Battle of Messines (1917)

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Battle of Messines 1917 (Source: Wikipedia)

The Battle of Messines (7–14 June 1917) was an offensive conducted by the British Second Army, under the command of General Sir Herbert Plumer, on the Western Front near the village of Messines in West Flanders, Belgium. The Nivelle Offensive in April and May had failed to achieve its more ambitious aims, had led to the demoralisation of French troops and dislocated the Anglo-French strategy for 1917. The offensive at Messines forced the Germans to move reserves to Flanders from the Arras and Aisne fronts, which relieved pressure on the French. The tactical objective of the attack at Messines was to capture the German defences on the ridge, which ran from Ploegsteert (Plugstreet) Wood in the south, through Messines and Wytschaete to Mt. Sorrel, to deprive the German 4th Army of the high ground south of Ypres. The ridge commanded the British defences and back areas further north, from which the British intended to conduct the Northern Operation, an advance to Passchendaele Ridge and then capture the Belgian coast up to the Dutch frontier.

The Second Army had five corps, of which three conducted the attack and two remained on the northern flank, not engaged in the main operation; the XIV Corps was available in General Headquarters reserve. The 4th Army divisions of Gruppe Wijtschate (Group Wytschaete) held the ridge, which were later reinforced by a division from Gruppe Ypern (Group Ypres). The battle began with the detonation of 19 mines beneath the German front position, which devastated the German front line defences and left 19 large craters. This was followed by a creeping barrage 700 yards (640 m) deep, protecting the British troops as they secured the ridge with support from tanks, cavalry patrols and aircraft. The effectiveness of the British mines, barrages and bombardments was improved by advances in artillery survey, flash spotting and centralised control of artillery from the Second Army headquarters. British attacks from 8 to 14 June advanced the front line beyond the former German Sehnen (Oosttaverne) line. The Battle of Messines was a prelude to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres, the preliminary bombardment for which began on 11 July 1917.

 

(Edited from Wikipedia)

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The Nationalist Party win Federal election 1917

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Portrait of William “Billy” Hughes (1862–1952) leader of the Nationalist party in Australia and Prime Minister (1915-1923) (Source: Wikipedia)

Federal elections were held in Australia on 5 May 1917. All 75 seats in the House of Representatives and 18 of the 36 seats in the Senate were up for election. The Nationalist Party of Australia (a result of a merger between the Commonwealth Liberal Party and National Labor Party) was in power and led by Prime Minister of Australia Billy Hughes who was defending his new government against his old party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) now led by Frank Tudor.

Hughes, had become Prime Minister at the head of the ALP when Andrew Fisher retired in 1915. The Australian Labor Party split of 1916 over World War I conscription in Australia had led Hughes and 24 other pro-conscription Labor MPs to split off as the National Labor Party, which was able to form a minority government supported by the Commonwealth Liberal Party, led by Joseph Cook.

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Francis “Frank” Tudor, leader of the Australian Labor Party (1916 – 1922) (Source: Wikipedia)

The newly formed Nationalists won a decisive victory, securing the largest majority government since Federation. The ALP suffered a large electoral swing against it, losing almost seven percent of its vote from 1914. The swing was magnified by the large number of former Labor MPs who followed Hughes out of the party.

(Edited from Wikipedia)

The United States of America enter WW1

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Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States of America (Source: Wikipedia)

After more than two and a half years of efforts by President Woodrow Wilson to keep the United States out of the war, America formally declared war on Germany on the 6th April 1917. Apart from an Anglophile element urging support for the British, American public opinion went along with neutrality at first: the sentiment for neutrality was particularly strong among Irish Americans, German Americans and Scandinavian Americans, as well as among church leaders and women. On the other hand, even before World War I had broken out, American opinion had been more negative toward Germany than towards any other country in Europe. Over time, especially after reports of atrocities in Belgium in 1914 and following the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania in 1915, the American people increasingly came to see Germany as the aggressor in Europe.

As U.S. President, it was Wilson who made the key policy decisions over foreign affairs: while the country was at peace, the domestic economy ran on a laissez-faire basis, with American banks making huge loans to Britain and France — funds that were in large part used to buy munitions, raw materials and food from across the Atlantic. Until 1917, Wilson made minimal preparations for a land war and kept the United States Army on a small peacetime footing, despite increasing demands for enhanced preparedness. He did however expand the United States Navy.

In 1917, with Russia experiencing political upheaval following widespread disillusionment there over the war, and with Britain and France low on credit, Germany appeared to have the upper hand in Europe, while her Ottoman ally clung stubbornly to her possessions in the Middle East. In the same year, Germany decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare against any vessel approaching British waters; this attempt to starve Britain into surrender was balanced against the knowledge that it would almost certainly bring the United States into the war. Germany also made a secret offer to help Mexico regain territories lost in the Mexican–American War in an encoded telegram known as the Zimmermann Telegram, which was intercepted by British Intelligence. Publication of that communique outraged Americans just as German U-boats started sinking American merchant ships in the North Atlantic. Wilson then asked Congress for “a war to end all wars” that would “make the world safe for democracy”, and Congress voted to declare war on Germany on April 6, 1917 (though it did not declare war on Austria-Hungary until 8 months later on December 7, 1917.

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General John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Force (1917-1918) (Source: Wikipedia)

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson initially planned to give command of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) to Gen. Frederick Funston, but after Funston’s sudden death, Wilson appointed Major General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing in May 1917; Pershing remained in command for the entire war. Pershing insisted that American soldiers be well-trained before going to Europe and as a result, few troops arrived before 1918. In addition, Pershing insisted that the American force would not be used merely to fill gaps in the French and British armies, and he resisted European efforts to have U.S. troops deployed as individual replacements in decimated Allied units.

This attitude was not always well received by the Allied leaders who distrusted the potential of an army lacking experience in large-scale warfare. In addition the British tried to bargain their spare shipping to make the US put its soldiers into British ranks.

By June 1917, only 14,000 U.S. soldiers had arrived in France and the AEF had only a minor participation at the front in late October 1917, but by May 1918 over one million U.S. troops were stationed in France; though only half of it made it to the front lines. Since the transport ships needed to bring American troops to Europe were scarce at the beginning, the army pressed into service passenger liners, seized German ships, and borrowed Allied ships to transport American soldiers from New York, New Jersey, and Newport News, Virginia. The mobilization effort taxed the American military to the limit and required new organizational strategies and command structures to transport great numbers of troops and supplies quickly and efficiently. The French harbors of Bordeaux, La Pallice, Saint Nazaire and Brest became the entry points into the French railway system which brought the US forces and their supplies to the front. American engineers in France built 82 new ship berths, nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of additional standard-gauge tracks and 100,000 miles (160,000 km) of telephone and telegraph lines.

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Column of American troops passing Buckingham Palace, London, 1917. (Source: Wikipedia)

The first American troops, who were often called “Doughboys”, landed in Europe in June 1917. However the AEF did not participate at the front until late October 1917, when the 1st Division fired the first American shell of the war toward German lines, although they participated only on a small scale. A formation of regular soldiers and the first division to arrive in France, entered the trenches near Nancy.

The AEF used French and British equipment. Pershing established facilities in France to train new arrivals with their new weapons. By the end of 1917 four divisions were deployed in a large training area near Verdun: the 1st Division, a regular army formation; the 26th Division, a National Guard formation; the 2nd Division, a combined formation of regular troops and United States Marines; and the 42nd “Rainbow” Division, a National Guard formation consisting of units from nearly every state in the United States. A fifth division, the 41st Division, had been converted into a depot division near Tours.

(Edited from Wikipedia)

End of an Empire: Russia’s Revolution

The February Revolution (Russian: Февра́льская револю́ция; IPA: [fʲɪvˈralʲskəjə rʲɪvɐˈlʲutsɨjə]), known in Soviet historiography as the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution was the first of two Russian revolutions in 1917.

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Attacking the Tzar’s police during the first days of the March Revolution *Source: Wikipedia)

The revolution centered on Petrograd (now known as St. Petersburg), then the Russian capital, arguably beginning on 8 March (23 February in the Julian calendar). Revolutionary activity was largely confined to the capital and its vicinity, and lasted about eight days. It involved mass demonstrations and armed clashes with police and gendarmes, the last loyal forces of the Russian monarchy. On 12 March (27 February old style) mutinous Russian Army forces sided with the revolutionaries. Three days later the result was the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the end of the Romanov dynasty, and the end of the Russian Empire. Russian Council of Ministers was replaced by a Russian Provisional Government under Prince Georgy Lvov.

The suffering caused by numerous ongoing economic and social problems had only been exacerbated by Russia’s involvement in World War one. Bread rioters, primarily women in bread lines, and industrial strikers were joined on the streets by disaffected soldiers from the city’s garrison. As more and more troops deserted, and with loyal troops away at the Front, the city fell into chaos, leading to the overthrow of the Tsar. In all, over 1,300 people were killed in the protests of February 1917.

(Edited from Wikipedia)

The Sinking of the Britannic

HMHS Britannic was the third, last-built, and largest member of the White Star Line’s Olympic class of vessels. She was the sister ship of RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, and was intended to enter service as the transatlantic passenger liner, RMS Britannic. The White Star Line used Britannic as the name of two other ships: SS Britannic (1874), holder of the Blue Riband, and MV Britannic (1929), a motor liner, owned by White Star and then Cunard, scrapped in 1960.

Britannic in the shipyard before her launch (Source: Wikipedia)

The keel for Britannic was laid on 30 November 1911 at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, 13 months after the launch of the Olympic. Due to improvements introduced as a consequence of the Titanic disaster, Britannic was not launched until 26 February 1914, which was filmed along with the fitting of a funnel. Fitting out began subsequently. She was constructed in the same gantry slip used to build RMS Olympic. Reusing Olympics space saved the shipyard time and money by not clearing out a third slip similar in size to those used for Olympic and Titanic.

In August 1914, before Britannic could commence transatlantic service between New York and Southampton, the First World War began. Immediately, all shipyards with Admiralty contracts were given top priority to use available raw materials. All civil contracts (including the Britannic) were slowed down. The naval authorities requisitioned a large number of ships as armed merchant cruisers or for troop transport. The Admiralty was paying the companies for the use of their ships but the risk of losing a ship in naval operations was high. However, the big ocean liners were not taken for naval use, because the smaller ships were much easier to operate. White Star decided to withdraw RMS Olympic from service until the danger had passed. RMS Olympic returned to Belfast on 3 November 1914, while work on her sister continued slowly. All this would change in 1915.

The need for increased tonnage grew critical as naval operations extended to the Eastern Mediterranean. In May 1915, Britannic completed mooring trials of her engines, and was prepared for emergency entrance into service with as little as four weeks notice. The same month also saw the first major loss of a civilian ocean ship when the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed near the Irish coast by SM U-20.

The following month, the British Admiralty decided to use recently requisitioned passenger liners as troop transports in the Gallipoli campaign (also called the Dardanelles service). The first to sail were Cunard’s RMS Mauretania and RMS Aquitania. As the Gallipoli landings proved to be disastrous and the casualties mounted, the need for large hospital ships for treatment and evacuation of wounded became evident. RMS Aquitania was diverted to hospital ship duties in August (her place as a troop transport would be taken by the RMS Olympic in September). Then on 13 November 1915, Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship from her storage location at Belfast. Repainted white with large red crosses and a horizontal green stripe, she was renamed HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic and placed under the command of Captain Charles A. Bartlett (1868–1945).

HMHS Britannic seen during World War I (Source: Wikipedia)

After completing five successful voyages to the Middle Eastern theatre and back to the United Kingdom transporting the sick and wounded, Britannic departed Southampton for Lemnos at 14:23 on 12 November 1916, her sixth voyage to the Mediterranean Sea. The Britannic passed Gibraltar around midnight on 15 November and arrived at Naples on the morning of 17 November, for her usual coaling and water refuelling stop, completing the first stage of her mission.

The Islands of Greece (Source: Wikipedia)

A storm kept the ship at Naples until Sunday afternoon, when Captain Bartlett decided to take advantage of a brief break in the weather and continue. The seas rose once again just as Britannic left the port. However, by next morning, the storms died and the ship passed the Strait of Messina without problems. Cape Matapan was rounded in the first hours of Tuesday, 21 November. By the morning, Britannic was steaming at full speed into the Kea Channel, between Cape Sounion (the southernmost point of Attica, the prefecture that includes Athens) and the island of Kea.

The channel between Kea (left) and Makronisos; Britannic sank closer to Kea (Source: Wikipedia)

There were a total of 1,065 people on board: 673 crew, 315 Royal Army Medical Corps and 77 nurses.

Explosion

At 08:12 on 21 November 1916, a loud explosion shook the ship. The cause, whether it was a torpedo from an enemy submarine or a mine, was not apparent. The reaction in the dining room was immediate; doctors and nurses left instantly for their posts. Not everybody reacted the same way, as further aft, the power of the explosion was less felt, and many thought the ship had hit a smaller boat. Captain Bartlett and Chief Officer Hume were on the bridge at the time, and the gravity of the situation was soon evident. The explosion was on the starboard side, between holds two and three. The force of the explosion damaged the watertight bulkhead between hold one and the forepeak. The first four watertight compartments were filling rapidly with water, the boiler-man’s tunnel connecting the firemen’s quarters in the bow with boiler room six was seriously damaged, and water was flowing into that boiler room.

Bartlett ordered the watertight doors closed, sent a distress signal, and ordered the crew to prepare the lifeboats. Along with the damaged watertight door of the firemen’s tunnel, the watertight door between boiler rooms six and five failed to close properly for an unknown reason. Water was flowing further aft into boiler room five. Britannic had reached her flooding limit. She could stay afloat (motionless) with her first six watertight compartments flooded. There were five watertight bulkheads rising all the way up to B-deck. Those measures had been taken after the Titanic disaster. (Titanic could float with her first four compartments flooded.) The next crucial bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four and its door were undamaged and should have guaranteed the ship’s survival. However, there were open portholes along the lower decks, which tilted underwater within minutes of the explosion. The nurses had opened most of those portholes to ventilate the wards. As the ship’s list increased, water reached this level and began entering aft from the bulkhead between boiler rooms five and four. With more than six compartments flooded, Britannic could not stay afloat.

Evacuation

On the bridge, Captain Bartlett was already considering efforts to save the ship, despite its increasingly dire condition. Only two minutes after the blast, boiler rooms five and six had to be evacuated. In about 10 minutes, Britannic was roughly in the same condition Titanic had been in one hour after the collision with the iceberg. Fifteen minutes after the ship was struck, the open portholes on E-deck were underwater. With water also entering the ship’s aft section from the bulkhead between boiler rooms four and five, Britannic quickly developed a serious list to starboard due to the weight of the water flooding into the starboard side. With the shores of the Greek island Kea to the right, Bartlett gave the order to navigate the ship towards the island in attempt to beach the vessel. The effect of the ship’s starboard list and the weight of the rudder made attempts to navigate the ship under its own power difficult, and the steering gear was knocked out by the explosion, which eliminated steering by the rudder. However, the captain ordered the port-side shaft driven at a higher speed than the starboard side, which helped the ship move towards the island.

Simultaneously, on the boat deck the crew members were preparing the lifeboats. Some of the boats were immediately rushed by a group of stewards and some sailors, who had started to panic. An unknown officer kept his nerve and persuaded his sailors to get out and stand by their positions near the boat stations. He decided to leave the stewards on the lifeboats because they were responsible for starting the panic, and he did not want them in his way in the evacuation. However, he left one of the crew with them to take charge of the lifeboat after leaving the ship. After this episode, all the sailors under his command remained at their posts until the last moment. As no Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) personnel were near this boat station at that time, the officer started to lower the boats, but when he saw that the ship’s engines were still turning, he stopped them within 2 metres (6.6 ft) of the water and waited for orders from the bridge. The occupants of the lifeboats did not take this decision very well and started cursing. Shortly after this, orders finally arrived; no lifeboats should be launched, as the Captain had decided to try to beach Britannic at the nearby island.

Assistant Commander Harry William Dyke was making arrangements for lowering the lifeboats from the aft davits of the starboard boat deck when he spotted a group of firemen who had taken a lifeboat from the poop deck without authorisation and had not filled it to maximum capacity. Dyke ordered them to pick up some of the men who had already jumped into the water.

At 08:30, two lifeboats from the boat station assigned to Third Officer David Laws were lowered, without his knowledge, through the use of the automatic release gear. Those two lifeboats dropped some 2 metres (6 ft) and hit the water violently. The two lifeboats soon drifted back into the still-turning propellers, which were beginning to rise out of the water due to the water flooding into the front of the ship. As they reached the turning blades, both lifeboats, together with their occupants, were torn to pieces. Word of the carnage arrived on the bridge, and Captain Bartlett, seeing that water was entering more rapidly as Britannic was moving and that there was a risk of more victims, gave the order to stop the engines. The propellers stopped turning the moment a third lifeboat was about to be reduced to splinters. RAMC occupants of this boat pushed against the blades and got away from them safely.

Final moments

The Captain officially ordered the crew to lower the boats, and at 08:35, he gave the order to abandon ship. The forward set of port-side davits soon became useless. The unknown officer had already launched his two lifeboats and managed to launch rapidly one more boat from the aft set of portside davits. He then started to prepare the motor launch when First Officer Oliver came with orders from the Captain. Bartlett had ordered Oliver to get in the motor launch and use its speed to pick up survivors from the smashed lifeboats. Then he was to take charge of the small fleet of lifeboats formed around the sinking Britannic. After launching the motor launch with Oliver, the unknown officer filled another lifeboat with 75 men and launched it with great difficulty, because the port side was now very high from the surface because of the list to starboard. By 08:45, the list to starboard was so great that the davits were inoperable. The unknown officer with six sailors decided to move to mid-ship on the boat deck to throw overboard collapsible rafts and deck chairs from the starboard side. About 30 RAMC personnel who were still left on the ship followed them. As he was about to order these men to jump, then give his final report to the Captain, the unknown officer spotted Sixth Officer Welch and a few sailors near one of the smaller lifeboats on the starboard side. They were trying to lift the boat, but they had not enough men. Quickly, the unknown officer ordered his group of 40 men to assist the Sixth officer. Together they managed to lift it, load it with men, then launch it safely.

At 09:00, Bartlett sounded one last blast on the whistle then was washed overboard, as water had already reached the bridge. He swam to a collapsible boat and began to coordinate the rescue operations. The whistle blow was the final signal for the ship’s engineers (commanded by Chief Engineer Robert Fleming) who, like their colleagues on Titanic, had remained at their posts until the last possible moment. They escaped via the staircase into funnel #4, which ventilated the engine room.

Britannic rolled over onto her starboard side, and the funnels began collapsing. Violet Jessop (who was also one of the survivors of Britannics sister-ship Titanic, and had even been on the third sister, Olympic, when she collided with HMS Hawke) described the last seconds;

“She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child’s toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding through the water with undreamt-of violence….”

It was 09:07, only 55 minutes after the explosion. Britannic was the largest ship lost in the First World War.

Rescue

Some of the survivors aboard HMS Scourge (Source: Wikipedia)

Compared to Titanic, the rescue of Britannic was facilitated by three factors: the temperature was higher (21 °C (70 °F) compared to −2 °C (28 °F) for Titanic), more lifeboats were available (35 were launched and stayed afloat compared to Titanics 20) and help was closer (arrived less than 2 hours after first distress call compared to 3½ hours for Titanic).

The first to arrive on the scene were the Greek fishermen from Kea on their caïque, who picked up many men from the water. One of the fishermen, Francesco Psilas, was later paid £4 by the Admiralty for his services. At 10:00, HMS Scourge sighted the first lifeboats and 10 minutes later stopped and picked up 339 survivors. HMS Heroic had arrived some minutes earlier and picked up 494. Some 150 had made it to Korissia (a community on Kea), where surviving doctors and nurses from Britannic were trying to save the injured men, using aprons and pieces of lifebelts to make dressings. A little barren quayside served as their operating room. Although the motor launches were quick to transport the wounded to Korissia, the first lifeboat arrived there some two hours later because of the strong current and their heavy load. It was the lifeboat of Sixth Officer Welch and an unknown officer. The latter was able to speak some French and managed to talk with one of the local villagers, obtaining some bottles of brandy and some bread for the injured.

The inhabitants of Korissia were moved by the suffering of the wounded. They offered all possible assistance to the survivors and hosted many of them in their houses while waiting for the rescue ships. Violet Jessop approached one of the wounded. “An elderly man, in an RAMC uniform with a row of ribbons on his breast, lay motionless on the ground. Part of his thigh was gone and one foot missing; the grey-green hue of his face contrasted with his fine physique. I took his hand and looked at him. After a long time, he opened his eyes and said; ‘I’m dying’. There seemed nothing to disprove him yet I involuntarily replied; ‘No, you are not going to die, because I’ve just been praying for you to live’. He gave me a beautiful smile … That man lived and sang jolly songs for us on Christmas Day.”

Scourge and Heroic had no deck space for more survivors, and they left for Piraeus signalling the presence of those left at Korissia. HMS Foxhound arrived at 11:45 and, after sweeping the area, anchored in the small port at 13:00 to offer medical assistance and take onboard the remaining survivors. At 14:00 the light cruiser HMS Foresight arrived. Foxhound departed for Piraeus at 14:15 while Foresight remained to arrange the burial on Kea of RAMC Sergeant William Sharpe, who had died of his injuries. Another two men died on the Heroic and one on the French tug Goliath. The three were buried with military honours in the British cemetery at Piraeus. The last fatality was G. Honeycott, who died at the Russian Hospital at Piraeus shortly after the funerals.

In total, 1,035 people survived the sinking. Thirty men lost their lives in the disaster but only five were buried. The others were left in the water, and their memory is honoured in memorials in Thessaloniki and London. Another 38 men were injured (18 crew, 20 RAMC). The ship carried no patients. Survivors were hosted in the warships that were anchored at the port of Piraeus. However, the nurses and the officers were hosted in separate hotels at Phaleron. Many Greek citizens and officials attended the funerals.

In November 2006, Britannic researcher Michail Michailakis discovered that one of the 45 unidentified graves in the New British Cemetery on the island of Syros contained the remains of a soldier collected from the church of Ag. Trias at Livadi (the old name of Korissia). The information was passed to maritime historian Simon Mills, who came in contact with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Further research established that this soldier was a Britannic casualty and his remains had been registered in October 1919 as belonging to a certain “Corporal Stevens”. When the remains were moved to the new cemetery at Syros (June 1921) it was found that there was no record relating this name with the loss of the ship, and the grave was registered as unidentified. Mills provided evidence that this man could be Sergeant William Sharpe, and the case was considered by the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency. Since the cause of the mistake could not be established with certainty, it was decided to have the grave marked with a new headstone bearing the inscription “Believed to be Sergeant William Sharpe”. The new headstone was placed in 2009, and the CWGC has updated its database. Sharpe is commemorated on the Mikra Memorial.

Wreck

The wreck of HMHS Britannic is at 37°42′05″N 24°17′02″E in about 400 feet (122 m) of water. It was first discovered and explored by Jacques Cousteau in 1975. In filming the expedition, Cousteau also held conference on camera with several surviving personnel from the ship including Sheila MacBeth Mitchell who lived to the age of 104. In 1976, he expressed the opinion that the ship had been sunk by a single torpedo, basing this opinion on the damage to her plates. The giant liner lies on her starboard side hiding the zone of impact with the mine. There is a huge hole just beneath the forward well deck. The bow is attached to the rest of the hull only by some pieces of the B-deck. This is the result of the massive explosion that destroyed the entire part of the keel between bulkheads two and three and of the force of impact with the seabed. Due to sinking in only 400 feet (120 m) of water, the bow hit the seabed before the entire length of the 882 ft 9 in (269 m) liner was completely submerged, resulting in this section being heavily deformed. Despite this, the crew’s quarters in the forecastle were found to be in good shape with many details still visible. The holds were found empty. The forecastle machinery and the two cargo cranes in the forward well deck are still there and are well preserved. The foremast is bent and lies on the sea floor near the wreck with the crow’s nest still attached on it. The bell was not found. Funnel #1 was found a few metres from the Boat Deck. The other three funnels were found in the debris field (located off the stern). The wreck of Britannic is in excellent condition, and the only signs of deterioration are the children’s playroom and some of the captain’s quarters, but the rest of the ship is in outstanding shape. The wreck lies in shallow enough water that scuba divers trained in technical diving can explore it, but it is listed as a British war grave and any expedition must be approved by both the British and Greek governments.

In mid-1995, in an expedition filmed by NOVA, Dr Robert Ballard, best known for discovering the wrecks of RMS Titanic and the German battleship Bismarck, visited the wreck, using advanced side-scan sonar. Images were obtained from remotely controlled vehicles, but the wreck was not penetrated. Ballard found all the ship’s funnels in surprisingly good condition. Attempts to find mine anchors failed.

In August 1996, the wreck of HMHS Britannic was bought by maritime historian Simon Mills, who has written two books about the ship: Britannic-The Last Titan, and Hostage To Fortune. When Mills was asked if he had all the money and support needed, what would his ideal vision be for the wreck of Britannic, he replied; “That’s simple—to leave it as it is!”

In November 1997, an international team of divers led by Kevin Gurr used open-circuit trimix diving techniques to visit and film the wreck in the newly available DV digital video format.

In September 1998, another team of divers made an expedition to the wreck. Using diver propulsion vehicles, the team made more man-dives to the wreck and produced more images than ever before, including video of four telegraphs, a helm and a telemotor on the captain’s bridge. John Chatterton became the first diver to visit Britannic using a closed-circuit rebreather, but his efforts to penetrate the firemen’s tunnel using a rebreather were hampered by the poor reliability. The expedition was regarded as one of the biggest wreck diving projects ever undertaken. Time magazine published images shot in the expedition.

In 1999, GUE, divers acclimated to cave diving and ocean discovery, led the first dive expedition to include extensive penetration into Britannic. Video of the expedition was broadcast by National Geographic, BBC, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel.

In September 2003, an expedition led by Carl Spencer dived into the wreck. This was the first expedition to dive Britannic where all the bottom divers were using closed circuit rebreathers (CCR). Diver Rich Stevenson found that several watertight doors were open. It has been suggested that this was because the mine strike coincided with the change of watches. Alternatively, the explosion may have distorted the doorframes. A number of mine anchors were located off the wreck by sonar expert Bill Smith, confirming the German records of U-73 that Britannic was sunk by a single mine and the damage was compounded by open portholes and watertight doors. Spencer’s expedition was broadcast extensively across the world for many years by National Geographic and the UK’s Channel 5. Also in the expedition was microbiologist Dr Lori Johnston, who placed samples on Britannic to look at the colonies of iron-eating bacteria on the wreck, which are responsible for the rusticles growing on Titanic. The results showed that even after 87 years on the bottom of the Kea Channel, Britannic is in much better condition than Titanic because the bacteria on her hull have too much competition and are actually helping protect the wreck by turning it into a man-made reef.

In 2006, an expedition, funded and filmed by the History Channel, brought together fourteen skilled divers to help determine what caused the quick sinking of Britannic. After preparation the crew dived on the wreck site on 17 September. Time was cut short when silt was kicked up, causing zero visibility conditions, and the two divers narrowly escaped with their lives. One last dive was to be attempted on Britannics boiler room, but it was discovered that photographing this far inside the wreck would lead to violating a permit issued by the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities, a department within the Greek Ministry of Culture. Partly because of a barrier in languages, a last minute plea was turned down by the department. The expedition was unable to determine the cause of the rapid sinking, but hours of footage were filmed and important data was documented. Underwater Antiquities later recognised the importance of this mission and has since extended an invitation to revisit the wreck under less stringent rules. On this expedition, divers found a bulb shape in her expansion joint. This proved that her design was changed following the loss of Titanic.

On 29 May 2009, Carl Spencer, drawn back to his third underwater filming mission of Britannic, died in Greece due to equipment difficulties while filming the wreck for National Geographic.

In 2012, on an expedition organised by Alexander Sotiriou and Paul Lijnen, divers using rebreathers successfully installed and recovered scientific equipment used for environmental purposes, to determine how fast bacteria are eating Britannics iron compared to Titanic.

(Edited from Wikipedia)

Britannic Postcard (Source: Wikipedia)

An end to the Battle of the Somme

At the start of 1916, most of the British Army had been an inexperienced and patchily trained mass of volunteers. The Somme was the debut of the Kitchener Army created by Lord Kitchener’s call for recruits at the start of the war. The British volunteers were often the fittest, most enthusiastic and best educated citizens but British casualties were also inexperienced soldiers and it has been claimed that their loss was of lesser military significance than the losses of the remaining peace-trained officers and men of the German army. British casualties on the first day were the worst in the history of the British army, with 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 of whom were killed.

British survivors of the battle had gained experience and the BEF learned how to conduct the mass industrial warfare, which the continental armies had been fighting since 1914. The continental powers had begun the war with trained armies of regulars and reservists, which were wasting assets. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria wrote, “What remained of the old first-class peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield”. A war of attrition was a logical strategy for Britain against Germany, which was also at war with France and Russia. A school of thought holds that the Battle of the Somme placed unprecedented strain on the German army and that after the battle it was unable to replace casualties like-for-like, which reduced it to a militia.

The destruction of German units in battle was made worse by lack of rest. British and French aircraft and long-range guns reached well behind the front-line, where trench-digging and other work meant that troops returned to the line exhausted. Despite the strategic predicament of the German army, it survived the battle, withstood the pressure of the Brusilov Offensive, and conducted an invasion of Romania. In 1917, the German army in the west survived the large British and French offensives of the Nivelle Offensive and the Third Battle of Ypres, though at great cost.

Falkenhayn was sacked and replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff at the end of August 1916. At a conference at Cambrai on 5 September, a decision was taken to build a new defensive line well behind the Somme front. The Siegfriedstellung was to be built from Arras to St. Quentin, La Fère and Condé, with another new line between Verdun and Pont-à-Mousson. These lines were intended to limit any Allied breakthrough and to allow the German army to withdraw if attacked; work began on the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) at the end of September. Withdrawing to the new line was not an easy decision and the German high command struggled over it during the winter of 1916–1917. Some members wanted to take a shorter step back, to a line between Arras and Sailly, while the First and Second army commanders wanted to stay on the Somme. Generalleutnant von Fuchs on 20 January 1917 said that,

Enemy superiority is so great that we are not in a position either to fix their forces in position or to prevent them from launching an offensive elsewhere. We just do not have the troops…. We cannot prevail in a second battle of the Somme with our men; they cannot achieve that any more. (20 January 1917)

— Hermann von Kuhl

Until the 1930s the dominant view of the battle in English-language writing was that the battle was a hard-fought victory against a brave, experienced and well-led opponent. Winston Churchill had objected to the way the battle was being fought in August 1916, Lloyd George when Prime Minister criticised attrition warfare frequently and condemned the battle in his post-war memoirs. In the 1930s a new orthodoxy of “mud, blood and futility” emerged and gained more emphasis in the 1960s when the 50th anniversaries of the Great War battles were commemorated.

Transport

Until 1916, transport arrangements for the BEF were based on an assumption that the war of movement would soon resume and make it pointless to build infrastructure, since it would be left behind. The British relied on motor transport from railheads which was insufficient where large masses of men and guns were concentrated. When the Fourth Army advance resumed in August, the wisdom of not building light railways which would be left behind was argued by some, in favour of building standard gauge lines. Experience of crossing the beaten zone, showed that such lines or metalled roads could not be built quickly enough to sustain an advance and that pausing while communications caught up, allowed the defenders to recover. On the Somme the daily carry during attacks on a 12 mi (19 km) front was 20,000 long tons (20,000 t) and a few wood roads and rail lines were inadequate for the number of lorries and roads. A comprehensive system of transport was needed, which required a much greater diversion of personnel and equipment than had been expected.

Casualties

Somme casualties
Nationality Total
casualties
Killed &
missing
POW
United Kingdom 350,000+
Canada 24,029
Australia 23,000 < 200
New Zealand 7,408
South Africa 3,000+
Newfoundland 2,000+
Total British
Commonwealth
419,654 95,675
French 204,253 50,756
Total Allied 623,907 146,431
Germany 465,000–600,000 164,055 38,000

The Battle of the Somme was one of the costliest battles of World War I. The original Allied estimate of casualties on the Somme, made at the Chantilly Conference on 15 November 1916, was 485,000 British and French casualties and 630,000 German. A German officer wrote,

Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.

— Friedrich Steinbrecher

In 1931, Wendt published a comparison of German and British-French casualties which showed an average of 30% more Allied casualties to German losses on the Somme. In the first 1916 volume of the British Official History (1932), J. E. Edmonds wrote that comparisons of casualties were inexact, because of different methods of calculation by the belligerents but that British casualties were 419,654, from total British casualties in France in the period of 498,054, French Somme casualties were 194,451 and German casualties were c. 445,322, to which should be added 27% for woundings, which would have been counted as casualties using British criteria; Anglo-French casualties on the Somme were over 600,000 and German casualties were under 600,000.

The addition by Edmonds of c. 30 percent to German figures, to make them comparable to British criteria, was criticised as “spurious” by M. J. Williams in 1964. McRandle and Quirk in 2006 cast doubt on the Edmonds calculations, but counted 729,000 German casualties on the Western Front from July to December against 631,000 by Churchill, concluding that German losses were fewer than Anglo-French casualties, but the ability of the German army to inflict disproportionate losses had been eroded by attrition. Sheffield wrote that the calculation by Edmonds of Anglo-French casualties was correct but the one for German casualties was discredited, quoting the official German figure of 500,000 casualties. In the second 1916 volume of the British Official History (1938), Miles wrote that total German casualties in the battle were 660,000–680,000. against Anglo-French casualties of fewer than 630,000, using “fresh data” from the French and German official accounts.

Western Front casualties
July–December 1916
Month Casualties
July 196,081
August 75,249
September 115,056
October 66,852
November 46,238
December 13,803
Total
British
513,289
French c. 434,000
Total:
Anglo-French
c. 947,289
German c. 719,000
Grand total c. 1,666,289

In 1938, Churchill wrote that the Germans had suffered 270,000 casualties against the French, between February and June 1916 and 390,000 between July and the end of the year (see statistical tables in Appendix J of Churchill’s World Crisis) with 278,000 casualties at Verdun. Some losses must have been in quieter sectors but many must have been inflicted by the French at the Somme. Churchill wrote that Franco-German losses at the Somme, were “much less unequal” than the Anglo-German ratio. During the Battle of the Somme German forces suffered 537,919 casualties, of which 338,011 losses were inflicted by the French and 199,908 losses by the British. In turn German forces inflicted 794,238 casualties on the Entente. Doughty wrote that French losses on the Somme were “surprisingly high” at 202,567 men, 54% of the 377,231 casualties at Verdun. Prior and Wilson used Churchill’s research and wrote that the British lost 432,000 soldiers from 1 July – mid-November (c. 3,600 per day) in inflicting c. 230,000 German casualties and offer no figures for French casualties or the losses they inflicted on the Germans. Sheldon wrote that the British lost “over 400,000″ casualties. Harris wrote that total British losses were c. 420,000, French casualties were over 200,000 men and German losses were c. 500,000, according to the “best” German sources.Sheffield wrote that the losses were “appalling”, with 419,000 British casualties, c. 204,000 French and perhaps 600,000 German casualties.

In a commentary on the debate about Somme casualties, Philpott used Miles’s figures of 419,654 British casualties and the French official figures of 154,446 Sixth Army losses and 48,131 Tenth Army casualties. German losses were described as “disputed”, ranging from 400,000–680,000. Churchill’s claims were a “snapshot” of July 1916 and not representative of the rest of the battle. Philpott called the “blood test” a crude measure compared to manpower reserves, industrial capacity, farm productivity and financial resources and that intangible factors were more influential on the course of the war. The German army was exhausted by the end of 1916, with loss of morale and the cumulative effects of attrition and frequent defeats causing it to collapse in 1918, a process which began on the Somme, echoing Churchill that the German soldiery was never the same again.

(Edited from Wikipedia)

Australian Government split over conscription

The Australian Labor Party split of 1916 occurred following severe disagreement within the Australian Labor Party over the issue of proposed World War I conscription in Australia. Labor Prime Minister of Australia Billy Hughes had, by 1916, become an enthusiastic supporter of conscription as a means to boost Australia’s contribution to the war effort. On 30 August 1916, he announced plans for a referendum on the issue (the Australian plebiscite, 1916), and introduced enabling legislation into parliament on 14 September, which passed only with the support of the opposition. Six of Hughes’ ministers resigned in protest at the move, and the New South Wales state branch of the Labor Party expelled Hughes. The referendum saw an intense campaign in which Labor figures vehemently advocated on each side of the argument, although the “no” campaign narrowly won on 14 November.

Even after the results of the plebiscite were made known, Hughes continued to push his position on conscription which created further tensions and division within the Labor party.  The result was a split in the government, with Hughes walking out with 24 other Labor members to form a minority government under as the National Labor Party and with the support of the opposition, the Commonwealth Liberal Party.

With the war dragging on, Hughes began negotiations with opposition leader Joseph Cook to turn their confidence-and-supply agreement into formal party unity. That February, at the urging of the Governor-General the two groups formally merged to form the Nationalist Party, with Hughes as leader and Cook as deputy leader. The new party was dominated by former Liberals, and as such was basically an upper- and middle-class party. However, the presence of many former Labor men—many of whom had been early leaders in that party—allowed the Nationalists to project an image of national unity.

In May of 1917, the Prime Minister was faced with a federal election, the first under a new party which included large numbers of his former opposition.

(Edited from Wikipedia)