Thursday, August 28, 2014

August 28th, 1914

- Joffre visits Lanrezac at the latter's headquarters at 8am, where they argue over the former's order to launch a counterattack.  When Lanrezac again insists that such a maneouvre is impossible under present circumstances, Joffre loses his temper for one of the few times in the campaign, informing the General that he must obey orders or be dismissed.  Lanrezac refuses to move without a written order, which Joffre then provides.  Later today 5th Army begins to realign itself for a westward counterattack, in preparation for the attack tomorrow morning.

- General Haig of I Corps, on his own initiative, offers to aid the French 5th Army in its coming counterattack.  Lanrezac is pleased at what he sees as an all-too-rare instance of British co-operation.

- Meanwhile the despondency of Sir John French continues to grow apace.  Fearing imminent destruction of the BEF, he orders transport wagons to discard all ammunition and carry men instead.  It is a tacit admission that French wants the BEF to flee as fast as possible, not fight.  Both Haig and Smith-Dorrien ignore the order, fearing its defeatism would crush morale, but the newly-arrived 4th Division implements it, much to the dismay of its soldiers.

- For three days the battle has raged between the French 1st and 2nd armies and the German 6th and 7th armies in Lorraine.  The French fought with a desperation born from the knowledge that defeat here would be catastrophic, and doom any effort to send additional forces to stop the German swing through Belgium.  Though the Germans are able to make minor gains, a breakthrough eludes them.  Today Rupprecht calls off the attack, in order to reconstitute his forces and rebuild his forces for a further attack.  The French victory here is a crucial moment in the Battle of the Frontiers, as it was the necessary prerequisite for Joffre to redeploy forces from Lorraine to oppose the Germans descending from the north.

- The murder, arson, and looting in Louvain comes to an end today, after three nightmarish days.  Of the population of 42 000, 209 have been executed and the rest deported.  Over a thousand buildings have been burnt to the ground, German soldiers often going door-to-door systematically to destroy entire neighbourhoods.  The university has also been destroyed, most notoriously the library, which contained 230 000 books, including priceless and irreplaceable medieval manuscripts, all lost, a tragedy to Western civilization.

Part of the ruins of Louvain.

- The first major naval battle occurs today in the Heligoland Bight, off the North Sea coast of Germany.  After patrolling for several weeks, British submarines, under the command of Commodore Roger Keyes, noticed that the Germans regularly patrolled the Bight with destroyers, supported by a couple of light cruisers.  Keyes, and Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt, the latter commanding the Harwich Force of destroyers, were both aggressive commanders who wanted to take the naval war to the Germans.  They proposed a surprise attack on the German destroyers in the Bight, and retreating before the German High Seas Fleet could sortie in response.  The operation is scheduled for today, and will be supported by two forces - Commodore William Goodenough's 1st Light Cruiser Squadron and Vice-Admiral David Beatty, commanding the Battle Cruiser Squadron.  Goodenough and Beatty, who would be standing off the Bight prepared to enter the battle if requested, were part of Jellicoe's Grand Fleet, which was also at sea, though too far to support the operation.  Beatty was in many ways the opposite of Jellicoe - whereas the former was acutely aware of his burden of responsibility and was reluctant to fight the Germans unless necessary, the latter was aggressive and longed to come to grips with the foe.  Beatty's temperament matched his command - the battlecruisers were faster than Jellicoe's dreadnoughts, and seen as more glamourous by the British public.

The Battle of Heligoland Bight, Aug. 28th, 1914

The operation begins at daybreak, when three of Keyes' submarines surfaced to lure the German destroyers to Tyrwhitt's force.  There is a haze on the water today, which makes visibility inconsistent.  What follows is an often-confused running battle between British and German destroyers.  Several German light cruisers rush to the scene to save their destroyers, which leads Tyrwhitt to call in Goodenough's light cruisers.  When they appear, there is an almost disastrous miscommunication.  Keyes' submarines had never been informed that the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron would be part of the operation, so when one of his submarines sees two of Goodenough's light cruisers, they believe them to be German.  Keyes signals Beatty that his submarines are under attack by German light cruisers - Beatty's response is to signal Goodenough that Keyes is under attack.  Goodenough then orders the remaining four of his light cruisers into the Bight - in other words, Keyes has indirectly called in Goodenough's light cruisers to chase themselves.  When Keyes sights Goodenough's four remaining light cruisers, he now signals he is under attack by six German light cruisers.  The farcical episode ends at the last moment when Keyes' submarines realizes they are aiming at British light cruisers.

By 11am, British light forces have been in the Bight for several hours, and there are now more than a half dozen light cruisers milling about, appearing and disappearing in the haze.  Tyrwhitt, believing he is confronted by a superior force, calls Beatty for aid.  Beatty, for his part, knows that that the dreadnoughts of the German High Seas Fleet are not an immediate danger - remarkably, at the exit from the main German naval base is the Jade bar, which at low tide the German dreadnoughts cannot cross without getting grounded on the sand.  Low tide was at 933am, and it would be several hours before the dreadnoughts can get out into the Bight.  Beatty thus brings his battlecruisers into the Bight at full speed.  They emerge from the haze like stampeding elephants, and blow away two German light cruisers before covering the retreat of the British light forces.  By the time the Germans can get their own battlecruisers in the Bight, the British have long since disappeared.

The German light cruiser Mainz sinking during the Battle of Heligoland
Bight, Aug. 28th, 1914.

Though several British ships suffered heavy damage, they were the the clear victors - three German light cruisers and a destroyer had been sunk.  The battle made Beatty, Tyrwhitt, and Keyes into public heroes in Britain, and provided a much-needed counter to the depressing news from the Continent.  The most important consequence of the battle comes in Germany - the Kaiser, who loves the navy he has spent so much money and political capital upon, is terrified of them getting sunk.  Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, commander of the German High Seas Fleet, is informed that he cannot take his dreadnoughts to see without the prior permission of the Kaiser himself.  This completely hamstrings the High Seas Fleet, and effectively concedes to Britain control of the North Sea without a fight.

- This morning Ludendorff orders I Corps to advance to the northwest, to aid XX Corps, under heavy attack by three corps of the Russian 2nd Army.  General François, true to his manner, ignores the orders - Ludendorff is reduced to begging François to obey his order, to no effect.  General François can see the golden opportunity before 8th Army today, and drives straight east to cut behind the Russian 2nd Army.

To the east of the Russian 8th Army, XVII and I Reserve Corps advance, despite confusing orders.  I Reserve Corps captures Allenstein, and confronts the 8th Army units in the trap, while XVII Corps marches west towards I Corps.

By late today, Samsonov is becoming aware of the scope of the disaster his army is facing - he can hear I Corps' artillery fire from his headquarters.  His response is entirely in keeping with his background in the Russian cavalry - he telegraphs Zhilinskii at North-West Front and informs him that he is leaving his headquarters to go forward to the battlefront.  With seven staff officers, he gallops north into the battle.  The already-poor communications within 8th Army collapse completely - there is no contact between the corps of the army, and crucially there is no attempt to co-ordinate attacks between the corps inside the trap and the remnants outside to keep an avenue of retreat open.

- In Galicia, Conrad authorizes the temporary transfer of XIV Corps from 3rd Army to 4th Army in the north.  While he understands that 3rd Army, facing two Russian armies to the east, needs all the help it can get, he sees an opportunity to turn the left flank of the Russian 5th Army, whose western flank is already being pushed back by 4th Army.

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