Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October 28th, 1914

- This evening the Belgians make a second attempt at opening the locks, Hendrik Geeraert leading Belgian soldiers to lock gates just before the German lines.  This time they get the timing right, and the North Sea begins to flood the area between the Yser River and the railway embankment.  Meanwhile, the Germans launch attacks against the southern portion of the French line defending Dixmude, but are unable to make any progress against the fresh Senegalese units.

- As Army Group Fabeck begins to assemble for the planned offensive southeast of Ypres, both Fabeck and Falkenhayn decide that a preliminary operation is required to capture Gheluvelt, as continued British control of the village would allow them to pour fire on the northern flank of the main attack.  Thus the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, I Cavalry Corps, and XXVII Reserve Corps are instructed to co-operate in attacking Gheluvelt tomorrow morning.  As the planning continues Falkenhayn orders 4th Army to cancel a scheduled attack nearby in order to be able to assist the push on Gheluvelt if necessary.  When 4th Army headquarters signals the change in orders to XXVII Reserve Corps in the clear, the message is intercepted by the British.

- For their part, the leadership of the BEF had been growing in confidence over the past few days.  There is a palpable sense that they have defeated the big German push - the attacks of the reserve corps - and that they are now going back over to the offensive.  True, the gains of the French IX Corps have been minimal, a further attack today not securing anything of consequence, while recent setbacks such as the loss of Neuve Chapelle are dismissed as local events of no significance.  There is also a belief that the Germans have shot their bolt, Sir John French writing Kitchener yesterday that the Germans were 'quite incapable of making any strong and sustained attack' - not the Field Marshal;s most insightful observation.  When aerial reconnaissance reports the roads behind the German front clogged with vehicles, the general conclusion is that most are refugees fleeing the fighting, as opposed to reinforcements approaching the front.

Thus the interception of the German 4th Army's signal regarding the planned attack against Gheluvelt tomorrow does not cause quite the alarm it perhaps should.  As the attack will fall on the junction of I Corps' 1st and 7th Division, plans are made to co-ordinate the artillery fire of those two divisions plus 2nd to the north, and they are authorized to exceed their daily quota of shell usage.  However, the attention of both French and Haig remains on the offensive to the north, and orders remain for 2nd Division to advance.  Moreover, the British reaction was slowed by poor communications - though I Corps HQ knows of the German attack by 3pm, it is not until midnight that the information reaches the headquarters of the relevant battalions.  This delay is not the product of poor staff work, but rather the realities of modern communications in 1914.  Almost all messages go either by telephone or messenger, and the lines of the former are frequently destroyed by shell fire, while the latter have to move in the open and in the range of enemy fire to get to front-line headquarters given that the rudimentary defences lack communication trenches.

- To the south, another counterattack is attempted against Neuve Chapelle.  After a short preliminary bombardment the British advance at 1130am.  The attack is a shambles - the soldiers are exhausted after several days of constant fighting and there are great difficulties coordinating the large number of small formations participating in the operation.  The only success is registered by two companies of the 47th Sikhs who advanced on the village single-handedly.  Astonishingly, they not only reach the ruins of Neuve Chapelle but in hand-to-hand combat force the German defenders back.  The inevitable counterattack, however, pushes the 47th Sikhs out, and only 68 men survive from the 289 who began the attack.

- The first three months of the war at sea have not evolved as many in the British government and among the public.  For a century the Royal Navy has been seen as the strongest naval power on earth, and that it was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 that cemented this status.  For a decade there has been an intense naval rivalry with Germany, centred on the construction of dreadnoughts.  There was a general expectation that in the event of war, there would be another Trafalgar - a massive naval battle between both fleets after which the victor would rule the waves, and there being no doubt in Britain as to which side would triumph.

The war to date, however, have not delivered the expected victory.  Both the Grand Fleet and the High Seas Fleet have largely remained confined to port and their home waters - the former through fear of submarines and mines, and the latter as a result of numerical inferiority.  Further, while Admiral Jellicoe is undoubtedly correct that he does not need a naval victory at sea to secure the blockade, it does not make for particularly exciting war news from the navy, especially in contrast to the massive battles being waged across Europe, including by the BEF.

Moreover, the events that have occurred at sea have not been entirely in Britain's favour.  Against the victory at the Battle of the Heligoland Bight must be set the escape of Goeben and Breslau, the loss of the three armoured cruisers in one morning off the Dutch coast, and the continued activity of both the German East Asiatic Squadron in the Pacific and the light cruiser Emden in the Indian Ocean.  Often added to this list is the fall of Antwerp, where Churchill dispatched the naval brigades in what is now seen as a doomed attempt to save the city, and ended up having thousands taken prisoner or interned.

Criticism in the press of the navy's performance comes to be centred on the First Sea Lord, Louis of Battenberg.  He is the military head of the Royal Navy, and his appointed as First Sea Lord in 1911 was the culmination of a lifelong career at sea.  Born a German citizen to the ruling family of Hesse, he was and is related to most of the dynastic families of Europe, including Britain and Russia.  His friendship with the second son of Queen Victoria led to him to become a British citizen at the age of fourteen upon his entry to the Royal Navy.  There has never been any basis to doubt his loyalty to Britain - indeed, the Hohenzollern family of Kaiser Wilhelm II is one of the few that have a poor relationship with the Battenbergs, while his nephew, Prince Maurice of Battenberg, died at Ypres yesterday, fighting for the British.

However, in time of war, when Britain is involved in a life-or-death struggle with the Germans, it is not difficult for the conspiracy-minded to link the perceived poor performance of the Royal Navy with the German background of the First Sea Lord.  In the cheap press the wildest rumours have flown - one suggested that as a German spy he had deliberately allowed the Goeben and Breslau to escape to Constantinople.  Further, any admiral who has climbed the greasy pole of naval politics has left a trail of rivals, and in Battenberg's case they see a perfect opportunity to bring him down.  A whisper campaign against the First Sea Lord has traveled among London's clubs, and have reached the highest ears.

Churchill and the Prime Minister decide that a change in command is needed to quell the rumours and remove the distractions of Battenberg's ancestry.  The First Lord informs Battenberg that he must resign, and the latter does so with such great dignity, refusing to attack those who have defamed him, that there is a widespread sympathetic reaction among much of the British press.  Such are the whims of the British press.  Churchill, meanwhile, must find a new Sea Lord.

- On the same day the First Sea Lord resigns, another tragedy befalls the Royal Navy.  This morning the 2nd Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir George Warrender and consisting of eight of the Royal Navy's newest and most powerful dreadnoughts, is at sea off the north Irish coast for gunnery practice.  This squadron is one of those moved out of Scapa Flow on the 17th after the reported presence of a German submarine in the anchorage.  The move, ironically, has placed the warships directly in harm's way.  Six days earlier, the German liner Berlin, armed as a cruiser and carrying a large number of mines, had laid two hundred mines off the north Irish coast.  As of day, the Royal Navy has no idea the minefield exists, and Vice-Admiral Warrender inadvertently leads his dreadnoughts directly into it.

At 9am, there is a large explosion on the port side of the dreadnought Audacious.  Initially believing it to be caused by a torpedo, Warrender quickly sails away to protect the rest of his squadron.  Despite the damage for two hours the stricken warship is able to make 9 knots towards the harbour at Lough Swilly before the engine room was swamped and the warships comes to a halt.  At 130pm the British liner Olympic, sister ship of Titanic and on the last day of a voyage from New York to Liverpool, comes across the dreadnought.  Olympic's captain offers to take Audacious in tow, and for several hours crews struggle to secure lines between the two, but the weight of the latter causes the lines to repeatedly snap.  At 9pm, Audacious finally succumbs to its wounds, capsizing and sinking.

The crew of the British dreadnought Audacious takes to lifeboats as the warship flounders.

Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, is desperate to suppress news of the loss of Audacious.  He believes that his margin in dreadnoughts over the High Seas Fleet is now only seventeen to fifteen, and fears that if the Germans learn of the sinking, they will be tempted to take advantage of being one dreadnought closer to parity.  The problem is the presence of Olympic, full of civilians, many of them Americans and a few of whom managed to take pictures of the stricken dreadnought.  When Olympic reaches Lough Swilly, Jellicoe orders it isolated to prevent communication from ship to shore.  Ultimately the effort is unsuccessful - news leaks in the American press in November - but the Admiralty will not admit publicly to the loss of Audacious until after the war.

- For the past two months, the German light cruiser Emden has been terrorizing Entente shipping in the Indian Ocean.  In addition to its shelling of Madras, it has seized or sunk several dozen merchant ships, leading to a moratorium on any merchant sailing in the Bay of Bengal.  This morning Emden accomplishes its most audacious feat in the harbour of Penang, a port on the western coast of British Malaya.  In the pre-dawn hours, Emden, with all of its lights extinguished, slowly makes its way in the harbour unseen by anyone.  It finds there the Russian Yemtschuk at anchor.  Emden manoeuvres into position and fires a single torpedo, and there is no reaction from Yemtschuk until the torpedo strikes it amidships.  A few sailors are seen scurrying on deck, and a couple of guns attempt to return fire, but Emden is sufficiently unmolested to be able to turn 180 degrees and fire a second torpedo.  The detonation of the latter breaks the back of Yemtschuk, which promptly sinks.  Emden then makes its way out of the harbour - a French destroyer at anchor fires a few shots, but otherwise the German light cruiser gets away.  Later this morning, it encounters another French destroyer - Mousquet - returning to Penang after patrolling the Bay of Bengal, and in short order sinks it as well.  Emden then disappears once more into the Indian Ocean.

The loss of a light cruiser sitting in a supposedly-guarded port is a significant embarrassment to the Entente; the German ship, however, had the good fortune to be targeting a singularly ill-prepared foe.  At the moment the Germans attacked, Yemtschuk's captain was ashore at a Penang hotel with his 'lady friend'.  Moreover, there was no night watch on the light cruiser, as the crew was being 'entertained' by sixty prostitutes below deck.  Emden's attack brought a rather abrupt end to the night's 'entertainment.'  Perhaps not surprisingly, the captain and first officer will be court-martialled for negligence.  Meanwhile the legend of Emden grows.

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