13- Battle of Neuve Chapelle
It has often been argued that WWI demonstrated an intense disconnect between the military leaders and the ordinary soldiers. The strongest evidence for this disconnect would probably be the unwavering reliance upon frontal assault even until the later stages of the war despite the huge toll in casualties and the intense lack of gains from such attacks. But another interesting consequence can also be found in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
This battle occurred because British and French military leaders were jockeying to have first priority for any reinforcements which became available. The French military commander, Joseph Joffre, hoped to use future reinforcements in a way that allowed his own forces to gain all the glory of the attacks. The commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French, was determined instead to prove the worthiness of his area of responsibility for these reinforcements, and planned an attack for the express purpose of demonstrating the potential benefits should he be given more reinforcements: French “chose Neuve Chapelle [for the area of his attack] because the Germans, who were thinning out their defenses in order to send troops to the more turbulent east, were known to have made especially severe cuts there.” Finally, an unprecedented amount of artillery was to be dropped on the Germans before this attack, the hope being that they would be broken up and smashed before the attack actually began.
~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone (New York: Delta, 2006), 239.
When the attack began on March 10, following the artillery barrage, the infantry found that most of the enemy positions had been blasted, or even abandoned months ago. They moved forward quickly and accomplished their first day’s objective in less than two hours. When they continued to press forward, they found something utterly remarkable: nothing. This was the first time of only three instances in the entire war that the allies managed to achieve a complete breakthrough. Though about a thousand German troops were close enough to the breech to move towards it, the British, for some hours, found themselves faced with naught but potential, it’s benefits dependant only upon how well they exploited it.
The German military leader Erich Ludendorff once quipped that the British soldiers “fought like lions.” His chief of staff, Max Hoffman, replied that, fortunately for the Germans, they were “led by donkeys.” The Battle of Neueve Chappelle supported this position. First, the area of attack had been too narrow to provide proper mobility for the amount of troops supposed to funnel through the area, and it soon became hopelessly congested. Also, just north of the breakthrough, a series of machine guns continued to fire upon the British because there had been a mix-up in assigning a artillery battalion to barrage the position. Finally, inexplicably poor communication between the attackers and their leaders led to delay after delay in further movements.
In the end, the Germans managed to pull in troops from all directions, bit by bit, and set up new positions, lightly guarded but with machine guns. The British tried again and again to coordinate, but never again managed to overrun the German positions, though major attacks continued through March 13. Losses on both sides were about equal, nearly 10,000 troops each. The Germans gained new confidence in their ability to resist superior attacks with minimal defenders, while the British, tragically, attributed their failure to the brevity of the preceding artillery barrage.
17 First Battle of Champagne
At the same time, the First Battle of Champagne had finally been brought to a close. Ever since the Germans had pulled back to more defensible lines following their initial push into France, Supreme French commander Joseph Joffre had felt confident in breaking through in one of the areas where the Germans had pulled back, near Champagne.
Joffre had been perhaps the strongest adherent to the notion of offence a l’outrance (offensive to totality), the idea that both victory and morale relied upon direct, massed attacks with nothing held back. Certainly Joffre’s troops paid the price. The Battle of Champagne (December 19, 1914 — March 17, 1915) was a simple attempt to gain back land from the Germans, and it resulted in over 96,000 allied casualties, and about 46,000 for the Germans.
22- The Siege of Przemysl ends
Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarians had been attempting to lift the Russian siege on Przemysl, a fortress town in Galicia. Having initially surrounded the town on September 24, 1914, the besieged Austro-Hungarian forces (approximately 93,000 men) surrendered to a Russian army of nearly 300,000 men.
To wrap up a few more things that have happened since the last time I wrote:
April 12- The Russians end their campaign in the Carpathians, the winter forces proving to great a cost for putting the pressure on the Austro Hungarian forces.
April 14- The Battle of Shaiba sees the Ottomans attempt to reclaim the city of Basra, in lower Mesopotamia. Their failure to pry the city back from the British would mean that the region’s crucial oil resources would remain in Allied hands.