of a War 1916
Part Four of Invasion 1915
By David Atwell
Now that the Germans were coming to their aid in the south, there was no reason why Vienna could not be recaptured from the ANZAC Army, & the Allies pushed out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire altogether.
Needless to say, the war was about to get worse…
Conclusion to The Allies Strike Back 1916
The successful capture of Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the result of great planning on behalf of the Allies, along with the collapse of Austrian forces in Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans. It was clear, from early 1916, that Austria had little chance in holding back the combined armies of Italy, France, Great Britain, Russia, Australia, India, and New Zealand. In many respects, the defeat of the Austrians was to typify the problems which the Central Powers had brought upon themselves, wherein Germany pretty well had ignored the Southern Front, leaving the conduct of the war to their allies who, it must be said, proved to be disappointing. First the Ottoman Empire, albeit in reality Turkey, had been knocked out of the war, thanks to the successful Gallipoli Campaign, followed not long after by Bulgaria. It seemed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not any better and that Germany could well be next.
At long last Germany finally paid attention to the Southern Front, even though it took the fall of Vienna to do it. The Austrians, meanwhile, were far from impressed by the lack of help from their northern ally, even though eventually a hastily formed German-Austrian army did manage to stop the Allied Salonika Army from moving into western Austria. But German help, in stopping the Allied ANZAC Army from taking Vienna, was too little, too late.
Furthermore there was little which Austria could do in order to stop the ANZAC’s from achieving victory. Having been stretched to breaking point, and having much of its own Southern Army Group routed and overrun in Serbia, meant that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was effectively cut in two: where western Austria managed to hold out, thanks to forces from both Germany and Austria, whilst the eastern part, now centred around Hungary, managed to hold out by itself against the Russians to the east and Serbs to the south.
Still, the war was not over with the fall of Vienna, although due to the Allied efforts so far, especially on the Southern Front, they had little chance in achieving anything further for the remainder of 1916, other than to consolidate their gains in anticipation of possible counterattacks by the Central Powers: most probably by the Germans. It was in this light, hence, that the Allies, especially the ANZAC Army in Vienna, prepared themselves for a rugged defence.
The Germans, pressured by the Austrians, thus began to prepare for their first major attack on the Southern Front. However, they too were greatly stretched by the demands of the war on other fronts. Not only did they have to deploy well over one million troops along the Eastern Front, in order to keep the Russians in place, but the Western Front also consumed men and equipment at an alarming rate. Yet it would not be either major front which truly became Germany’s Achilles Heel. That would be the British Front, where their Invasion Army had been entrenched since its arrival in 1915. Having been more or less blockaded since May 1915, which had recently been forced to surrender, the 200 000 odd soldiers of this army were now sorely missed. And considering what Germany had planned for the ANZAC Army, in August 1916, those wasted troops could have made all the difference in the world for the Germans.
The Battle of Vienna
The Battle of Vienna came as hardly a surprise. Not only had the commander of the ANZAC Army, General Birdwood, expected it, but so had every soldier in the ANZAC Army. What none of them had expected was, not only the veracity of the attack, wherein more artillery was deployed by the Central Powers in the south than ever before, but also the dreadful length of the constant artillery barrages. Then came the infantry fighting, which again seemed to go on forever. It goes without saying that the destruction, caused by the battle, seemed to be equal to numerous battles along the Western Front, but never experienced in the south until now.
Still that did not matter to the ANZAC Army as it dug-in in anticipation of the German attack. Oddly enough, though, Birdwood had deployed the New Zealander, Indian, and two British Divisions in the city itself, whilst the one French and five Australian infantry divisions were deployed in trenches and defences along the flanks. To the west, the Australians linked up with the outposts of the Salonika Army, whilst to the east the French division linked up with the Serbian Army. In reserve, Birdwood kept his two cavalry divisions, the Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted. It would be to these two divisions which Birdwood intended to use, as a fast mobile force, to fill in any gaps which may occur during a German assault. Similarly, the Australian infantry divisions could, thanks to the extensive road systems around Vienna as well as enjoying the benefit of having internal lines of communications, be moved to any section of his defensive line if and when required.
On 23rd August 1916, the newly formed 14th Austro-German Army began its initial assault. At dawn, with little warning, over 1 500 pieces of artillery, of various calibres, opened a horrific barrage upon the Allied defenders of Vienna. Regardless of the concerns of the Austro-Hungarian government, the Germans showed little regard for the old city let alone its environs. The Germans were determined that the ANZAC Army would be bled to death, through this massive artillery barrage, and if Vienna was destroyed in the process, so much the better for it having surrendered in the first place.
Having said that, it was not as if Austrian forces were not involved with the battle itself. Some 200, of those artillery pieces now firing shells into Vienna, were indeed Austrian. Furthermore, a corps of 50 000 troops were also of Austro-Hungarian origin, and found themselves deployed in the centre of the 14th Austro-German Army, with a German corps to each side on the flanks. Meanwhile, another two German corps were held in reserve. The Germans, however, were in overall charge and it was their plan now in motion, to push the ANZAC Army out of Vienna if not out of Austria altogether. Consequently, as said, the artillery barrage went on for an entire week, without let up, forcing the defenders to deal with the situation as best as they could. It goes without saying that casualties, especially amongst the civilian population, was high: as it was also amongst the New Zealand, British, and Indian defenders.
Yet, as the Allied casualties mounted, not to mention those of the civilians caught in the nightmare, the ANZAC Army held on defiantly. Alas for the defenders, however, they had no where near the amount of artillery, which the Austro-German Army enjoyed, and Birdwood was forced, more or less, to withdraw his artillery to the south of Vienna, in an effort to preserve it as best as could be achieved, in order to ensure that when the Austro-German infantry attacked, his defenders would be supported by all the artillery that was at hand. This even saw the horse artillery, of his two cavalry divisions, become part of this reserve artillery park much to the chagrin of the horse artillerymen involved.
It was thus at dawn, on the 30th August, when the first major infantry assault commenced. Having said that, it was not as if the Allied defenders had much forewarning, as the German planners deliberately kept up the artillery barrage as the infantry commenced their advance. It was, though, not as easy as it may have seemed, considering the advancing Austro-German infantry had to cross the Danube River in order to get at the ANZAC Army. This ensured no end of difficulties, in truth, even though the attackers gained much cover thanks to their artillery support. Yet, it was not as if the German planners assumed that it would be a push over. Consequently, whilst the German corps on the flanks conducted various demonstrations, to gain the attention of the defenders, it would be the Austrian corps in the centre which would bare the responsibility of launching the main attack.
As such, the Austrians attacked the centre of the ANZAC Army. Waiting for them here was the New Zealand Division. Importantly, the New Zealanders had had to suffer much of the constant artillery barrage for the entire week. Their casualties had already reach ten percent, but they were determined not to give an inch. Furthermore, the soldiers, knowing sooner or later an infantry attack would come, were more than eager for a fight. And considering they knew that the enemy infantry were going to have a tough time, just crossing the Danube in order to get to Vienna itself, these veterans prepared themselves accordingly.
In many respects, the Germans were willing to sacrifice the Austrian corps in order to draw the ANZAC Army together in Vienna, wherein they would then launch phase two of their battle plan. It is no surprise then, that the Austrian corps was decimated by the New Zealand Division, along with support from the Indian Division as well as from the 43rd and 52nd British Divisions. Furthermore, considering Birdwood had pooled all his artillery, he was able to then have his artillery concentrate its power at the most important point, which only added to the carnage suffered by the Austrians. Within two hours of the initial Austrian assault, over 6 000 had become casualties. Four more assaults, by the Austrians, also proved to be futile and only added to the butchers bill. By 14:00 the Austrians refused to conduct any further assaults, regardless of German orders to continue. By the end of the day, some 18 000 Austrians had become casualties for no gain whatsoever.
As stated, though, it was German strategy to try to force Birdwood to concentrate the bulk of his army in Vienna itself. They mistakenly believed that, with the continuous artillery barrage, followed by the assault of the Austrian corps, Birdwood would be forced to reduce the protection he had on his flanks in order to ensure that Vienna would be secure. In some respects, Birdwood had already done this, by stationing four of his divisions to protect Vienna, but on each flank he was able to keep his three divisions in their respective location. And even though Birdwood allowed, in his plans, the ability to call upon these "flanking" divisions if needed, the highly successful repulse of the Austrians ensured that he could leave them in their original positions.
If, however, Birdwood thought that in the aftermath of the failed Austrian attack, that the pressure of the German artillery would let up, he was mistaken. Instead, if anything, the German artillery barrage increased the following day in its efforts to pound the New Zealanders, Indians, and British into submission. This was, though, a deliberate feign in order to lull the ANZAC Army into a false sense of security prior to the commencement of the second phase of the German’s plan. Fore as the Austrian corps was withdrawn into a reserve position, and replaced by a 60 000 troop German corps, the two main German corps, that had been placed on the flanks, readied themselves for their part in the battle. Consequently some 150 000 Germans prepared for attack.
The first main German attack, in the Battle of Vienna, was planned to come as a surprise. So far, over the weeks, the flanks had been somewhat quiet where the Australian and French divisions had been deployed. They had been able to watch on, in a surreal form of peace and quiet, whilst Vienna and their Allied comrades lived in utter Hell. It was not as if they were not aware of the German lines opposite them, but to the Australians it seemed that the Germans were more than happy to sit in their trenches and remain there. Thus it came as a real rude shock when, at dawn on the 10th of September, instead of the usual artillery barrage falling on Vienna, all of a sudden the German shells came raining down on the Australian trenches.
Although it maybe fair to say that the Australians, and even Birdwood it should be noted, were caught out by this sudden change in the German attack, being veterans, they soon recovered from this and prepared themselves. And they did not have much time to do so either, fore after only a mere 60 minutes of this heavy artillery barrage, the German infantry came rushing at them. The Germans, it should be noted, had gained the initiative, thanks to careful planning and the element of surprise. As a result, the ANZAC Army’s artillery, all of it, had to be completely redeployed, from its current position of covering the approaches to Vienna, to now covering the Australian divisions along both the left and right flanks. This took a few hours to achieve. In doing so it meant to say that the Australians, especially the 3rd and 5th Divisions, had to fight it out by themselves.
The Australians, furthermore, were vastly outnumbered. Initially, where the German blow hit, that being the Australian 3rd Division on the left and the 5th Division on the right, meant that 30 000 Australians were forced to defend against 150 000 Germans supported by 1 500 artillery pieces. But, just like what the Austrian corps faced some ten days earlier, so too the Germans had to deal with crossing the Danube in order to get at the Australians. Consequently the Germans were greatly disadvantaged. Yet, the Germans, who suffered casualties not too dissimilar to the Austrian corps about a week before, managed to establish their respective beachheads and continue onward toward the Australian lines.
The fighting at this point, it goes without saying, was savage. The Australians, outnumbered by five to one, and regardless of the great number of casualties which they forced upon the Germans, had little chance of holding back a further 140 000 Germans. Reinforcements, however, soon flooded into the battlezones as the neighbouring ANZAC Army divisions sent entire brigades into the vortex. As such, some 50 000 more Australians, not to mention 5 000 Frenchmen, were soon counterattacking the Germans whenever a gap seemed to open in the defending lines. Furthermore, even though the Germans may have still outnumbered the defenders by two to one, the ANZAC Army’s artillery began to thunder down on the German’s positions, especially the beachheads, and caused murderous carnage.
By 16:00, after some ten hours of continuous fighting, the German generals had had enough as had the men under their command. In fact, just before the official withdrawal order had gone out to the two respective German corps, entire units had either surrendered, whenever possible, or had decided that it was time to withdraw regardless of orders. Oddly enough, even though Allied artillery hammered the Germans as they withdrew, the Australian divisions were too exhausted to offer any follow-up in pursuing the Germans as they tried to recross the Danube to the safety of the northern bank. Birdwood would later admit that he should have sent in his two cavalry divisions, in order to utterly annihilate the remnants of the two German corps, but felt at the time that it was not prudent under the circumstances. Considering what would come next, it was probably a wise decision. Still, in one day of fighting, the Germans had suffered over 40 000 casualties, whilst the Australians suffered over 10 000 and their French comrades around 1 000.
The Germans, however, had not given up. Not only did they still have two fresh corps remaining, although one had taken over the line from the Austrian corps, but 20 000 reinforcements had arrived from Germany: even if they were mostly boys no older than eighteen. Such was the predicament which Germany now found herself in, and yet still the Germans were determined, now more than ever, to fight on in order to ensure defeat was not an option. As a result, even if the results of phase two were bitterly disappointing, the Germans decided to have one more try at defeating the ANZAC Army. And again they would rely upon good planning and the element of surprise.
After their defeat on the 10th September, the German guns had gone quiet. It had been the first time in almost three weeks since Vienna and the neighbourhood had enjoyed such a respite. Birdwood, however, as did every soldier in the ANZAC Army, expected that such silence was the lull before the storm: that sooner or later another major attack would take place somewhere along the line. The problem was, though, where would the German attack take place. Annoyingly, the Germans did not offer any clues. It goes without saying it was a most unsettling time for Birdwood and his ANZACs.
The Germans, though, had been hurt hard on 10th September. But more importantly, the main reason behind the cessation of the artillery barrage, was they were low in stocks. As such, if the third phase was to go ahead, then the artillery stockpiles had to be drastically increased if the Germans wanted artillery support when their final major assault took place. Similarly, the entire 14th Austro-German army needed rest and reorganisation. In effect, this meant that the Austrian corps was taken out of reserve and replaced the German corps which had originally replaced it. Then, along with the other German corps in reserve, both corps were marshalled to the left of the ANZAC Army’s line in readiness for the coming assault.
Birdwood, meanwhile, was busy as well. Although he kept the same defensive positions as before, and his strategy had not overly altered, he did change one fundamental tactic for the forthcoming battle: one which probably meant the ultimate difference between victory and defeat. And that was the large artillery park which had be created thanks to combining all his division’s artillery into one huge battery. This decision was now reversed, so that each and every division got its respective artillery returned and, more to the point, placed in advantageous positions in order to sweep the Danube of any advancing Germans.
The silence of peace was finally broken on 1st October 1916 around Vienna. The dreaded German artillery barrage returned, but unlike before, it seemed that the entire line of the ANZAC Army was hit and no particular point was singled out for attention. This only furthered the frustration Birdwood had as he had no idea where to concentrate his army in order to counter any German moves. What was more, reports came in along the line suggesting the Germans may come on either his right, left, or indeed even at Vienna itself once more. It was not, however, until the morning of the 7th October that the German guns finally concentrated on the Australian 1st Division. And, within minutes, 100 000 German troops began crossing the Danube right at the Australian division in question.
Once more, the Germans had gotten a head start in these matters. Furthermore, unlike previously, the Germans did not wait for the accustomed softening up period. Instead the infantry immediately advanced whilst the job of the artillery was merely to mask their approach. However, unlike previously, the Australian 1st Division had its organic artillery units present from the start, which inevitably began to pound the Germans. Accurate rifle fire soon added to the maelstrom, which the Germans found themselves in, as did the sound of numerous machine guns.
Still the Germans continued onwards. First they managed to establish a secure beachhead, and then they marched onwards into the immediate Australian defensive locations. At this point, the Australians were outnumbered by 80 000 Germans. This meant that help was immediately required. It did not take Birdwood long to make this decision and the Australian Light Horse and the New Zealand Mounted divisions were ordered to stiffen the ranks of the 1st Division. However, there were no gallant cavalry charges. Instead the cavalry fought dismounted as infantry. In doing so a further 20 000 Allied soldiers joined the fight. Similarly, the Australian 2nd & 3rd divisions sent a brigade each, numbering around 8 000 troops overall. Thus, by 15:00 on the 7th October, some 43 000 ANZACs held back the Germans.
Unlike previously, though, the Germans did not start withdrawing in the face of stubborn Australian & New Zealander resistance. Instead they held onto their small beachhead, along with whatever else they had gained, and showed all the determination in the world to, not only defend their newly won positions to the death, but to continue their attacks as well. Furthermore, as they consolidated their positions, the German artillery soon changed its role of being in support of the German crossing, to attacking the ANZAC defensive positions facing the German beachhead. Consequently, the ANZAC defenders had to hug the ground as best as they could as the German shells came crashing down amongst them.
In a similar fashion, the ANZAC artillery also began to have a hard time of it as the Germans commenced counter-battery fire upon them. Thanks to various methods, from hot air balloons to German infiltrators, the battery’s of the 1st Australian, Light Horse, and Mounted divisions, all soon found themselves in a deadly game with their German counterparts who, it must be said, were better at the counter-battery duel than the ANZAC gunners on this day.
Birdwood was thus forced to make changes as the sun set on 7th October. The first was bringing in more artillery from elsewhere. As such few guns remained to cover the rest of his line. Although somewhat risky, considering the last German attack came simultaneously at opposite ends of his line, it seemed somewhat safe this time, nonetheless, considering the ferocity of the current attack wherein the Germans were apparently conducting a single point of attack strategy. But regardless of the pros and cons, Birdwood simply needed almost every gun he could get to foil the current attack. And secondly, Birdwood needed more troops. He got these by moving the entire 43rd British division, to the required location, along with a brigade from both the 4th and 5th Australian divisions. Accordingly a further 22 000 ANZAC Army troops would be ready for the next day of fighting.
The Germans did not disappoint the ANZACs on the morning of 8th October. However, instead of simply charging the trenches of the defenders, a huge artillery barrage hit them for an hour instead. This was hardly surprising, as these things go, and the actual damage done to the defenders was no where near as bad as the Germans had hoped. That, though, did not stop the 40 000 or so Germans who attacked at the appropriate time, at a particularly weak point, along foreshore of the Danube on their left. Unfortunately for the Germans, not only was the ANZAC artillery quick to pounce, but the staging area for the recent reinforcements, who had moved during the night, was not far behind where the Germans were attacking.
Consequently, even though the Germans gained their break in the ANZAC army’s line, which indeed caused some panic at army headquarters, Birdwood was quick to act thanks to his foresight the night before. Soon, at around Noon, as the Germans tried to exploit their breakthrough, the 22 000 troops, centred around the British 43rd Division, came crashing into the Germans surprising them completely. These ANZAC troops, who had had little sleep, due to their instant overnight march, had also, thanks to the initial German success, missed out on breakfast as well. It goes without saying that they were somewhat annoyed by the Germans and ensured that the Germans would pay for their indiscretion.
Within an hour of the counterattack of the 43rd Division, supported by the two Australian brigades, the Germans had been routed on their left. The survivors soon returned to their trenches, back at their morning’s starting points, and fought for their lives. German artillery, now alerted to the disaster on the German left, soon did to the Allies what they had done to the Germans on earlier occasions. Furthermore, although the attacking Allies may have numbered around 22 000 at first, the Germans opposing them, even allow for losses, still mounted to around 70 000. Considering their entrenched locations, supported by superior artillery, Birdwood called off the continuous attacks by the 43rd Division which now seemed more suicidal than anything else. What alarmed Birdwood even more so was the fact that, even though the counterattack was successful in repulsing the Germans, he had lost 10 000 troops in doing so.
The Germans, moreover, had not given up just yet. They still had 70 000 troops entrenched on the south side of the Danube, fully supported by artillery, and against an enemy force smaller in number. They wrongly believed, led by the almost successful breakthrough on 8th October, that one more major attack could achieve victory. Birdwood likewise suspected that the Germans, considering again they did not withdraw on the evening of 8th October, would attack again the next day. Ironically, thus, both sides planned for the ultimate showdown: one which could indeed decided the fate of the entire war. Hence at dawn the Germans launched their final assault.
Once more the Germans showed their cunning. On their right, this time, they had gathered some 35 000 troops who would attack in a similar way to how they did so the day before on their left. Again the area to be attacked was first saturated with German artillery from dawn onwards. But it was a brief barrage, timed so that the German infantry could charge across no-man’s land before the Australians could react. It probably would be fair to say that, like the day before, the Germans could have been successful had not Birdwood decided to reinforce this sector of his line with the entire 3rd Australian Division. Although it left a hole, in the ANZAC Army’s line further to the west, it was nevertheless a gamble worth waging. As it was the Germans were not in a position to exploit this gap anyway. Indeed they were never aware that it existed. As such, instead of the Germans running into a single brigade, they got a full division of irate Australians instead.
It goes without saying that the fighting, even if the Australians were greatly reinforced, was extremely desperate. Indeed the bayonet was used to maximum effect by both sides. But by the time the ANZAC artillery began to pound the Germans, the 3rd Division had already stopped them in their tracks. And, to add insult to injury, the Australians commenced, in the heat of battle whilst under sever pressure, local counterattacks themselves, against the Germans, whenever and wherever opportunity arose. In fact it was one such counterattack, led by the Australian 33rd Battalion, which was the last straw for the Germans. They had had more than enough. Hence, by around 13:00, the surviving Germans began their retreat back to their beachhead as best they could. It was clear that the ANZAC Army could not be broken. It was, though, a close run thing. If the Germans had had more men, such as those lost in their Invasion Army which had surrendered in Britain a few months before, then the ANZAC Army could have well been defeated, if not in fact annihilated.
Counting The Cost
By 10th October, the Germans had completed the evacuation of their beachhead fore it was correctly computed, considering the losses of the three days of constant combat, that it could not be defended. More importantly, the 60 000 or so Germans located there, could do far better work being deployed elsewhere. Although this meant that the 14th Austro-German army had suffered another major defeat, it nevertheless had no plans to go anywhere else for the moment. Instead its new orders were to hold the Danube Line, in order to ensure that the ANZAC Army could not launch a successful attack of its own, and thus threaten southern Germany in the process.
Yet the Germans need not have feared any major assault coming from the ANZAC Army as it was in no condition to launch one across the Danube. All of its divisions had suffered casualties as a result of the autumn fighting. Only the Indian and 52nd British Divisions were near full strength. Everyone else, meanwhile, were somewhere between 25 to 50 percent below authorised strength. Furthermore, due to the perfuse amount of ammunition used, during this period, each ANZAC soldier had only a mere 50 rounds each, on average, whilst the artillery had around ten shells per gun. Thus, before Birdwood could even contemplate an attack of his own, several months would have to go by as supplies and reinforcements arrived. This would eventually happen, but the focus of the Great War shifted elsewhere for the moment.
Hence the most significant thing to take place, as the ANZAC Army recovered its strength, was the declaration of war by Romania on the Central Powers in mid October 1916 as a consequence of the German defeat at Vienna. Soon, the Romanians ventured into disputed territory, currently then occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but inexplicably stopped their advance. It was a mistake, as the Austrians and Germans shifted anything which could be spared, to cover this new front, and soon the Romanians discovered that, instead of them having an easy time of it, it was they who began to suffer reverses. For the moment, though, from the Romanian perspective, they were not forced into head long retreat just yet, but they were haemorrhaging away nevertheless.
The Germans, noting that the Romanians were far from impressive with their military prowess, did not take long to seek troops, especially veterans, from wherever they could be spared. Thus, from the defensive lines around Vienna, the strongest of their remaining corps, even if battered and bruised from their encounters with the Australians, soon found itself transferred to the Romanian Front. This was a welcomed relief to the ANZAC Army, but it was far from a welcomed one for the Romanians who, in early December 1916 when the front lines elsewhere in the world were somewhat quiet, soon found themselves under heavy German attack. Indeed by Christmas, it is probably fair to say at one point, the war may have been all over for Romania.
Romania, however, would be saved thanks to the timely intervention of the Russian 4th Army. Russia, thanks to the opening of the Dardanelles to Allied shipping, due to the surrender of the Ottoman Empire in 1915, were able to use the Russian Black Sea ports to supply Mother Russia with much of her needs. As a result, Russia’s soldiers were well fed, well equipped, and although several of her generals could have been better, the armies of Russia were able to keep the Germans at bay most of the time, whilst the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire sometimes found themselves in trouble - especially of late.
Still, by Christmas 1916, the Romanians had the Russians to thank as a gloriously wrapped present, as the combined armies of Romania and Russia were able to stop the German advance at the Romanian border. Even though the disputed territories, which the Romanians had held briefly, were once more in their enemy’s hands, their own respective territory was secure for the moment.
And as the last major shots were being fired for the moment, at around Christmas 1916 with winter fast approaching, everyone soon sought refuge in winter quarters while contemplating their plans for the spring of 1917. Having said that, even in winter, some armies were already on the move...
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