February 22, 1915: The Second Battle of Masurian Lakes

The German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, remained convinced that if the Central powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary et. al.) were to win the war, they would have to defeat the Entente forces on the Western Front. Nevertheless, Germany also fielded significant armies on the Eastern front in order to combat the Russian forces. The main commander of these German armies, Paul von Hindenburg, pressed Falkenhayn for both permission and the reinforcements to launch another offensive against the Russians. Though he refused for some time, Falkenhayn eventually gave in, reasoning that German aggression on the Eastern front was necessary in order to win over potential allies in the Balkans.

Hindenburg mounted his offensive near the site of the previous year’s victory, near the Masurian Lakes. In essence, he intended to flood the Russian northern flank, and surround and/or roll up as much of the Russian line as he could. The main objective, however, remained the creation of a genuine breakthrough which would allow the German forces as much room as they liked to maneuver through Russia and force their surrender.

Attacks began on February 7 in the midst of a snowstorm. Caught completely by surprise, the Russians quickly fell back up and down the line, desperate to avoid capture. Within a week, elements of the German army had advanced more than 70 miles.


The Russians had a huge supply of men from which to draw, however, and the Germans were eventually stopped short of their goal of total victory. Nevertheless, Hindenburg had accomplished a great deal: with an attacking force of around 100,000 men, he had attacked Russian forces totaling over 220,000 and had inflicted more than 200,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured). Hindenburg’s losses had been very light (just over 16,000), in comparison.

At this point, the Germans had clearly demonstrated that they were more than a match for the Russians. The Entente could only hope that the Russian armies would at least be able to tie up large numbers of the German troops, for clearly, the Russians had a long way to go before they could hope to launch successful attacks on the Germans.



In France and England, military leaders faced the depressing reality of a fortified battle line running from Nieuport, Belgium (in the coast of the English Channel) all the way down to Switzerland. Over and over again, certain sections of the line had been designated for a breakthrough, with fresh new troops allocated to new attacks in those areas. Little, more than mass slaughter, ever came of these attacks. G.J. Meye, in A World Undone, devotes an entire chapter to “The Search for Elsewhere:” the desperate attempt to find someplace, anyplace, where something new and more promising might be tried.

The result was the Gallipoli Campaign.

After the Germans had persuaded the Ottomans to join the war as allies (or painted them into a corner, depending upon one’s interpretation . . . see also my post of November 1), the Mediterranean route to Russia became effectively closed to the Allies, cutting off an important line of exchange between these allies. In “the search for elsewhere,” the allies found themselves drawn to the idea of re-opening this line.

They settled on a land-sea campaign in which the British navy would sail up the Dardanelles, blasting away all opposition in its path, while at the same time a contingent of troops would land in Galipoli and fight their way to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The idea proved attractive enough that the British 29th division, long the subject of intense debate for its future (it had not yet been allocated to any specific campaign or battle-front), found itself sailing for Galipoli.

They would not land until late April, but in the meantime, the navy began their part of the campaign . . . or rather, they pretended to. Again, I defer to the eloquence of Meyer:

“Naval commanders, however, are not easily persuaded to risk ships and their crews. On his first foray, commander [Vice Admiral Sackville] Carden never seriously tested the strength of the defenses. A cautious man with no experience commanding large forces, he made no effort to move his ships into or even near the two-and-a-half-mile-wide entry to the strait [of the Dardanelles]. Instead, he stood off in the distance, shelling the forts from three miles away, and at sunset he brought the attack to an end.”
~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone (New York: Delta, 2006), 268-269.

The campaign was off to an unpromising start.



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.

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.


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.


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