DECEMBER 25, 1914- THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE

As the Western front became mired deeper in deeper in the stalemate of trench warfare, the speed of events slowed down. As I blog my way through some of the major events of World War I (hopefully, on the 100th anniversary of each event), I realize that I may find a gap in major events, or find myself covering events that just seem a tad mundane or redundant.

Redundancy, as a matter of fact, represents the reason why I chose not to blog about the Battle of Givenchy (December 22, 1914). The battle was essentially a demonstration in the futility of trench warfare: each side attacked, each side only succeeded in capturing the first few lines of their enemies’ trenches. Surely the battle stands as significant to many, but it failed to attracted my interest for a blog post.

So what about the (perhaps) most famous event of World War I? The Christmas Truce? So much has been written about it that I feel a tad over-awed by an attempt to cover the same.

So with gaps between some events and other events being over-explained, I turn to the WWI memoirs of the men who suffered through the war’s front lines: David King, an American in the French foreign legion; the German Georg Bucher; the Frenchman Louis Barthas; . . . I also hope to settle upon a British war memoir also. I will speak more about these folks in later posts. But for now, allow me to introduce an excerpt from Barthas’ text.

As you may already know, the Christmas Truce was an event in WWI when, on December 25, 1914, up and down the lines between Entente and Allied forces on the Western Front, an informal truce was called between soldiers of both sides, allowing them at least to care for the wounded and dead in no-mans land, but in many places fraternization occurred also. Though this may seem odd to us, we would do well to remember that WWI was not necessarily a popular war in the eyes of the soldiers. Most of them were forcibly drafted into service, and many of them felt themselves a part of a socialist brotherhood also. So when we read about the Christmas Truce, in the light of the apparent meaninglessness of the war, we get a sense that the soldiers, too, felt that the war was meaningless, and that they would have preferred a peace with their supposed enemies. What did they care for the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian duke, Franz Ferdinand? What did they care for aggressive diplomacies and alliances? (My course paper this last semester examined a number of these issues. Click here if you’d like to view/download it)

The Christmas Truce, then, highlights the lack of support which the war had among the common troops, though, again, we would do well to remember that the truce was neither official nor ubiquitous: setting themselves against the men: officers and military leaders came down hard upon leaders of the truce, and far fewer truces occurred during the Christmases of 1915 and 1916 (interestingly, this could also be seen as indicative of the antipathy between officers and men); and for various reasons, some areas of the front never experienced a truce at all, or at least they did not fraternize with the enemy.

Such was the experience of Louis Barthas. Being a leader of his community, and helping to organize a fraternization with the Germans who opposed them during a scenario in 1916, it seems clear that had Barthas known of the possibility of an informal truce during Christmas of 1914, he might have taken part. Nevertheless, he spent that Christmas in much more misery:
“The following night was the holy night of Christmas Eve. As soon as night fell, we were huddled in our holes, enjoying the thought of sleeping until dawn, when at about 9 o’clock a harsh voice passed the order to get out of our holes and to hoist our packs with all speed.

 In fact, something unusual happened up at the front line. You could hear songs, clamors, numerous flares were set off on both sides, but no firing at all.

            Two hours later, the alert was called off. We had no explanation of what had happened until the next day. I yield the pen to someone who can speak with more authority than I can, our captain [Leon Hudelle], who tells about this curious tale in a book. [Here Barthas included a newspaper clipping in his notebooks, which has since been lost]

            On Christmas Day, without any respect for the holiness of the day, they put us to work digging a big shelter where the whole squad was supposed to make itself happy. Useless work, at least for us, for that very evening we had to go up to the front line, after just forty-eight hours of “rest”- and what rest!

            There were five more days and five more nights of vigil and hard labor, without rest, without sleep, paddling around in the mud, bending under a rainstorm or shivering when the bise of the North froze the ground solid.”

~Louis Barthas, Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918, trans. by Edward M. Strauss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 51.

DECEMBER 16, 1914 – THE GERMANS SHELL SCARBOROUGH AND HARTLEPOOL

One of the ironies of WWI emerges from the growth of the German navy. But first, a bit of background.

In the early 20th century, it was still common to find aristocracies and royalties, many of whom preferred to marry only among each other. Indeed, three of the most powerful men in Europe in 1914 were related to each other: Wilhelm of Germany and George of England were first cousins, Nicholas of Russia and George were first cousins, and Wilhelm and Nicholas were third cousins.

In 1914, Wilhelm would have been 55, the oldest of these three. Curiously, Wihelm did not, however, gain relevant maturity with his years, however. Whether because he was born with a shriveled arm or because he perceived other nations as not giving Germany proper respect, Wilhelm seemed to suffer from a sort of inferiority complex.

Remarkably, this need not have been the case: before Wilhelm began to involve himself in the state (indeed, before he was old enough to even do so), the Germans were more or less directed by Otto von Bismark, a brilliant statesman and a master of diplomacy. Germany credited its unification and rise to power to Bismark. Unfortunately for Bismakr, however, he and Wilhelm had a falling out, leading to Bismark’s retirement (a great story . . . see my post on the German command for more details).

So then where Bismark might have played the British for the shrewd masters of the sea he knew they wanted to be, Wilhelm instead decided to host a parade of his navy, inviting his cousin King George, and announcing to the world that he wished for Germany to join Britain as master of the seas. Ironically, while Wilhelm meant this as a friendly gesture (he was indeed näive enough to believe that Germany and Britain could co-exist as super-powers in Europe), Britain took it as a challenge, and from then on assumed that their next war would be with Germany. They increased the rate of building warships in order to stay ahead of Germany.

Thus, when WWI broke out, Wilhelm’s naval leaders advised him that it would not be wise to meet the British Royal Navy head on, if at all. Instead, raids and distractions would have to be their tools. Their greatest hope would be to lure out a small portion of the British navy which could then be cut off and destroyed. This line of thinking formed the background to the raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby.

In early December, German rear Admiral Franz Hipper began seeking permission to conduct a raid on British ports. Though assent had to come down all the way from Wilhelm himself, it was eventually granted, with a U-boat offering reconnaissance of the relevant area.

The Germans sent out 4 battlecruisers (ships without the armor of battleships/dreadnoughts, but with the same heavy guns and far greater speed), 1 amoured cruiser, 4 light destroyers and 18 regular destroyers. They intended to shell British port towns while the vanguard of their navy, the High Seas Fleet, waited in the wings, hoping that a section (but not the van) of the Royal navy could be drawn out. By scattering the initial raiding force between Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, the Germans hoped to convince the British that the threat was real enough to merit attention, but not significant enough that they would have to do any more than chase the Germans away without a fight.

The three port towns came under fire beginning at 6:30AM, with relatively mild damage done. The British felt that they could catch the raiders before they reached home port, and set out from Scapa Flow (their main naval anchorage) with 6 dreadnoughts, 4 battlecruisers, 4 armored cruisers, 4 light cruisers and 7 destroyers.

Soon, the German admiral commanding the vanguard of the High Seas Fleet, Friedrich von Ingenohl, got word of this force steaming towards his. Even so, his orders put much responsibility on his shoulders: he was to destroy the British, but he was not to place his fleet in jeopardy. He decided to turn back to Germany rather than face the approaching British force. Had he stayed, it’s likely that the raids on the British port towns would have achieved their desired ends: Ingenohl’s force greatly outnumbered and outgunned the approaching British (for example, he had 22 dreadnoughts at his disposal against the mere 6 of the British). Had he managed to sink the entire approaching force, it would have been exactly the sort of equalizing battle the Germans needed . . . it would have made the comparative size of the German and British navies just about equal.

Instead, the raids against Scarborough etc. became mostly a rallying cry for draftees. Just over 700 casualties had occurred, with minor damage to 3 British ships and 3 German ships. The draft posters, however, made this into a much more visible episode.

December 15, 1914: The Battle of Kolubara

Recall, if you will, that the flashpoint from which WWI sprang, its point of ignition, resided in the assassination of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary (Franz Ferdinand) by a cabal of Serbian extremists. While other, larger powers of Europe certainly meant to fight elsewhere and against each other (e.g., Russia, Germany, France, Britain), an Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia was a forgone conclusion.

Trouble was, the more often it went on campaign, the more the mighty Austro-Hungarian military exposed itself  as weak in morale and leadership.

The Austro-Hungarians first tried to punish Serbia at the very beginning of the war, invading in August 1914.

Serbian forces were initially overwhelmed and overawed, but eventually rallied to attack the Austro-Hungarians in and around the mountain passes at the Battle of Cer. The Serbs lost about 16,500 men in their successful attempt to drive the Austro-Hungarians (who themselves had lost about 23,000 men) out of their country.

In early September, the Serbians found themselves under pressure by their allies to invade Austria-Hungary in order to force it to spend troops defending against a Serbian invasion. At first things went well, but when the Austro-Hungarians launched another invasion of Serbia, the Serbians were forced to pull back. The issue of the Battle of Drina eventually settled into trench warfare (in mid October) along a line running roughly from Shabatz to Liubaviyan.

Finally, in late October, the Austro-Hungarians launched a third invasion of Serbia. Again, things went pretty well initially, and the Serbians pulled back much farther into Serbia than they ever had before, regrouping near the Kolubara river amidst a bloody, draining and demoralizing retreat. Nevertheless, the Serbians had fought strategically: they had understood that the region of Northwestern Serbia deeply favored defensive warfare, and so while they had been pushed back, they had taken a large toll on the Austro-Hungarians in the meantime. Even better, they found themselves in relatively good condition to continue fighting, if only they had more supplies and heavy weapons, their own having been abandoned in the retreat to Kolubara.

While the Russians and British sent naught but apologies, the French promised to supply the Serbians with a number of weapons and ammunition. These did not arrive in time to assist the Serbians in resisting the attacks of the Austro-Hungarians, who had appeared at the Kolubara on November 16.  These attacks continually pounded the Serbians backwards, but they only retreated tactically, and only after inflicting deep wounds on their oppressors. The high-point came on December 2: The Austro-Hungarians had advanced deep into Serbia, including the recently fallen capital city of Belgrade. Nevertheless, the Austro-Hungarians had greatly extended their supply lines, and had thus been forced to stop their attacks and advances.

Finally, the promised supplies from their allies had arrived, and the Serbians planned a counter-attack late in the day on December 2. The attack aimed at threatening Belgrade and improving the defensive position, but its primary purpose was to improve the now low morale of the Serbian troops. Even aging Serbian King Peter I joined the troops in an effort to inspire them.

The attack caught the Austro-Hungarians completely by surprise: their artillery was far from the front (and thus unable to help), their lines were thin and extended,  . . . the Serbians had even caught them hosting a parade down the streets of Belgrade. Though the attacks goals had been limited, they were achieved completely, forcing the Austro-Hungarians back by several kilometers.

The Serbians, now much enthused, continued their attacks in the following weeks. By December 16, they had retaken Belgrade, thus ending the their mini-campaign and ending the battle: neither the Serbians nor the Austro-Hungarians had the strength to do more at that time. Though Austro-Hungarian troops were still in Serbia, the Battle of Kolubara could only be considered a Serbian victory, given that they had accomplished their goal not to throw their enemy out of Serbia or even stop his advance, but rather to systematically bloody him and choose carefully the time and place of counterattack. The Serbians suffered about 132,000 casualties, but the Austro-Hungarians had suffered about 273,000.

DECEMBER 13, 1914 – THE BATTLE OF LIMANOWA

It is a fact of the First World War that the Germans adapted to the fighting tactics needed for the conflict slightly (but noticeably) faster than the rest of the belligerents. As a result, the more backward the tactics of their opponent, the greater the victories the Germans achieved over them. Thus, when Germany, the most advanced military force, went up against Russia, the least advanced military force, things went poorly for the Russians very often, despite their numerical advantages. Though often outnumbered 3-1 or more, the German generals on the Eastern Front (headed up by Hindenburg, Ludendorf, and Hoffman) won smashing victories, not only stopping the Russian campaigns but, incredibly, even managed to launch their own campaigns into Russian-held territory.

There was ONE negative consequence to these victories which the Germans could not foresee, however: Their allies, Austia-Hungary, looked upon the German victories over the Russians and decided that they, too, were capable of such successes.

The Austrians took several assumptions into their resulting campaign in Poland:
1- That the capabilities of their military forces and leaders were equal to those of Germany
2- That German campaigns had significantly weakened the Russians on the Austro-Hungarian front
3- That the Russians would not attack on the Galician Front

Each of these assumptions were false:
1) War-mongering bureaucrats and military high commanders had pressured their Emperor Franz Joseph into the war partially out of fear that Austria-Hungary might seem week in the eyes of neighboring countries. One of the ironies of WWI is that while Austria-Hungary hoped to use the conflict to demonstrate their strength, it instead exposed that they were, indeed, weak and decayed (especially their military, which was quite un-modernized).
2) The Germans had indeed taken a fearful toll on the Russian, but with respect to the massive size of the total Russian army, there was still far and away more than enough troop strength left to meet the Austro-Hungarian advance.
3) Far from allowing the Galician front to remain quiet, the Russians saw the Austro-Hungarian Polish campaign as an opportunity to strike where the Austro-Hungarians must surely be weakened.


(Image via “A Diary of the Great War“)

Though in many ways the resulting battle of Limanowa (December 1-13 1914) was inconclusive, resulting mostly in huge casualty lists (42,000 dead Russians and Austro-Hungarians), the battle was also a huge defeat for the Austro-Hungarians in the sense that they had once again failed to accomplish what they had set out to do in their military campaigns. Though this was in large part the fault of Austrian military leader Conrad von Hötzendorf, who continuously instigated woefully over-ambitious military campaigns, it was also the result of another in a steady stream of poor military performances by the Austro-Hungarian forces.

Victory in WWI would often depend upon assessing and adapting to poor conditions, both strategically and tactically, and there was no nation more traditionally entrenched in 1914 than Austria-Hungary.

For more on the battle of Limanowa, the blog Ars Bellica wrote a fabulous description.

DECEMBER 9, 1914 – THE BATTLE OF QURNA

After Landing at Fao and taking the old fortress of Basra, the British planned their next move to secure the oil fields of Abadan. The decided to move further inland.

Meanwhile, the Ottomans had only retreated strategically, and built themselves a defensive position at Qurna, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. The move made sense because the British would have to cross one or both of the rivers, and by controlling their meeting point, the Ottomans forced either a battle on their terms or a long detour by the British.

Upon their arrival near Qurna, the British forces mustered about 2,100 men, and the Ottomans about 1,000.

The British successfuly stormed the Ottoman defenses, but found that they lacked a means to cross the river which the Ottomans holding the other bank as well, and retreated. After reorganizing, they stormed the same Ottoman defenses (the Ottomans had re-occupied them) and again drove them off only admit again that they could not find a way to cross the river.

Finally, a detachment was sent Further upstream to cross the river than thus descend upon the Ottomans from the rear. Now beset on all sides, the Ottomans eventually surrendered.

DECEMBER 8, 1914 – THE BATTLE OF THE FALKLANDS

Germany, like other major European powers of the time, had many colonial holdings across the globe. When war broke out in mid 1914, a squadron of German warships, led by admiral Maximilian von Spee, found itself in position to defend its holdings in the far east. Nevertheless, neither Spee nor his officers believed that they had a realistic chance of successfully defending German interests in the area, especially after Japan’s entry into the war as another of their enemies . . . together, the Japanese and the British represented a naval power too great to hope to overcome.

The only other alternative was to head home. The cruiser Emden was detached for independent raiding in the Indian Ocean, and it was intended that she would eventually attempt to head back to Germany by going around Africa. Successful at the Battle of Penang on late October (sinking the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet), the Emden commenced a raid on the Cocos Islands (NW of Australia), even attempting to land a contingent of troops in order to sabotage British facilities there. The Australian cruiser Sydney caught up with the Emden here, however, forcing the German cruiser to run aground (and out of the war) on November 9.

Meanwhile, Spee and the van of his squadron had been travelling the opposite way around the globe.

Making his way to the Western coast of South America, he surprised a contingent of British warships at the Battle of Coronel on November 1, sinking the cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth. He had, however, spent more than half of his ships’ supply of ammunition, an irreplaceable resource until he got back to a German port. Spee continued around Cape Horn, raided British merchants for coal, and finally proposed a raid on the Falkland islands on his way back to Germany. Though most of his officers opposed the idea, being intent to return to Germany as fast as possible, Spee decided to go on with the raid.

Unknown to him, however was the presence and size of a British squadron of warships. While Spee’s force consisted of 2 armored and 3 light cruisers, the British force had 2 battlecruisers, 3 armoured and 2 light cruisers as well as the support of a grounded pre-dreadnought battleship. The largest of Spee’s gun’s were 8.2 inches in diameter, whereas some of the British ships boasted 12-inch guns. Spee would be out-gunned and outnumbered in this battle. Worst of all, he was spotted approaching the base from the far end of the island by British colonials, and so the British commander, Doveton Sturdee, knew exactly what to expect.

Nevertheless, the Germans nearly caused a British catastrophe, for they arrived at the British base sooner than expected, as the squadron was coaling. Had Spee’s ships rushed in and sank even one ship as it attempted to leave the inlet base, the Germans would have caused disastrous damage, blocking the bay for the British. But the old, grounded warship Canopus fired on the Germans from behind a hill, and Spee, not knowing what to expect, checked his advance. Meanwhile, the British ships quickly got up steam and began pursuit.

By the time Spee realize that he was facing more and more powerful ships than in his own squadron, it was too late. Some of the German ships attempted to flee, but were run down some 80 miles later. In all, only the German light cruiser Dresden escaped. About 1,871 German sailors were killed, only 215 survivors of the sunken ships were rescued. In contrast, the British suffered very little, with their ships barely damaged and only 29 casualties.

DECEMBER 6, 1914 – THE BATTLE OF LODZ

Background

By September 1914 the Russians had defeated the Austro-Hungarian offensive in Galicia at the Battle of Galicia leaving the Austrian fortress of Przemyśl besieged by the Russian Eighth Army. Nikolai Ruzsky had defeated the German’s first attempt at capturing Warsaw at the Battle of the Vistula River.

The Russian high command was split over how to capitalize on these recent successes. Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich favored an offensive into East Prussia, while the Chief of Staff, Mikhail Alekseev, favored an offensive into Silesia.

Paul von Hindenburg had recently been appointed commander of the Central Powers along the Eastern Front. Hindenburg had intercepted Russian reports of the proposed invasion into Silesia, and saw an opportunity to repeat his crushing victory at the Battle of Tannenberg, by hitting the Russian flank as it moved into Silesia.

Forces

Hindenburg moved the German Ninth Army, under General August von Mackensen, to the Polish sector. Conrad von Hotzendorf, the Austrian commander, moved the Austrian Second Army to replace the German Ninth Army’s former position.

General Nikolai Ruzski had recently assumed command of the Russian Army Group defending Warsaw. Ruzski had under his command General Paul von Rennenkampf‘s Russian First Army which was positioned north of the Vistula River, with the exception of one corps that was on the south bank of the river. Ruzski also had the Russian Second Army under General Scheidemann, which was positioned directly in front of Łódź. The Russian Fifth Army, under Pavel Plehve, was ordered to abandon its Silesia offensive, and moved to help counter Hindenburg’s new offensive.

The battle

On November 11, Mackensen’s German Ninth Army struck the V Siberia Corps of Rennenkampf’s First Army which was isolated south of the Vistula and routed it, capturing 12,000 prisoners. The rout left a gap between the Russian First and Second Armies and the two forces lost contact with one another.

In the meantime Scheidemann’s Russian Second Army was being flanked and began retreating towards Łódź. The Russians were beginning to realize the seriousness of the situation in Poland. The Second Army was now being threatened with encirclement.

The Grand Duke was primarily concerned with saving this army and avoiding a repeat of Tannenberg. Wenzel von Plehve and the Russian Fifth Army had been ordered from Silesia to the Łódź sector and covered 70 miles in only two days. Von Plehve smashed into Mackensen’s right flank on November 18 under appalling winter conditions (at times the temperature dropped as low as 10 °F (−12 °C)).[7]

At the same time from the east, along the banks of the Vistula, Germans were attacked by the columns of Rennenkampf’s Army. The Germans were now threatened with encirclement, but fought their way out by November 26, taking with them the prisoners from the Russian First Army. Pressure on Łódź continued until December but the Germans were unable to break the Russian lines. Short on ammunition, the Russians withdrew to form a new and stronger line closer to Warsaw.

Results

The results of the Battle of Łódź were inconclusive, both sides having achieved their most important objectives. The Russians had repulsed the Germans and saved Warsaw, which had been the objective of the original German offensive. The Germans, for their part, had caused the Russians to abandon their offensive into Silesia.

The Russian high command had had enough of Rennenkampf and relieved him of his command, replacing him with General Litvinov.

Casualties and losses. Russian Empire: 110 000 killed, wounded or captured, German Empire: 160 000 killed, wounded or captured

My school semester will be wrapping up soon, and then I will resume composing my own posts. The above is taking from Wikipedia, which provides a very useful, thorough examination.