Thursday, October 09, 2014

October 9th, 1914

- General Falkenhayn issues orders today for a major new deployment of German forces on the Western Front.  The corps of the existing 4th Army are reassigned to the adjacent 3rd or 5th armies, and 4th Army headquarters, including is commander Duke Albrecht, are brought north to Flanders.  General Beseler's XIII Reserve Corps is assigned to this army, but the main fighting strength of the new 4th Army are XXII, XXII, XXVI, and XXVII Reserve Corps, each of which consist of two Reserve Divisions.  These four corps were among six whose formation was authorized on August 16th.  They consisted in part of older men who had never been conscripted in their youth (in peacetime Germany had only needed to conscripted 50% of each age cohort to fill the army), in part of older men who had completed prior military service, and volunteers.  It is the latter group who would come to dominant the popular perception of these corps - they are among the hundreds of thousands of young men, many coming straight from the classroom, who, fully imbued with patriotism and romantic notions of a quick and glorious war, had volunteered in the first weeks of the war.  They had had no prior military training, and have had barely any time to learn over the past two month.  It is hoped that what they lacked in martial ability would be compensated by enthusiasm, perhaps the ultimate expression of the pre-war belief that any enemy position could be taken, any task completed, if only the soldiers are sufficiently willing.  The older men were added to give leadership and experience, but many of them are unfit for duty and had been trained in prior decades, before the rise of the machine gun and the other accouterments of twentieth-century warfare.  They are also under-equipped, with fewer artillery batteries as compared to regular corps and lacking field telephones to direct the fire of those artillery pieces they do have.

Given the poor quality of these corps, why are they to be employed in battle two months after their formation?  Indeed, Britain was also mobilizing hundreds of thousands of volunteers, but Kitchener has insisted that it would take a year's training before they were fit for combat.  Their use speaks to the extent that, despite the dismissal of Moltke and the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, Falkenhayn and the General Staff remain enthralled by the vision of rapid victory in the west.  Of these six reserve corps, only one is sent to the Eastern Front, at a time when Hindenburg and Ludendorff are screaming for thirty divisions.  One is sent to help hold the line at Metz, while the remaining four all go to Flanders.  Falkenhayn believes that the Western Front continues to be the place where a decisive, war-winning victory can be achieved, though instead of Schlieffen's sweep around Paris, he perceives that the opportunity exists to outflank the Entente line from the north, advancing to the Somme River and occupying the Channel ports.  Such a success, Falkenhayn believed, would cripple France and ensure ultimate victory.  Further, the only way to achieve the vital margin of superiority to ensure success is to use these four reserve corps - a force of equivalent size cannot be redeployed from the rest of the Western Front, and it would take too much time to send the reserve corps to relieve four more experienced corps and redeploy the latter to Flanders.

Thus 4th Army is to be the hammer behind Falkenhayn's major offensive on the Western Front - with the French line holding south of Arras, they are to punch through between Arras and the Channel coast, an area that for much of the war has been held only by a small number of French territorial and cavalry divisions.  But even as Falkenhayn's orders go out, Entente forces are gathering, and in particular the British Expeditionary Force is redeploying into precisely the same stretch of the front that the Germany 4th Army is to storm through.  Indeed, today also marks the first arrival of BEF units in Flanders: II Corps completes its detraining at Abbeville, while 2nd Cavalry Division arrives between St. Pol and Hesdin.  Thus by coincidence, just as in August at Mons, the BEF is moving into the path of the most important German advance.

- To cover the retreat of the British brigades at Antwerp, Rawlinson dispatches part of 7th Division to Ghent, while the remainder, plus 3rd Cavalry Division, concentrates at Bruges.  The two divisions are also brought under Sir John French's direct command, integrating them into the BEF as IV Corps under General Rawlinson's command.  This illustrates that in future the corps will join up and co-operate with the BEF, as opposed to remaining effectively an independent command along the Schelde.

- As the Royal Marine Brigade, the 2nd Naval Brigade, and the Drake Battalion march westwards, word reaches the British at 230am that the nearest trains are at Gilles Waes, six miles to the northwest.  After an arduous overland journey undertaken in unfamiliar terrain in darkness, the first troops reach Gilles Waes at daybreak, and by 9am the last train leaves the village, with omnibuses picking up stragglers.  Thus were the bulk of the British forces at Antwerp evacuated through the corridor north of the Schelde.  The Belgian 2nd Division also manages to escape, reaching the rest of the Belgian army this evening after a thirty-mile march.

The last military train to leave Gilles Waes, October 9th, 1914.

However, the three battalions of the 1st Naval Brigade who had not received the original orders to retreat would have a much more difficult time evacuating the city.  By the early morning hours, finding that adjacent units had disappeared, realized that a retreat was under way.  After marching through the nearly-abandoned city, they arrived at the Schelde to find that most of the bridges has been destroyed to prevent their usage by the Germans.  Through the requisition of barges and steamers, the battalions are able to get across the Schelde by 4am and arrive at Zwyndrecht, the supposed rendezvous for British forces, to find it abandoned.  Finally learning that the others had gone to Gilles Waes, the three battalions join the refugee columns streaming west, and arrive at the village between 1130 and 345.  A train then arrived to take them west, but at 415 it was learned that the advancing Germans had cut the rail line at Moerbeke.  At this point, the three battalions were exhausted, lacked both food and ammunition, and were in no condition to attempt to fight their way out.  In consequence they took the only other option available to them - they marched north and crossed the Dutch frontier, where they were disarmed and interned for the remainder of the war.  Thus of the three thousand men of the 1st Naval Brigade that arrived at Antwerp, only one thousand escaped.

At Antwerp itself, the Germans discover this morning that the inner forts have been abandoned.  General Beseler thus sends a representative into the city under a white flag to demand its surrender.  Simultaneously, the Military Governor of Antwerp had concluded that further resistance was pointless.  This evening, the Governor signs the surrender of the city and its remaining fortifications.

- The retreat of the German 8th Army ends today as they reach Gumbinnen and the fortified positions along the Angerapp River.  The pursing Russians close up to the German lines, which stabilize along present lines.  The German success at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes has been overturned, and though the Russians do not pose an immediate threat of invasion, they have regained a toehold in East Prussia and claim to have inflicted sixty thousand casualties.  Meanwhile, General Schubert is replaced as 8th Army commander today by General François.

- In Galicia the advancing Austro-Hungarian armies have reached the San River, and though further progress is inhibited by stiffening Russian resistance, they have reached the fortress at Przemysl, lifting the Russian siege.  The Russians had lost forty thousand soldiers attempting to storm Przemysl before it could be relieved, and the Austro-Hungarian units that reached the city today have as their first responsibility the clearing of tens of thousands of Russian corpses from the fortress perimeter.

Further north, as the German 9th Army continues its advance, a detailed Russian order of battle is found on the body of a dead Russian officer.  This reveals that the Russians are massing three entire armies east of the Vistula River around Warsaw.  This intelligence coup comes as a complete surprise to Ludendorff - to this point he believed that most of the Russian armies were still in Galicia.  Instead, he realizes that 9th Army is advancing directly into the main enemy concentration.  The straightforward response would have been to simply call off the offensive; indeed, the ostensible aim of the operation - saving the Austro-Hungarian army - had already been achieved, though more from the Russian redeployment from Galicia to Poland than anything the Germans themselves had done.  However, Ludendorff was hardly one for the straightforward, commonplace solution.  Instead of retreating, he decides that the Germans will attempt to defeat the Russians south of Warsaw before the three Russian armies are fully assembled.  To this end, Ludendorff requests Conrad to extend his line northwards to Ivangorod, to free 9th Army from having to cover southern Poland, and allow it to maneouvre freely.

- In South Africa S. G. Maritz goes into open rebellion today, declaring South Africa independent and announcing war with Britain (and coincidentally, promoting himself to general).  Force B is personally loyal to him, and he threatens to attack Upington unless he is allowed to contact other Boer leaders from the abortive coup attempt of September 15th, including Christian De Wet, C. F. Beyers, and J. C. G. Kemp.

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