Saturday, August 16, 2014

August 16th, 1914

- Fort Loncin, the last surviving Belgian fort near Liège, comes under bombardment from a Krupp 420 mortar firing from within the town itself.  One shell penetrates the concrete and explodes in the fort's magazine, detonating the ammunition stores and blowing up the fort from the inside.  With the destruction of Fort Loncin, all Belgian resistance at Liège has come to an end.  It has taken the Germans twelve days from the moment they crossed the Belgian frontier to clear the forts.  For their efforts General Emmich and Ludendorff are awarded the Pour le Mérite, Germany's highest military honour.  Nevertheless, the Liège forts have served their purpose - overall, the advance of the German 1st and 2nd Armies has been delayed by several days.  In the context of the Schlieffen Plan, such delay is of the gravest importance.

Fort Loncin after its destruction on Aug. 16th, 1914.
- Today the shipment of the British Expeditionary Force reaches its peak, as thousands of soldiers cross the Channel.  Throughout this process, the German navy has made no effort whatsoever to interdict the British ships.  Doing so would require sending the navy into the narrows of the Strait of Dover, where they would be susceptible to mines, subject to submarine attacks, and could potentially have their avenue of retreat cut off by the Grand Fleet sailing south from Scapa Flow.  Perhaps more importantly, however, the Germans do not feel that stopping the BEF from arriving in France is of particular importance.  By continental standards, the BEF is pitifully small - four infantry divisions plus cavalry, in comparison to the seven entire armies the Germans have in the West.  It is felt that the BEF is too small to make a decisive difference, and once the Schlieffen Plan is successfully executed it can be dealt with easily.  Yet another assumption of the German General Staff that will be upset by events.

- Moltke and the Supreme German Command (OHL in German), the headquarters of the German army in the war, relocates from Berlin to Coblenz on the Rhine River today.  It is still eighty miles from the frontlines, and Moltke lacks information about the progress of the fighting.  Wireless communications are inconsistent at best - the Eiffel Tower is being used to jam German signals.  Telephone communication is also problematic - as the German armies advance, the telephone lines are broken and only irregularly repaired.  The best method of communication is for junior officers, acquainted with Moltke's views, to be dispatched from headquarters to subordinate commands.  For an operation that requires such precision as the Schlieffen Plan, this is hardly an ideal system of administration.

One communication that does get through to OHL today is from Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, commander of 6th Army.  He is responsible for the defense of the German left, the actions of 7th Army conforming to his orders.  For two days he has been gradually retreating in the face of the French offensive in Lorraine, though inflicting heavy casualties on the French.  As per the Schlieffen Plan, this is the essential task of the German left, to draw in the French and make it more difficult to respond to the advance through Belgium.  Rupprecht, however, does not appreciate being assigned such a mundane task.  Instead, he yearns to go on the attack and win glory on the battlefield.  Further, a strong attack will pin the French forces in Lorraine, preventing them from redeploying against the German right moving through Belgium.  However, he makes an even more tantalizing argument to Moltke and OHL.  A successful German counterattack in Lorraine could open the way for an advance into France itself, and ultimately achieve the great goal of almost every general since Hannibal - a second Cannae.  If the German right and left wings can break through, they can surround the entire French army and annihilate it.  It is a major break from the Schlieffen Plan, and will necessitate committing forces to 6th and 7th Armies that might be more profitably utilized in Belgium.

Moltke, whose confidence has never really recovered from the Kaiser's rebuke on August 1st, is chronically indecisive.  Does he seize an opportunity on the battlefield, or does he rigidly adhere to the war plan developed and refined over the past decade?  A staff officer is sent by Moltke to Rupprecht's headquarters, but discussion solves nothing, and the question remains undecided.

- Field Marshall Sir John French meets General Joseph Joffre at the latter's headquarters for the first time since the outbreak of war.  Neither particularly likes the other - French disdains Joffre's plebeian background, while Joffre feels the British commander is too concerned with his own army's fate, and insufficiently attuned to the needs of the broader campaign.  Joffre insists that the BEF needs to be prepared to go into action to the left of Lanrazac's 5th Army by August 21st at the latest.  In contrast to his discussion with President Poincarè, today French says he will do his best.  When the British commander requests that French cavalry, to be deployed on the BEF's left flank, be put under his control, Joffre refuses - the British are here to aid the French army, not command it, and the French commander is hardly interested in delegating authority to his own subordinates, let alone the British.

- A surprise night counterattack by Serbian forces savages VIII Corps of the Austro-Hungarian Army, throwing it into retreat.

- The arrival of Goeben and Breslau at the Dardanelles six days ago has created the issue of what, exactly, should be done with the two ships.  As the Ottoman Empire is still neutral, combatant ships are supposed to be interned, but there is no chance of this being acceptable to Admiral Souchon.  Instead, the German ambassador suggested that the ships be 'sold' to the Ottomans, a solution quickly seized upon by the Ottoman government.  Not only would this resolve the status of the ships, but it would also appear as compensation provided by the Germans to the Ottomans for the seizure of the latter's dreadnoughts under construction in Britain.  Today, in a formal ceremony the German flag is lowered from the ships, replaced by the Ottoman flag, and the ships are re-christened Jawus Sultan Selim (ex-Goeben) and Midilli (ex-Breslau).  The British ambassador can only protest feebly.  The British have been hoist on their own petard - having seized the Ottoman dreadnoughts, they can hardly complain about the Ottomans 'purchasing' replacement vessels.  In practice, the 'sale' is a fiction.  The ships remain manned by German sailors (though now in fezzes) and commanded by Admiral Souchon, the latter loyal to Berlin over Constantinople.  It is another step of the Ottoman Empire into the orbit of Germany.

Meanwhile, a meeting between the German military mission in the Ottoman Empire and Enver Pasha discuss possible Ottoman operations in the event of their entry into the war.  An offensive against Egypt receives the most emphasis, while amphibious operations in the Black Sea, backed by Goeben and Breslau, are also canvassed.

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