16th August 1917: The Battle of Langemarck was the second of the general attacks in the 3rd Ypres offensive. The Allied attack succeeded from Langemarck to Drie Grachten, with the French First Army on the northern flank and the main British gain occurring near Langemarck, adjacent to the French. However early advances in the south on the Gheluvelt Plateau were forced back by powerful German counter-attacks. The Germans appreciating the tactical value of the ground concentrated their efforts in retaining the ridge through determined defence and counter-attacks. By the end of the month Inverness Copse changed hands eighteen times, and the British had suffered some 100,000 casualties for little gain in these attritional step-by-step attacks.
31st July 1917: The 3rd Ypres or Passchendaele campaign, controversial in 1917 and remaining so ever since, began with the attack at Pilckem Ridge. The cautious step-by-step approach by Haig over the 3 & 1/2 month campaign did result in territorial gains but came at a high cost of some 450,000 British and Dominion casualties, comparable to the Somme 1916 offensive, and was nowhere near achieving the initially held objective of driving the German Army from the channel coast. Although preferable to the limited, narrow front, wearing down assaults on the Somme of the previous year, the approach did have one major defect in that the attacks never went deep enough to disrupt the mass of the enemy’s artillery enabling it to retire and fight again. Despite the early successes, once the weather broke and turned the battlefield into an impassable quagmire, any thought of a decisive breakthrough had gone. Passchendaele will forever be remembered as a campaign of ‘wretchedness in the Flanders mud’.
19th July 1917: Despite the early success of the Russians on the eastern front against the mainly Austrian forces, the Russian army was not able to sustain its effort and with morale fading the Russian army buckled under a counter-attack from the German reserve and men simply melted away. At the same time the Bolshevik party obtained control of Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and by the end of July it was clear that Russia was out of the war with respect to any concerted strategic part as far as the Allies were concerned.
15th July 1917: The great bombardment at Ypres began, with the British guns one to every six yards of front compared to one to seven at Messines. With a total of 3,091 guns in the British 2nd & 5th Armies, this was more than at Arras earlier in the year and almost twice as many that the 4th Army had on the Somme a year previous, delivering 4 &3/4 tons of shells per yard in the last ten days of the bombardment. The summer haze plus the reluctance of the German artillery to show themselves meant that destruction of the German batteries was not on schedule thus Haig agreed to delay the start of the offensive in spite of worries of the coming rains expected in late summer.
25th June 1917: The first 14,000 U.S. infantry troops landed in France at the port of Saint Nazaire. The landing site had been kept secret because of the menace of German submarines. The “Doughboys”, as the British referred to the green American troops, were at this stage untrained, ill-equipped, and far from ready for the difficulties of fighting along the Western Front.
13th June 1917: Germany launched the first major heavy bomber raid over London with bombs dropped from 18 Gotha G.IV aircraft (photograph right). The attack killed 162 people and injured 432, the most during a single raid during the First World War. As a result of the raid London had a complete overhaul of its air defences including the introduction of public air raid warnings, air raid shelters and barrage balloons.
7th June 1917: The Battle of Messines Ridge – the precursor to the British 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) offensive. Preceded by the detonation of 19 huge mines under the German front lines, including Hill 60 and Caterpillar dug by the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company, the British successfully took the ridge in what was a well executed, integrated attack. The mine explosions were reportedly heard from England. The battle also saw General Monash’s AIF 3rd Division as part of Godley’s II Anzac Corps take part in its first major attack during the war, supported by the AIF 4th Division.
26th May 1917: The Hospital Ship ‘Dover Castle’ was torpedoed without warning at 11 a.m. with 632 patients on board, including 29 officers. All the patients were saved, although three boats were destroyed by the first explosion. The ship was sunk by a second torpedo after being cleared.
20th May 1917: One of the potentially most damaging events for the Allied forces during the First World War were the French Army mutinies which started just after the disastrous Second Battle of the Aisne, the main action in the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917. General Robert Nivelle had promised a decisive war-ending victory over the Germans in 48 hours but the shock of failure soured their mood overnight. The mutinies and associated disruptions involved, to various degrees, nearly half of the French infantry divisions stationed on the western front. The new commander General Philippe Pétain (pictured right) restored morale by talking to the men, promising no more suicidal attacks, providing rest for exhausted units, home furloughs, and moderate discipline. He held 3,400 courts martial; 554 mutineers were sentenced to death but over 90% had their sentences reprieved. The mutinies had ended by 10th June but were kept secret from the Germans and indeed the rest of the world until the danger had long past.
The French army was bending under the strain of the war that had taken its huge toll on the nation since 1914. As a result the new plan of Petain and Foch was a rigid defensive, with the exception of a few limited attacks to assist the British during their forthcoming Ypres offensive, until the Americans would be ready in 1918. Behind this defensive they would build up the army and an immense accumulation of material including artillery, tanks and the air fleet.
15th May 1917: Following the failure of the French Army at the Chemin des Dames and the Second Battle of the Aisne, General Nivelle was forced to retire and he was replaced by General Petain (pictured above) as the French Commander-in-Chief. General Foch was appointed as Chief of the General Staff in Paris.
30th April 1917: In the third week of April no less than 55 merchant ships – a total of 180,000 tons – had been sunk. In the month of April a total of 881,027 tons was lost. At this rate it was estimated by the end of the year that there would only be barely enough shipping to keep the British people fed, and far too few for the carriage of troops, munitions and supplies necessary to maintain the Allied war effort.
17th April 1917: On route from Le Havre and carrying their wounded to Southampton the Hospital Ships ‘Lanfranc’ and ‘Donegal’ were torpedoed, both sinking rapidly and with the loss of 40 men on each ship. At the time the HS ‘Lanfranc’ (photograph right) had 387 patients on board including 167 wounded German soldiers, of which 18 drowned.
16th April 1917: The Second Battle of the Aisne began as part of the ‘Nivelle Offensive’. After a week of diversionary attacks by the British to the north at Arras, 19 Divisions of the French Fifth and Sixth Armies went into battle along an 80 km front from Soissons to Reims. Losses were horrendous and by the end the French had suffered 187,000 casualties, triggering mutinies within the French Army and the replacing of Nivelle by General Petain.
10th April 1917: While returning to pick up wounded at the port of Le Havre, France, the Hospital Ship HMHS Salta struck a mine at 11:43, one mile (1.6 km) north of the entrance to the dam. A huge explosion smashed the hull near the stern in the engine room and hold number three. Water rushed into the disabled ship which listed to starboard and sank in less than 10 minutes. Of the 205 passengers and crew members, nine nurses, 42 member of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and 79 crew drowned. The British patrol boat HMS P-26 attempted to come alongside to assist, but also struck a mine and sank.
9th April 1917: At dawn the British First and Third Armies launched their great offensive at Vimy and Arras respectively. It had been prepared by a massive artillery bombardment greater than that at the Somme, and the infantry advanced more effectively under a creeping barrage. The attack succeeded in most of the areas and at Arras success was almost complete, taking the first two defensive systems. For the Canadians at Vimy Ridge this was the first time their four divisions fought together as a unified force and despite heavy losses this victorious day would be seen as key in their evolution from dominion to an independent nation.
6th April 1917: The United States declares war on Germany.
On 2nd April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson went before a joint session of Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany. Wilson cited Germany’s violation of its pledge to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as its attempts to entice Mexico into an alliance against the United States, as his reasons for declaring war. On April 4, 1917, the U.S. Senate voted in support of the measure to declare war on Germany. The House concurred two days later. Although 14,000 US infantry landed in France on 26th June 1917 to begin training, it would take at least 12 months before US troops were present on the Western Front in enough numbers to have any effect on the outcome of the war.
31st March 1917: The Gloucester Castle was a steam ship requisitioned by the British for use as a hospital ship during the First World War, operating in the Mediterranean between Lemnos and Malta and taking the wounded back across the English Channel from the Western Front. On one such voyage from Le Havre to Southampton on 31st March 1917 when carrying 399 patients including 300 cot cases, she was torpedoed by German U-boat U-32 off the Isle of Wight. All the patients were evacuated by the attendant destroyers and other transports, but three unfortunately died during the transfer. Although badly damaged she was eventually towed into port.
20th March 1917: In February 1915 the HMHS Asturias was hit by a torpedo but it failed to explode. However on 20th March 1917, not long after the resumption of the German announcement of unrestricted submarine warfare against shipping deemed to be supporting the Allied war effort, after landing 1,000 wounded at Avonmouth in the Bristol Channel, the Asturias was attacked by German submarine off the south Devon coast and struck by a torpedo which blew off her stern, killing 35 of her crew. The Captain of U20 which sank the Asturias was Capitanleutnant Walther Schweiger, who two years before had been in command of the U-Boat which sank the Lusitania. She was able to be beached near Bolt Head but her damage was so extensive that she was declared a total loss. However her hulk was put to use as a floating ammunition store at Plymouth for the rest of the war.
23rd February 1917: The great German withdrawal begins. They evacuate Serre, Miraumont, Petit Miraumont, Pys and (facing the I Anzac Corps) Warlencourt near Bapaume, falling back 25 miles to establish stronger positions along the Hindenburg Line. The shorter defensive position behind the Noyon Salient was built to economise on manpower, contain an Allied breakthrough and make possible a deliberate withdrawal to prepared positions utilising strong-points and protected by thick wire entanglements. By destroying the infrastructure and demolishing civilian buildings in the salient before a withdrawal, the Germans could dislocate Franco-British offensive preparations, by forcing
them to advance into a wasteland. The British and French armies would need about eight weeks to rebuild roads, bridges and railways in the abandoned area before they could attack. A shorter Western Front could be held with fewer troops and by incorporating the lessons of defensive battle on the Somme, the importance of troop dispersal, reverse-slope positions, defence in depth and camouflage, German infantry casualties could be reduced. While the German army recuperated from the losses of 1916, protected by the Hindenburg Line and similar defensive positions on the rest of the Western Front, a return to unrestricted submarine warfare and a strategic bombing offensive against Britain were planned.
3rd February 1917: The United States severs diplomatic relations with Germany as U-Boats threaten US shipping. Intercepted messages reveal that Germany is provoking the Mexicans into war against the US.
31st January 1917: Germany warns neutrals of unrestricted submarine warfare. The German Government issued its warning to neutrals that from 1st February the waters around Great Britain, France and Italy were to be considered a barred zone, in which merchant vessels would be liable to be sunk without notice.