The year 1916 began with a struggle which lasted for six long months to decide whether a certain little town in France should be captured by the Central Powers or remain in the hands of the French.
That little town was Verdun. It runs up the hill from the Meuse River to the cathedral built long before America was discovered. It is not far from the border-line between France and Germany, and after the Franco-Prussian War the French set to work to make it the strongest town in their country. It is much more than merely a "fortified town"; it is a wide area of land with fortified positions at every turn—not in plain view by any means, but concealed so cunningly that the sharpest eyes could not discover them. There are secret roads, mysterious gun-pits, where one would never think of looking for a gun, but so placed that one or another of them can command every approach. Underground there is a whole labyrinth of passageways, besides galleries, tunnels, winding staircases, and a great number of rooms for all purposes, well ventilated and lighted with electricity. One might be roaming about aboveground, thinking himself almost alone; but if an alarm was signaled, troops would suddenly spring up from cellars and caves in the rock and all sorts of unexpected places. Around Verdun are wooded hills, and they too have been skillfully fortified. All these are the older defenses. More recently trenches have been made in most intricate arrangement and wild entanglements of barbed wire have been placed.
This is the fortress that the Crown Prince of Germany strove for six months to capture. It was the military key to western France, and, like Constantinople, it had a great sentimental value. Then too, thrones are a bit uncertain in these days, and many people thought that the German Crown Prince was determined to strengthen his hold upon the German folk by so notable a conquest. However that may be, the military people of Verdun suspected early in the year that something was going to happen. Soldiers and guns were brought up in great numbers. There were attacks on the Allies here and there along the Western Front, and the Kaiser paid a visit to his troops. Moreover, there was a certain stir and restlessness which soldiers known how to interpret. In the later part of February the attack began, and it continued until almost the end of the year with now and then a lull of a few days.
The hero of Verdun was General Pétain, tall, slender, and inclined to be silent. Before the war he was a retired colonel. Joffre, however, has a way of finding out when people have anything in them, and he called him back to service. Twice he was promoted within a year, and the was put in command at Verdun. This was the silent man's opportunity, and he showed himself a genius in military strategy. The attack upon Verdun was carried on with ammunition in unlimited quantities and guns and men in unlimited numbers. The fighting as a whole was of the most terrible nature, with all the horrors of modern guns and modern explosives, but by the skill of the French general and the bravery of the French soldiers Verdun stood.
But what was England about that she did not come to the help of Verdun? That is what the fault-finders were asking. England was no "slacker." Within one week of the outbreak of war, she had sent 40,000 men across the Channel. Within one month 500,000 had enlisted; two months later, the sum was 1,000,000; and in three months from then, 500,000 more had joined the ranks. "As to the women," said the superintendent of one of the government factories, "I can tell you of a surgical-dressing factory near here, where for nearly a year the women never had a holiday. They simply would not take one. 'And what'll our men at the front do, if we go holiday-making?' they said." Just now England was hard at work on her plans and had no idea of explaining them to anybody. General Haig was in command, a canny Scot, with a charming manner but an expression that said, "I purpose to see this job through." He had been examining the lay of the land opposite the English front on the Somme River. He was quietly building roads and a railway, and before long motor trucks and caterpillar tractors were bringing guns, shells, barbed wire, howitzers, bombs, and hospital tents. Landscape painters were called upon to help in the camouflage, and airmen sailed aloft to see how well they had succeeded. One succeeded altogether too well, if we may trust the story, for he camouflaged so perfectly the van in which homing pigeons had been brought that on their return they did not recognize it.
The preparations for what is now called the battle of the Somme continued. At length the word was given, and on the morning of July 1 the struggle began, directed by General Haig and Marshal Joffre. It did not end until the November rains brought it to a close. Fighting went on furiously, frequently as severe as at Verdun. It was here that the Germans had their first experience of a great lumbering "tank," that roamed about like a gigantic caterpillar, but sent forth death and destruction in a fashion quite unlike caterpillars or anything else that the Germans had ever seen. Of course the commanders had hoped to break through the German lines and drive the invaders out of France. They had not done this, but they had kept large forces away from Verdun and had also made it possible for Russia to win a victory in the East.
During this year 1916 there were three especially important events in the history of the war. One was the siege of Verdun; one was the battle of the Somme; and the third was an engagement which took place in the North Sea on the last day of May, between the English and the German fleets.
During the war the English took the Orkney Islands for their naval base, and frequently they made "sweeps" through the North Sea. One afternoon in May, when the English cruisers were off the coast of Jutland, they met the German fleet, "spoiling for a fight." In the old stories of pirates a sea-fight was carried on by grappling two vessels together, the men of one boarding the other, and fighting hand to hand with swords and cutlasses and anything else that was convenient. In a modern naval battle the ships are miles apart, and the gunners would find swords and cutlasses somewhat in their way. All the afternoon the vessels of the two fleets fought, but the English kept an eye to the north, for Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, one hundred miles away, had been sent for by wireless. Just before six o'clock his fleet of battleships made their appearance. Twilight soon came on, and the rest of the fighting was done in the dark. The English had no idea of ceasing to fight, but they discovered that their enemies had slipped away. To follow them into their mine-strewn area would have been utter folly, so they waited till morning. The Germans hastened to publish it abroad that they had won a great victory; but in the morning, when the English were patrolling off Jutland, not a German vessel appeared, nor was the German fleet seen again till one day nearly three months later, when it showed itself in the North Sea. Luck was against it, for the English were there also, and the fleet withdrew. The English navy has a proud record. It has cleared the ocean of German craft, has practically ended German commerce, and has by its protection made the commerce of the Allies possible.
Several other countries had now entered the war. Portugal was bound by treaty to assist England if at any time her aid should be needed. She had other reasons for fighting Germany, however, for both countries had territory in Africa, and to make sure of her own possessions, Portugal had promptly attacked those of Germany. Early in 1916 she confiscated some German ships which lay in her harbors; and not many days later Germany declared war on the little country.
Italy had belonged to the Triple Alliance for thirty years; but in this time her relations with the Allies, and especially with France, had been growing more cordial, while her relations with the Central Powers had been growing less cordial. The cause of this was chiefly a question of territory. When the present kingdom of Italy was formed, in 1861, there was considerable territory which was inhabited by Italians, but had not become part of the new kingdom. Winning this from foreign control came to be called "redeeming Italy," and the Italian districts still remaining in the hands of Austria were spoken of as "Italia irredenta," or unredeemed Italy. These districts lay about Trieste and the Trentino, and the lay of the land was such that it would be comparatively easy for Austria to push down into Italy, and not at all easy for Italy to thrust herself up into Austria. Italy wanted these districts, but Austria held on to them. Moreover, Austria, supported by Germany, had violated the Treaty of Berlin and had already seized upon Bosnia and Herzegovina. If she also got possession of Serbia, she would be able to stretch still farther down the eastern side of the Adriatic. Austria had no idea of yielding, and in 1915 Italy declared war on her.
Italy's example was followed by her little friend San Marino, the oldest state in Europe, and the smallest republic in the world, for it contains only thirty-eight square miles. It looks upon Americans as its foster children, and declares proudly that the United States has adopted the Sammarinese form of Government. The independent little republic lies in the mountains about one hundred miles south of Venice, and near the eastern coast of Italy. It has been described as "a piece of land entirely surrounded by Italy." In 1916 Italy, but not San Marino, declared war on Germany.
The "Fronts" had become many. There was now an Italian Front, a Galician Front, and an Armenian Front, to say nothing of invasions and attacks in numerous other places.
Of course long before this, when the war was only a few months old, the Turks had set their eyes upon Egypt and the Suez Canal. Egypt is ruled by England, and the Suez Canal is of great importance to all nations that trade with the East, and especially to England. That is why the Turks determined to attack it. Aside from the question of fighting, this was rather a difficult task, for the Turks had to cross the Sinai Peninsula, which extends into the Red Sea, and carry their artillery and supplies with them. Moreover, there are no railroads on this peninsula. Nevertheless, they succeeded and launched their boats on the canal. It was night, but the English troops discovered them, and the Turks fled. Through 1916, they kept troops in sight of the canal as a threat, but the English also kept troops there and were ready at any moment to defend the canal if necessary.
Things were particularly active near the Caucasus Mountains, to which the Grand Duke Nicholas had been sent after his disagreement with the Czar. Southwest of Caucasia is Armenia, a part of Turkey in Asia. The Armenians have for hundreds of years been oppressed by the Turks. During the last quarter of a century there have been at least three savage attempts, which the Turkish Government either planned or connived at, to destroy the whole race. In 1915 came the most terrible persecution of all. Thousands of Armenians were slaughtered on the spot. Other thousands were driven from their homes out into the deserts of Arabia, where starvation and exhaustion and the brutality of their merciless guards ended their lives. So far as the Turks gave any excuse for this barbarous act, it was that the Armenians would aid the Russians. During the earlier massacres England, France, and Russia had threatened and protested and had at length brought Turkey to terms. In this, the most terrible massacre of all, there was only one country that could have stopped her—Germany. And Germany said not a word.
When the Allies gave up the attempt to capture Constantinople and their troops moved away, the Grand Duke knew very well that some of the Turks would come at once to fight his Russian army in Armenia. He had been planning an attack upon two important cities in Armenia, Erzerum and Trebizond; and now he hastened to make the attack before the coming of the Turks from Gallipoli.
The Grand Duke had the advantage of a railroad which would land his supplies only eighty miles from Erzerum; but the Turks had a hard time getting theirs, for their nearest railroad was four hundred and forty miles from Erzerum. It would have been simple and easy if the Black Sea had been open to them, but that was in the hands of the Russians, and the Russians were decidedly successful in sinking ships. The Russians captured Erzerum with its guns and ammunition and stores of all sorts. A little later they took Trebizond. The Grand Duke had made a fine record for himself in Armenia.
The Russians had been driven out of Germany and Galicia and they had lost Poland; but they held a line from the Gulf of Riga to the border of Rumania. They had had a busy winter, and they had brought together a vast amount of ammunition. They planned a drive into Galicia, and they made it, for they captured Czernovitz, a city which they had taken in 1914, but had been obliged to surrender; then took one place after another, successful in whatever they attempted and taking thousands of Austrian prisoners. Russia was in her glory.
While the Grand Duke was capturing towns in Armenia, the English were attacking the Turks in Mesopotamia, or the country between the rivers, the place where some people think the Garden of Eden was situated. Late in 1914 the English with troops from India had sailed up the Persian Gulf and defeated the Turks near the head of the Gulf. They hoped to get possession of Baghdad, the city of the Arabian Nights, and the place which Germany planned to make the terminus of her railroad. They now came within about one hundred miles of the city of many stories, but when they had reached the little Arab village of Kut-el-Amara, the Turks surrounded them and settled down comfortably to starve them out. The native Arabs tried their best to leave the town, but "the more, the hungrier," reasoned the Turks, and drove them back. The besieged troops were not strong enough to make a sortie. Sickness appeared among them, and the medicines gave out. English aeroplanes dropped into the village, not bombs, but 1800 pounds of food; but this did not last long when there were so many starving people to eat it. An expedition sent out for their relief had to turn back; and soon the Turks were rejoicing over a surrender.
Waging war on the Italian Front was no easy matter. Indeed, the Italians have struggled under greater difficulties than any other nation. Their line of trenches is longer than the whole Western Front; and many of these trenches have been dug out of snow and ice or blasted out of solid rock. In the valleys the Italians have fought in a burning heat, in the lowlands they have fought in water up to their waists. The Italian mountaineers, the wonderful Alpini, are not only experts on skis, but they know how to drive iron pegs into rocky walls and so clamber up precipices. They can make their barracks in caverns of ice, and more than once sudden storms have shut them up on their mountain peaks from December to April.
In the struggle for Trieste the Austrians quietly brought their troops from Russia to Trent, and collected supplies and ammunition in that place. They had the great advantage of being on high land, while the Italians were on low land. Suddenly the Austrians attacked their adversaries with heavy bombardment and drove them back to their frontier. General Cadorna was now made commander-in-chief. His plans did not include retreating, and before long he pushed forward, and now it was the turn of the Austrians to retreat. The Italians drove onward, and soon did part of what they had wanted to do, they captured Gorizia, thirteen miles from Trieste, and detachments of Italian cavalry entered the city in triumph with the King of Italy at their head. But they had only begun to carry out their plans. Trieste, the port that they had longed for, was so near that they hoped to push on and capture it. But the winter came upon them and the fulfillment of their hopes was delayed.
Rumania had been hesitating whether to join Germany or the Allies. She knew just what she wanted, and she was trying to select the winning side so as to get it. Like Serbia, she wanted to bring under one rule all neighboring people of her blood.
The Russians, her next-door neighbors, had been meeting with much success, and the Germans had not succeeded in taking Verdun; therefore she decided to join the Allies. Many Rumanians lived in Transylvania, just across the Hungarian border. Poor Rumania did not stop to consider what her allies were doing, or whether she was planning the wisest course that could be taken; she dashed across the border into Transylvania so suddenly that the Austria-Hungarian forces retreated before her. Then came fierce counter-attacks under Generals Von Mackensen and Von Falkenhayn. The Russians had come to Rumania, but they were in the extreme southeast of the land. The full force of a terrible drive came upon the little country. Early in December the Central Powers captured Bucharest, the Rumanian capital, and imposed upon its people a tax amounting to $380 a head. Straight through the land they went, from Hungary to the Black Sea; they had won rich wheat-fields and oil-lands. Little Montenegro, too, had been overcome, and King Nicholas had departed for France. Neutral countries had been shown what fate would befall them if they ventured to oppose the Central Powers.
This was the story of the year 1916. It was as a whole favorable to the Allies. They had had the advantage at Verdun, on the Somme, in Armenia, and on the sea. On the other hand, the expedition to Mesopotamia was a failure and Rumania had been crushed.
The Italian Front.