Battle of the Vistula River

vistulapainting

17- 31 October 1914 – Vistula River

Above: an artistic portrayal of Russians repulsing a German night attack during the Battle of the Vistula River with spotlights. 

Today, General Paul von Hindenburg orders a retreat of Erich von Ludendorff’s 9th Army from the northern approaches to Warsaw. His right-hand man has been attacking a superior force of sixty divisions with just eighteen German and Austrian divisions for the last two weeks, an offensive that continued even after captured documents showed them the true size of the Russian force in Poland.

Whereas their near-destruction of Russia’s 2nd Army at Tannenberg was made possible due to superior intelligence, the failure of their October offensive has been made inevitable by Russian radio deception, overconfidence, and a lack of good maps that has severely retarded the advance of German reserves to exploit victories along the Polish frontier.

Hindenburg at center, Ludendorff on his right, with their staff

We can hardly credit the Russians with superior performance, however. Miscommunication and clashing egos led to an unsupported solo offensive by General Nikolai Ruzsky that diverted strength from the defense of Warsaw. General Nikolay Ivanov’s 3rd Army marched forty miles a day to reach the Vistula River from Galicia, leaving thousands of horses dead along the roadside, only to discover that he had forgotten to provide for bridging operations.

Fearing for their lives, Russian officials have evacuated the border zones for Warsaw; donning civilian clothes, police have allowed their bailiwicks to lapse into anarchy. Russian officers are not trained for civil administration, so when they retake towns along the frontier, the improvised police-forces that were scratched together under the brief German occupation stay in place.

But the most corrosive problem is the rampant black market, which undermines discipline. With the Tsar’s order of alcohol prohibition in military districts, soldiers constantly steal booze or sell their food, equipment, and even their uniforms to get it. It is getting cold, and the Autumn rains leave men soaked to the bone; the fighting is as miserable here as anywhere in the war, especially for men who have sold their overcoats for vodka.

"Catching it hot" -- a British cartoon depicts Mother Russia spanking the Central Powers, reflecting Russian reports of the Battle of the Vistula

Although the result of the Battle of the Vistula is undoubtedly a Russian victory, it is hardly a decisive one. Their estimates of German casualties are repeated uncritically in the British and French press, overstating the true number by half. Undeterred, Hindenburg and Ludendorff organize a retreat in good order over two weeks, then return for another offensive in November. While this second offensive still fails to take Warsaw, this has been the last great victory that the imperial Russian army will ever see in Poland — and it is not nearly as great as the Stavka (General Staff) wants to believe.

Tsar Nicholas II (left) meeting Kaiser Wilhelm weeks prior to the war

(I’m still mired in coursework right now. Credit for this post: Matt Osborne’s The Great War Blog)

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October 16-31, 1914: The Battle of Yser

The Belgian army’s defense of the Yser Canal in October 1914 is referred to as the Battle of Yser.  The German offensive at the Canal, which ran south from the English Channel at Nieuwport in north-western Belgium, formed part of a wider battle for control of Flanders, notably at Ypres.

 The land surrounding the River Yser, which formed a natural obstacle to the German advance, was woven through with a network of drainage canals, the area itself being made up of ‘polder’, or reclaimed land.  The water level was situated just below the surface and was regulated by the canals and their associated network of sluices and pumps.  The head of the drainage system was at Nieuwpoort, where the Yser met the sea, and where several other major canals joined.

The German Fourth Army, operating under Duke Albrecht, began attacking Belgian forces deployed along the Canal on 18 October with a heavy bombardment all along the Belgian lines.  With the aid of British warships lying off the coast the Belgians managed to repel the German advance, the latter temporarily withdrawing to Oostende, having unsuccessfully trying to torpedo the warships.

Following repeated attacks over the following four days, a German division managed to form a bridgehead at Tervaete after a small band of troops managed to quietly cross a temporary footbridge over the Canal on 22 October without having fired a shot.  This success forced the Belgians to retreat to the Diksmuide-Nieuwpoort railway on 24 October.  Whilst there they received reinforcements from the French 42nd division.

At Diksmuide itself, twelve miles south of Nieuwpoort, half of the 6,500 French navy troops, the Marins Fusiliers, stationed under the command of Admiral Ronarc’h, suffered casualties or losses.  Since Diksmuide formed a bridgehead to the eastern side of the canal its retention was of great importance.

With Belgian resistance weakening and the King, Albert I, fearing a German breakthrough in the direction of Dunkirk and Calais, the Belgians took the drastic step of opening of the Canal locks at Nieuwpoort on 25 October.  The result was a gradual flooding of the low country between the Canal and the railway.  Consequently the German Fourth Army was obliged to retreat on 29 October, transferring its offensive effort to Ypres.https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/89/Yser_inundations_and_western_approaches_to_Houthoulst_Forest%2C_1914.jpg

Diksmuide fell to the Germans on 10 November, but Nieuwpoort remained in Belgian hands throughout the war.

(Text credited to First World War.com . . . I’m still quite busy with schoolwork)

OCTOBER 22 1914 – THE CAPTURE OF LANGEMARCK DURING FIRST YPRES

Again, history.com takes more interest in this particular event than do I. I therefore won’t attempt to re-write something already cogent.

On this day in 1914, in a bitter two-day stretch of hand-to-hand fighting, German forces capture the Flemish town of Langemarck from its Belgian and British defenders during the First Battle of Ypres.

The trench lines built in the fall of 1914 between the town of Ypres, on the British side, and Menin and Roulers, on the German side—known as the Ypres salient—became the site of some of the fiercest battles of World War I, beginning in October 1914 with the so-called First Battle of Ypres. The battle, launched on October 19, was a vigorous attempt by the Germans to drive the British out of the salient altogether, thus clearing the way for the German army to access the all-important Belgian coastline with its access to the English Channel and, beyond, to the North Sea.

The German forces advancing against Ypres had a numerical advantage over the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), as General Erich von Falkenhayn was able to send the entire German 4th and 6th Armies against the BEF’s seven infantry divisions (one was held in reserve) and three cavalry divisions. For reinforcements, Sir John French, commander of the BEF, had only a few divisions of Indian troops already en route to Flanders; in the days to come, however, these replacement troops would distinguish themselves with excellent performances in both offensive and defensive operations.

After the initial rapid movement of the German offensive, the Battle of Ypres became a messy, desperate struggle for land and position, leaving the countryside and villages around it in a state of bloody devastation. A German artilleryman, Herbert Sulzbach, wrote on October 21 of his experience in the battle: “We pull forward, get our first glimpse of this battlefield, and have to get used to the terrible scenes and impressions: corpses, corpses and more corpses, rubble, and the remains of villages.” After the German capture of Langemarck on October 22, fighting at Ypres continued for one more month, before the arrival of winter weather brought the battle to a halt. The Ypres salient, however, would see much more of the same bitter conflict before the war was over, including a major battle in the spring of 1915—also a German offensive—and an attempted Allied breakthrough in the summer of 1917.

Oct 17, 1912: Serbia and Greece declare war on Ottoman Empire in First Balkan War

I’m a little bit consumed with schoolwork right now, so please pardon the lack of original composition: the following comes from history.com.

On October 17, 1912, following the example of Montenegro, their smaller ally in the tumultuous Balkan region of Europe, Serbia and Greece declare war on the Ottoman Empire, beginning the First Balkan War in earnest.

Four years earlier, a rebellion in Ottoman-held Macedonia by the nationalist society known as the Young Turks had shaken the stability of the sultan’s rule in Europe. Austria-Hungary had acted quickly to capitalize on this weakness, annexing the dual Balkan provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina and urging Bulgaria, also under Turkish rule, to proclaim its independence. These actions quickly upset the delicate balance of power on the Balkan Peninsula: Ambitious Serbia was outraged, considering Bosnia-Herzegovina to be part of its own rightful territory due to their shared Slavic heritage. Czarist Russia, the other great power with influence in the region—and a strong supporter of Serbia—also felt threatened by Austria’s actions.

By the spring of 1912, Russia had encouraged the cluster of Balkan nations—Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece—to form an alliance aimed at taking control of some or all of the European territory still occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Though often at odds with one another, the disparate Balkan peoples were able to join forces when driven by the singular goal of striking at a distracted Turkey, by then ensnared in a war with Italy over territory in Libya. Montenegro declared war on October 8, 1912; Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece followed suit nine days later.

The outcome of the First Balkan War surprised many, as the combined Balkan forces quickly and decisively defeated the Ottoman army, driving the Turks from almost all of their territory in southeastern Europe within a month. In the wake of Turkey’s withdrawal, the great European powers—Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia—scrambled to exert control over the region, convening a congress with the belligerent nations in London in December 1912 to draw up post-war boundaries in the Balkans. The resulting agreement—which partitioned Macedonia between the four victorious Balkan powers—led to a peace concluded on May 30, 1913, which nonetheless left Bulgaria feeling cheated out of its rightful share by Serbia and Greece. This led to a Second Balkan War just one month later, in which Bulgaria turned against its two former allies in a surprise attack ordered by King Ferdinand I without consultation with his own government.

In the ensuing conflict, Bulgaria was quickly defeated by forces from Serbia, Greece, Turkey and Romania. By the terms of the Treaty of Bucharest, signed August 10, Bulgaria lost a considerable amount of territory, and Serbia and Greece received control of most of Macedonia. In the wake of the two Balkan wars, tensions in the region only increased, simmering just beneath the surface and threatening to explode at any point. Austria-Hungary—which had expected first Turkey and then Bulgaria to triumph and had badly wanted to see Serbia crushed—became increasingly wary of growing Slavic influence in the Balkans, in the form of the upstart Serbia and its sponsor, Russia. Significantly, the Dual Monarchy’s own powerful ally, Germany, shared this concern. In a letter to the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister in October 1913 that foreshadowed the devastating global conflict to come, Kaiser Wilhelm II characterized the outcome of the Balkan wars as “a historic process to be classed in the same category as the great migrations of people, the present case was a powerful forward surge of the Slavs. War between East and West was in the long run inevitable…The Slavs are born not to rule but to obey.”

OCTOBER 11 1914 – THE BATTLE OF FLIREY

War presents many ironies.

Perhaps the greatest of all ironies in the First World War is Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on the obsolescence of non-democratic governments. One of the major planks of this position was the belief that only a democratic system could give proper opportunities to the most talented men in any particular skill or profession. By this logic, the Germans, with their aristocratic ways (the Junkers had an effective monopoly on military commissions), should have never been in any way comparable to French military leadership. As it turned out, the exact opposite was true.

Before the Great War, all military thinkers agreed that only the offensive could win a military conflict. The two extremes within this thinking, however, were the French and the Germans: In the French military hierarchy, a belief in offense à l’outrance (offensive to the extreme) came to be the norm to such a degree that dissenters could not hope to be promoted; For the Germans, they believed that only a offensives could win, but they made it a point encourage their commanders to identify their opponents’ weaknesses.

Thus, the French methodically ordered their men to butchery over and over again, believing that total and unrestrained offensives would gain victory despite whatever resistance their enemies presented. The Germans, on the other hand, were content to dig trenches, break their opponents’ attacks with machine guns, then counter-attack after an artillery barrage.

It was the Germans who understood the great key to fighting a static battle-front: not men, not rifles, not machine guns, but artillery is the key to success. It was the artillery which broke up the enemy, and the infantry merely advanced to occupy the newly vacated area.

The Battle of Flirey was a result of this methodical combination of military thinking: the Germans to formed a re-assessment of the battlefront near Verdun. They reasoned that the river bluffs and ridges near the town of St. Mihiel would be far easier to defend than the open fields which they currently occupied. By building a defense in the new position, they could concentrate their forces elsewhere without worrying too much about the St. Mihiel sector.

Artillery bombardments preceded series of attacks on September 19, and the Germans pushed forward. Too late, the French realized the strength of the German offensive, and rushed reinforcements to the area on the 22nd. By this time, however, the Germans had nearly achieved their limited goals, and captured St. Mihiel on September 24. In their new positions, the Germans successfully beat off French attacks which lasted until October 11.

As the two armies continued to attempt to race around each other’s flank up North, the Western front now looked like this. The area of the Battle of Flirey is highlighted. Click the map to enlarge.

Flirey

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OCTOBER 10 1914 – THE END OF THE SIEGE OF ANTWERP

When the Germans invaded Belgium, beginning in early August 1914, they had no intention of wresting away every inch of Belgian territory . . . at least not yet. Rather, the primary reason for marching through Belgium was simply to obviate a confrontation with the French forces closer to the Franco-German border. In the interest of speed, certain cities had to be taken, of course, including Liege, a crucial intersection of roads and bridges for any army passing through the area. As the war slowly matured, however, German chief of staff Erich Falkenhayn set his sights on another Belgian target of critical importance: the port city of Antwerp.

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Many reasons existed, of course, for taking the city, but none greater than the British threat: Antwerp represented the only place in the surrounding region capable of supporting large numbers of shipping. When the initial elements of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had gone to France, for example, they had landed at Le Havre . . . nearly 225 miles from Antwerp. If the Entente could hang onto Antwerp, the British could pour in their reinforcements almost directly upon a German flank. Thus the Germans prioritized their siege of the city as sit became clear that they would be unable to win a quick war over France.

Antwerp_defences,_1914[1]

Bombardments of the city began on September 28, with the Germans immediately beginning the process of tightening their forces like a large noose around the city and surrounding forts. Huge guns helped to reduce the forts which protected Antwerp, and slowly the Germans gained strategic points.

1920504T217[1]

As it became clear that the Germans would eventually overpower the defenders, surrounding and then cutting them off, the decision was made to withdraw many of the troops from the area and leave the city to eventual surrender, which occurred on October 10.

07-map-battle-of-Antwerp-1914[1]

The struggle for Antwerp was significant for two reasons:

1) Belgian and British forces had organized several sorties from the city while under siege, effectively forcing the Germans to re-route troops which had originally been directed to extended the line on the main line traveling North after the Battle of Aisne. Had the siege not distracted them, the Germans might have won the “Race to the Sea,” and at least changed the course of the war on the Western Front.

2) The German capture of the city transformed it from one of the Entente’s strategic assets into their highest priority target. The British, especially keen on opening a new port for transporting their troops and supplies, nearly always had an eye on recapturing Antwerp. This represented a primary factor in the ensuing battles near Ypres and Flanders.

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OCTOBER 6, 1908 – AUSTRIA-HUNGARY ANNEXES BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

Way back in 1878, some of the great European powers at the Congress of Berlin awarded to Austria-Hungary the right to occupy the Balkan provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These were territories under the power of the Ottoman empire, but many saw the Turks’ assertions in the area as weak and malleable. Thus, many nations coveted the two provinces . . . in fact, Austria and Hungary had each wanted the provinces for their individual selves, not to be ruled under their dual monarchy. Yet beginning in 1878, Austria-Hungary took over practical administration of these provinces . . . in name and in law, however, they still belonged to the Ottoman Empire.

That changed on October 6, 1908, when the dual monarchy (Austria-Hungary) announced its annexation of the two provinces. Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Baron Aloys von Aerenthal decided on the move after considering the negligible risks: annexing the two provinces would probably anger both the Ottoman Empire, as well as Russia (who had strong sympathies with the Slavs in the region), but the Turks remained relatively weak, and Russia was still reeling from her defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (and internal revolution) of 1905.

Alois_Lexa_von_Aehrenthal[1]
(Baron Aloys von Aerenthal)

More than anything else, however, the annexation had infuriated the next-door neighbor to Bosnia: Serbia. Like many powers in and around the Balkans, the Serbs had great ambitions of uniting entire ethnic regions (so called) under their own banner. Austria-Hungary’s annexation not only swallowed up an area into which Serbia instead might have expanded, but it also put Austria-Hungary right on the doorstep of Serbia . . . a threatening springboard in the event that the dual monarchy elected to attempt another expansion of its empire.

In January 1909, the chiefs of staff of Austria Hungary (Franz Conrad von Hotzendorff) and German (Helmuth von Moltke) met to discuss some of the possible ramifications of the annexation. Among other things, Moltke assured Conrad that if Austria-Hungary ever went to war with Serbia, even as the aggressor, Germany would not only support the dual monarchy, but she would fulfill her obligation as an ally even if it meant going to war with Russia and France as well.

It’s not hard to imagine that much of the groundwork for WWI had been set.