Thursday, October 23, 2014

October 23rd, 1914

- In the pre-dawn hours, the Germans are able to push another two and a half battalions over the Yser River to the bridgehead captured twenty-four hours earlier, and during the day seize Tervaete, reducing the fire on the soldiers pinned on the west bank.  Heavy Belgian and French artillery fire, however, prevent the Germans from bringing up artillery of their own to support the bridgehead.  Elsewhere along the Yser, the Germans suffer under bombardment both from Entente guns and warships off shore, as they are finding that shifting sands and the high level of ground water makes it impossible to dig trenches of any depth.  Further, the French 42nd Division arrives today to reinforce the Belgians defending Nieuport.

- Generals Foch and d'Urbal have planned a French counter-offensive for today, with the orders having gone out late last night, in line with Foch's continuing interpretation of the battle as one of maneouvre in which an Entente advance can win a decisive victory.  The orders call for the French 42nd Division to advance along the coast, the French marines at Dixmude to move on Thourout, and the French IX Corps, still in the process of moving through Ypres to the front, to attack northeast from along the line Zonnebeke-Becelaere in the direction of Passchendaele and Roulers.  Foch also sent messages to the Belgian and British commanders, asking for their assistance in the operation.  The Belgians are only barely holding on, and are in no shape to attack anyone.  The message to the British reaches Sir John French and Douglas Haig only at 2 am, for an attack scheduled to begin at 9am.  Both object that British co-operation at such a late stage is a practical impossibility.  Furthermore, the advance of IX Corps would require it to pass through the lines of the British 2nd Division of I Corps, which would be a difficult operation even with sufficient planning.  In the event, the proposed attack comes to naught.  17th Division, lead element of IX Corps, is held up on the roads by streams of refugees, and do not reach the front until the afternoon.  General Dubois of IX Corps decides that given the circumstances it would be better to reinforce the British front instead of trying to pass through and attack today.  The attempt at an offensive is postponed until tomorrow.

- On the British line, 1st and 2nd Divisions of I Corps and 7th Division of IV Corps are heavily engaged again today.  At dawn, a force of five battalions of 1st Division, drawn from three brigades and the Corps' reserve, launch a counterattack against Kortekeer, the capture of which was the one success the Germans achieved yesterday.  The defenders appear to be taken by surprise, and by noon all of the ground lost has been regained.  Over five hundred prisoners are taken, and fifty-four Cameron Highlanders, made prisoner yesterday, are released.  The most stubborn resistance comes from a single German sniper in a windmill - the threat is not removed until the windmill is burnt to the ground with the sniper still in it.  A German counterattack at 5pm is easily driven off.

On 1st Division's right, a major effort is made starting at 8am by elements of the German XXIII Reserve Corps to seize Langemarck.  The British trench had been constructed only the night before, and the portions of two battalions holding them were significantly outnumbered.  Despite this, the German advance is greeted with murderous machine gun and rifle fire.  For several hours the Germans come on, only to be mowed down by the British.  By 1pm the Germans finally withdraw, only to be shelled heavily by British artillery as they depart the field.  1st Division casualties today are 1344; German losses were significantly higher.

At 530pm a major effort is mounted by XXVI Reserve Corps against 2nd Division.  Some Germans reach within twenty-five yards of the British trenches, but the German formations, denser than those of yesterday, are badly mauled, the fields in front of the British line soon covered with German dead.  This evening, it is decided that the French 17th Division will relieve the British 2nd Division, and the former has taken over the lines of the latter by 11pm, 2nd Division reforming between their old line and Ypres.

7th Division spends most of the day under a heavy German artillery bombardment, which only lifts when infantry attacks are sent in.  In a few places the Germans are able to penetrate between defensive positions, only to be driven back by the timely deployment of reserve battalions.

- In contrast to the situation to the north, the British II Corps has an uneventful day.  The German VII Corps opposite had not detected the withdrawal overnight of II Corps to a new defensive position, and so this morning shell the now abandoned trenches before German units advance.  Expecting a sharp fight, they discover instead deserted defenses.  The initial response of the German soldiers is, naturally enough, relief at not having to fight for the positions, but the mode is rapidly spoiled by British artillery.  As II Corps was withdrawing, its artillery was precisely registering the ranges to their old trenches, and so once the Germans took them the British pours very accurate artillery fire on them, inflicting significant casualties.  The day is wasted for the Germans, and VII Corps does not reach the new British defensive line by nightfall.

- Today Field Marshal French and General Smith-Dorrien meets with the commander of the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps, the latter having detrained at Hazebrouck on the 20th.  For now, the Indians will be held in reserve behind the lines of II and III Corps, to be used only in emergencies.

- To date the German offensive, and in particular the attacks of the reserve corps over the past two days, have failed to achieve their objectives.  It is true that local gains have been achieved - there is III Reserve Corps bridgehead on the Yser, the seizure of the high ground northeast of Ypres, and the forced retreat of the British II Corps.  However, a decisive breaking of the Entente line, the likes of which would justify the commitment of the four inexperienced reserve corps and the horrendous losses they have suffered, has not occurred.  Falkenhayn is not pleased with the results of the past few days, and warns the commanders of 4th and 6th Armies that their operations will be reviewed if greater success is not achieved soon.

The commanders of both armies - Duke Albrecht of 4th Army and Prince Rupprecht of 6th Army - owe their appointment to their place as hereditary rulers of German states.  Real power rested with their chiefs of staff, and they know that success in Flanders will reflect as much on them as their nominal superiors.  Both take Falkenhayn's warning to heart, and seek to recast their operations.  Major-General Kraft von Delmensingen of 6th Army concludes that the efforts of his army have been spread out to far, and it would be better to focus their strength on particular points.  Given the role of 4th Army, it is logical for 6th Army to concentrate the front they hold immediately south of their neighbour, and after discussions with the General Staff it is agreed that the focal point of 6th Army's future attacks will lay between La Bassée and the Ypres-Menin road.  Major-General Emil Ilse of 4th Army, meanwhile, is appalled by the losses suffered by the four reserve corps - the ranks of experienced officers in the corps, already thin, have been decimated over the past two days.  Moreover, he believes the key to the enemy line is Dixmude, the capture of which would outflank both the Belgians along the Yser River and the French and British lines around Ypres, and a major effort against the town is planned for tomorrow.

- The French defenders at Arras are rescued today by the timely arrival of six battalions of Senegalese soldiers, which allow them to hold off the Germans.  The Kaiser departs, once again disappointed.

- Today the large units of the Canadian Contingent finish disembarking at Plymouth, and make their way to a large encampment on Salisbury Plain where they will spend several months training.  Even as they begin, recruiting continues in Canada for a second contingent of volunteers.

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