Sunday, October 19, 2014

October 19th, 1914

- Today can be seen as marking an important watershed on the Western Front.  For the Entente, the arrival of I Corps in Flanders today means the entire BEF is now in the north, and a continual line, though thin in places, now exists from the Channel to Switzerland.  For the Germans, today sees the first serious fighting undertaken by the four reserve corps of 4th Army, sent by Falkenhayn to achieve the decisive victory that had eluded them to date.  Thus the Race to the Sea has come to an end, while the First Battle of Ypres begins.

For the past five weeks, both sides have thrown forces northward from the Aisne, trying to outflank the other.  Indeed, the popular name for this period of the war is something of a misnomer - they were not racing for the sea, but rather racing to outflank the other.  However, all such attempts failed, for a whole range of reasons - railways allowed for rapid redeployment of forces; trenches freed up units to move north, the machine gun allowed for even small forces to hold up larger enemy formations until reinforcements arrived, etc.  The result of the failure of either to outflank the other has been the extension of the front line roughly north from Noyon to the English Channel, a line which will become increasingly static as both sides dig in.

In a strategic sense as well, neither the Germans or the Entente can feel satisfied with the result of the Race to the Sea.  For the French, the northeastern portion of their country, which included almost 75% of prewar coal production and over 60% of prewar steel production, now lies in enemy hands, severely dislocating the French economy and only partially ameliorated by the aid of its allies.  The occupation of a significant portion of the country also propels Joffre and the French army to continue to emphasize the offensive, now deemed essential to liberating their countrymen.  The situation is even worse for Belgium - only a tiny western corner of the country remains free, and is about to become the scene of the first in a series of devastating battles.  For the Germans, despite the fact that they stand on enemy soil, the very continuation of the war itself reflects failure during the past five weeks.  The failure on the Marne has not been redeemed by success since, and the fear of having to fight a sustained war of attrition compels Falkenhayn to commit his reserves to the battle in Flanders, one last throw of the dice to end the war before Christmas.

The resulting front line after the Race to the Sea.

- As the First Battle of Ypres dawns, the Entente remain focused on the offensive.  Foch's plan is for an offensive between Ypres and Nieuport driving east, dividing the German III Reserve Corps on the coast from the German army to the south, and by advancing to Ghent turn the northern flank of the German army.  Though Foch was the commander of French forces in the north, he had no authority whatsoever over either the Belgians or the British - at best he could try to persuade.  Generally speaking, both King Albert of the Belgians and Sir John French of the BEF shared the strategic focus on the offensive, though the former knew his Belgians were in no shape to attack.  The British Field Marshal, for his part, issues orders to General Haig that I Corps, newly arrived at Hazebrouck, is to billet tonight near Ypres in preparation for an offensive via Thourout to capture Bruges in the days ahead.

Despite their intentions, however, it is the Germans who will determine the pace of the First Battle of Ypres - in light of the scale of the German forces advancing westward, Sir John French's orders to Haig today are little more than fantasy.  Over the course of the day, the four new reserve corps of 4th Army enter the fight.  South of III Reserve Corps arrives XXII Reserve Corps, and they co-ordinate a fierce attack on the French marines defending Dixmude, pushing the forward posts of the latter back into the town itself, which also comes under a sustained German bombardment.  Next in line comes XXIII Reserve Corps, which spends the day pushing westward advance elements of French territorial and cavalry units and closing up to Houthhulst Forest.  To its right XXVI Reserve Corps occupies Roulers at 5pm, after a day of desperate house-to-house fighting against the cavalry of General de Mitry.  Finally, southernmost is XXVII Reserve Corps, which encounters the British 3rd Cavalry Division.  The British are forced to retreat through Passchendaele to Poelcappelle and Zonnebeke (again names which had not yet earned their present reputation), which in turn pulls back the northern flank of the British 7th Division - though the latter had been ordered to capture Menin today, they find themselves at nightfall three miles behind where they started the day.

- Near La Bassée, a battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment secures the village of Le Pilly on Aubers Ridge, suffering two hundred casualties to do so.  The attack was launched in support of an unsuccessful French assault towards the town of Fournes.

- In Britain there has been a scramble to increase armaments production of all kinds, in response to Kitchener's plans for a massive expansion of the army.  As of today, the War Office has issued orders for 781 000 rifles, to be produced by July 1st, 1915.  The scale of the problem facing the British, however, can be seen in how the peacetime reserve of field guns was deemed sufficient to arm five divisions in addition to the BEF - in contrast, Kitchener's New Armies project to include at least fifty new divisions.  Such was the armaments shortage at home that some of the new volunteers begin their training with broomsticks instead of rifles.

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