Friday, February 27, 2015

This Day in World War 1 History: Feb 27, 1916: Austrians occupy Durazzo in Albania

After completing their conquest of Serbia and Montenegro, the Austro-Hungarian army turns its attentions toward Albania, occupying the coastal city of Durazzo on the Adriatic Sea on February 27, 1916.

Durazzo, also known as Durres, had served as an important port in the region since the 5th century, when it was part of the Roman empire. After an invasion by the Ottomans at the end of the 14th century, many Albanians immigrated to Italy; a majority of those who stayed behind converted to Islam.

The end of the 19th century saw an explosion of nationalist fervor in Albania and a number of revolts against Ottoman rule. The country's neighbors, Serbia and Greece, were poised to divide up Albania between them after the withdrawal of the Turks. Not wanting this to happen, the Great Powers of Europe—Germany, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary and Russia—appointed a special commission to set the boundaries of post-Ottoman Albania, in the process stripping the country of 40 percent of its population and more than half its territory, including Kosovo (which became part of Serbia) and Cameria (which went to Greece).

Despite having previously recognized Albanian independence, the Great Powers also appointed a German prince, Wilhelm of Wied, as the country's ruler. Just months after Prince Wilhelm's arrival, in March 1914, World War I broke out in Europe, and the prince was forced to flee Albania in the face of strong local opposition.

Albania soon became a battleground for the Allies and Central Powers in the Great War. In 1915, Durres was occupied by the Italians, who called it Durazzo. As the armies of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, stormed through the Balkans, taking control of both Serbia and Montenegro, thousands of Serbs sought escape through Albania, where the Italians and other Allies helped them evacuate to the island of Corfu, in the Adriatic Sea, where the Serbian provisional government was established.

On the verge of the Austrian invasion of Durazzo, Italian forces killed some 900 mules and donkeys before evacuating the town; Durazzo's Albanian inhabitants fled en masse as well. The leader of Albania, Essad Pasha, moved to Naples and set up a provisional Albanian government. Austria would occupy Durazzo until the end of the war, in late 1918.

At Versailles, the country's fate was again in the hands of other European powers. Albania appealed to the victorious Allies, especially the United States, to preserve their independence in the face of claims from Serbia, Montenegro, Italy and Greece. After much haggling, Albania was admitted to the newly formed League of Nations in 1920 as an independent state, with its borders virtually the same as they had been before the war.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

This Day in World War 1 History: Feb 26, 1917: President Wilson learns of Zimmermann Telegram

In a crucial step toward U.S. entry into World War I, President Woodrow Wilson learns of the so-called Zimmermann Telegram, a message from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador to Mexico proposing a Mexican-German alliance in the event of a war between the U.S. and Germany.

On February 24, 1917, British authorities gave Walter Hines Page, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, a copy of the Zimmermann Telegram, a coded message from Zimmermann to Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to Mexico. In the telegram, intercepted and deciphered by British intelligence in late January, Zimmermann instructed his ambassador, in the event of a German war with the United States, to offer significant financial aid to Mexico if it agreed to enter the conflict as a German ally. Germany also promised to restore to Mexico the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The State Department promptly sent a copy of the Zimmermann Telegram to President Wilson, who was shocked by the note's content and the next day proposed to Congress that the U.S. should start arming its ships against possible German attacks. Wilson also authorized the State Department to publish the telegram; it appeared on the front pages of American newspapers on March 1. Many Americans were horrified and declared the note a forgery; two days later, however, Zimmermann himself announced that it was genuine.

The Zimmermann Telegram helped turn the U.S. public, already angered by repeated German attacks on U.S. ships, firmly against Germany. On April 2, President Wilson, who had initially sought a peaceful resolution to World War I, urged immediate U.S. entrance into the war. Four days later, Congress formally declared war against Germany.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

This Day in World War 1 History: Feb 25, 1916: German troops capture Fort Douaumont (Verdun)

On February 25, 1916, German troops seize Fort Douaumont, the most formidable of the forts guarding the walled city of Verdun, France, four days after launching their initial attack. The Battle of Verdun will become the longest and bloodiest conflict of World War I, lasting 10 months and resulting in over 700,000 total casualties.

In February 1916, the walls of Verdun were defended by some 500,000 men stationed in two principal fortresses, Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux. The Germans, commanded by Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, sent 1 million men against the city, hoping for a decisive victory on the Western Front that would push the Allies towards an armistice. The first shot was fired on the morning of February 21. By the end of that first day, the Germans had captured only the front-line trenches, much less progress than they had hoped to make. They pushed on, however, and by February 23 had advanced two miles and captured 3,000 French soldiers with the help of a lethal new weapon, the flammenwerfer, or flamethrower. By February 24, the Germans had overrun the second line of French trenches and taken another 10,000 prisoners, forcing the French defenders to within eight kilometers of the city itself. Forts Douaumont and Vaux, however, had managed to hold out.

Douaumont was a massive structure, protected by two layers of concrete over a meter thick, and surrounded by a seven-meter-deep moat and 30 meters of barbed wire. When it fell on February 25 to the German 24th Brandenburg Infantry Regiment with the kaiser on hand to deliver his personal congratulations, German jubilation was matched only by the French army’s shock and sadness.

From that point on, Verdun became a cause the French command could not abandon: public sentiment demanded the recapture of the symbolic stronghold. If the German army under Falkenhayn was committed to “bleed the French white,” with little thought to minimizing its own losses, the French army, under Phillipe Petain, was equally determined that the enemy would not pass at Verdun.

The battle stretched on and on, with devastating casualties on both sides. As German resources were diverted to fight the British at the Somme and the Russians on the Eastern Front, French forces gradually regained much of the ground they had lost. Fort Douaumont was recaptured on October 24, 1916; Fort Vaux on November 2. Barely six weeks later, on December 18, German commander Paul von Hindenburg (who had replaced Falkenhayn in July) finally called a halt to the German attacks, ending the Battle of Verdun after 10 months and a total of over 200,000 lives lost.