Saturday, 28 March 2015

Western Front early 2015

At the start of 1915, the fortified Western Front stretched 350 miles from the Swiss alps to the Channel. The German fleet was trapped in its harbours, and the British could neither lure it out, nor go behind it to alleviate behind the front. Thus, for the first time in recent military history, there was no scope for a turning movement. Frontal assault was known to be costly, and very likely to be fruitless – hence the stalemate. (Nevertheless, full frontal attacks were pursued by the French and British throughout 1915, 1916 and 1917 at horrific cost). Until the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in march, described alter, there were only skirmishes and small tactical actions along the whole front.
From some British leaders’ viewpoint (Churchill and Lloyd George especially), the Western front was at an impasse – attackers would fare worse than defenders – and France was completely pre-occupied by the invasion of her soil. Russia was under pressure, and communication was poor; the Fleet was now in control of the high seas, and the likely theatre for realistic progress was the near East/Eastern Mediterranean. They pressurized Asquith, promoting the near East as a new theatre of war. Like the German ‘east or west’ debate, there were those on the British side – Kitchener, Grey, French – plus the authority of Joffre in France, who shared Falkenhayn’s military view that only decisive victory on the Western front could break the deadlock. 

Falkenhay's Plan (from Churchill: The Great War  Vol II)

Falkenhayn was still smarting from losing his personal argument with Hindenburg re East/west strategy, and resolved to create another reserve army that he could employ on the Western Front. He planned to take battalions from various quieter points of the front, add in some reserves and create the new 11th Army, to be placed under control of two of his rising stars, Colonels von Seeckt and Krafft.

Hans von Seeckt (1866-1936)
A brilliant strategist, he later became
influential in strategy for
Hitler's Wehrmacht

Over a period of two months he planned to build this army, and chose the area of the front from Arras to the Somme for a full frontal attack to pierce the Allied line. The right flank of the British line at La Bassee would come under early pressure, and the aim was to push it back towards Boulogne and Calais, wrapping up the British, French and Belgian forces to the north. The tenth French army of Maud’huy would be pushed south and west, creating a wide gap through to the Pas de Calais.
This plan did not materialise – the British struck first at Neuve Chapelle in early March, and in fact his new 11th Army was also destined to move to the Eastern Front, not serve in the West 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Developments on the Eastern Front

French Troops landing at Lemnos 1915

In any discussion of WW1events in 1915, the elephant in the room is Gallipoli. For all the scale and significance of other happenings on the Western and Eastern fronts, and at sea, during 1915, nothing matches Gallipoli in terms of enduring catastrophe. Right up there with the Somme and Passchendaele for the exemplar of the "Lions led by donkeys" argument, Gallipoli was a saga running right through the year  - then after that the inquests ran and ran. The 'lions' came from Australia, New Zealand, India and France as well as from Britain, and their courage and sacrifices were truly heroic. I will devote several posts to the Gallipoli campaign, and the decisions of the 'donkeys' as the year passes, but first a summary of actions on the Eastern Front in the early months of the year. The precarious position of the Russians at this time was more due to weapon shortages and communications failures than their courage or tactical positions. However, it increased the pressure on the Allies to force the Dardanelles straits and open a new theatre of war.The first action in the east for Hindenburg to threaten the Russians was the large pincer movement – the Crab -  from near to Konigsberg in the north to the Carpathians in the south.

On 31st January, the first attack by the left claw of the pincer began what the Kaiser called the Winter Battle of Masuria, engaging with the enemy on 4 February. It included the first use of poison gas by the Germans, but the extreme cold temperature limited its effectiveness. In deep snow and blizzards, the armies of the German pincer moved forward, aiming to encircle the bulk of the opposing Russian army. By 12th February, steady progress had cut off the Russian retreat towards Kovno, and on 14th the right claw of the crab pierced Lyck. The Kaiser visited the rear of the lines to congratulate them on their important victory, and 350,000 Russians were marching eastwards to escape the trap, burning villages en route. Chaos and fierce fighting ensued. Russian counter attacks from Kovno came to support their retreat, but they were driven steadily south. Many Russians escaped to the safety of Grodno, but many were left unprotected in the Augustow forest, which was completely encircled by the German by 18th February. The Russians resisted bravely for 4 days, but by the end of 21st, 30,000 soldier and 11 Generals had surrendered. It was like a re-run of Tannenberg. 
Abandoned Russian trench in the
Forest of Augustow

This ended the vicious winter battle. The Russian 10th army had not been completely encircled, but was finished as a potential invading force, and had lost nearly 250,000 men – nearly half of them dead. However, the remnants of the Russian right were now dug in, and with some reinforcements, were able to mount a counter attack, with success at Kosno, at the line of the river Nieman; and at Ossowietz, and by mid-March Hindenburg had withdrawn the left of his line to stability about ten miles inside the Russian border.

In the centre, a major battle at Przasnysz – fought in extreme cold and blizzards -  went the way of the Russians, and effectively put paid to Hindenburg’s designs on Moscow.
Further south, on the Russian left, battle raged through the winter for the Carpathians and, even more intriguingly, for the plains of Hungary, reached by the extreme left of the Russians skirting round to the east of the mountains, and advancing towards neutral Roumania to the east. This was a dangerous development for both Austria and Germany, for military, political and above all resource reasons. In the wake of Berchtold’s resignation on 13th January, the depleted and demoralized Austrian forces had been reorganized into three armies. The central of these was mainly German, and was newly commanded by Ludendorff, bitterly contemptuous of his Austrian allies. 
Boraevitch, commanding the western army, was charged with the relief of besieged Przemysl, but made little headway towards it. To the east, the army of von Pflanzer-Baltin had to counter the Russian moves into Hungary, and had more success than the western army. They captured the key railway line at Stanislau by the end of February, cutting the Russian supply line.
By late March, the two sides had more or less fought each other to a standstill. The Russians were in strong positions to the north of the Carpathian passes, but had withdrawn from Hungary on their left. Despite their offensives, the Austrians were a long way short of their targets – the relief of Przemysl and Lemberg. In fact, on 22nd March after a siege of seven months, Przemysl fell, after further rounds of incompetent defence by its garrison commander. It had been the first and most vital element of the Austrian empire’s defence against invasion from the east. Buchan writes “The fall of Przemysl was not so much a Russian achievement as an Austrian disgrace”. There now followed a lull, while Hindenburg considered his options and the Russians consolidated.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

1915. Early decisions – Eastern or Western front strategy?

Cartoon of forces in play Europe 1915
As previously noted, 1915 would prove to be a very bad year for the Allied cause. Costly losses from futile offensives on the Western front; serious reverses for the Russian forces; and above all the protracted catastrophe of the Dardanelles campaign all greatly outweighed any successes. “Pride was everywhere to be humbled, and nowhere to receive its satisfaction” (Churchill)
However, at the beginning of the year, Germany had much to be concerned about. Although Turkey had signed an alliance, the rest of the Balkan nations were lined up against Turkey, and intelligence from Conrad suggested that both Roumania and Italy might declare war on Austria imminently. All of this put pressure on them to strengthen the Eastern front. Otherwise, with no direct route through to Turkey, Germany might be isolated, particularly if the Balkan nations and Italy attacked and defeated Austria. Because of their victories, Hindenberg and Ludendorff held a moral superiority over their seniors on the Western front, and they pushed hard for more actions in the East.
Falkenhayn did not agree, nor did he fully appreciate the impossibility of making significant progress on the Western front. He took a traditional view about the necessity of attacking warfare, and he believed the only way to break the combination of France, Britain and Russia was via the west, and the defeat of France. As War Minister, he was assembling a large new army of four corps within Germany, and planned to move them to the northern part of the Western front to break the Anglo-French line. This plan caused high level political and military arguments about East versus West strategies. Hindenberg clashed with Falkenhayn, and sought a decision from the Kaiser to replace him.
Kaiser and Hindenburg.
Hindenburg gained the Kaiser's ear
in his clash of the Teutons with Falkenhayn
On the 8th January, the Kaiser was persuaded in favour of the supporters of the ‘east strategy’, undermining Falkenhayn seriously. The latter's response aimed to split the Hindenberg Ludendorff axis by re-assigning Ludendorff to lead the new south facing army. Hindenberg protested, and on 11th January Falkenhayn travelled to Breslau to confront Hindenberg, Conrad and Linsingen (Marshall of the new army). Two days later he had further tense talks with both Ludendorff and Hindenberg. The Kaiser now had to arbitrate this crisis. He decided in favour of Hindenberg, and ordered the new armies to pursue south eastern attacks rather than move to Flanders. Falkenhayn resigned as Minister for War. He stayed on for two years as Chief of Staff for the German armies, but had lost most of his authority.
At around the same time as this, the Austrian Foreign Minister Berchtold cracked under the pressure, and was relieved to be sacked by the Emperor. Burian, a protégé of the courageous Tisza, Hungarian Minister and President, replaced him.

Stephan Freiherr von Burian 1915
From these points of crisis the Germans moved forward strongly, and were to have much the better of 1915 – in the East, where Serbia would be destroyed; Bulgaria would come in on the side of the central powers; and on the western front the Entente would be rebuffed.
Mechanical and technological considerations also influenced the view of the Western stalemate. The torpedo and the mine could paralyse the strongest fleet; and the strongest army could be nullified by the machine gun. The counters to these were monitors, smoke and tanks, but they needed a lot of development. Armoured cars were prototypes for the tank, and caterpillars were gradually developed to cross trenches and cut barbed wire. However, early use of this technology was badly mishandled, and it would not be until 1917 at Cambrai that the tank made its first serious breakthrough.
The Eastern front was always more patchy, disjointed and unstable than the Western. Situated at the Russian HQ, Colonel Knox was a perceptive British liaison officer, who kept the home government informed about the status of the Russian army, and how its weaknesses in weapons and communications were foreboding a major disaster.
All these factors encouraged the development of plans for huge, navy-led turning movements to link up with the ailing Russians – either through a northern route, via the Baltic sea, or southern route, via the Balkans. The southern route (via the Dardanelles) was preferred by more, but was always controversial.