Friday, October 24, 2014

October 24th, 1914

- The Entente crisis deepens today along the Yser.  By dawn the Germans have secured five kilometres of the river, and all of 6th Reserve Division is on the west bank.  Though the Germans continue to be unable to bring artillery or supplies across due to enemy bombardment, the Belgian defensive line on the river has been broken.  The Belgian divisions are being ground down, and there are no reserves to relieve them.  General d'Urbal authorizes the French 42nd Division at Nieuport to send a brigade to the Belgian centre to keep it from crumbling, which arrives this morning.  Nevertheless, the north and centre of the Belgian line along the Yser is withdrawn to the Noordvaart and Beverdyk, small streams running north-south between the river to the east and the Nieuport-Dixmude railway embankment to the west.  The German 4th Army also undertake a heavy bombardment of Dixmude, including by the massive siege guns used at Antwerp, clearing in preparation for a major attack on the town.

- The developments along the Yser mean that the planned by Foch and d'Urbal is reduced to an attack by the recently arrived IX Corps.  From 7am this morning the French 17th Division of IX Corps attacks the German lines between Langemarck and Zonnebeke northeast of Ypres, held by portions of the German XVII and XVIII Reserve Corps.  In the morning most progress is achieved near Langemarck where they are able to advance a thousand yards.  Early in the afternoon the German 51st Reserve Division counterattacks at Zonnebeke, but is driven off, and the village recaptured by this evening.

- On the left of the French 17th Division the British 1st Division of I Corps has a relatively uneventful day, only experiencing heavy bombardment in the evening.  The plan is to relieve 1st Division with two French territorial brigades, so that all of I Corps is out of the line and thus can be utilized in a British counteroffensive to the south.  The heavy shelling in the evening, however, delays the handover of the trench line.

On the right of the French 17th Division, the British 7th Division of IV Corps has a very trying day.  It sits holding the southeastern 'angle' of the Ypres salient, and comes under heavy attack throughout the day.  The most critical moments come at the tiny village of Rethel, which sits just in front of Polygon Wood.  This section of line was at the junction of two brigades, and was defended by the 2nd Battalion, Wiltshires and a company of 2nd Battalion Scots Guards.  A preliminary bombardment begins at 430am, and in the early morning light two regiments of the German 53rd Reserve Division advance.  The German artillery keeps firing as their infantry reaches Rethel which, though it places the infantry at risk of being hit by friendly fire, suppresses the British infantry - many are too busy hiding from enemy shells to fire on the German infantry advancing on their trenches.  The Wiltshires initially are able to hold up the German advance, but the artillery fire has largely destroyed the position of the company of the Scots Guards - when the Germans reach the latter's position, they are able to easily overrun them and capture the British trench.  This outflanks the Wiltshires, and the Germans are able to work their way down the trench, systematically wiping out the British defenders.  The Wiltshires collapse, and most of the survivors fall into German hands.

The Germans had managed to blast a hole in the British line - there was nothing directly west of Rethel to hold the Germans.  The commander of 7th Division had no further reserves at hand - they had been committed to hold against other German attacks today - so he calls on 2nd Division to the rear for any aid they can send.  He also orders all of the headquarter staff, orderlies, clerks, and other administrative individuals to rally for a last stand.

The position of 7th Division is saved by the simple fact that the commander of the German 244th Regiment, who had achieved the breakthrough, had no idea that he had accomplished any such thing.  He is content to remain at Rethel, and only tentatively sends part of his force into Polygon Wood after over two hours of relative inactivity.  It is at this point that two battalions dispatched from 2nd Division arrive, and in desperate hand-to-hand fighting with the bayonet, the Germans are ejected from the Wood.  Rethel remains in German hands, but the relief force is able to reconstitute the British line at the edge of Polygon Wood.  For only the briefest of moments, the opportunity for a breakthrough appeared, but in the confusion of the battlefield it vanished before the Germans even knew it was there.

To the south the Germans launch a series of attacks near Gheluvelt this afternoon, but are repulsed.  After a difficult day, 7th Division has held its line with the exception of the loss of Rethel.  But the victories have not been without cost.  In the fighting between the 22nd and today, 7th Division has lost just over 2800 men, or almost 40% of its total strength.

- To the south, nine battalions from the German XIII and XIX Corps advance on positions of the British III Corps at Le Quesne, while elements of the German VII Corps, eager to come to grip with the enemy after they escaped unnoticed the day before, launch a series of methodical attacks on II Corps.  In heavy fighting the British lines bend but do not break, and by midnight all ground lost in fighting earlier in the day has been recaptured.

- From the perspective of the German 4th Army, the capture of the ruins of Rethel hardly compensates for both failures elsewhere and the French advance between Langemarck and Zonnebeke.  The reserve corps have been thoroughly battered after several days of fighting, with casualties over 60% in some regiments.  It is clear that they are no longer in any shape to undertake offensive operations, so the decision is made to order them to entrench and go on to the defensive.  The situation to the north, however, is much more promising, with the expanding bridgehead across the Yser by III Reserve Corps.  A breakthrough here might still achieve victory by sweeping along the Channel coast.  Moreover, it is known that the French have reinforced the Belgian lines west of the Yser, which opens the possibility that they have no reserves left to support the defenders of Dixmude.  The major focus of 4th Army thus shifts from the Ypres salient to the line Nieuport-Dixmude.

- A shortage of artillery shells is becoming acute in the BEF.  Field Marshal French today telegrams Kitchener that while his guns have fired as many as seventy-six shells per day, only the equivalent of seven rounds per day were arriving from Britain, and there were only one hundred fifty shells per gun that had not already been issued to the artillery positions.  Kitchener advised that restrictions on ammunition expenditure be considered to avoid running out at a critical moment.

The lines around Ypres, October 24th and 25th, 1914.

- In South Africa Marwitz's force, which had sparked the Boer Rebellion, is defeated by government forces led by Coen Brits at Kakamas.  Marwitz briefly considers surrender, but the news of the general rebellion, in particular of De Wet in the Orange Free State and Beyers in the western Transvaal, encourages Marwitz to continue.

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