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.

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