1914 drew to a close after five tumultuous months of war since Austria- Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia. In terms of its duration, only 10% had passed and yet most of the major battles had been fought and many strategic dice had been cast. The major players took stock and reviewed their plans; and major players so far little involved reviewed their positions.
On 30th December the Russian Commander-in-Chief Grand Duke Nicholas proposed a British expedition against the Turks to ease the developing Russian situation in the Caucasus, and we will see in detail where this led in 1915.
The Western and Eastern Fronts had played out as described. Paris and the channel ports were saved; and there was a degree of stability on both main fronts. The British Army was being transformed by Kitchener’s efforts (and by the loss of so many of officers and men of the small professional army that started out as the BEF in August). By Christmas over 2 million men were under arms, either for home defence or foreign service.
The French spirit was intact following the defence of Paris and the consolidation of the Western Front. Joffre’s position was stronger than the politicians and he embodied the pride of France.
Russia had suffered badly in eastern front confrontations, but her immense reserves of men and territory still presented a massive threat to the central powers. (Buchan) "The statesman who marvelled at Russia’s apparent strength and exulted in her alliance, did not realise the she represented a stage of development wholly unlike that of Western nations…… Her mystic communism had no affinities with the shallow materialism and the capitalistic tyranny which had been the working creed of western Europe and the United States……… they forget that the humanity admired in Russian idealism might as easily have its roots in moral apathy and intellectual slovenliness as in divine wisdom and that qualities which may characterise the saint may also be an attribute of the mollusc." (as far as I can tell this was written before the Revolution of 1917, if so, prescient)
Although in a strong position militarily, Germany’s threat on the high seas was now limited to the North Sea and the U-boat campaign. In the medium to long term its position was difficult. Except through Scandinavia and Holland to the north, and Italy and Roumania to south and east, communications with the outer world were cut, and import of goods of all types was problematic.
Austria was reduced to a weak and inferior German partner with little autonomy in how she conducted her preferred approach to the war. She had to face the prospect of aggression from the south, in Italy, which had been part of an apparent triple alliance only months earlier.
Italy held an important strategic position on the flank of both Austria and Germany. Its membership of the Triple alliance dated back to 1881 and the Congress of Berlin, (which gave Cyprus to Britain and Tunis to France) but Italy was a new power, not naturally or historically linked with Austria or Germany. At the outbreak of war she had better relations with both Britain and France and her neutrality was not surprising. As Austria came under increasing pressure opportunism might push Italy into declaring for the Allies.
Romania and Bulgaria were smaller nations but potentially influential depending on the continuation, or not, of their neutrality. Both had had reversals of fortune during the first and second Balkan wars, and might move in either direction. Roumania had strong relations with Italy, and for the moment would follow Italy’s lead, and Bulgaria in turn would likely follow Roumania – but nothing was certain, and Bulgaria’s king was pro German. As we have seen the entry of Turkey into the war had raised the tension in the Balkan theatre
Across the Atlantic, the USA had started the war period with an avowedly neutral stance, and President Wilson worked hard to emphasise this. Despite large German and American Irish sympathies, the majority American opinion was more supportive of the allies than the central powers, but it seemed unlikely that any important intervention would come from the USA, although large numbers of Empire Canadians were flocking to the British army’s cause.
Naval Situation December 1914
Apart from the successful transport of the BEF to France in August, the Royal Navy’s first few months had brought more frustration and embarrassment than success. The hapless pursuit of the Goben and Breslau ended in their escape to the Black Sea where they caused severe damage to the allies - physically and diplomatically. The Battle of Coronel off South America's tip brought Britain’s first defeat in a major naval action in over 100 years, albeit swiftly revenged at the Battle of the Falklands. The sinking by German mines of the ‘super-dreadnought’ battleship HMS Audacious off Donegal on 27th October was such an embarrassment that news of it was suppressed until after the war.
|The last minutes of HMS Audacious.|
Censorship of press and official information was so strict, that the
loss of a major capital ship in home waters was suppressed for years
In home waters during November and December 1914, there was great uncertainty about the intentions of the Germans. Jellicoe, as C-in-C, was very cautious, and at odds with Fisher and Churchill at the Admiralty re his dispositions. There were also continuing anxieties about a German invasion during November, and defensive preparations were made all along the East Coast.
16th December saw a naval bombardment of Hartlepool and Scarborough. The British set out to trap the four responsible German battleships in a pincer movement from north and south as soon as they heard about it. Bad weather supervened, and in mist the Germans made an improbable retreat. In fact, this action came close to a major sea battle, since the German battle cruisers were the vanguard of von Ingelhohl’s High Sea Fleet near the Dogger Bank; but von Ingelhohl turned tail and ran back to Cuxhaven when the fleets were only a few miles apart. The whole event was another PR embarrassment for the Admiralty, but was of no strategic significance.
There will be short pause in these blogs before we move on to cover the events of 1915