REDUX: Place In The Sun: What If Italy Joined The Central Powers?

You mean

Veeenitee adoreeeeeeeemus Veeenitee adoreeeeeeeeeeeeeemus Vennite adoreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeemuuuuuuuusssss

I can't wait for Christmas Eve Mass
Me neither. Given that it falls on a Sunday this year, my Pastor has an eighteen-hour day to look forward to, but it will be beautiful in spite of that.
Chapter XXVI- Setting Up For Failure

Chapter XXVI

Setting Up For Failure

Colonel Lucien Chanaris had sent Robert Nivelle a one-word telegram after being refused permission to surrender: Nivelle's response after the last defenders of Verdun stepped into captivity was much hotter. Whereas Petain had always maintained military discipline and professionalism at headquarters, Nivelle thundered at his adjutant, unloading his fiery opinion of Lucien Chanaris and all the traitors who "chose to follow him to Berlin instead of ascending into glory, and thereby cancelled out their heroic deeds!" Nivelle's plan to liberate the city had been perfect: hold the flanks and keep advancing, but it had assumed the remnants of the Second Army would stay in Verdun and tie at least a portion of the Germans down. Now, his men were going to have to do twice the work.

Political pressure complicated Nivelle's task- though it is hard to feel sympathy for him, as he only had this job due to political pressure heaped on his far more capable predecessor. Philippe Petain retained command of Army Group Centre, and by extension, responsibility for the Verdun front, while Joseph Joffre held sway over every man in the French Army. Chanaris' betrayal had made his job far harder than it ought to have been: every day Verdun remained under German occupation was an affront to the nation. Rather than wait to build up the twelve divisions transferred from Italy into a force capable of striking at the Germans, Nivelle had no choice but to throw them in piecemeal. Thus were men whose military experience consisted of manning deadlocked trenches thrown against the strongest force on the planet.

Just as Petain had before him, Nivelle had expected the defenders of Verdun to fight to the last man. His worst fear had been that the men inside would surrender and thereby free up vast German forces to strike south without opposition. When Lucien Chanaris sent his one-word telegram, Nivelle envisaged losing Bar-le-Duc within days before the enemy thrust deeper into la patrie. On paper, the situation could not have been worse at the end of May. Sixty German divisions had crushed the Second Army and torn a hole in his line. Falkenhayn had his breakthrough and there was no way to stop him from exploiting it. Had Guillaumat and Balfourier lived, Nivelle fumed, the Germans would still be tied down. Verdun might have fallen eventually, but the enemy would still be wearing its last defenders down and would have had to face reinforcements by the time they were finished. As it was, "one cursed traitor of a colonel has done more damage to our position than Falkenhayn could have dreamt of!"

Not for the last time, Robert Nivelle was wrong. For a start, the Germans had taken fierce casualties- not as severe as the French, but over one hundred thousand lay killed or wounded after three months. Losing so many men- all skilled veterans- would have eaten into their ability to attack. Second, the "hole" torn in French lines existed more on the map than in real life. La Voie Sacree lay in ruins: any advance into eastern France would happen on foot through broken terrain. The men were in no shape to conquer hundreds of square miles as they had in 1914, and their supply trains, having funnelled goods to a fixed position for three months, were in no position to support them. Most important, Erich von Falkenhayn had no intention of moving forward. He had his political objective: now he could switch to defence and laugh at Nivelle's attempts to liberate it.

The best thing Nivelle could have done as spring turned into summer was nothing. Accepting the loss of Verdun would have let him pull his army back, establish new defensive lines around Bar-le-Duc, and rebuild his strength. When the survivors followed Lucien Chanaris into captivity on May 28th, it marked over three hundred thousand men lost to Verdun. Nivelle understood the strategic position France found herself in, and a more honest man would have admitted that he could not afford to retake the city. Even if he succeeded, it would cost la Nation more men than it could afford. Yet such a move was impossible in the scheme of domestic- to say nothing of global- politics. Accepting the loss of Verdun would be a humiliation equal to 1871: his country would become a laughingstock to enemies and neutrals, and an embarrassment to its allies. Prime Minister Briand would fire Nivelle, who would surely be remembered as the most inept Frenchman ever to don a uniform.

It was these reasons, not military logic, which compelled Nivelle to walk into Falkenhayn's trap. The French Army, bruised and overstretched in May 1916 but still very much alive, was about to be fed into the mincing machine by its own high command.

As the emergency relief force made its way up from Italy, Joffre and Nivelle turned the pressure up on their British allies. Ever since the Chantilly Conference the previous December, the French and British High Commands had agreed to launch simultaneous offensives on the Western Front to over-stretch the German Army and inflict maximum damage. Losing Verdun had delayed these plans, but the French had no intention of abandoning them- if anything, they needed British support now more than ever. Despite this, Joffre made clear to Sir Douglas Haig that the French Army would not be able to assist the British as he had promised. Dreams of sending forty French divisions- nearly half the country's manpower- against the enemy were laughable when two fronts threatened to crack open. Those forty divisions formed the bulk of the force manning the front between Verdun and the British sector; diluting them would invite a German breakthrough. A memorandum from Joffre to Haig in early April made clear that "our contribution for this year is to tie the enemy up in his own trap at Verdun; it must fall to Britain to sever the front." Forty divisions shrank to fifteen, then to zero in early April.

For their part, the British were determined to build a force capable of shattering the German Army. First deployed in Belgium in summer 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had increased ten-fold over the last year and a half. British soldiers had stopped the enemy from taking Ypres and the Channel Ports in the war's first months, and launched an offensive at Loos in autumn 1915, but their main contribution had been to free up French troops by holding a sector of the front. Contrary to postwar French claims, Britain had not been idle: they held the peripheries while France held the centre. British troops kept the Suez Canal open, their African troops subdued the German Colonies, and their Indian forces were driving the Ottomans out of Mesopotamia. Though British diplomacy had driven Italy into the enemy camp, it had brought Japan and Portugal into the Entente: neither offered much in material terms aside from minor naval support in the Mediterranean, but both gave the Entente prestige. The Dominions provided invaluable manpower and resources. As they had in the Napoleonic Wars, British banks kept the coalition afloat by lending vast sums to their allies: France and Russia were both racking up considerable debts (though Britain's own debt to the United States was only increasing). London's greatest contribution to the war, however, was to keep the seas open: had the Royal Navy not been the strongest in the world, Entente shipping would have collapsed a long time ago.

None of that was enough to satisfy the French. Their country was bleeding to death while les anglais sat across the Channel, striking at the Germans when and where they pleased. Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith understood that the British Expeditionary Force had to hit the Germans as promised in the summer of 1916. Soldiering was a foreign art to the career politicians in his government, many of whom had not even served in uniform before attending their elite universities, yet they could all read a map of the Western Front. If the casualty reports from the French Ambassador were anywhere near accurate, their ally would run out of men by the year's end, leaving over a million Britons stranded on the Continent. The more comfortable political realm also dictated an attack: what would their relationship look like with France if they let their own men sit in fortified trenches while the French Army bled to death?

Sir Henry Rawlinson commanded Britain's Fourth Army. The son of a nineteenth-century Baronet who spent much of his time embroiled in Middle Eastern adventures, Rawlinson entered the Army as a lieutenant at the age of twenty and fought with distinction across Africa, being made a major-general in 1909. Rawlinson's division was part of the BEF sent to France in 1914- the almost quixotic force of conscripts determined to push the invaders back and be home for Christmas. Instead, his men took fearsome casualties and Rawlinson found himself commanding a corps of recruits who'd joined when the war was new. Rawlinson studied the failed offensives of 1915- Champagne, Bardonnechia, Menton, and Artois- and drew cogent lessons which, had the Entente's resources been greater, might have broken the enemy. His declaration that "it is always possible by careful preparation and adequate artillery support by heavy howitzers to pierce the enemy's line" foreshadowed the "hurricane bombardment" tactics which contributed to the German breakthroughs late in the war. (1) Sir Douglas Haig rewarded his bright subordinate with operational command over the forthcoming Ypres Offensive: he was transferred from the British Fourth Army, responsible for the twenty miles south of the Somme River, to the Second Army covering Ypres in early April.

Rawlinson drew up a sensible plan based on the artillery he had available. Rather than attack along a wide front to stretch the Germans out, he limited the front to eleven miles, covered by ten divisions and two hundred heavy artillery pieces. Rawlinson eschewed lengthy bombardments, which had served only to alert the enemy as to where the next blow would fall. After two and a half days of intense shelling, British troops would advance and occupy the enemy's forward positions plus some choice tactical high ground, daring the Germans to advance. Falkenhayn's influence is evident: Rawlinson wanted to trap the defenders of Ypres in his own mincing machine. The goal, Rawlinson declared to Sir Douglas Haig, was "to kill as many Germans as possible with the least loss to ourselves." (2)

The collapse of Verdun forced planning for Ypres to go ahead faster than the British had planned. Sir Douglas Haig understood the limits of the units formed since the war began. Few had seen combat beyond trench raids and skirmishes, and their officers had no experience in organising an army-level offensive. He wanted to spend the first six months of 1916 reinforcing and training the Fourth Army, yet Joffre would have none of it. If the British did not strike at once, the French commander-in-chief declared, France's Army would "cease to exist". Had Haig challenged Joffre, it would have become a political battle between the British and French Governments, something neither side could afford to waste time on (and would have done Haig's career no favours).

Debate now consumed the British leadership as to whether or not Ypres was a suitable battlefield. Its opponents pointed out that, at the Chantilly Conference the previous year, Britain had promised to attack at the Somme: that was where the BEF and the French Army met. Striking at the Somme would relieve pressure on the French flank, and would allow French units to take part. Haig and Rawlinson pointed out the obvious: that strategy predated the collapse at Verdun. Italian entry into the war had forced the BEF to take over an extra twenty miles of front, meaning the two armies no longer met at the Somme. Before Brusati's offensive and the collapse at Verdun, it had still been possible to imagine French divisions participating in an offensive, but this was no longer the case. Whatever the British did, they would have to do alone. The French would not participate in this offensive and so there was no reason to factor in their interests. Ypres, Haig and Rawlinson pointed out, had several advantages over the Somme. The British had struck there twice before, meaning they were familiar with the terrain. The men knew how to fight in the hard Belgian chalk- as opposed to the mud and dirt further south- and the officers knew what patches of ground to strike for. Proximity to the homeland would make reinforcement and resupply far easier than fifty miles into France, while naval bombardment could punish German defences on the coast.

On May 16th, Haig informed Joffre that the British offensive would begin in two weeks. The six Belgian divisions left standing under King Albert would advance west of the Yser under cover from British naval bombardment: their goal was not to capture territory but to tie German forces down. Rawlinson's ten divisions would advance along an eleven-mile front west of Ypres to take Passchendaele Ridge on the first day. Having secured the high ground, the British could then mount their artillery there and let the Germans take fearsome casualties advancing.

Sir Douglas Haig, in a reversal of his earlier ideas, warned Rawlinson twenty-four hours before the bombardment against trying to do too much. This was a small-scale offensive, and while it would save the French it could not break the German Army. Such a move would have to wait until 1917 when another year of attrition had worn the foe down even more. No Entente commander had ever come this close to admitting failure, but in only a few months, Haig's prognosis would seem downright rosy.

Robert Nivelle was about to break what remained of the French Army on the hills leading to Verdun, and Haig and Rawlinson would- after a promising start- do the same in the chalk of Flanders. Germany and Italy would shed rivers of blood in the summer of 1916, but it would be the armies of the Entente, not the Central Powers, which broke under the weight of attrition. The disasters of 1917 had their roots in the optimism of Robert Nivelle and Sir Douglas Haig.

(1) A real quote- Watson, Alexander. Ring of Steel, p. 311. Basic Books, New York, 2014.
(2) Watson 312
Given the circumstances, the plan of the BEF is.. Realistic! It acknowledges pragmatically the best way to go about things, where to hit, and the commanders seem to have at least on paper some semblance of awareness as to the circumstances and what they can do and waht thier soldiers can perform. And even some level of force concentration!

pls don't ban me

Monthly Donor
So basically, the french will finish what they were left with trying to recover Verdun.
then what? take away even more troops from the alps to hold the Germans? this would be the perfect moment for the Italians to actually manage to sweep in. Sure, they're not the best brains in the war but even Cadorna will realize that the french soldier his men are fighting are "suddenly disappearing". It would be the perfect chance to finally recover some dignity an occupy all the "terre Irridente" claims. at that point France will simply collapse i guess? i mean, if Italy reaches the Rhone with the Alpenkorps ( pls tell me Rommel is there) France would have to chose between letting the Germans reach Paris or the Italians run for Bordeaux. The British will realise this sooner and pull out leaving behind to their fate (like always) the french and Belgians.
Italy will have a better position at the peace table with france.
from what we all agree originally i guess such an Italian situation might enable them to get : Savoy, Nice, Corsica, Tunis and Djibouti from the french. With the British will remain to be seen what happens to Italian Somalia.

Venite adoramus...
Ooh this is very good indeed. Was thinking of the eng ver bt it's great too.
Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeculum in favilla!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a fucking god.

Onto the TL, i like how the battle of the somme is portrayed as a lot more focused on preventing further breakdown of french lines instead of it being the entente going on the attack. Verdun being lost really does make a lot of difference.
The British plan (to my civilian mind) seems rather good and doable under the circumstances, so I'm curious how they end up screwing up so badly they break the BEF as thoroughly as Joffre breaks the French Army (if I read the foreshadowing correctly).

Either way I expect no less of a performance from the Dominion troops as they provided IOTL, if the BEF must fall then let them fall with a Canadian bayonet in the German stomach!
Chapter XXVII- Frustration in Flanders

Chapter XXVII

Frustration in Flanders

In the small hours of May 29th, 1916, artillerymen along an eleven-mile front north of Ypres went into action. Two hundred British field guns fired volley after volley of eighteen-pound high explosives into the German trenches. The bombardment was smaller than that which Erich von Falkenhayn had unleashed on Verdun, but the rate of fire was an impressive improvement over Britain's efforts the previous year. Germans roused out of bed by death falling on their heads saw nothing to appreciate, though. To them it was the worst sight in the world: a sign that the terror their army had inflicted on the French at Verdun was about to come to them.

At long last, the Entente was hitting back.

Forty-eight hours later, the British unleashed the surprise on which all hopes rode. No one had ever tried something like this before, but Haig and Rawlinson were confident that it would break the Germans. As in the Alps, the hard Flemish soil provided an excellent natural defence against bombardment: dugouts were far less likely to collapse under bombardment than at the soil of Verdun, although low elevation and high rainfall increased the risk of floods, which were known to drown the luckless. Ever since the Second Battle of Ypres, the British had mined the ground underneath the German trenches, ready to blow them up from underneath instead of raining fire on them from above. Now it was time to see just how skilled the Royal Engineers were. Many of these men had been miners in civilian life and were skilled with underground operations- this would be the challenge of their lives. At 0455 hours, the engineers worked their subterranean magic and with a flick of the switch, sent a roar through the German lines. Some were killed as the force of the explosions caved their own tunnels in, while others suffered hearing loss from the roar- loud enough, by some accounts, to be heard in the Netherlands. British troops awake before dawn were shaken out of their drowsiness very quickly, while German soldiers ran from their cots in blind terror. "The very earth", one man recalled years later, "appeared to be crashing in before our eyes." Shockwaves were still running through the trenches when the infantry went over the top at dawn on June 1, 1916.

Veterans of the Third Battle of Ypres mocked Rawlinson for his instruction that the men ought to advance at walking pace, in evenly spaced lines, towards the foe. Such ineptitude, they claimed, lay behind the fierce casualties- and ultimate failure- of the offensive. In fact, the command made sense and foreshadowed tactics the enemy would use a year later. Analysing previous attacks had taught Rawlinson that problems began when the infantry got beyond artillery range. Keeping the men moving at walking pace and even spacing mattered, not because of some parade-ground fantasy, but because the better the gunners understood where the men were, the more accurate their cover fire and the less risk of shelling their own men. While not quite the Feuerschutz (literally, "covering fire") that the Germans eventually perfected, this was still a large step in the right direction, for which Rawlinson was too long denied credit.

Falkenhayn had not foreseen the British strike and German forces were thus unprepared. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and his deputy Frederich von Amin commanded the German Fifth Army: an understrength formation with only five divisions at the front and two more in reserve. All of the men had fought against the British last year, but this time would be different. The Entente had been weaker last year- both in terms of size and tactical prowess- and Falkenhayn had not committed the bulk of his army to Verdun. Reinforcements had been on hand to ensure the British did not break through. Now the Fifth Army would have to stand on its own.

Despite all their problems, the Germans enjoyed an advantage of their own: a series of fortifications not seen anywhere else in the West. Three separate lines of pillboxes, machine-gun nests, and mines, all protected by barbed wire, lay between the front line and the heights of Passchendaele, codenamed Albrecht, Wilhelm, and Flanderen I. An offshoot, Flanderen II, broke away from its parent line before the villages of Broodseinde and Beselaire. None had been finished by June 1916- German reserve units had to evacuate the labourers once the shooting started- but even their nuclei were an immense asset.

Broken by bombardment and mining, the Germans wasted little time trying to hold what was left of the frontline trenches. Throughout the morning of June 1, individual companies and platoons fought heroic delaying actions in the ruins of their positions to let the rest of their units get away, taking their machine-guns and mortars with them. Neither Rupprecht nor von Amin had ordered this: junior officers up and down the line made the call and the Fifth Army's command assented with its silence. This level of decentralised command stood in marked contrast to the top-heavy French and Russians: German officers had the competence and authority to make decisions on the ground, reducing reaction time and removing points of failure and miscommunication. It served them well in the next year's offensive, and it may have saved the Fifth Army on the first day of Third Ypres.

Fighting continued throughout the day. The anticipated battleship bombardment never materialised- the Home Fleet was busy in the North Sea- but everything else went as close to the plan as one could ask for. Belgian forces crossed the Yser in Nieuwpoorte and engaged the Germans outside Diskmuide. Neither attack took much ground or produced significant German casualties, but they kept Rupprecht from transferring units to fight Rawlinson. Not for the first time in this war, "plucky Belgium" was fighting above its weight. British forces achieved a minor breakthrough, cutting through the German forward trenches in the early evening. The British Second Army was divided into two corps- III and IV- which had different roles planned for the second day. III Corps to the north was to work around the Albrecht line and approach Passchendaele from due west, while IV Corps attacked the line head-on to tie down enemy forces. With luck, British superiority in firepower would overwhelm the line's defenders and the advance on Passchendaele could proceed apace.

Rawlinson and Rupprecht were about to discover just how rare a commodity luck could be.

The battle's second day began with a fierce British bombardment along the Albrecht Line where German troops had retreated under cover of darkness. High explosives laid waste to the town while gas shells gurgled overhead; light covering fire then accompanied the men. Men of IV Corps raced across the damp Flanders field while others leapt into a communications trench running east, perpendicular to the Albrecht Line, clearing it out with rifles and bayonets. More gas shells struck where the trench met the Albrecht Line, keeping German reinforcements from getting through. By noon, the British had fought their way through the trench and, donning gas masks, advanced on the Albrecht Line itself. Fighting continued throughout the day, as the British widened the flanks of their attack while Rupprecht summoned a division's worth of reinforcements. Dusk found the Union Jack waving over the hamlet of St. Julien- an advance of over two miles in as many days.

Rupprecht's reserve division moved during the night and had just finished entrenching when dawn broke and the British guns opened fire. For the third day in a row, the British employed their covering fire, but problems were now emerging. Every metre their men advanced was a step away from the guns, which made it that much harder for the artillerymen to do their jobs. Locating the enemy remained easy enough- the Germans tended not to leave their fixed positions, while anything on the far side of the line was fair game- but their own troops were harder to avoid. Soldiers locked in combat only a hundred metres or so from the enemy could not provide exact coordinates and every shell which fell short killed British troops. Rawlinson received numerous complaints about friendly fire during the day but was in no position to do anything. Worse, every step the British took brought them further into range of the enemy. German gunners had a far easier time shooting the foe than on the previous two days: they merely had to target the Albrecht Line, the exact coordinates of which were written down.

Defeat was still a distant concept, but the third day brought frustrations that Rawlinson did not care for. The advance had to keep moving, to maintain morale if nothing else. It was time, he decided, to unleash the second half of his attack. III Corps would go into action to the north, punching through the Albrecht Line at Pilckern and wrapping around the enemy. Rupprecht had committed one reserve division to stop IV Corps, and even if the second division entered the field, IV Corps would surely overrun it. The two halves of the British Second Army would then converge on the Wilhelm Line and break through before shooting straight for Passchendaele.

Rawlinson was no less surprised than Rupprecht when everything went according to schedule. III Corps, commanded by Lt. General Sir William Pulteney, had been ready for days; the men leapt out of their trenches an hour after he received the telegram from Rawlinson. Rupprecht had known that the British reserve lay north of Ypres, but had underestimated its size- perhaps a division, certainly not a whole corps. As Rawlinson had predicted, he ordered his final division into the fray, but it was already too late. IV Corps fought late into the night, pierced the Albrecht Line and entered Pilkern before the German reinforcements could arrive. The next day would bring fierce combat, but for once, the Entente could smell victory.

While the British hacked their way into the Albrecht Line, the Belgians threw everything they had at the foe. The two allies had very different perspectives on and approaches to the war. For all of its commitment and sacrifice, Britain was fighting with an expeditionary army to defend a treaty and preserve the balance of power: it was not even conscripting its own people. Belgium, by contrast, was fighting for its life. Upwards of ninety per cent of the country lay under foreign control; the six divisions around Ypres represented all that remained of a proud nation. This fight was personal for the Belgians, who threw themselves into it with a fury which caught the enemy off-guard.

Fighting raged in the town of Lo-Renige for three days as the Belgians advanced on their right flank. King Albert had initially wanted to strike on the coast to enjoy Royal Navy support, but with the Home Fleet distracted after the Battle of Jutland, he elected to fight where III Corps could support him if worst came to worst. Belgian forces could not hope to reproduce Britain's artillery superiority, but but Rawlinson had shared as much tactical information and analysis with his ally as possible. The Belgians could not fight in overwhelming strength, but they fought with skill and spirit. Besides, Lo-Renige was not on the road to Passechendaele and Rupprecht could spare no reinforcements. Once the Belgian blow fell, the best he could give the defenders was a brigade from the final division sent to stop III Corps.

Belgium's Fourth Infantry Division secured Lo-Renige at dusk on June 4th and sent word to King Albert that the mission was a success. For the first time since the symbolic rape of their country almost two months prior, the Belgians had struck back against the occupier and achieved results on their own at comparatively low cost: Entente press held the Battle of Lo-Renige up as a prime example of what Belgian forces could do if given the right equipment and leadership (though German distraction had more to do with it than anything). On the evening of the 4th, Rawlinson wrote to Haig that "for the first time in memory, a victory beyond the purely tactical becomes possible to envision." Perhaps a few more days of pressure would break the Germans in Ypres, Robert Nivelle would achieve something at Verdun, and against all the odds, the German defence in the West might yet crack. These last three months had been a crucible for the Entente, but there was still time to turn everything around.

Rupprecht was now paying the price for having been caught off-guard, both in the field and the offices of the General Staff. Erich von Falkenhayn was furious that the British had been able to mount an army-level offensive without having been detected and was determined to make them pay. Given that Rupprecht was the Crown Prince of Germany's second-largest Kingdom, the Chief of Staff could not simply dismiss him. Instead, as he had instructed Kronprinz Wilhelm to obey von Knobelsdorf, Falkenhayn dispatched General Max von Gallwitz to Ypres. Von Gallwitz, a Prussian, had commanded a corps in the opening battles in Belgium before being transferred east, where he rose to command two field armies in the conquest of Poland. Now, it would fall to von Gallwitz to de facto manage the defence of Ypres: Falkenhayn ordered Rupprecht to obey his "special adviser" at all times.

Von Gallwitz saw what Rupprecht could not: the situation, while serious, could be managed. Lo-Renige was nowhere near Passechendaele- almost twelve miles, and to attack it would require the Belgians to change the direction of their offensive as well as to cut through two of the three Flanderen Lines. There was no danger of a general breakthrough west of Lo-Renige, so survival was simply a matter of shipping in an extra corps to hold the line. Even in the worst-case scenario, the Entente could not take Passchendaele Heights. The position was too well-fortified and had too much firepower to succumb to an infantry assault, while trying to shell it into oblivion would take too long. German forces should hold the Wilhelm Line for as long as possible, but make the position behind that- the Flanderen I and II Lines- their main focus. Those lines ran right before Passchendaele Heights. This would leave the Entente well within range of German guns, while out of range of any supporting fire from their own lines, as well as shortening the front as much as possible. Passchendaele Heights could then become to the British what the approaches to Verdun were fast becoming to Robert Nivelle's mutilated army.

He explained all of this in a memorandum to Falkenhayn; the Chief of the General Staff gave the plan a ringing endorsement. Two corps were pulled from the Eastern Front and sent to man the Flanderen Lines: by the end of the month, it was the Germans who enjoyed a numerical advantage. Even before the reinforcements arrived, there were signs that the Entente offensive was breaking down. Shell shortages made adequate covering fire increasingly more difficult; after three weeks, British gunners were forced to ration their shells. This let the defenders of the Wilhelm Line man their rifle-pits and machine-gun posts, allowing them to rain fire on the advancing enemy without danger. Every day, more Germans pulled out of the Wilhelm Line so as to be ready when the enemy broke through. Meanwhile, German artillery atop Passchendaele Heights stayed silent, waiting for the British to advance within point-blank range.

Some have criticised von Gallwitz's strategy, claiming that he had the strength, even in the battle's opening weeks, to hold the British at the Wilhelm Line. In this view, falling back cost his own side more losses and prolonged the battle without good cause. This was no random move, however. Von Gallwitz had followed developments at Verdun in as much detail as he could, and drew the reasonable conclusion that Germany had triumphed, in part, because the French were too determined to hold every positon. Petain had sacrificed too many of his men in pointless fights to the death outside the city, leaving him with far fewer men to do the most important job. By itself, the Wilhelm Line was no great strategic prize. It would do nothing for the British except represent one more step on the path to Passchendaele. Better to let them have it while preparing a stronger defence in the rear. Von Gallwitz did not seek to build a mincing machine between the lines, but he would end up grinding Rawlinson's army to nothing.

In the end, von Gallwitz would not need the two corps from the East to hold the line, though they would prove useful the next year. Only two and a half weeks in, the danger was over and the enemy was running out of steam. Frezenburg- an insignificant road junction in peacetime, but now the lynchpin of the Wilhelm Line- fell on June 19th, prompting a joyous telegram from Sir Douglas Haig on "the inevitability, after so much, of victory!" Haig ordered Rawlinson to take Zonnebecke, two miles away between the Wilhelm and Flanderen Lines, by the end of the month. Victory at Zonnebecke, Haig said, would be a perfect prelude for an offensive in July, which would crack through Flanderen I; Flanderen II would then fall in August, leaving Passchendaele Heights surrounded.

One can find few better examples of the trope of Great War generals whose enthusiasm exceeded their men's ability to execute by leaps and bounds. Such a plan looked good on the wall of Haig's map room, but it bore no relation to the facts on the ground. IV Corps was exhausted from the battles of St. Julien and Frezenburg. Combined, they had cost over twenty thousand casualties, or better than half of the corps' strength. III Corps had not taken quite the same level of punishment, but hard far more front to maintain and could not amass its strength for a hard blow, much less one which its commanders knew would only end in a slog. Having gambled on a quick victory, Haig was now forced to come to terms with the weakness, not just of the Second Army, but of the whole war effort. With the French failing, the BEF had to hold far more miles than was feasible for a force their size: this left only so much to put into any one attack.

Zonnebecke would fall in the end, though it would take two months of fighting which claimed almost thirteen thousand lives. By the end of August 1916, two years after the first British troops had set foot on the Continent, the little Belgian town flew the Union Jack- "and there were only a handful of us poor souls to see it", wrote one corporal. "I cannot decide: were we who made it through the lucky ones or the luckless? None of us stopped a rifle bullet or a shell, unlike so many of our comrades-in-arms, but they never had to worry about what came next. To them the war was over, a curtain falling almost mercifully across their eyes. We got to stand in the middle of what had been Zonnebecke once upon a time, in what seemed like the days of fairy-tales and magic, before this travesty unfolded across Europe and the world, and we got to wonder: where do we go from here? I think it truly came as a surprise to the great and mighty Earl Haig to learn that we would not, in fact, be in Brussels within a fortnight. I daresay the old man had gotten his hopes up. It would not, at any rate, have been the first time."

Sir Henry Rawlinson became the scapegoat. Britain was not fighting in defence of her own soil; the war was less existential- and therefore less politicised- than in the French Government. Haig did not face the same pressures as Joffre but understood that excessive losses for minimal gains would cripple his standing in the Prime Minister's eyes. Far better to cast the blame on his subordinate, whose failures in planning and execution- made, of course, with no input whatsoever from the great Field Marshal- had doomed the offensive from before it began. On August 10th, Haig summoned Rawlinson to his headquarters and relieved him of command: the fallen general spent the rest of the war behind the lines, furious at being betrayed over something which he did not consider his fault. That fury carried over to his memoirs, a barely disguised (if brief, barely one hundred pages) attack on Haig's competence and integrity. That same day, Haig restored General Sir Hubert Plumer to command of the Second Army, which he had held since June 1915. Plumer spent the next year as Haig's favourite, maintaining that Third Ypres would have been a success had he been in command, until Falkenhayn poisoned his chalice the next summer.

For now, the guns lay quiet in Flanders. As the French and Russians dashed themselves against trenches and machine-guns, with every failure pushing the men closer to revolt, the British Expeditionary Force stood strong. The first all-conscript units arrived at the Channel Ports and marched south to take over as much of the frontline from the French as possible, while the veterans stayed put. News from Mesopotamia was discouraging, as was the shock of Lord Kitchener- the iconic face on every poster who wanted YOU!- drowning in the North Sea after his vessel struck a mine. No one in the trenches could get too bent out of shape over the news from Jutland, but neither could they rejoice over it. Sailors, it seemed, had no better luck than the poor sods burrowed into the earth. Yet for all of that, Britain still held firm. Alone amongst the Entente, she could boast that her homeland was safe and her armed forces loyal and intact. British civilians were safe and if the economy was not booming, neither was it wrecked. Another offensive in the autumn might turn things around, and beyond that was all of next year.

Britain's allies were losing the war inch by inch, but she would hang on despite the odds. No frustration in Flanders could change that.
Last edited:
I really wanted to name the above chapter "Bedlam in Belgium" but demurred at the last moment. I can't promise not to use it as a title in the future, though...

Joking set aside, I'm looking to get one or two more chapters in before the New Year- the fall of Nice and Nivelle's offensive at Verdun. Both will happen more or less simultaneously, but the latter will be a nice segway into Part IV. So far, this TL has been very Western-centric and I don't want to disrupt the narrative flow by pivoting to Russia for one update. So I'll discuss the alt-Brusilov Offensive when the Russian Revolution comes around (any suggestions on which are most welcome, I'm actually not sure how much the butterflies are going to strike here).

As an aside- any World War I-era Christmas songs/poems/etc are welcome in the comments! There will be no truce this year, but tis still the season.
i will say you have outdone yourself. while very clear the eventual result i do think giving britain this small success which ultimately is a poisened chalice is a really neat idea though it also hypes up the coming battle of jutland
i will say you have outdone yourself. while very clear the eventual result i do think giving britain this small success which ultimately is a poisened chalice is a really neat idea though it also hypes up the coming battle of jutland
Thank you very much- I’m still working on a reply to your PM, by the way.

Should I give Jutland its own chapter? It won’t be that different to OTL but the overall naval situation could justify an update…