Tuesday, August 12, 2014

August 12th, 1914

- Great Britain and France today declare war on Austria-Hungary.

- The assembly of the German East Asiatic Squadron is completed at Ponape, an island in the Carolines and part of the German New Guinea colony in the Pacific.  Commanded by Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee, the squadron consists of two armoured cruisers - Scharnhorst and Gneisenau - and three modern light cruisers - Emden, Nürnberg, and Leipzig.  Of these ships all but Leipzig is present, it being on station off the Pacific coast of South America.

- German cavalry has penetrated Belgium towards Louvain, but is held up at the bridge at Haelen by Belgian cavalry.  Fighting as dismounted infantry, the Belgians pour murderous fire into the Germans, until by evening the Germans are forced to withdraw.  The Battle of Haelen, while not of any strategic significance, is a great morale booster for the Belgians.

- The first Krupp 420 mortar is set up at Liège this afternoon, and at 630pm fires its first shell at Fort Pontisse, while several Skoda 305 mortars begin to bombard other Belgian forts near Liège.  The aiming of the mortars is assisted by observers in church towers and balloons, and after each shot corrections are sent to the mortars.  The effect is that the shells are 'walked' toward their target, each shell landing closer and closer until the target itself is hit.  The effect is terrifying for the Belgian garrisons of the forts, hearing the whistle of the incoming shell in flight, watching its detonation point move closer and closer, knowing that inevitably the massive explosions will be on the fort itself, and that there is nothing they can do about it.  Some of the defenders are driven mad at their helplessness and the inevitably of successful bombardment, foreshadowing the psychological impacts of the massive bombardments to come on the Western Front.

- Field Marshall Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, receives instructions from Secretary of War Lord Kitchener on the coming campaign in France.  Though Kitchener writes that French is to co-operate with the French, the commander is to 'distinctly understand that your command is an entirely independent one and that you will in no case come in any sense under the orders of any Allied general.'  Kitchener's concern is the preservation of the BEF, so it may form the core of the massively-expanded army he intends to raise.  The practical impact of the instructions, though, is to impress on French that he is to place self-preservation first, regardless of the military situation or the danger France is in, and to make him unresponsive to pleas for co-operation from the generals of France.

- The Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia begins today, but the operation is plagued by disputes between General Oskar Potiorek, its commander, and Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff Conrad von Hötzendorff.  As a result of Conrad's vacillations during mobilization, 2nd Army will only be available to Potiorek until August 18th, when it is to begin transfer to the Galician front against Russia.  As such, Conrad instructs Potiorek that 2nd Army, deployed to the north of Serbia along the Sava River, can only support the operations of Potiorek's other armies, and may not cross into Serbia in strength.  Potiorek, naturally, is opposed to such a limitation on his forces - indeed, subtracting 2nd Army leaves Potiorek's remaining forces outnumbered by the Serbian army (290 000 vs. 350 000).  It is on Potiorek's other two armies that the main burden of the offensive will fall.  They are 5th and 6th army, arranged north to south along the Drina River on the western border with Serbia.  Potiorek's plan is for the 5th Army to begin the assault, fixing the Serbian army on its front, after which it will be attacked on its flank by the 6th Army.  Conrad, meanwhile, believes that 5th Army's attack will be the main advance, envisioning it sweeping into central Serbia and driving the enemy army from the field.

Both conceptions of the coming operation are faulty.  First, the limitations on the actions of 2nd Army ensure that 5th Army's left flank will be uncovered as it advances.  Second, the mobilization of 6th Army has been delayed - it will be almost another week before it is in place along the Drina, which means that 5th Army's right flank will also be exposed.  It creates an opportunity for the Serbs to attack 5th Army in isolation and defeat it before turning to 6th Army.

The actions of 5th Army today hardly inspire confidence in the outcome of the offensive - the crossing of the Drina is delayed by a lack of bridging equipment, which has not yet arrived for the army.  Most of the army spends the day mulling around the river's edge, while those efforts to cross the river by boat meet accurate and sustained Serbian fire.

The first Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, August 1914.

- The tiny German colony of Togoland in western Africa comes under attack today by British and Imperial forces.  Two companies of the Gold Coast Regiment, under the temporary command of Captain F. C. Bryant, seizes Lome, the colony's only port.  Lome had been largely abandoned by the small German garrison, which has retreated northward towards Kamina, home of Germany's single most important overseas wireless station, linking the home country with the rest of the German colonies in Africa as well as shipping in the South Atlantic.  Lome having fallen, the British commence an advance northwards towards Kamina.  It is during this action that the first shot is fired by a British soldier during the First World War, by Regimental Sergeant-Major Alhaji Grunshi of the West African Frontier Force.  It is a useful reminder that for all of the attention paid to the clash of armies in France and Belgium, this war is also a global and Imperial conflict for Britain, in line with prior British wars of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The German colony of Togoland, August 1914.

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