The Far-Flung War: Fighting on Distant Fronts
The Far-Flung War: Fighting on Distant Fronts
World War I began as a European war. The spark that started the war came from Eastern Europe. The major combatants—the Central Powers (led by Germany and Austria-Hungary) and the Allies (led by France, Russia, and Great Britain)—entered the war to protect their territory and their interests in Europe. And the majority of the fighting and the deaths came on two European fronts. But soon after the war started, fighting spread to far-flung European colonies in the Pacific Ocean and in Africa, to the Italian border with Austria-Hungary, and to key strategic points in the Middle East and in western Asia, in what was then known as the Ottoman Empire and is now known as Turkey. Though much of the distant fighting had little bearing on the war, the fighting in Turkey and Italy was especially intense and destructive. As with every aspect of this wide-spread war, it was also very disruptive. This chapter surveys the various distant theaters of operations (areas where combat took place) that turned a European conflict into the first war to be fought all over the world.
Fighting for the Colonies: The Pacific
In the years before the war started, Germany had worked hard to establish colonies in distant parts of the world. These colonies provided ports for German shipping and supplied raw materials for German industry. Among the most distant of these colonies were several groups of islands in the south and central Pacific Ocean known as the Marianas, the Carolines, the Solomon Islands, and the Marshall Islands. Germany also controlled a small region on the coast of China called Kiaochow.
Soon after the war began in August 1914, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand raced to strip Germany of these colonies. Japan declared war on Germany on August 23 purely as an excuse to grab German territory in the Far East. By October, Japanese forces had overwhelmed the very small number of German soldiers stationed in the area and had claimed the Marianas, the Marshall Islands, and the Carolines. The Japanese faced a more difficult challenge in Kiaochow. For two weeks, three thousand German marines defended the port city of Tsingtao against a combined Japanese and British force of nearly twenty-five thousand. Surprised at this resistance, the Japanese and British were forced to use artillery and airplane bombing to attack the Germans, who finally gave in and surrendered on November 7.
Australia and New Zealand, countries that were not eager to see Japan's strength in the Pacific grow unchecked, also scrambled to seize Germany's lightly protected lands. New Zealand quickly captured Samoa, and the Germans just as quickly surrendered German New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Bismarck Archipelago to the Australians in mid-September. By the fall of 1914, when the war on the Western Front had just begun, the war in the Pacific ended with Germany badly beaten.
Fighting for the Colonies: Africa
Great Britain and France had long been the dominant colonial powers in Africa, but Germany also claimed four colonies on the continent: Togo, Cameroon, German Southwest Africa (now Namibia), and German East Africa (now Tanzania). When the war began, there was some discussion about not waging war in Africa at all. None of the combatants (except Great Britain) had major military forces on the continent, but the small forces they did have joined the war in late August. A combined force of French and British soldiers over-whelmed a small German force and took Togo on August 26,1914. The colony, which lay between British and French territories, was quickly divided among the conquering powers.
German Southwest Africa was a huge colony, several times the size of Great Britain. The area is mostly desert and while was lightly populated, it contained rich diamond mines. The Germans wanted to keep it. The British had nearly sixty thousand troops stationed in the neighboring Union of South Africa, many more than the Germans had available. Before the British could attack, however, they had to suppress a rebellion among South Africans who wanted the British out of their country. With this difficulty removed by the end of 1914 the British quickly captured the coast and began the difficult process of rooting the Germans out of the interior. British and South African troops crossed the difficult desert and, with native peoples rising up against the hated Germans, defeated the Germans at Windhoek and Otavi and forced their surrender on July 9, 1915. Though the Germans were defeated, many German settlers remained in the area.
Cameroon also fell quickly, though not without a fight. As in Togo, the Germans had few soldiers in the colony, and these soldiers were aided by poorly trained and only slightly loyal natives. But the Germans did have weather and terrain on their side. The British attacked into Cameroon from Nigeria in the midst of the rainy season (late in August), and they were soon bogged down in the mud. Worse, they had to cross hundreds of miles of nearly roadless territory even to find the German troops. Still, with the British attacking from the north and the French from the south, the Allies quickly gained control of the coast. Rains once again stalled Allied efforts to take the colony, and it wasn't until February 1916 that the French and British drove the Germans out of the area and divided it among themselves.
The most difficult of the fighting in Africa took place in German East Africa. Another huge country—nearly the size of France—German East Africa was rich in resources and had a population of eight million. Allied efforts in German East Africa were flawed from the beginning. Indian troops were assigned to capture key ports, but they landed in the wrong spot, failed to take a town that the Germans had surrendered, and fired on their own troops. By the end of 1915 the Allies still had not entered the colony. Throughout 1915 small military attacks proved fruitless and when the British finally entered the country in force in 1916 their efforts were repeatedly foiled by German forces led by
General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. This wily German commander, who led a small force of thirty-five hundred white and twelve thousand native troops, made the best of his limited resources: He staged small raids on the larger British and South African armies who entered German East Africa, and he destroyed bridges and roads to make their progress more difficult. The Allies, with their dramatically bigger armies, chased Lettow-Vorbeck and his forces all over the huge country for the better part of two years and had not yet defeated him when the German surrender on the Western Front in November 1918 made continued fighting unnecessary.
War in the Ottoman Empire
Perhaps the most crucial battles fought outside of Europe were fought in the area occupied by the dying Ottoman Empire (also known as the Turkish Empire or simply as Turkey). The Ottoman Empire—which in addition to Turkey once contained present-day Syria, Egypt, Iraq, the Balkan States, and Palestine, as well as parts of Russia, Hungary, and Arabia —had been in decline since the sixteenth century; by the coming of World War I it was nearly ready to collapse. By 1914, the empire consisted of present-day Turkey as well as narrow strips of land stretching along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, south along the Red Sea, and southeast along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the Persian Gulf. It was strategically important territory, not only because it physically separated Russia from access to the Mediterranean but also because it contained some of the world's richest oil reserves and key port cities such as Basra (in present-day Iraq). Both the Allies and the Central Powers saw control of Turkey as one key to winning the war.
Turkey had not officially allied with any of the major combatant countries in the years leading up to the war. But
when Turkish leader Enver Pa´sa rose to power in 1913, he had friendly dealings with the Germans—which included inviting German military officials to help reform the Turkish army. This meant that Turkey sided with the Central Powers as soon as the war began. Under Enver Pa´sa's leadership, Turkey conducted campaigns in three distinct areas: along the border with Russia, in the Caucasus Mountains; near the Persian Gulf; and around Egypt and Palestine. Most importantly, it conducted a crucial defensive campaign against concerted Allied attacks in the Dardanelles, a waterway connecting the Mediterranean to the Black Sea.
Fighting in the Caucasus
The biggest of the Turkish army's early attacks came in the Caucasus Mountains, which lay on the border between Turkey and Russia. Fighting in these high mountains would
have been difficult in the summer, but Enver Pa´sa called for the fighting to begin with the coming of winter. It was a disaster. Fighting in the bitter cold, both sides suffered high casualties. According to First World War author John Keegan, one Turkish division lost 4,000 of 8,000 men to frostbite in just four days of fighting. Only 18,000 of the 95,000 Turks who began the battle survived; 30,000 were said to have died of cold, for wounded soldiers simply could not survive in temperatures that dropped to fifty-five degrees below freezing.
When spring came to the mountains, Russia had expanded its claims in the region and provided backing for ethnic Armenians who had long hated Turkish rule. One Armenian regiment slaughtered a group of Turks inside Turkish territory, an action that the Turks would recall when in 1915 they began a systematic and brutal genocide against Turkish Armenians (see sidebar). Turks and Russians continued to fight in the Caucasus through 1915 and 1916. Despite the fact that Russia's attention was almost solely focused on battling the Germans and Austrians on the Eastern Front, Russian general Nikolay Yudenich managed to hold Russian ground and fight the war in the Caucasus to a stalemate.
Gallipoli: Allied Hopes Denied
Soon after French, British, and German forces became deadlocked on the Western Front, Allied leaders began looking for a way to change the tide of the war. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill of Great Britain (who became British prime minister during World War II) proposed that the British use their one area of undisputed strength, their navy, to attack Turkey in the Dardanelles—a small strip of water connecting the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Control of this waterway would give the Allies a crucial link to Russian ports on the Black Sea. If the Allies could capture the Dardanelles, they could drive Turkey out of the war, link to fellow Allied forces in Russia, and encircle Germany. It was a daring plan.
The Allies began with a combined British and French naval attack on February 19, 1915. They hoped to drive their fleet up the narrow straits, shelling the Turkish forces into sub-mission and landing troops to take Gallipoli, the major city in the region. They were sorely disappointed. Weather forced continual delays, their shells either didn't land in the right places or did too little damage, and Turkish mines laid in the water slowed or blew up Allied ships. Thoroughly frustrated, the Allies prepared for another naval assault on March 18. Newly laid Turkish mines soon ripped this assault to shreds. First the French battleship Bouvet blew up and sank, along with seven hundred men, and then three British ships, the Inflexible, the Irresistible, and the Ocean, either sank or were eliminated from battle. The Allies gave up but vowed they would defeat Turkey by other means.
Allied hopes for capturing the Dardanelles soon centered on a coastal invasion along the Gallipoli Peninsula, which lay to the north and west of the Dardanelles. The Allies planned to land on a series of beaches, advance straight uphill to the bluffs overlooking the Mediterranean, and then march inland. They never expected the fierce resistance of a few thousand Turkish soldiers led by a divisional commander named
Mustafa Kemal (who would later become Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey). Undersupplied and outmanned, the Turks dug machine-gun nests and bunkers along the tops of the rocky bluffs and awaited the Allied attack.
Allied troops—including many soldiers from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or Anzacs—landed on the beaches of Gallipoli on April 25. Several divisions landed on deserted beaches and advanced easily uphill in search of an enemy that did not appear. Sadly, they were unprepared for such an event and did not take advantage of it; the Turks soon brought up reinforcements and kept the Allies pinned near the beach. Other divisions faced sheer carnage: Turkish machine gunners sat high above some beaches, holding their fire until British landing craft reached the shore. As these troops crowded to get out of the barges, the Turks opened fire. James Stokesbury, author of A Short History of World War I, describes the scene: "Within moments the barges were filled with dead, dying, and wounded, their scuppers running with blood and the water turning a frothy pink around them. Still the soldiers came out of the [landing craft], clambering down the ramps to certain death, and the Turks kept shooting them down until at last they came no more."
By day's end the Allies had landed their troops on shore, but at a far higher cost in lives than they had expected and with far smaller gains in territory. Within a few days the British, the Anzacs, and the Turks were dug in along trenches not far inland. Through May and June the British and Anzac forces tried to drive forward several times, but each time they were repulsed by Turkish defenders who everywhere occupied the high ground. It was the Western Front all over again, and in true Western Front style the British decided that the key to victory was to try again. The final Allied assault on Gallipoli began on August 6. Reinforced with thousands of fresh troops, the Allies smashed into the Turkish defenses, but they measured their gains in feet, not miles. Within three days this assault, like all the others, died. With winter coming on and no sign of change in Gallipoli, the Allies did a sensible thing: They withdrew. By January 9, 1916, the Allies had removed their last man from the Gallipoli Peninsula.
The attack on Gallipoli has gone down in history as one of the bloodiest and most futile of the World War I battles fought outside of Europe. The Allies lost over 265,000 men, while the Turks are estimated to have suffered 300,000 casualties. Turkey's valiant defense kept it in the war until the very end and dashed Allied hopes for a quick way to end the war.
Death in the Desert
Turkey's threat to the Allies in the Middle East can be expressed in one word: oil. The Allies feared that the Turks would gain control of the oil wells discovered in areas surrounding the Persian Gulf. Late in 1914 the British—who had the greatest influence in the area—landed troops at the end of the gulf and took the biggest town in the region, Basra, from the Turks in a short but intense fight. Discovering few Turks in the area, British and Indian forces (India was then a British colony) began to move up the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys toward Baghdad, the major city in Mesopotamia, as this area was called. The British-led forces
soon encountered the toughest enemy in the region: the desert heat. As British and Indian troops drove northward, they stretched their supply lines ever thinner. According to James Stokesbury, author of A Short History of World War I, "The temperature was appalling, disease was rife, and the conditions were generally primitive and nasty for everyone." The Allies took the towns of An Nasiriya, on the Euphrates, and Amara, on the Tigris. Cheered by these successes, Allied commanders back in Europe asked for the impossible: They wanted the generals to capture Baghdad.
In the fall of 1916 British forces led by General C. V. F. Townshend began to march up the Tigris River toward Baghdad. They won an important victory when they beat the Turks and captured the town of Kut on September 28; then they prepared to set out across the desert, fortified with the absolute minimum in supplies. By November the British army had come within ten miles of Baghdad, but heavy Turkish defenses and dwindling supplies forced them to turn back. Sensing victory, the Turks trailed Townshend back to Kut, surrounded the city, and held the British under siege.
For four months, and despite repeated attempts by the British to rescue the men at Kut, the Turks held the Allies captive. Finally on April 29 Townshend and his men could hold out no longer. All ten thousand men surrendered to the Turks, making it the single largest surrender in British military history. Four thousand of these men later died while being held prisoner. Though the British held their positions further south, the defeat at Kut was a bitter pill to swallow. But over the course of the war the Turkish forces suffered a general decline. The Allies were able to capture Baghdad from the weakened Turkish army and gained control of Mesopotamia in 1917.
Protecting the Suez Canal
Mesopotamia was essential to the Allies because of its oil supply; the lands between Egypt and Palestine were important for another reason: the Suez Canal. The canal, which connected the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, allowed the Allies to ship goods and troops from India, Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East. When the war started, Britain, which controlled Egypt, closed the canal to the Central Powers. Thus one of the first tasks the Germans wanted Turkey to accomplish was to seize the Suez Canal.
Early in 1915, with the technical advice of German colonel Franz Kress von Kressenstein, the Ottoman Fourth Army under General Ahmed Cemal Pa´sa planned a daring cross-desert raid on the Suez Canal. Carrying custom-built pontoons, which they would use to span the canal, the army crossed the hostile Sinai desert and attempted to capture the canal. However, they were driven back by the substantial British army in the area.
Alarmed by this early attack, the British kept a strong force in the area throughout the war, and this force eventually set off on attacks of its own. Led by General Archibald Murray, the British captured the Sinai peninsula and built water pipelines and roads to supply their troops as they prepared to advance further up the coast toward Gaza. But with poor planning and failed attempts, the British attacks on Gaza sputtered out. As the British replaced Murray with Western Front veteran
General Edmund Allenby, Arab tribes in the region rose up in revolt against the Turks. These Arab tribes wanted to carve countries of their own out of the desert. The stage was set for a British push into Palestine.
Allenby led a daring and aggressive advance on Turkish positions in Palestine during 1917. Attacking first inland against the Turkish flank and then directly at the main Turkish positions along the seacoast, Allenby's force met Turkish troops led by the experienced German general Erich von Falkenhayn. The attack, which started on October 31 and came to an end by mid-December, drove the Turks well backward and led to the Allied occupation of the holy cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
After halting their attacks for nine months, the British began advancing again in September 1918. Allenby scored a decisive victory on September 19 in the Battle of Megiddo, and he chased the Turkish army across the Jordan River and back into the hostile desert. The Brits captured Damascus on October 2 and pushed two hundred miles further to Aleppo within three weeks. They had the Turks on the run, and by mid-October the Turks were ready to talk peace. They signed an armistice agreement on October 30, in which the Turks promised to disband their armies, release all prisoners, and allow the Allies to control their territory. For the once mighty Ottoman Empire, this agreement meant more than mere withdrawal from the war; it signaled the end of the empire's existence. Postwar negotiations stripped the empire of much of its land, leaving only the nation of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire's collapse was also a sign to Germany that the end was near, for now the Allies truly had the Germans surrounded.
Italy entered the war alongside the Allies for one reason: It hoped to gain land from the Austrians. Prior to the war Italy had been loosely allied with Germany and Austria, but Allied promises of Italian land gains along Italy's border with Austria
lured Prime Minister Antonio Salandra (1853–1931) to side with the Allies. The Italians opened fighting with Austria in May of 1915. The fighting on the Italian Front proved to be a major distraction for the Austrians, requiring men and supplies that the failing Austro-Hungarian Empire did not want to provide. Largely conducted in difficult mountainous areas, the fighting in Italy was never terribly decisive, but it remained an important part of the Allied war effort from 1915 through 1918.
Italy's front with Austria was shaped like a large S lying on its side. The western curve, bulged downward into the Italian region known as Trentino; the eastern curve stretched upward into Austria. Because so much of this territory was in the mountains, the only place where armies could advance easily was along the coast of the Gulf of Venice, toward the Isonzo River and the Austrian town of Gorizia. Thus, while small forces battled to hold the frontier in Trentino, the Italians sought to defeat the Austrians on the battlefields of the Isonzo. Italy nearly bled to death trying.
The Twelve Battles of the Isonzo
After backing the Austrians up into the mountains east of the Isonzo River, Italian commander Luigi Cadorna ordered his troops to drive over the mountains. Thus began the first of twelve battles of the Isonzo. In four battles through the summer and fall of 1915, the Italian army threw itself against the entrenched Austrian forces. When the winter snows came, the Italians had nothing to show for their efforts. The Isonzo assault opened again in March 1916, with the Fifth Battle; the Sixth through Ninth Battles took the combatants into the fall. The Italians gained only a small amount of land at a massive cost in dead and wounded. The rocky, narrow valleys of the area brought a new kind of injury to the war as artillery shells sent rock fragments in all directions, taking out men's eyes and carving gashes in their flesh.
Though the Italians did not gain much territory in the Tenth and Eleventh Battles of the Isonzo in the summer of 1917, they did succeed in wearing down the Austrian army, forcing the German army to come to the rescue. In the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, the Germans gained a decisive victory. Launching an aggressive surprise attack on October 24, the Germans and Austrians broke through the Italian lines and started a massive Italian retreat. The Central Powers drove the Italians back nearly seventy-five miles and captured 275,000 prisoners along the way. Many of the Italians simply gave up, for the Italian army's will to fight had been nearly destroyed by their constant, futile attacks. The Italians finally built defensive lines near the Piave River, north of Venice, which they maintained until the end of the war.
Little more of significance happened on the Italian front. The Austrians tried to drive the Italians back over the Piave in June 1918, but the Italians held their ground. In October 1918, as Austria collapsed under the pressures of war and a crumbling empire, the Italians mounted a major offensive and drove the Austrians out of Trentino. By then, however, the war was ending, and many Austrian troops simply gave up and let the enemy pass through.
Little had been accomplished in Italy other than the bleeding of the Austrian army. But then little was expected of the battles being fought beyond the Western and Eastern Fronts. The Battle of Gallipoli, which could well have been a turning point in the war if the Allies had accomplished their mission. But the rest of the battles on distant fronts were fought for different stakes than the major operations in Europe were. In some cases, as in the Pacific and Africa, the far-flung battles were fought to steal territory from an enemy who was fighting on the Continent, too busy to defend distant lands. In other cases, as in the battles in Mesopotamia and Palestine, the combatants fought to defend key strategic points or supply lines. Though none of the battles covered in this chapter changed the course of the war, they did help determine the shape of the postwar world, for they sealed the Allied claim to much of the territory previously controlled by the former German Empire and its allies.
For More Information
Gammage, Bill. The Broken Years. Cairns, Australia: University of Queens-land Press, 1975.
"The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century." [Online] http://www.pbs.org/greatwar (accessed October 2000).
Hovannisian, Richard G., ed. The Armenian Genocide in Perspective. London: Allen and Unwin, 1985.
"World War I: Trenches on the Web." [Online] http://www.worldwar1.com (accessed October 2000).
Gilbert, Martin. First World War Atlas. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: William Morrow, 1981.
Winter, J. M. The Experience of World War I. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Winter, Jay, and Blaine Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.
On April 24, 1915, several hundred Turkish Armenians were rounded up in the capital city of Constantinople and in other cities throughout the Ottoman Empire. These men— professionals, journalists, and businessmen—were taken from their families and ruthlessly killed by Turkish Muslims. Thus began the killing of hundreds of thousands of Christian Armenians in the first genocide of the twentieth century.
Turks had long disliked the Armenians, most of whom lived in the northeastern corner of the empire, in a region known as Anatolia. The Armenians had a different religion and a different culture than the majority of the people in Turkey, and the so-called Young Turks who came into power in Turkey just before World War I believed that the Armenians could not be trusted and ought to be removed from Turkey. When some Armenian army units fought alongside the Russians against Turkey in the Caucasus Mountains, the Turkish authorities announced that all Armenians should be deported (sent away) from Turkey. It was under the guise of this deportation that the genocide began.
Across Turkey, gangs of thugs began rounding up Armenians, stripping them of their belongings, and sending them on forced marches out of the country. Many of the Armenians died of starvation or exhaustion on their long treks through uninhabited desert. Others were simply rounded up and killed. According to Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, authors of The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, "Between 500,000 and one million Armenians were killed or died of exposure or disease in camps or in the Syrian desert. In the midst of war, a substantial part of a long-established and prosperous civilian community with identifiable religious and cultural characteristics was wiped out."
Though reports of the killings and deportation made their way to the outside world, other countries did nothing to stop the killing. Many governments condemned what was happening, but they claimed they could do nothing until the war was over. By then it was too late for the Armenian people. Among the many people who drew lessons from the Armenian genocide was Adolf Hitler, who would call for the genocide of Jews in eastern Europe during World War II. Trying to justify his actions, Hitler once asked, "Who today remembers the Armenians?" Remembering the Armenians and the Jews killed in the Holocaust is important because it may help prevent any such tragedy from occurring again.