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3 November 2021

From the NS archive: The autumn climax

9 September 1916: The state of play on the First World War’s various fronts as the armies prepare for winter.

By New Statesman

Two years into the First World War and the patterns of the campaign were already apparent. In this report, summing up the situation on the Western, Russian and Balkan fronts, the writer assesses what the forthcoming winter break in hostilities might mean. Where Napoleon had fought through the winter months, modern armies paused during the harshest weather. “Modern man, they said, had made such progress in waterproofing and engineering, in drainage and field kitchens, that he could afford to ignore the elements. The event proved this reckoning to be entirely wrong,” says the correspondent. What was important, they note, was that winter arrived and departed at each of the fronts at different times, so the strategic objectives of the autumn campaigns were different. The report is written with a matter of factness that seems at odds with the fact that thousands of soldiers would live or die depending on these winter decisions.

The resumption of the Anglo-French offensive simultaneously with the opening of the new Balkan campaign brings us to the most critical phase of this year’s fighting. The next ten weeks will decide what lines the opposing armies will occupy for the winter. They will settle also what is to be the balance and colour of public opinion in the different countries during the long spell of relative inaction which the season will impose on the armies. Conceivably they might even shape the peace, if the battles were unexpectedly decisive, or their results proved insupportable to one or the other party through the subsequent waiting-time. But this is now unlikely; and opinion in London and Paris has generally come round to the view that there will be a severe and eventful campaigning-season in 1917.

A hundred years ago armies took little account of the difference between winter and summer. It was one of Napoleon’s many innovations, that he abolished the old habit of settling into winter quarters. Austerlitz was fought on 2 December; Eylau, in the coldest part of East Prussia, amid the snows of 8 February. Here as in other matters the warfare of the 20th century has gone back behind Napoleon to something much more like the warfare of Marlborough’s age. Along with trench-fighting and mining, the mortar and the hand-grenade, the disappearance of the one-day battle and the substitution of protracted siege-offensives, the weather influences have reasserted themselves.

In 1914 some of the prophets told us that this would not be so. Modern man, they said, had made such progress in waterproofing and engineering, in drainage and field kitchens, that he could afford to ignore the elements. The event proved this reckoning to be entirely wrong. Both the past two winters have seen operations brought to a complete standstill on all the European fronts: and such an undertaking as the winter capture of snowbound Erzurum by the Russians is only the exception to prove the rule.

It is worth examining the question of dates somewhat closely, for misconceptions about it are common. There is, of course, a difference between the three main fronts – the Western, the Russian, and the Balkan – though this does not affect the date at which campaigning ends anything like so much as it affects that at which it can be resumed in the following year. At present the front on which there is most urgency, in the sense that there is most to be gained by completing a definite territorial change within a definite time, is the Balkan front. And in regard to this the experience of no less than three war-autumns is available – 1912 as well as 1914 and 1915.

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In 1912 the Balkan Allies began mobilising on 30 September, but none of them, except Montenegro, declared war before 18 October. 22-8 October was the date of Kirk Kilisse; 28-9 October of Lule Burgas ; 28 October of Kumanovo. These were the great battles of the first stage; in the second stage, the Greeks entered Salonika on 6 November; the Serbs won Monastir on 18 November; and on 17 November the Bulgarians suffered their repulse at the Chatalja lines. Thereafter fighting became impracticable, and on 8 December came the formal armistice.

In 1914 the second Austrian expedition against Serbia carried the Balkan time-table somewhat later. Belgrade was captured by the Austrians on 2 December; the Serbs retook it on 14 December. There is no doubt that the Austrian failure on this occasion was made worse by the season; and when the German-Bulgar conquest of Serbia was carried out under Mackensen in 1915, a much earlier time-table was adopted. The invasion began on 6 October; Belgrade fell on 9 October; Veles on 20 October; Uskub on 22 October; Pirot on 28 October; Kraguyevatz on 1 November; Nish on 5 November; and Mitrovitza and Prishtina, the last refuges of the Serbian Army before its retreat into Albania, on 28 November.

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From a comparison of all these dates two conclusions emerge clearly enough. One is that the season brings a definite end to the practicability of important Balkan fighting about the beginning of December. The other is that the great enterprise in which the Rumanians, the Russians, and General Sarrail’s army are co-operating was given plenty of time by those who projected it; for it started over a month before the German-Bulgar start of last year, and seven weeks before the Balkan League’s start of 1912.

On the Western and Russian fronts the months of September and October have hitherto proved perhaps the most favourable for campaigning. In France the climate at this time is the most temperate and agreeable in the year; and, as in England, there tend to be long spells of calm, fine weather, with the ground firm and dry underfoot. These conditions are often prolonged into November, as they were in 1914. The dates in that year were – the battle of the Marne, September; the battle of the Aisne, September-October; and the battle of Flanders (or Yser-Ypres), October and the whole of November, finishing on 2 December. In 1915 the season ended somewhat earlier, partly because November was very inclement, and partly because the definite stoppage of the Loos, Sauchez, and Champagne offensives left no ambitious plans to be carried out on this front.

The Russian front does not show much difference of autumn dates, save that in its northern portion winter comes rather earlier, and the dates are thrown forward a little. The most distinctive campaigning feature on the Russian front is the complete stoppage about April, when the thaw of the snows renders the ground quite impracticable for three weeks or so. Winter offensives in advance of this have each year been undertaken by the Russians themselves, but not with favourable results. For most purposes we may say that on their front, as in the Balkans, the campaigning season, which ends at the beginning of December, is not reopened till the beginning of May. Local fortress operations, like the capture of Yanina and Adrianople in March, 1913, or that of Przemysl in March, 1915, provide the principal exceptions to this rule.

It contrasts with conditions in France, where big offensives have each year been practicable in February on the drier soils; and, indeed, the start of ten weeks or so, which the Western front enjoys, was probably one of the chief considerations which led the German General Staff into its disastrous commitment against Verdun. The war before winter is therefore of greatest consequence on the Eastern fronts, where the winter delays extend, with only minor possibilities of interruption, over nearly five months. On the West, though there may be less inclination than in previous winters to call a halt, the stoppage is not likely to be much shorter than ten weeks – say, four weeks of the old year and six of the new.

[See also: From the NS archive, 21 July 1917: A new chancellor arrives from nowhere]

Even this shorter waiting-time, covering as it does the New Year period, when stocktaking of all kinds is habitual throughout the world, makes a very distinct break in the current of hostilities. The note of encouragement or discouragement for one side or the other, on which the campaign of 1916 ends, will be prolonged, reverberated, and augmented throughout this ten weeks; and the peace-talk, which is sure to be attempted, will be pitched in its key. It would make an incalculable difference to the relative morale of the German and French nations if the Germans had by that time been forced to relinquish any substantial part of occupied France.

But in the East the results of certain advances would be even greater. The most immediately desirable prize in that direction is still the reopening of communications to South Russia and Rumania from the warm waters of the Mediterranean. If it were achieved before winter, even in the form of an overland connection across Bulgaria, it would do more to shorten the War than anything else that is in sight. If, further, the Russians and Rumanians obtained a secure footing on the Hungarian plain, with the mountains at their backs, the date at which the Allies could resume their Eastern pressure in the spring would be advanced by some weeks.

It is to secure these results, as well as those within its own locality, that the Picardy advance has been renewed. For the fate of Bulgaria and Transylvania will be decided in large measure on the French battlefields.  

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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