JANUARY 31 AND FEBRUARY 4, 1915, IN REVIEW: THE GERMAN GLOVES COME OFF

On the Eastern front, the Germans found themselves facing masses of hundreds of thousands of enemy troops. True, Field Marshall Hindenburg (with the close assistance of Ludendorf and Hoffmann) had proven that he could defeat the Russians handily, it would take time to bloody the Russians to such a degree as to force their withdrawal from the war.

So the Germans sought out other means of quickly dispensing with the Russians, and on January 31, at the Battle of Bolimov (a part of the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes), they used poison gas for the first time in First World War.
It was an unconditional failure: the wind switched directions shortly after its release, often blowing the gas right back towards the Germans, and at any rate, the cold temperatures generally prevented the gas from vaporizing.

Poison gas would make a re-entrance later in the year, with more notable results at Ypres.

. . . . .

As another part of the German understanding that they had to win and try to win as quickly as possible, they unleashed their submarines, allowing the boats’ commanders fire, without warning, on any ship flying the flag of one of their enemies.

While we in modernity, who are aware of stealth drones being able to eliminate anyone on earth in the blink of eye, don’t really bat an eye at the idea of “unrestricted submarine warfare,” the idea made many people of 1915 blanch in horror: seamen were supposed to have warning, at least a shot across the bow and an opportunity to surrender their ship.

The world, however, was still adjusting to the emergence of the submarine: a slow and fragile seacraft, submarines of WWI had the advantage of stealth, but little else. In a large sense, submarines faced the choice of a sneak attack, or none at all.

Finally, we may look back at these innovations and curse Germany, but the reality is that the Allies were just as guilty of “dirty” tactics and strategies in war. Indeed, it would not take long before the they themselves began to employ chemical weapons, and one could make an argument that Britain herself had provoked Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare: by enforcing a blockade of Germany with her surface warships, Britain shifted the emphasis of the war very clearly into a conflict of attrition, rather than as a contest of military forces. Germany had little choice but to retaliate in the only way she could: an attempted blockade of Britian, using the only ships that could evade the British blockade, submarines.

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January 24, 1915: The Battle of Dogger Bank

Via First World War.com

With the German submarine war heavily in progress and the German home fleet effectively bottled up by Admiral Beatty’s success at Heligoland Bight, German Admiral Franz von Hipper decided to launch a raid upon three British North Sea costal towns by the German Battlecruiser Squadron, comprising five battle cruisers supported by light cruisers and destroyers.  The raid took place on 16 December 1914 at 9am, and resulted in the death of 18 civilians at Scarborough, causing further damage at Whitby and Hartlepool.

Public and political reaction in Britain expressed outrage that the German Fleet could sail so close to the British coast and proceed to shell coastal towns.

Buoyed by the success of the raid, Admiral Hipper resolved to repeat the endeavour the following month.  He was however intercepted by the British on 24 January 1915 at Dogger Bank, midway between Germany and Britain.

Having intercepted German radio traffic – decoded by use of a German code book originally captured by the Russians – the British had learnt of Hipper’s proposed sortie on 23 January.  Consequently Admiral Beatty set sail with five battle cruisers to meet Hipper’s three, aided by a further six light cruisers.  Joined by additional cruisers and destroyers at Harwich, Beatty proceeded south before encountering Hipper’s outlying vessels at 7.20am on the morning of 24 January.

Realising he was overpowered, Hipper attempted an escape, believing the British battle cruisers to be relatively slow.  Beatty’s cruisers, however, were notably faster than their German counterparts, and succeeded in reaching their extreme firing range by 9am.  Battle was enjoined half an hour later.

Admiral Franz von Hipper

The British managed to first halt and then sink Blucher (the latter as a result of a signalling error, killing 782 and captured on moving film) and damage Hipper’s flagship, Seydlitz (killing 192), although the Germans in turn succeeding in effectively hammering Beatty’s own flagship, Lion, to a standstill.  The Lion took no further part in the battle after 11am.

Nevertheless, a major British success appeared likely until Beatty, overcome by fears of mines and a believed submarine sighting (there were none), decided to abandon the attack, allowing Hipper’s squadron to escape.  15 British sailors had been killed in the encounter.

Although the battle was not itself greatly consequential of itself, it boosted British morale and concerned the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, enough to issue an order stating that all further risks to surface vessels were to be avoided.

Beatty’s second in command, Admiral Moore, was subsequently transferred to the Canary Islands, and the German High Seas Fleet commander, Ingenohl, who was criticised for not coming directly to Hipper’s aid, was replaced the following month by Admiral Pohl.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website

January 19, 1915: The First Zeppelin Raid on Great Britain, and The Battle of Jassin

A bit pressed for time this morning, so I merely wished to draw attention to posts made (respectively) by history.com, and wikipedia.

During World War I, Britain suffers its first casualties from an air attack when two German zeppelins drop bombs on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn on the eastern coast of England.

The zeppelin, a motor-driven rigid airship, was developed by German inventor Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin in 1900. Although a French inventor had built a power-driven airship several decades before, the zeppelin’s rigid dirigible, with its steel framework, was by far the largest airship ever constructed. However, in the case of the zeppelin, size was exchanged for safety, as the heavy steel-framed airships were vulnerable to explosion because they had to be lifted by highly flammable hydrogen gas instead of non-flammable helium gas.

In January 1915, Germany employed three zeppelins, the L.3, the L.4, and the L.6, in a two-day bombing mission against Britain. The L.6 turned back after encountering mechanical problems, but the other two zeppelins succeeded in dropping their bombs on English coastal towns.

Itv has a great little article with photographs of the damage the raid caused.

. . .

The Battle of Jassin (also known as the Battle of Yasin and the Battle of Jassini)[1] was a World War I battle that took place on 18– 19 January 1915 at Jassin on the German East African side of the border with British East Africa between a German Schutztruppe force and British and Indian troops. Jassin had been occupied by the British in order to secure the border between British East Africa and German territory, but was weakly defended by four companies of Indian troops—numbering a little over 300 men.

The German commander, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, decided to attack Jassin in order to prevent further danger to Tanga, which lay more than 50 kilometres to the south and had previously been successfully defended against a British attack. Nine companies of Schutztruppe with European officers were gathered for the assault.

Immediately after the British force surrendered, British Captains Hanson and Turner were taken to see Lettow-Vorbeck. He congratulated them on their defence of the town before releasing them on the promise they would play no further part in the war.

Although the British force surrendered, Lettow-Vorbeck realised that the level of German losses of officers and ammunition meant that he could rarely afford confrontation on such a large scale and would need to make use of guerrilla warfare instead—he turned his attention away from seeking decisive battle against the British, concentrating instead on operations against the Uganda Railway.[2] The British response was to concentrate their forces to reduce their risks and make defense easier.

For greater details, see a post by Bishop and Dobold.

JANUARY 17, 1915- RUSSIAN VICTORY AT THE BATTLE OF SARIKAMISH

Russian propaganda poster depicting their victory at Sarikamish

Beginning with initial maneuvers on December 22, 1914, Ottoman troops prepared a large scale attack on the Russians in the Caucuses. In many ways, the battle was to be a distraction: by deliberately threatening the mostly Orthodox region around Kars Oblast, the Ottomans hoped to draw Russian strength away from more important strategic goals. The Russians, judged the Ottomans, felt a strong moral obligation to defend their Orthodox brethren in the region, and would fight intensely to defend it.

The Ottomans were right, though in their attempt to exact a high cost form the Russians, the Ottomans, too, would be taking significant risks . . . sending their army into the Allahüekber Mountains in the dead of winter not being the least of these risks. Even more questionably, the Ottoman commander, Enver Pasha, had settled upon a complicated plan of encirclement in order to defeat the Russians. On a selected battlefield measuring approximately 932 miles from end to end, coordination would be very difficult, if not impossible. Thousands died of hypothermia just from the long marches into the assigned battle positions.

Turkish soldiers in their winter gear

The Battle proper got underway on December 29 with an assault all along the line, bent especially on taking the city of Sarikamish. These attacks were remarkably unsuccessful, and Russian counterattacks and movements quickly threatened to encircle the Ottoman forces. By January 6, it was evident that the Ottomans would have to retreat . . . three of their divisions had already been captured. The Battle’s end is usually placed at January 17, with the Russians finishing the task of clearing up the remaining Ottomans.

Russians gather up frozen Turkish soldiers

The Russians knew that their Southern flank (in the Caucuses) was secure for the time being, and the Ottomans had suffered another miserable defeat. Enver Pasha remained War Minister, but he never again commanded troops in battle.

JANUARY 1915- A NEW YEAR OF WAR; BEGINNING OF THE RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN IN THE CARPATHIANS

Sometimes, things are just stated far better than I could, so I include an excerpt from G.J. Meyer’s A World Undone in order to sum up the situation in the first week of the second year of war (1915):

“Nineteen-fifteen opened repetitiously and prophetically, which is to say that it opened with lethal violence on the grand scale.

On New Year’s Day, in the English Channel, a German Submarine fired a torpedo into the hull of the British battleship Formidable and sent 546 seamen to their deaths.

On the continent the French were on the offensive, or trying to be, all along their long front: in Flanders, the Argonne, Alsace and, most bloodily of all, the Champagne region west of Verdun.

In the east, under appalling winder conditions that were causing hundreds of men nightly to freeze to death in their sleep, the Russians were slowly forcing the armies of Austria-Hungary back into the Carpathian passes that separated the plains of Galicia from the Hapsburg homeland.

Beyond Europe, on the ice-packed heights of the Caucasus Mountains, the Russians and the weather together were destroying a badly led and ill-equipped army of Turks.

There was bloodshed in Africa, in Asia, in the South Pacific, and in the South Atlantic–in improbable places all around the world.

All the belligerents were locked in a situation for which they were woefully unprepared. In the last five months of 1914 more than eight hundred thousand Germans had become casualties, and more than a hundred thousand of them were dead. The French and Austro-Hungarian casualties were in the million-man range, Russia’s total approached twice that, hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen were listed as dead or missing, and more than half of the Tommies who had come over in August were dead or injured. In every country the shock was numbing. A monument in a single Parisian church, Notre Dame des Victoires, displays the names of eighty parishioners killed in battle between August and December.

The worst of it was that this carnage had not come close to producing a decision. In every country shattered armies had to be rebuilt and expanded and sent out to do it all again.”

~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 (New York: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2007) 241-242.

 

. . . .

 

Meyer mentioned the Russian offensive in the Carpathians, an event which merits a bit more space here.

 


(Image courtesy of historynet.com)

 

In the earliest days of 1915, the Russians knew that their best hope for victory in WWI lay in the defeat of one of their two primary opponents, Germany and Austria-Hungary. Having been handed several disastrous defeats by the Germans already in 1914 (most notably at the Battle of Tannenberg), the Russians decided to focus on the Austro-Hungarians.

Their plan was both ambitious and dangerous: to invade the Austro-Hungarian homeland by marching straight through the Carpathian Mountains in the dead of winter.

Meanwhile, the military leader of the Austro-Hungarians, Conrad von Hötzendorf, had been bitten by the glory bug just as surely as many other military leaders of the time . . . he insatiably craved victories, and believed that the most important factor in victory was his own planning and leadership. He ordered his armies straight into the Carpathians in order to resist the Russians, and he even hoped to retake the fortress of Przemysl as a claim to glory and honor.

Unfortunately, Russian and Austro-Hungarian leaders would not nearly pay the price for their folly. That cost would have to be fronted, as usual, by the death-destined men of their armies.

Religious souls visualize hell as a blazing inferno with burning embers and intense heat. The soldiers fighting in the Carpathian Mountains that first winter of the war know otherwise.”

—Colonel Georg Veith, Austro-Hungarian Third Army

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.