Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October 21st, 1914

- Awareness has finally dawned for Sir John French of the enormity of the threat facing his command.  His operations order for today, issued last night at 930pm, still included the instructions for the advance of I Corps, but the other formations of the BEF were instructed to assume defensive positions - the hope at the time was that I Corps, pushing to Thourout and beyond, would serve as the outflanking force while the rest of the BEF held the line and fixed the Germans opposite.  By morning, however, prisoner interrogations indicated the presence of four new reserve corps in Flanders, which meant both that the BEF was significantly outnumbered and that a major German offensive was unmistakably taking place.  For the BEF commander the situation begins to take on similarities with the retreat from Mons to the Marne, where he daily worried about the safety of his army.

It is with this mindset that Sir John French greets Joffre as the latter arrives at the former's HQ at St. Omer.  Joffre brings welcome news - the French IX Corps is being transferred to Flanders to join General d'Urbal's detachment - and the meeting goes well until Field Marshal French requests Joffre to make available the resources necessary to construct a great armed camp at Boulogne sufficient to hold the entire BEF.  French's desire is for a secure base to which he can retreat to if overwhelmed at the front, from which the BEF can be supported and/or evacuated by the Royal Navy.  Joffre is instantly reminded of the great difficulties he had in convincing his British counterpart to stay in the fight in the two weeks between Mons and the Marne, and does not want to give any effect to French's fears.  Though inwardly seething, he keeps his composure and states that while he is willing to guard against a German coup-de-main against Boulogne the resources and manpower are simply not available to do anything more.  Joffre assures French that he will not prioritize the portions of the front lines held by the armies of France for reinforcements, but that it was vital that they stand together and fight the Germans where they stood.  Departing with expressions of good intentions, Joffre's mood recovers during a subsequent meeting with King Albert and with the arrival of the first units of IX Corps.

- The front held by the BEF extends about thirty-five miles, and in addition to I through IV Corps and the Cavalry Corps, there are several French cavalry divisions holding the line.  Overall, on this stretch of the front there are seven and a third infantry divisions and five cavalry divisions of the British and French armies.  Opposing them are eleven German infantry and eight cavalry divisions.  The contrast is heightened by the prolonged fighting most of the BEF has already experienced, in contrast to the fresh divisions of the new reserve corps of the German 4th Army.  The length of the front line held is simply too long for it to be covered in anything like reasonable depth.  Along much of the front there is only a single shallow trench, entrenching tools being in very short supply, with perhaps a few strands of barbed wire.  In places there are gaps in the line, which are covered by artillery or crossfire from nearby positions.  The range of fire is also shorter than desired, as much of the buildings, trees, and other impediments have yet to be completely pulverised into dust by artillery bombardments.

For their part the Germans attack all along the line, seeking out weak points in the Entente line, as opposed to concentrating their forces and blasting their own holes in the enemy formations.  Throughout the battle the Germans consistently overrate the density and strength of the Entente, believing the lines they encounter are only advanced pickets when in reality they are the only defensive line at all.  The more experienced corps of 6th Army are also beginning to learn from the harsh lessons of the battlefield, advancing in small groups instead of a single wave.  The inexperienced formations of 4th Army, however, have no such experience to draw upon, much to their detriment.

- II and III Corps as well as the Cavalry Corps are hard-pressed today by German attacks.  Indeed, the latter is effectively fighting as infantry as well, defending trenches and only using their horses to shift from one position to another.  The Germans achieve no breakthroughs, but at several points British units are forced to withdraw to avoid envelopment.  A mistaken retreat order nearly opened a gap between the Cavalry Corps and IV Corps to the north, but the German cavalry opposite are slow to exploit and the British are able to close the gap.  Indeed, the lethargy of the German cavalry is sufficient to prompt a change of command this evening, General Hollen being replaced by General Marwitz.

IV Corps' 7th Division is also under severe pressure - their prior attempt to advance on Menin has left them in poor defensive positions, the Germans opposite them on a ridge at Passchendaele, allowing the latter to direct accurate artillery fire upon the British.  The Germans temporarily break through 7th Division's two brigades, but a company of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers is able to plug the gap.  To the north Haig attempts to execute French's orders to advance this morning, though the streams of refugees on the roads forces a delay of almost two hours.  Heavy losses are suffered by I Corps as it attempts to fight through hedgerows, and German artillery fire intensifies the further the British advance.  By the afternoon further progress is impossible, and I Corps has only advanced 1000 to 2000 yards to just beyond Zonnebeke.  The left flank of I Corps is nearly uncovered by the continued retreat of General de Mitry's French cavalry, the latter having yielded Houthulst Forest to the attack of the German XXIII Reserve Corps.  Fortunately for I Corps, the commander of the immediately adjacent French cavalry division refused the order until the British flank was secured.  De Mitry's cavalry retreat to the line of the Ypres Canal, also defended by two territorial divisions, running between Ypres and Dixmude.  The effect is to create a sharp angle in the British line from Bixschoote to Langemarck, in which elements of I Corps are facing almost north.  Beyond there the German III Reserve Corps spends the day pounding the Belgian positions along the Yser.

The attacks of the German 4th Army on the British lines, October 21st, 1914.

- Sixth Army also commences a heavy artillery bombardment not only of the French lines defending Arras, but also of the town itself, in preparation for a major attack scheduled for tomorrow.

- General Ivanov believes the Russian armies assembled in central Poland are finally ready to go onto the offensive, advancing west from the Vistula River.  Unfortunately for the Russians, the delays in organizing the armies has given the Germans the opportunity to retreat, which as per Ludendorff's orders began yesterday.  However, the fighting is not yet at an end, for the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff has a plan of his own.  Conrad orders 1st Army to concentrate on the Itxanka River south of Ivangorod, and attack northwards into the Russians when they have only partially crossed the Vistula.

- In Britain, the Cabinet Committee on Munitions meets for the third time today, and their solution to the ongoing shortages of weapons and ammunition has been largely to increase the number of orders placed with armament firms.  This does little, however, to address the root causes of the shortages - i.e. many highly-skilled engineers and munitions workers have volunteered for the army, leaving armaments firms understaffed, and many firms either do not have the equipment to expand production or do not have the proper experience to produce the items desired by the government.  As such, the primary result of placing additional orders for munitions is to heighten the sense of panic over a lack munitions - the more orders there are, the more go unfulfilled, creating a cycle of crisis.

No comments:

Post a Comment