What happened during the First World War? – May

In this special monthly post, I will be highlighting key dates throughout the First World War. This post features the key events that happened during the month of May.

1915

7th – The sinking of the RMS Lusitania. In the autumn of 1914, the Royal Navy started a blockade preventing imports from getting to Germany and the British government had declared the North Sea area a war zone. RMS Lusitania left New York for Liverpool on 1 May 1915 when German submarine warfare was intensifying in the Atlantic. Germany had now also declared the seas around the United Kingdom a war zone, and the German embassy in the United States had placed fifty newspaper advertisements warning people of the dangers of sailing on the Lusitania. On the afternoon of 7 May, a German U-boat torpedoed Lusitania 11 miles (18 km) off the southern coast of Ireland inside the declared war zone. A second internal explosion sank her in 18 minutes, killing 1198 passengers and crew. The Germans justified treating the Lusitania as a naval vessel because she was carrying hundreds of tons of war munitions and ammunition, making her a legitimate military target and stating that the Lusitania was regularly transporting ‘war munitions’ under the control of the Admiralty.

However, the ship was not armed for battle and was carrying thousands of civilian passengers, and the British government accused the Germans of breaching the cruiser rules. The sinking caused a storm of protest in the United States because 128 American citizens were among the dead. The sinking shifted public opinion in the United States against Germany and was one of the factors in the American declaration of war nearly two years later. After the First World War, successive British governments maintained that there were no munitions on board Lusitania, and the Germans were not justified in treating the ship as a naval vessel. In 1982, the head of the British Foreign Office’s American department finally admitted that, although no weapons were on board the vessel, there was a large amount of ammunition, which is still on the wreck of the ship.

9th – The Second Battle of Artois began on this date. It was a Franco-British offensive intended to exploit the German diversion of troops to the Eastern Front. The French Tenth Army was to attack the German 6th Army north of Arras and capture Vimy Ridge, in readiness for an advance on Cambrai and Douai. Field Marshal Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, co-operated with the French strategy to capture Vimy Ridge by planning British attacks in support against Aubers Ridge. The attacks would confront the German 6th Army with a joint offensive, on a 70 mile (110 km) front, eastwards into the Douai plain, where an advance of 10–15 mi (16–24 km) would cut the railways supplying the German armies as far south as Reims.

The battle was fought during the German offensive of the Second Battle of Ypres (21 April – 25 May), which the Germans ended to reinforce the Artois front. The initial French attack broke through and captured Vimy Ridge, but reserve units were not able to reinforce the troops on the ridge before German counterattacks forced them back about half-way to their jumping-off points. On 18 June, the main offensive was stopped, and local attacks were ended on 25 June. The French offensive had advanced the front line about 1.9 miles (3 km) towards Vimy Ridge, on a 5 mile (8 km) front. The failure to break through, despite the expenditure of 2155862 shells and the suffering of 102,500 casualties, led to recriminations against Joffre.

9th – The Battle of Aubers Ridge begins as a part of the British contribution to the Second Battle of Artois. The immediate French objectives were to capture the heights at Vimy Ridge. The British First Army was further north, between La Bassée and Ypres in Belgium. It was decided that the British forces would attack in the southern half of their front line, near the village of Laventie. Their objective in the flat and poorly drained terrain was Aubers Ridge, an area of slightly higher ground 1.2–1.9 miles (2-3 km) wide. Intelligence about the newly strengthened German positions was not available or given insufficient attention where known.

Unfortunately, the British bombardment did not achieve its tasks of cutting the German wire and damage defensive positions. German artillery and free movement of reserves were also unaffected by the bombardment. Other contributory factors such as poor trench layout, traffic flow and organisation behind the front line added to the failures of the artillery to accomplish its goals, which meant that there was not easy movement of reinforcements and casualties. This battle was unsuccessful for the British army. No ground was won, no tactical advantage gained, and it is not known if it had an effect on assisting the main French attack 15 miles (24km) to the south. The battle was renewed slightly to the south, from 15 May as the Battle of Festubert.

15th – The Battle of Festubert begins on this day as a continuation of the Battle of Aubers Ridge. After the failure of the attempted breakthrough by the British First Army in the attack at Aubers Ridge, the tactics of a short hurricane bombardment and an infantry advance with unlimited objectives, were replaced by the French practice of slow and deliberate artillery fire intended to prepare the way for an infantry attack and targeted objectives.

A continuous three-day bombardment by the British heavy artillery was planned, to cut wire and demolish German machine-gun posts and infantry strong points. The German defences were to be captured by a continuous attack with the objectives being 1000 yards (910m) forward, rather than the 3000 yards (2.7km) depth of advance intended at Aubers Ridge. The bombardment failed to significantly damage the front-line defences of the Germans, but the initial advance made some progress in good weather conditions. The attack was renewed on 16 May and by 19 May the 2nd and 7th Divisions had to be withdrawn due to heavy losses. On 18 May, the 1st Canadian Division, assisted by the 51st (Highland) Division, attacked but made little progress in the face of intense artillery fire. The British forces dug into their new positions in heavy rain. The Germans brought up reinforcements and strengthened their defences. From 20–25 May the attack was resumed and Festubert was captured. The offensive resulted in a 1.9 mile (3km) advance.  The British sustained 16648 casualties from 15th to 25th May. 

1916

10th – Germany suspends unrestricted submarine warfare. Various operations were carried out throughout 1916 with varying success resulting in the reinstating of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.

31st – The Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of the First World War commences. The battle was the only occasion in which the British and German fleets of dreadnought battleships actually engaged in combat. The German Fleet was hoping to weaken the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea by launching an ambush. German Admiral Reinhard Scheer planned to lure out the Battlecruiser Force – under the command of Admiral Sir David Beatty and destroy it before the Grand Fleet under the command of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe arrived. However, British intelligence managed to discover this information, allowing for both fleets to be deployed. Jutland was a large battle, involving 250 ships and around 100000 men. When the battle ended, there was no clear decisive victor, and significant losses; with the British losing 14 ships (including Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion) and 6668 casualties and the Germans losing 11 ships and 3058 casualties. Although there was no decisive victory, the Battle of Jutland confirmed to the British that naval dominance still lay with the Royal Navy, enabling the continuation of blockades to Germany.

1917

15th –After the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the mutinies that followed, Phillipe Pétain replaces Robert Nivelle as the Commander in Chief of the French Army. Pétain is known for his role in the defence of Verdun, coming to be known by the moniker of the Lion of Verdun. Pétain remained in command until the end of the war and was a national hero. the end of the First World War, he was granted the military distinction of Marshal of France. However, Pétain ended up falling from grace due to his collaboration with Nazi Germany as the head of the Vichy state during the Second World War.

1918

27th – Third Battle of the Aisne, also known as Operation Blücher-Yorke was the third phase of the German Spring Offensive focused on capturing the Chemin des Dames Ridge (which the Germans had previously held from 1914 to 1917 when it was captured by the French during the Nivelle Offensive)  before the American Expeditionary Forces arrived completely in France. The attack lasted from 27 May until 4 June and was the first full-scale German offensive following the Battle of the Lys the previous month (see April post for further details). Operation Blücher-Yorck was planned primarily by Erich Ludendorff, who was certain that success would put the German armies within striking distance of Paris. Ludendorff, believed that this offensive would cause the Allies to move forces from Flanders to help defend the French capital, allowing the Germans to continue their Flanders offensive with greater ease. The defence of the Aisne area was in the hands of General Denis Auguste Duchêne, commander of the French Sixth Army. In addition, four divisions of the British IX Corps, led by Lieutenant-General Sir Alexander Hamilton-Gordon, held the Chemin des Dames Ridge; they had been posted there to rest and refit after surviving Operation Michael in March of that year.  On the morning of the 27th, the Germans began a bombardment of the Allied front lines. The British suffered heavy losses, because Duchene was reluctant to abandon the Chemin des Dames ridge, after it had been captured at such cost the previous year, and had ordered them to mass together in the front trenches, in defiance of orders from Petain. The bombardment was then followed by gas. Once the gas had lifted, the main infantry assault by seventeen German stormtrooper divisions commenced. With their defences spread thin, the Allies were unable to stop the attack and the German army advanced through a 25 mile (40km) gap in the Allied lines, reaching the River Aisne in under six hours.

Victory seemed near for the Germans, who captured approximately 50000 Allied soldiers and over 800 guns by 30 May 1918. But advancing within 56 kilometres (35 mi) of Paris on 3 June, the German armies were beset by numerous problems, including supply shortages, fatigue, lack of reserves and many casualties. On 6 June 1918, following many successful Allied counter-attacks, the German advance halted on the river Marne. The French had suffered over 98,000 casualties and the British around 29,000. German losses were nearly as great, if not slightly heavier. Duchene was sacked by Pétain for his poor handling of the British and French troops.

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