss of three battlecruisers, four armored cruisers, eight destroyers, and 6,094 British sailors died.  The Germans by contrast suffered the loss of one battlecruiser, one pre-Dreadnought, four light cruisers, five destroyers, and 2,551 sailors.  Though German Navy lost less ships and men than the British did, their confidence suffered, and that loss of confidence they suffered ultimately decided the Battle.  The German navy would not challenge the British for control of the sea again in the First World War.

At the end of 1915, it was clear that the allies had failed in their endeavors to weaken the Central Powers through attacks in subsidiary theaters.  The Allied commanders met at Chantilly on December 6, 1915 to discuss strategy for the upcoming year.[5] Despite the setbacks suffered in the previous year, the allies felt that there power was on the rise and all the combatants committed themselves to renewed offensive action.

The British army resolved to launch an offensive in the Somme sector in an attempt to pierce the Western Front and restore mobility to the battlefield, while the French would attempt the same in the vicinity of Champagne.  The Italians pledged a renewal of their attacks along the Isonzo while the Russians pledged offensives on the Eastern Front.

The Central powers had plans of their own as well and the German commander in the West, Erich von Falkenhayn, planned an offensive near Verdun that was supposed to bleed the French army white, given their relative paucity of available reserves of manpower.  The French and British offensives were planned for late spring and summer and the Germans beat them both to the punch, launching the attack against Verdun on 19 February 1916.

Verdun had become a quiet sector for the French and there were only three divisions holding the sector when the Germans attacked and only one was a regular formation the other two being reservists.  The Germans by contrast had concentrated ten divisions supported by 1200 guns for the opening assault. [6] The German army also changed their artillery scheme for the attack; instead of a massive prolonged bombardment, they would open the attack with a short intense cannonade before the infantry went in.

Despite the initial successes in the attacks at Verdun, the French doggedly defended the sector and poured reinforcements in to stem the German tide.  After the appointment of General Petain to command of the French Fifth Army, the French defense stiffened even further.  The battle would drag on in attack and counter-attack until December when the winter weather forced a halt to offensive action.  The ferocity of the attacks led Joffre to call on the British to start their attack at the Somme early in an effort to relieve the French army of some of the pressure at Verdun.

The Battle of Verdun failed in its intention of breaking the French army and cost Falkenhayn his reputation.  The losses on both sides were staggering, by June, each side had suffered over 200,000 casualties, and the battle continued to rage unabated.[7] Some estimates of the losses at Verdun total more than 1,000,000 combined though the true cost will never be known.

In response to French pleas for assistance, Douglas Haig, commanding the British Expeditionary Force agreed to both increase British participation in, and to move up the date for the Somme offensive.  Haig felt compelled to do all he could to support the French who were being relentlessly ground down at Verdun.

Haig had meticulously planned the offensive and the artillery preparation was impressive.  The opening bombardment was to last a week and use 1,500 guns firing almost 1,000,000 shells with a further 2,000,000 shells in reserve to support the attack after it went in.[8] The British attack on the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and none of the first days objectives were met.  The Tommies going over the top were met by a veritable storm of German machine gun and rifle fire.  The Germans had weathered the bombardment in dugouts that were virtually indestructible against anything but a direct hit by the heaviest guns; as soon as the bombardment lifted, they rushed to their parapets to repel the attack.

The British attack was a colossal failure and though it would continue until October and advance the British lines by almost six miles, it is debatable whether the meager territory gained was worth the cost.  Total British dead during the four month battle amounted to 95,675 while the French lost 50,729.  The Germans suffered more dead than the British and French combined at 164,055 dead but their line had held.[9] The Somme ended like most Great War battles, a fruitless struggle for a few yards of ground at a frightful cost in lives and blood.

The most successful offensive of the year was in the east where the Russian General Alexei Brusilov attacked the Austrians in Galicia on 4 June and by October had made gains of almost 60 miles in some places.  The Brusilov offensive cost the Austrians 400,000 casualties and 600,000 prisoners of war and required German intervention along with lengthening Russian supply lines to stem the Russian tide.  It also cost the German General Falkenhayn his job as he was dismissed and the hero from the east, Hindenburg was appointed to replace him.

The year 1916 ended very much as it had begun, with the major fronts both East and West locked in stalemate.  Millions of lives had been spent to little gain; even the Russian victory in Galicia could not appreciably affect the outcome of the war as the Austrian still held the Carpathian passes.  In France, a way to break free of the trenches was still wanting, but none of the combatants felt they were ready to quit.  As 1917 opened, more offensives were planned on all the fronts as the search for decision continued.

Sources Cited 

[1] Keegan, John. The First World War, p. 248

[2]. Ibid. pp. 253-254

[3] Ibid. p. 258

[4] Ibid. pp. 263-264, 269

[5] Ibid. pp. 274-275

[6] Ibid. p. 279

[7] Ibid. p. 285

[8] Ibid. p. 291

[9] Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. p. 299