Thursday, October 30, 2014

October 30th, 1914

- General Beseler of III Reserve Corps believes that the final breakthrough against the Belgians is imminent, and orders 5th and 6th Reserve Divisions to assault the enemy line along the railway embankment.  The Belgians are clearly at their breaking point - as of today the Belgian 2nd Division has only sixty shells per artillery piece - and one more push might shatter the enemy.  The ground is increasingly inundated and the German find water up to their ankles in places, but they attribute this to recent rains and think nothing more of it.  In the course of the day's fighting the Germans reach the embankment, and in several places pierce the Belgian line, most significantly by seizing the village of Ramscappelle to the west of the railway.  By this evening Beseler fully intends to resume the attack tomorrow, exploiting the breaches to move past the embankment and into open country.

At the supreme moment of crisis for the Belgian army, as it sits on the brink of defeat, the flooding begun on the 28th finally takes effect.  Water that was at the ankle this morning is at the knee this evening, making rapid movement impossible.  Those Germans who have reached the embankment look back on the fields they have crossed over the past few days to find instead nothing but water behind them.  German trenches are flooded, and soldiers cannot lay down in the face of machine gun and artillery fire, for to do so would mean drowning.  Not only is further advance impossible, but bringing up ammunition and provisions to resupply the Germans at the embankment is also out of the question.  With great reluctance, Beseler bows to the inevitable and just before midnight orders 5th and 6th Reserve Divisions to give up the ground captured at such great expense and retreat back across the Yser River.

The Battle of the Yser, October 1914, showing the area flooded between the
Nieuport-Dixmude railway embankment and the Yser River.

- The attack of Army Group Fabeck opens with a diversionary attack at Zonnebeke by XXVII Reserve Corps, intended to compel the British and French to commit their reserves there before the main attack is launched to the south.  After a preliminary bombardment at 600am, German infantry advance at 630.  They face elements of the British 1st and 2nd Divisions, which crucially have had time to entrench effectively, including lines of barbed wire.  The German attacks fail to break through the British lines at any point, and realizing the German threat was being contained, no reserves of I Corps are committed to the fight here.  Thus not only does the attack not capture Zonnebeke, but it fails as a diversionary effort as well.

- The main offensive begins at 645 with a heavy artillery bombardment of British positions from Zandvoorde to Messines, held by 7th Division and 3rd Cavalry Division around Zandvoorde, 2nd Cavalry Division around Hollebeke, and 1st Cavalry Division at Messines.  The British defensive position is weakest at Zandvoorde, where again 7th Division is holding trenches on a forward slope in clear view of German artillery, and by 8am the Germans had overrun the line, and at 10am occupy the village itself.  Situated on a small ridge, the capture of Zandvoorde allows the Germans pour enfilade fire on British positions nearby, including by artillery brought up to fire over direct sights.  Reserves from I Corps, Cavalry Corps, and 3rd Cavalry Division are brought forward, but, having to advance over open ground, suffer heavy losses and are unable to recapture Zandvoorde.  The best that can be done is to create a new defensive line northwest of Zandvoorde, and Haig, aware of the weakness of his position, asks General Dubois of the French IX Corps for aid.  Despite the latter continuing to attempt attacks northeast of Ypres, to his great credit Dubois instantly dispatches several battalions south.  The new defensive line northwest of Zandvoorde holds, not least because the Germans are again reluctant to keep pressing forward - indeed, by the end of the day German divisional commanders were protesting that due to heavy losses further attacks should be curtailed.

Elsewhere, at noon a heavy bombardment commences against the British 2nd Cavalry Division, and by 1230 the destruction of their meager trenches forces them to withdraw, and Hollebeke falls to the Germans.  Further south, however, German attacks against 1st Cavalry Division at Messines fail to break through.  Overall, despite tactical gains, the Germans have not achieved the decisive breakthrough desired.  The German command leadership, however, is determined to continue the advance tomorrow.  For the British, though the German attacks have been contained, the sheer strength of the German offensive, combined with the continued inability to determine the size and identity of the German formations opposite, lead to growing concerns about the continued ability of the BEF to hold on.  Sir John French gives up the idea of further attacks, ordering his forces to simply hold on, and instructing General Smith-Dorrien of II Corps to the south to send reserves northward to reinforce the British line.

The Battle of Ypres, October 30th and 31st, 1914, showing the gains achieved over these two
days by Army Group Fabeck.

- As the fighting at Ypres intensifies, Chief of the General Staff Falkenhayn meets in Berlin with General Ludendorff.  The latter seeks the redeployment of significant forces from the Western Front to the Eastern Front, to allow for another, more substantial offensive operation against the Russians after the indecisive fighting of October.  Falkenhayn, however, insists that a decisive victory can still be achieved in the West, and refuses Ludendorff's request.

- Today Admiral Sir John 'Jackie' Fisher is announced as the successor to Prince Louis of Battenberg as First Sea Lord.  The seventy-three year old Fisher already served a term as First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910, during which he transformed and modernized the Royal Navy, overseeing the dreadnought revolution, refocusing the fleet in home waters to meet the German threat while retiring hundreds of outdated warships to reduce expenses, and revolutionizing the education of officers and the methods of promotion.  It is no exaggeration to say that the Royal Navy that entered the First World War is the creation of Jackie Fisher.

In bringing Fisher out of retirement to serve again as First Sea Lord, Churchill is hoping to tap into the admiral's famous drive and work ethic.  Despite his age, Fisher remains perhaps the textbook definition of a 'mad genius'.  He is absolute in his opinions and convinced of his own intellectual superiority - thankfully for the Royal Navy, most of the time he is right.  He is ruthless with subordinates, expecting each to perform up to Fisher's expectations or be discarded.  Not surprising, there are a legion of sworn enemies of Fisher within and without the navy, and the division of the officer corps into pro- and anti-Fisher factions was one of the contributing factors to his partially-forced retirement in 1910.  Fisher for his part relishes conflict with his foes and is merciless to those who oppose him and who he deems to have failed, while his sharp tongue and vitriolic language is legendary.  As an example, Fisher had long been dismissive of Admiral Sir Berkeley Milne, and when the latter as commander of the Mediterranean Fleet permitted the escape of Goeben and Breslau Fisher declared to a friend that the 'serpeant' 'Sir Berkeley Goeben' should be shot.

The appointment of the elderly Fisher is generally received with favour among the press and the public, being seen in a similar light to Kitchener by bringing authority and drive to the senior service.  It is hoped that he will ensure that the navy more vigourously pursues the enemy, while reigning in the wilder impulses of Churchill.  In reality, the two heads of the Royal Navy - the First Lord and the First Sea Lord - are both impulsive forces used to getting their own way.  For now, the two, who for several years have been friends, recognize each other as kindred spirits.  Should there ever be a clash between the two, however, the explosion promises to be epic.

- In the aftermath of yesterday's bombardment of the Russian Black Sea coast, the British ambassador delivers an ultimatum to the Ottoman government in Constantinople, demanding that the German crews be removed from Goeben and Breslau.  He receives no response, as the Ottoman government is divided itself about what has transpired.  The Grand Vizier is outraged that he was not consulted about the attack and threatens to resign, while a majority of the Cabinet wishes to disavow Admiral Souchon's action.  However, the counter of Enver Pasha and his supporters is simply that the die has been cast; that the logical outcome of the secret German alliance was always war with the Entente - Souchon has merely hastened the inevitable.

- For the past several weeks, the German light cruiser Königsberg has been hiding in the Rufiji River Delta in German East Africa, attempting to fix engine trouble and waiting for additional coal.  Today British warships discover the hiding place of Königsberg by sighting its masts from the mouth of the delta.  However, having discovered Königsberg, the British find themselves unable to do anything about it.  The German light cruiser is sufficiently far up the river delta to be beyond the reach of the British cruisers offshore.  Moreover, the delta itself covers 1500 square miles of islands, marshes, swamps, and channels, and only the Germans have ever charted them, leaving the British unsure of the proper path through the delta to Königsberg, or where it could emerge to go back to sea.  The only alternative at present is for the British to blockade all the exits of the Rufiji Delta, requiring the permanent deployment of twenty-five warships that can be ill-spared from other theatres.  Thus Königsberg, simply by continuing to exist, has a noticeable impact on the operations of the Royal Navy.

- Off the Chilean coast, Admiral Spee decides to send his supply ships into Valparaíso and Coronel to take on coal and other supplies.

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