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King Constantine of Greece Abdicates

Constantine I by Philip de László, 1914.
Constantine I by Philip de László, 1914.

Jun 12, 1917:

King Constantine of Greece Abdicates

On this day in 1917, King Constantine I of Greece, the foremost champion of Greek neutrality during World War I, abdicates his throne in the face of pressure from Britain and France and internal opponents—most notably Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos—who favored Greece’s entrance into the war on the side of the Allies.

As crown prince during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, Constantine had led Greek troops to victory on the battlefield; he ascended to the throne in March 1913 upon the death of his father, George I. Educated in Germany and married to Sophia, a sister of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Constantine was naturally sympathetic to the Central Powers after the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914. For this reason, Constantine refused to honor Greece’s obligation to support Serbia—its ally during both Balkan Wars—when the latter country was attacked by Bulgaria in 1914. Constantine’s position was complicated, however, as Venizelos, along with the majority of the Greek government, was determinedly pro-Ally, and the British and French navies held an unwavering dominance over the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite dedicated efforts by the British and French to woo Greece with promises of territorial gains in Turkey, Constantine maintained a position of neutrality for his country. He did allow British and French forces to disembark at Salonika as part of an operation planned in late 1914 to aid Serbia against Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces. By the time the Allied forces were ready, however, Serbia had fallen and the Central Powers drew closer to the Greek border.

By the end of 1915, Allied operations had bogged down in Salonika and failed spectacularly in the Dardanelles, and Constantine was understandably even less inclined to support the Entente. As the British cabinet was told at the time, “His Majesty’s decided opinion was that Germany was winning on all points, and that there were only two possible endings to European war, either that Germany would be entirely victorious or that the war would end in a stalemate largely in favor of Germany.”

In this position, Constantine was undermined by the charismatic and ambitious Venizelos, who led the movement in favor of joining the war on the side of the Entente in the name of building a more powerful Greek nation. Constantine dismissed Venizelos in October 1915; the ex-prime minister subsequently received Allied recognition of a provisional Greek government, under Venizelos’ control, in Thessalonica in 1916. Meanwhile, civil war threatened in Greece, and Constantine desperately sought promises of naval, military and financial assistance from Germany, which he did not receive.

By the summer of 1917, the Allies had lost their patience with Constantine. On June 11, they sent an ultimatum to Athens, demanding the king’s abdication. That same day, blatantly disregarding the country’s neutrality, British forces blockaded Greece and the French landed their troops at Piraeus, on the Isthmus of Corinth. The following day, Constantine abdicated in favor of his second son, Alexander, who reinstated Venizelos as prime minister. On July 2, 1916, Greece declared war on the Central Powers. Over the next 18 months, some 5,000 Greek soldiers would die on the battlefields of World War I.

Operation Corkscrew is launched by Britain

British soldiers advancing inland during Operation Corkscrew.
British soldiers advancing inland during Operation Corkscrew.

Jun 11, 1943:

Operation Corkscrew is launched by Britain

On this day in 1943, after 10 days of bombing runs, Britain lands troops on the Italian island of Pantelleria, off the southern coast of Sicily, in Operation Corkscrew. The Italian garrisons surrenders upon orders from Mussolini, who would later deny the order when the Germans express outrage. This defeat shakes the confidence of many in Mussolini’s cabinet, since they had been assured that Pantelleria was impregnable.

Britain would continue its collection of Italian islands over the next two days, with the occupation of Lampedusa and Linosa—all in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily itself in July.

Britain strikes back at Italy

Lancaster_I_NG128_Dropping_Blockbuster_-_Duisburg_-_Oct_14,_1944

Jun 11, 1940:

Britain strikes back at Italy

On this day in 1940, Britain demonstrates that it will not remain on the defensive, by bombing Italian targets in response to Mussolini’s declaration of war on England and France.

Having already marked out an offensive strategy in the event of Italian aggression, Britain bombed targets within the cities of Genoa and Turin. Africa was also another theater of conflict, as Italy and Britain were imperial neighbors. Italy had just bombed targets in the British-controlled Suez Canal territory, as well as the British-controlled island of Malta, in the Mediterranean. Britain retaliated with a raid on the Italian military installation in Eritrea. Even the Pacific would see fallout from this new conflict, with an Australian merchant cruiser giving chase to an Italian vessel, which ended up scuttling itself rather than surrendering.

Allies launch counterattack against Germans in France

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Jun 11, 1918:

Allies launch counterattack against Germans in France

After several months of an aggressive German offensive on the Western Front during the spring and early summer of 1918, the Allies begin their counterattack, including an assault on June 10, 1918, by four French and two American divisions on German lines near the town of Antheuil-Portes in central France, some 45 miles from Paris.

Code-breaking by French intelligence at the beginning of June 1918 had allowed the Allies to prepare for a German attack in France that was to begin at midnight on June 7. The French launched their own massive artillery bombardment some ten minutes earlier, catching the Germans while they were still preparing for the attack. The Germans countered with an even stronger assault, firing 250,000 rounds of poison gas—including mustard, phosgene and diphenyl-chlorarsine—into the French trenches, incapacitating some 4,000 French soldiers and killing 32.

After three days of battle, the Germans had forced the French back to Antheuil-Portes. Winston Churchill, in Paris at the time coordinating Allied munitions, wrote to his wife on June 10 that “If the French cannot hold [the Germans] back on this sector, it is not easy to see what the next step on our part should be.” The following day, four French and two American divisions launched a counterattack aided by significant air support as well as over 150 tanks. They successfully pushed the Germans back from Antheuil, taking more than a thousand German prisoners. A German attack west of Soissons on June 12 made negligible gains, and German Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff called off the offensive that same day. The Allies continued their push, however, beginning a change of momentum that would gain force throughout the summer of 1918 and the final months of World War I.

Italy declares war on France and Great Britain

Benito Mussolini was the founder of Fascism and leader of Italy from 1922 to 1943.
Benito Mussolini was the founder of Fascism and leader of Italy from 1922 to 1943.

Jun 10, 1940:

Italy declares war on France and Great Britain

On this day in 1940, after withholding formal allegiance to either side in the battle between Germany and the Allies, Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy, declares war on France and Great Britain.

What caused Il Duce’s change of heart? Perhaps the German occupation of Paris did it. “First they were too cowardly to take part. Now they are in a hurry so that they can share in the spoils,” reflected Hitler. (However, Mussolini claimed that he wanted in before complete French capitulation only because fascism “did not believe in hitting a man when he is down.”)

Italy’s lack of raw materials had made Mussolini wary of waging all-out war previously. Britain and France were also wooing him with promises of territorial concessions in Africa in exchange for neutrality. But the thought of its Axis partner single-handedly conquering the Continent was too much for his ego to bear. While Germany had urged Italy’s participation in September 1939, at this late date such intervention would probably prove more of a hindrance than a help. For example, despite Italy’s declaration of war on the 10th, it wasn’t until the 20th that Italian troops were mobilized in France, in the southwest-and easily held at bay by French forces.

The reaction by the Allies to the declaration of war was swift: In London, all Italians who had lived in Britain less than 20 years and who were between the ages of 16 and 70 were immediately interned. In America, President Roosevelt broadcast on radio the promise of support for Britain and France with “the material resources of this nation.”

Italians renew battle on mountain-tops in Trentino

Guerra_Altipiani_Dopo_Assalto
The remaining alpine vegetation.

 

Jun 10, 1917:

Italians renew battle on mountain-tops in Trentino

On June 10, 1917, Italian troops launch a renewed assault on Austro-Hungarian positions in the mountains of the Trentino region in northern Italy, on the border with Austria.

The formidable nature of the northern Italian terrain—four-fifths of the 600-kilometer-long border with Austria was lined with mountains, with several peaks rising above 3,000 meters—made the Italian, of all the fronts during World War I, the least well-suited for battle. Nevertheless, upon their entrance into the war in May 1915 on the side of the Allies, the Italians immediately took the offensive against Austria in the Trentino, with little success. By the end of 1915, after four battles fought on the Isonzo River, in the eastern section of the Italian front, Italy had made no substantial progress and had suffered 235,000 casualties, including 54,000 killed.

The Tenth Battle of the Isonzo—by the end of the war there would be 12—in May 1917 had met with a similar lack of success for the Italians. A major Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive launched on June 3 reclaimed virtually all of the ground Italy had gained; Italian Commander-in-Chief Luigi Cadorna shut down the attacks on June 8.

Two days later, the increasingly frustrated Italians renewed the battle, attacking six mountain peaks in the Trentino. Italian deserters had revealed details of the assault to the Austrians, however, and they were able to counterattack successfully and hold their positions. The Italians did manage to capture one mountain peak, however—the nearly 7,000-foot-high Mount Ortigaro—and take some 1,000 Austrian prisoners. Two weeks later, the Austrians seized control of Ortigaro again, taking 2,000 Italian prisoners. By the end of June, after three weeks of heated battle on the mountain peaks and passes, the lines of territory had barely changed, at the cost of 23,000 Italian and nearly 9,500 Austrian casualties.