Escalation At Sea – Russia Up Against the Wall I THE GREAT WAR – Week 56

The Russians had been retreating from two
Austro-German offensives for months and had even lost Warsaw, which they had controlled
since the time of Napoleon. That was a bitter pill to swallow, but not as bitter as the
one this week. This week, the Russians lost the mighty fortress city of Kovno. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week the Germans launched zeppelin air
raids on the British coast, killing civilians. The German navy tried to attack Riga but was
driven off by the Russians, but was bombing the crap out of Kovno with howitzers with
a range of 14 kilometers. At Gallipoli, the British forces were driven from Chunuk Bair
by the heroism of Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal and their own blunders, and the western front
remained relatively quiet. Of course, relatively quiet means just relative
to the other fronts. There were still attacks, counter attacks, snipers, and artillery barrages
every day. Here’s a story from the western front I got from Martin Gilbert’s “The
First World War” that illustrates the “lighter side” of the war there: On August 16th, the diary of Captain F. Hitchcock
notes that his trenches were inspected that day by his Brigadier-General, who said that
the battalion had done a splendid job, but he objected to a German soldier’s leg that
was sticking out of the parapet. The General told Hitchcock to remove it. Hitchcock wrote,
“I called Finnegan and told him to remove the offending limb. As it would have meant
pulling down the whole parapet to bury it, he took up a shovel and slashed at it with
the sharp edge of the tool. After some hard bangs he managed to sever the limb… I turned
away (and)… overheard Finnegan remarking to another man: “And what the bloody hell
will I hang me equipment on now?” As you can well imagine, much of the trench
humor was of that black character. But there was nothing funny about the British situation
on another trench filled front. At Gallipoli, on August 14th, British Secretary
of State for War Lord Herbert Kitchener read General Sir Ian Hamilton’s reports about
last week’s Allied landings at Suvla Bay, and was seriously pissed off by the commanders’
failure to advance in the early stages of the mission, and at some of the weaknesses
revealed- for example, the Welsh 53rd Division landed with no artillery, no stores, and only
one field ambulance. Kitchener even wrote to Winston Churchill about it: “I am taking
steps to having these generals replaced by real fighters.” Two days later, one Corps
commander and two divisional generals were relieved of command. Churchill’s brother Jack, who was on Hamilton’s
staff, wrote about the men, though, “they are not cowards…It is partly on account
of their training. They have never seen a shot fired before. For a year they have been
soldiers and during that time have been taught only one thing, trench warfare. They have
been told to dig everywhere and have been led to expect an enemy at 100 yards… they
have learnt to regard an advance of 100 yards as a matter of the greatest importance…
they landed and advanced half a mile and thought they had done something wonderful… they
seemed not to know what to do… they showed extraordinary ignorance.” This week there was again an allied attack
from Suvla Bay. They drove the Ottomans back for eight hours, but the counterattack pushed
them right back to their starting positions. Just the same thing; over and over again. And quite near Gallipoli, in the Aegean Sea,
the transport Royal Edward sank on the 14th, drowning 1,865 men, but there was a lot more
activity at sea this week. On August 19th, the White Star Liner “Arabic”
was torpedoed en route to New York, killing 44 people, including 3 Americans. This nearly
prompted a diplomatic incident, but new German orders that passenger ships would only be
sunk after warning them and saving their passengers and crew, known as “The Arabic Pledge”
prevented that. But also this week, the German sub U-27 shelled
and stopped the cargo steamer Nicosian, which was bringing mules from New Orleans to England,
right? Then a British armored ship, the Baralong, came up flying the American flag and pretending
to be an American merchant ship. It had on board two concealed guns and a platoon of
Royal Marines. They suddenly lowered the flag, raised British colors and opened fire on the
sub. 12 of the sub’s crew jumped into the water and when the Marines opened fire on
them, six were killed. The other six reached the Nicosian and tried to take refuge but
they were hunted down and killed by the marines and their bodies were thrown overboard. The
German Ambassador in Washington protested the use of the American flag to murder German
sailors. The German surface fleet saw some action this
week. On the 18th, attacking the entrance to the Gulf of Riga, they were met with unexpected
Russian skill. The Germans were forced to retire after losing two cruisers and eight
torpedo boats. The Russians lost only one gunboat. The following day, a German landing
force at Perna u was destroyed by the Russians, and on the 20th, the Germans did manage to
penetrate the Gulf, but were forced to retire, the landings failed. However, the German failure at sea in the
Baltic paled in comparison to the success on land there. Kovno, one of the great symbols of Russian
military might, fell to the Germans on the 17th, after being under attack for a couple
of weeks. This was not just an immense blow to Russian pride, but a physical bounty for
the Germans. Not only did all roads and railways connection Russian and Germany pass through
the city, but the Germans captured 1,365 big guns and 853,000 shells. The Russian commander
of the fortress, General Grigoriev, fled before the Germans arrived, and had failed to blow
up the only railway tunnel between Ostend and Petrograd, did not blow the bridge over
the Niemen River, and actually left the fortress without telling his chief of staff. He was
court-martialed and sentenced to eight years hard labor. In addition to the guns and shells, another
of the spoils of victory was this: several million tins of preserved meat were found
in the fortress- this was the main Russian front line supply. This week, like pretty much every week for
the Russians lately, was bad along the whole eastern front. On the 15th, the Russian line at Bransk was
broken and 5,000 Russians were taken prisoner. On the 17th, the fortress of Novo-Georgievsk,
with 90,000 Russians inside was bombarded furiously and its outlying forts captured.
That day the Chelm-Brest-Litovsk railway line was cut, and two days later, the mighty fortress
of Novo-Georgievsk surrendered and the Russian army lost those 90,000 men, including officers,
as prisoners of war. Now, that was on the 19th, but on the 17th
(Gilbert) the total number of Russian POWs in German camps was 726,694 and in Austrian
camps 699,254, for a total of 1,425,848 prisoners. The 90,000 from Novo-Georgievsk would push
that to over 1.5 million. In case you were wondering how this compared to the other allies.
The Germans held 330,00 British, French, and Belgians combined. A fifth of the number of
Russians. As you may imagine, conditions in the camps
could be inhumane. Actually, this month at the camp in Wittenberg, typhus had become
so widespread that the administration abandoned the camp. Yep, they left, and there were 15,000
Russian, British, and French prisoners inside. The just surrounded them with a big perimeter
fence backed by machine guns and attack dogs. And one final note for the week: on August
20th, Italy formally declared war on the Ottoman Empire. And the week comes to an end. With the Russians loosing all along the eastern front but beating back the Germans at sea. The Germans sank
a liner with American passengers aboard, complained that the British duped them by fighting under
an American flag. and abandoned the prisoners in a POW camp to disease. The Allies realized
that Gallipoli was unwinnable with the current leadership and tactics, and it was business
as usual in the west. A million and a half Russian prisoners. The
loss of Warsaw, Lemberg, Przemysl, and now both Kovno and Novo-Georgievsk in the same
week. Four months of constant retreat. Government officials being accused of treason. Revolutionary
fever in the ranks of the demoralized troops. By this time, the Russian army was down to
fewer than four million men (Strachan), but you know- and I know- that this had happened
before with Napoleon and would again with Hitler, and I think we are all aware that
inflicting catastrophic losses on Russia does not cause Russia to surrender, and in August
1915, the Germans were becoming very aware of that. Hopes for a peace with Russia were
receding even as they took more and more land, and Russian shell production doubled between
May and July and would soon top one million shells per month. Perhaps Wallace Shawn was
right in “the Princess Bride” when he said the number one classic blunder was, “never
wage a land war in Asia”. Just immagine how the Czar must have felt
during this time, he who considered himself the sole ruler of Russia which was now hanging
in dire straits. His fate is generally very much connected with the Great War and the
fate of Russia in the 20th century. You can find out all about him in our portrait right
here. Our Patreon supporter of the week is angrysquirrel.
Thank you angrysquirrel for your support. If you want more special episodes and more
awesome animations, consider supporting us on Patreon. Don’t forget to subscribe, see you next

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Reader Comments

  1. Tomartyr

    So from what I've been reading on the 12th and 17th of August Short Admiralty Type 81 floatplanes, operating from the HMS Ben-My-Chree, performed the first successful aerial torpedo attack in combat.
    The Ben-My-Chree itself was a packet steamer, converted to a seaplane carrier, from the Isle of Man. The name means "Woman of My Heart" in Manx.

  2. Исмаил Габриелян

    Where is the Battlr of Osovietz, or atack of deathmen? you just talk about hou russia surrends, but not about hero moments.

  3. HohesHaus

    Since you canceled the German version just to focus on the English version, it would be nice if you could add at least German subtitles to these videos

  4. andy lowe

    I know it's war and propoganda is vital… But seriously how hypocritical could Germany be?

    'How dare you use another countries flag to trick our sailors, now sit there and die in your trenches as we gas and burn you alive.' It almost sounds like a black adder sketch but for the Germans.

    Never mind the fact that they did it before for the Ottomans, the atrocities commited by Germans throughout this war far far surpass anything done by the British (at least up to this point).

  5. Kalev Nurk

    There is no place name called Perna on the shores of Gulf of Riga, other than that amusing pronouncement error the series is really great. 🙂

  6. Carles Vera

    One of the best chapters made since the beginning of the show (yes, I'm following and I will keep up until the end!)

    It is interesting how tactical success does not lead to the strategic goals. Russia, even at their lowest, would still a nightmare for the Germans (but the revolution changed the game)

  7. Jared Jams

    So some people say you’ll do a WWII series on its 80th anniversary. What will call that one? The other Great War? The Great War II? The Second Great War? The Other Great War? I think The Second Great War is the best out of those, but it’s up to ya!

  8. Hellomynamesolly

    Hi, duch an informative channel you have here. I have made a large portion of my BAT donation this month to your channel. I don't know if you are aware of BAT, if not you definitely should be as you will have some crypto currency waiting to be claimed.

  9. Miisa Tähkänen

    It is interesting to think of the countries under Russia such as Poland, Lithuania or Finland taking sides. Every option they have is bad, but which is worse…

  10. Keith Ouderkirk

    i remember being taught in school that the sinking of boats with USA passengers on them was a big reason that USA went to war. However, i think anyone that boarded a boat heading to Europe from the USA was an idiot. i mean who plans a trip to a war zone.

    the big thing is the Brits approaching German Ships flying the USA flag only to change flags and attack. Once this was done, from a military point of view, it gives Germany a valid reason to fire on every ship with a USA flag on it. after Germany starts doing this, and its out of self defense, i would be way more pissed at the Brits then Germany. if not for Germany trying to get Mexico to attack the USA to keep them out of the war, i might have been more inclined to fight with Germany then against them.

  11. Jens Raevald

    Hi, there is a mistake. 4:47 – There weren´t any German landing near Pernau (Pärnu). Just some silly Russian colonels imagined it and declared victory to Petrograd. But one of these silly colonels were brother of the chairman in State Duma – Rodzjanko. Also in Pernau episode Russians found it is wise to explode one factory in town – which was economical rival of important Russian businessmen but belonged to ..German capital. But German navy never landed any men nearby there.

  12. Кристиан Калмар

    On the 16th of August Kingdom of Serbia was offered a London Contract in wich Serbia is to forfeit a Macedonian land east of river Vardar to Bulgaria and abandon teritorial aspirations towards Banat ( wich should be given to Romania) for those two states entering the war in the side of the Antante. Ofc Serbia was offered a lot of teritroy of Austro-Hungary after the war has been won. Srem, Backa,Bosnia and Herzegovina middle and south Dalmatia, North of Albania and maybe even Baranja if war situation goes well. So Alies offered a Great Serbia, but Serbs refused for the idea of Yugoslavia which history had shown was a terrible mistake.

  13. Otto VonBearsmark

    3:55 so the Germans try to play by the rules and get tricked and shown no mercy. People really still wonder why they just went unrestricted?!?

  14. Jackson George

    American flag

    Germans: Oh it is just anozher ein of zose Amerikan ships.

    American flag lowers and British flag is raised while the British anthem blasts from a radio


  15. MrBoerdt

    I had learned that German U Boot Kaptains showed their boats to unarmed vessels and gave the sailors time to abandon ship, then sank it by cannon-fire. After they have been shot by (hidden) armed merchand ships (Q-Ships) they gave up that nobility and sank them submerged and killed the men. That escalated to the Lusitania catastrophe. I think it was in a documentray about the Lusitania.

  16. Rusty Shackleford

    Soon as he said Princess Bride I knew what was coming. "…the first is never wage a land war in Asia, but only slightly less known; never go up against a Sicilian when DEATH IS ON THE LINE!"

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