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The western, eastern, Italian fronts in the latter half of 1915

A German Fokker Eindecker taking off from an airfield.

A German Fokker Eindecker taking off from an airfield.

At the same time as the Gallipoli campaign was being fought, the Allies, particularly Britain, France and their imperial troops, were fighting on the western front, trying to hold the German advance and also recapturing lost territory. There were several Maltese individuals who volunteered to serve in this theatre of war and other fronts.

Kurt Wintgens was involved in the first successful aerial engagement in a Fokker M.5K-MG E.5-15 Fokker Eindecker aircraft fitted with a synchronised machine gun in July 1915.Kurt Wintgens was involved in the first successful aerial engagement in a Fokker M.5K-MG E.5-15 Fokker Eindecker aircraft fitted with a synchronised machine gun in July 1915.

The Italians fought a number of battles to try to break out of the Isonzo front, but all failed to achieve their aim. On the other hand, by the end of September 1915, Russian troops were driven out of Poland and Galicia.

In Malta, an examination battery was built on Wardija ridge to identify shipping sailing off St Paul’s Bay on their way to Grand Harbour.

On July 13, 1915, the German offensive in Meuse-Argonne came to an end. Between July and August 1915, the ‘Fokker Scourge’ began on the western front, and ended in early 1916, with the arrival in numbers of the Allied Nieuport 11 and DH.2 fighters.

German pilots achieved air supremacy using the highly effective Fokker Eindecker monoplane fighter aircraft of the Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Flying Corps). The aircraft featured a synchronised machine gun that fired bullets through the spinning propeller. Although the technology was pioneered by French pilot Roland Garros, the Germans copied and improved the synchronised gun idea after capturing his plane.

The German line could not be broken, and after the end of the battle the front lines on this peak remained static, and only a few yards apart in places, for the rest of the war

In July 1915, the French carried out an offensive, which resulted in the Battle of Le Linge, which was fought for almost three months from July 20 to October 15, 1915.

By this time the Germans had reinforced their lightly-held positions by constructing an impregnable fortress of tunnels, trenches and bunkers hewn either out of the rock or supplemented by reinforced concrete. The German line could not be broken, and after the end of the battle the front lines on this peak remained static, and only a few yards apart in places, for the rest of the war.

A French attack launched on July 22 failed because of ill-functioning artillery. Photo: <a href="http://pierreswesternfront.punt.nl.">http://pierreswesternfront.punt.nl.</a>A French attack launched on July 22 failed because of ill-functioning artillery. Photo: http://pierreswesternfront.punt.nl.

French soldiers awaiting orders to leave their trench. Photo: Purnell&rsquo;s History of the First World WarFrench soldiers awaiting orders to leave their trench. Photo: Purnell’s History of the First World War

In the autumn of 1915 the French and British armies carried out a second large-scale, two-pronged offensive against the German positions, which resulted in the Second Champagne Offensive from September 25 to November 6, 1915, which had the objective of forcing the German 3rd and 5th armies in the Argonne sector to withdraw along the Meuse River towards Belgium.

A simultaneous attack by French and British forces from Vimy Ridge to La Bassée resulted in the Third Battle of Artois from September 25 to October 11, 1915, aimed to break through the German front in Artois.

The Artois offensive witnessed the first use of a gas cloud weapon by the British army on the western front at the Battle of Loos from September 25 to October 18, 1915. The French managed to get onto the dominating Vimy Ridge but did not succeed in pushing the Germans off it.

Scottish soldiers marching into battle at Loos. Photo: Purnell&rsquo;s History of the First World WarScottish soldiers marching into battle at Loos. Photo: Purnell’s History of the First World War

The British attack achieved some success north of Loos, and by the end of the first day they had passed through Loos village and reached the outskirts of the industrial town of Lens.

Meanwhile, on the Italian front, just 11 days after the First Battle of the Isonzo, fought between June 23 and July 7, 1915, had ended in failure, Italian chief of staff Luigi Cadorna started another offensive operation. For this second bout, however, he took note of the Italians’ manifest lack of artillery strength and had taken steps to boost artillery availability.

The Austro-Hungarians were commanded by Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna. The Second Battle of the Isonzo was fought from July 18 to August 3, 1915, but achieved little more than the first, other than to increase casualties.

The Italian 2nd and 3rd armies made a number of small gains in Carso following two days of often hand-to-hand fighting from July 18, but were unable to maintain forward position gains around Gorizia.

The Gorz area of the eastern bank of the Isonzo under Italian artillery attack. Photo: Purnell&rsquo;s History of the First World WarThe Gorz area of the eastern bank of the Isonzo under Italian artillery attack. Photo: Purnell’s History of the First World War

Some two-and-a-half months later, the Third Battle of the Isonzo, fought between October 18 and November 3, 1915, like the two earlier battles, lasted around two weeks before once again being called off in failure. The main target of this attack was again Gorizia.

Aside from the main attack on Gorizia, Cadorna ordered attacks to be carried out to secure Austro-Hungarian bridgeheads at Plezzo and Tolmino. Additional offensives were launched at Plava and on the Carso at San Michele. The result was the same, which ended in a costly repulse and complete failure, with the Austro-Hungarians in command of the mountains beyond the river.

By the end of the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo the Italians had penetrated a few miles into the Austro-Hungarian sector. Casualties on both sides were severe

The Fourth Battle of the Isonzo, fought from November 10 to December 2, 1915, lasted longer than the two-week average to date, until called off in failure by Cadorna after a little over three weeks.

Essentially a continuation of the third battle, fighting was chiefly concentrated around Gorizia and on the Carso, although subsidiary fighting continued along the Isonzo line.

The Germans used pontoons to ferry troops across rivers, regardless of whether there were bridges. Photos: Purnell&rsquo;s History of the First World WarThe Germans used pontoons to ferry troops across rivers, regardless of whether there were bridges. Photos: Purnell’s History of the First World War

By the end of the Fourth Battle of the Isonzo the Italians had penetrated a few miles into the Austro-Hungarian sector. Casualties on both sides were severe. Since October, the Italians had suffered a further 115,000 casualties and the Austro-Hungarians 72,000.

On the eastern front, on July 13, 1915, a combined Austro-Hungarian-German offensive began against the Russians in northern Poland, with the former advancing toward Warsaw. The Russian army was weakened due to chronic supply shortages and low morale. On August 5, 1915, Warsaw was taken by Austro-Hungarian-German troops. The fall of Warsaw ended a century of Russian control of the city.

A German soldier being treated for the effects of inhaling poison gas during the Battle of Loos. Photo: Purnell&rsquo;s History of the First World WarA German soldier being treated for the effects of inhaling poison gas during the Battle of Loos. Photo: Purnell’s History of the First World War

After taking Warsaw, the Austro-Hungarian-Germans moved on to capture Ivangorod, Kovno, Brest-Litovsk, Bialystok, Grodno, and Vilna. By the end of September 1915, Russian troops were driven out of Poland and Galicia, back to the original lines from which they had begun the war in 1914.

On September 5, 1915, Russian Czar Nicholas II took personal command of the Russian army, hoping to rally his faltering troops. However, during the Austro-Hungarian-German offensives in Galicia and Poland, the Russian army suffered over 1,400,000 casualties and 750,000 were captured.

By October 1915, after a series of escapes from the salients the Germans had systematically created and then sought to cut off, the Russian retreat came to a definite halt along a line running from the Baltic Sea just west of Riga southward to Czernowitz on the Romanian border.

The cause of the reverses suffered by the Russian army was not so much errors in tactics, but the deficiency of its technical equipment, particularly in artillery and ammunition, as well as the corruption and incompetence of Russian officers. Only by 1916 did build-up of Russian war industries increase the production of war material and improve the supply situation.

A panoramic view of St Paul&rsquo;s Bay from Wardija Ridge.A panoramic view of St Paul’s Bay from Wardija Ridge.

Construction of the Wardija examination battery

In October 1914 it was decided that St Paul’s Bay should be made an examination anchorage and therefore there was need for an examination battery.

An artistic impression of Wardija examination battery. Photo: Stephen C. SpiteriAn artistic impression of Wardija examination battery. Photo: Stephen C. Spiteri

The six-inch QF guns at Wolseley Battery had previously been out of the approved armament for several years. It was agreed that the two guns should be moved from the battery to St Paul’s Bay.

Between November 30, 1915, and December 10, 1915, No 1 Company Royal Malta Artillery (RMA) dismounted the guns and moved them to gun position 6W at the eastern end of Wardija Ridge.

On December 31, 1915, it was designated at Wardija Battery and remained in service during the whole of the war. It was allocated to, and under command of, Western Section Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA).

The examination batteries were responsible for firing ‘bring to’ rounds in front of ships that were not obeying the sea traffic regulations laid down. One such incident occurred on December 9, 1915, when the Italian ship Letimbro approached Grand Harbour during the official hours of night and a warning shot was fired well in front of the ship; it was later allowed to proceed.

(Concluded)

Charles Debono is curator at the National War Museum.

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