Friday, October 31, 2014

October 31st, 1914

- Between Nieuport and Dixmude the waterlogged soldiers of the German III Reserve Corps make their way eastward back across the flooded fields and over the Yser River to dry land.  Due to the battered state of the Belgian army the Germans are able to undertake the retreat without significant losses, but there is no masking the bitter taste of the outcome of the Battle of the Yser.  At the moment when a breakthough appeared to be at hand, the Germans have victory snatched from their grasp, not by the enemy army, but by the sea, the one remorseless enemy they cannot overcome.  By letting in the sea, the Belgians have created an impenetrable barrier from Dixmude to the Channel.  This gives the Belgian army the opportunity to rest and recover, and indeed it can be said that the flooding saves the army from destruction and Belgium from complete occupation.  As a result, a tiny corner of Belgium will remain in Belgian hands for the duration of the war.  Of course, just as the Germans cannot advance across the flooding, the Belgians cannot counterattack either.  Knowing this allows the Germans to move forces south to reinforce the fighting elsewhere in Flanders.

- Just after midnight, General Foch arrives at BEF headquarters at St. Omer, asking to see Field Marshal French.  The heavy attacks of yesterday have plunged the BEF commander again into pessimism, giving Foch the impression of panic and telling him 'We are for it.'  Attempting to buoy French's spirits, Foch replies: 'We shall see.  In the meantime, hammer, hammer away, keep on hammering, and you will get there.'

Army Group Fabeck today resumes its attacks on the British line from Gheluvlet to Messines.  At the latter, the first advance comes before dawn, catching the British in the middle of relieving the companies holding the front line.  After initially overrunning two companies of Indian infantry after their British officers had been killed, nearby cavalry rallied to push the Germans back.  This, however, was only a prelude - a heavy artillery bombardment at 8am preceded an attack by twelve German battalions at 9am that outnumbered the defenders by more than six to one.  The Germans break into the village of Messines, and advance house to house, using artillery at point-blank range to demolish British positions.  Reinforcements from II Corps are fed into the battle, as well as the first Territorial battalion to see combat.  Counterattacks suffer heavy losses, but relieve some of the pressure on the British defenders in Messines at by nightfall they remain entrenched in the southern portion of the village.

To the north, the British 2nd Cavalry Division comes under attack from the German 3rd Bavarian Division and 6th Bavarian Reserve Division.  Though German artillery opened their bombardment at 6am, German infantry did not advance until just before 3pm, giving enough time for reserves to be deployed, and the Germans are repulsed.

The most serious situation of the day develops at Gheluvelt, where the line was held by I Corps' 1st Division.  The first attack by the German XXIV Reserve Corps is mostly repulsed, but small elements manage to reach an orchard from which the defenders are unable to eject them.  Under an increasingly intense artillery bombardment and fire from the orchard, part of the 2nd Battalion, Welch Regiment falls back, opening a gap in the line which the Germans find.  Within minutes the British position has collapsed, the 2nd Battalion, Welch Regiment suffering 530 casualties in being effectively annihilated.  British soldiers flee to the rear individually or in small groups, and attempts to rally them by officers fail.  A company of 1st Battalion, Gloucestershires is sent to plug the gap, but under German shellfire it is reduced from eighty soldiers to thirteen by the time they arrive in the line.

Further German attacks are launched north and south of the Menin Road at 10am, and despite enduring intense fire are able to push the British back.  By 1130am the Germans have taken Gheluvelt and broken the British line.  Further, the British command structure is dealt a severe blow at 115pm when the chateau at which the commanders and staff of 1st and 2nd Divisions are struck by artillery shells, killing or wounding almost everyone present.  As time has to be taken to find new commanders for both units, Haig at I Corps HQ informs Field Marshal French, General Foch, and General Dubois that 1st Division has been broken and issues orders for a last line of defence to be prepared to the rear.  One of I Corps' intelligence officers returned from the front and provided a vivid description of the situation:
You cannot imagine the scene.  The road was full of troops retreating, stragglers, wounded men, artillery and wagons, a terrible sight.  All the time there was the noise of a terrific bombardment.  It was impossible to get any clear idea of the situation.  Nobody knew anything except what was happening on his immediate front and that was always the same story.  The Germans were attacking in overwhelming strength and our men were being driven back . . .
A decisive moment of the battle is at hand - if the Germans can exploit the breakthrough, the entire British line could be outflanked and forced back, allowing the Germans to seize Ypres and secure victory.  At I Corps HQ Haig organizes the orderlies and mess servants to make a last stand.  When Sir John French arrives they discuss the breakthrough in what the BEF commander will later describe as the worst half-hour of his life.  French then motors to Foch's headquarters to plead for reinforcements, stating, according to Foch's recollection, that the only men he had left were the sentries at BEF HQ and that he would take them 'where the line is broken, and the last of the English will be killed fighting.'  Foch replied: 'We must stand firm first, we can die later.'  He promises an attack by IX Corps and lends a cavalry brigade and three battalions to the British.

Meanwhile, west of Gheluvelt all of 1st Division's reserves had been committed to the fighting, and only three companies of 2nd Battalion, Worcesters, consisting of seven officers and 350 men, remained as 2nd Division's reserve.  A brigade commander from 1st Division orders them to counterattack, and by 145pm they are moving on Gheluvelt Chateau, on the northeast side of the village.  They have dropped their packs and grabbed extra ammunition to be able to advance as quickly as possible.  The last mile is open ground, and the battalion loses a hundred men as they race across.  When they reach the Chateau, they find Bavarians from three regiments who, in the aftermath of seizing Gheluvelt, have relaxed in the afterglow of victory.  The Worcesters smash into them and the Germans are driven from the Chateau.  The shock of the counterattack leads other German units to abandon Gheluvelt, and with stragglers from other units the Worcesters are able to establish a thin defensive line.  For the loss of three officers and 189 men, the Worcesters had regained Gheluvelt and shattered German momentum.

Subsequent counterattacks on either flank by disparate and already-mauled British units are able to stem the German tide, though at the cost of over a thousand casualties.  By the slimmest of margins, I Corps is able to restore its line and hold the Germans.  Not for the first nor the last time the Germans manage to achieve a breakthrough, only to have it closed before it can be exploited.

- To the south of the main fighting at Ypres today the period of the heaviest fighting has come to an end, as the German 6th Army is no longer attempting to break through the British line between Armentières and La Bassée; daily skirmishes continue, however, mainly comprised of spoiling attacks by the Germans to keep the British opposite from redeploying northward.  Since coming into the line, the British III Corps has suffered 5779 casualties, while II Corps was down to 14 000 infantry after arriving in Flanders with 24 000.  The withdrawal of II Corps from the line is also completed today, with its place taken by all of the Indian Corps.

- When the First World War broke out, Portugal remained neutral, but declared its 'support' for the Entente.  This awkward position arose out of Portugal's longstanding alliance with Britain that stretched back to the Middle Ages, but which did not require Portugal to actually go to war.  Moreover, the British had such little regard for the Portuguese military that they saw no advantage to be gained by Portugal actually participating in the war.  Thus Portugal stands in 1914 as unfriendly but not openly hostile to Germany.

The place of Portugal in the war has ramifications in Africa, considering the non-insubstantial Portuguese colonial empire, and in particular both Angola and Mozambique are adjacent to German colonies (German South West Africa and German West Africa respectively).  In September Portugal had dispatched 1500 soldiers to each to buttress their garrison against potential German aggression.  These forces would also aid in maintaining Portuguese rule over their colonies - parts of Angola in particular were in a state of near-perpetual revolt by the indigenous population.

To their German neighbours, however, these reinforcements could be interpreted as a prelude to a Portuguese invasion.  Moreover, since the fall of Togoland in August direct communications with Germany had been severed,  Thus the governor of German South West Africa is uncertain whether or not Germany and Portugal are at war.  Tensions were heightened on October 19th when a German patrol (according to the Portuguese) or mission (according to the Germans) was arrested at a Portuguese border fort, and in the ensuing scuffle three Germans were killed.  The event appears to confirm suspicions that the Portuguese are an active combatant, and the German governor decides to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the ongoing Boer Rebellion temporarily halting South African operations to the south to deal with the Portuguese to the north.

Today a German detachment approaches the Portuguese post at Cuangar, whose garrison is oblivious to the events of October 19th.  Taken by surprise, the Portuguese defenders are overwhelmed and massacred by the Germans.

- The commanders of Indian Expeditionary Force B and C meet today in Mombada with Kenyan and other British officials to finalize their plan for the invasion of German East Africa.  It is decided that IEF B will land at Tanga on November 2nd, while IEF C will attack across the border in the interior on the 3rd.  Crucially, the naval commander of the force escorting IEF B insists that given the prior agreement to neutralize Tanga and Dar es Salaam, it is necessary to inform the Germans that the British have abrogated the agreement before IEF B can land.

- The British light cruiser Glasgow continues to sit off Coronel today.  Despite the volume of intercepted German wireless traffic, no German warships have appeared, so the captain of Glasgow receives permission from Admiral Craddock to enter Coronel, which it does at dusk.  The ship's intelligence officer goes ashore to collect mail and messages from the British consul, who warns of a large German ethnic community, which means the presence of Glasgow in Coronel may have already been reported to the German East Asiatic Squadron.  In fact, one of the squadron's supply ships was in harbour when Glasgow arrived, and had reported its presence to Admiral Spee at 7pm.  An increase in the volume of German wireless traffic convinces the captain of Glasgow that German warships are approaching, so he decides to sail by 9am tomorrow morning.  Further, Admiral Craddock is bringing the rest of his squadron to Coronel to rendezvous with Glasgow - all of the German signals have had the call sign of the light cruiser Leipzig, and Craddock believes that it is operating in isolation from the rest of the German East Asiatic Squadron, providing an opportunity to sink it in isolation.

That all of the German wireless traffic has had the call signal of Leipzig, of course, is a deliberate ruse by Admiral Spee to mask the presence of his entire squadron off the Chilean coast.  When he learns of Glasgow's presence in Coronel, he decides to trap the British warship when it departs Coronel tomorrow; by law a warship that spends more than twenty-four hours in a neutral port is to be interned.  Thus the commanders of both squadrons believe that they are moving to engage a single warship of the other.

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