Tuesday, November 11, 2014

November 11th, 1914

- The pre-dawn hours at Ypres give no hint of the impending German attack, while the first rays of light reveal a think grey fog covering the battlefield.  However, at 630am the German artillery opened fire - they had been stockpiling shells for today, and the resulting bombardment was the most intensive of the war to date.  At 9am the fire reaches its crescendo, which clearly indicates to the British defenders that an infantry attack is imminent.  Along much of the British line, many of the defenders had withdrawn from the front line to support positions to avoid the worst of the bombardment, as the primitive state of the trenches offered no real protection from such intensive artillery fire.  It was only when the bombardment shifted to the support positions that the British infantry would rush back forward to repel the German attack.

In theory the German attack was to extend from Zonnebeke to Messines, and include the forces of Army Groups Fabeck and Linsingen, as well as 54th Reserve Division of XXVII Reserve Corps to the north of Plettenberg's Corps of Army Group Linsingen.  In practice, the intensity of the infantry attacks were related to the amount of time they had already spent in the line at Ypres.  Opposite Messines 26th Division and 11th Landswehr Brigade of Army Group Fabeck never even left their trenches - the German history excuses this by noting the intensity of British artillery fire.  On the other end of the line, 54th Reserve Division made no attempt to advance either, which had, as will be seen, a significant impact on the operations of its neighbour to the south.

South of the Comines Canal, five German divisions assault the line held by most of four French divisions, but despite heavy fighting are able to make no progress whatsoever.  North of the Canal, the French line is pushed back to Hill 60 at noon by 30th Division.  The retreat threatened the rear of the British I Corps and French IX Corps, but a counterattack by a regiment of cavalry advancing on foot manages to re-establish the line by 630pm.  East of the French position six British battalions grouped under Lord Cavan defended against twelve German battalions, primarily of 39th Division.  Twice the Germans managed to close up to the British line, and twice counterattacks drove them off, and the line held.

The Battle of Ypres, November 10th and 11th, 1914.

As Winckler's Division and 4th Division of Plettenberg's Corps had arrived in the line less than forty-eight hours ago, they launch their attacks with resolution and determination.  The advance of 4th Division meets very heavy British fire, and the ranks of the attackers are swept away by rifle, machine-gun, and artillery fire.  The German line breaks, and subsequent efforts to reform and advance again are repeatedly halted by British fire, and a final effort at 4pm makes no headway.

Thus the burden of the offensive falls on the four Guards regiments of Winckler's Division - north to south, 3rd Guard, 1st Guard, 2nd Grenadier Guards, and 4th Grenadier Guards Regiments.  They advance along the Menin Road, the first three to the north and the last just to the south.  The British line is held by various battalions and companies thrown together in the fighting of the past several weeks under 1st Division, I Corps.  In the thick mist the Guards advance jogging in neat rows, officers at the front with swords unsheathed.  4th Guards almost reaches the British position, but at the last momemt a British artillery observer, following his broken telephone line back to his battery, orders shrapnel fire, which cuts through the German ranks and forces 4th Guards to retire.  2nd Guards, however, manages to squeeze through a gap in the British line, as they reach the British trench almost simultaneously with the British infantry returning from support positions after the German artillery bombardment.  The British retreat into the woods west of the village of Veldhoek.  A German Fusilier battalion pursues them into the trees, but as it now has no support on either flank, it comes under attack from three sides and is annhilated.  A further counterattack recovers the reserve trenches, though 2nd Guards is able to hold the original British front line.

The most serious situation occurs to north.  When 1st and 3rd Guards attack at 9am, they are able to reach the British trench line before it can be fully manned, and within ten minutes they have overrun the three British battalions opposing them and have opened a thousand-yard gap in the British line.  As 3rd Guard pushes forward, however, it comes under heavy fire from Polygon Wood on its northern flank, which was supposed to have been cleared by the attack of 54th Reserve Division.  The failure of the latter means that 3rd Guard finds itself pulled northward as it attempts to dislodge the British.  Having suffered heavy losses, 1st Guard pushes forward into Nonnebosschen (Nun's Wood), as much as to escape the fire of the British in Polygon Wood as to outflank it.

The German Guards have broken through the British line and are in position to threaten the position of I Corps and indeed the entire Entente position in the Ypres salient.  At the moment 1st Guards enters Nonnebosschen, the only British between them and Ypres are several artillery batteries and a divisional headquarters.  As news of the breakthrough spreads, Haig orders what little reserves he has forward.  In the rear headquarters staff and cooks are handed weapons and move into makeshift defensive positions in the expectation of the Germans sweeping forward.  The commander of 2nd Division sends forward 2nd Battalion, Oxford and Bucks, his last reserve, and it is ordered to recover Nonnebosschen.  Just after 2pm its four companies sprint forward and crash into the woods.

Just under a thousand survivors of 1st Guards were in Nonnebosschen when the British counterattacked.  Once again, the Germans had been unaware of what they had actually accomplished - almost every officer and NCO had been killed, infantry milling about Nonneboschen in confusion, and German prisoners taken from 1st Guards are aghast when they learn how close they had been shattering the entire line.  Instead, the counterattack of 2nd Battalion, Oxford and Bucks finds 1st Guards surprised and leaderless, and the latter immediately break and retreat out of Nonnebosschen.  Further, 3rd Guards has broken on the British line in Polygon Wood - in the dense mist the defenders see a bank of grey in the distance, and expect a further German attack, only to find when the mist clears that it is hundreds of German corpses cut down by their fire.  By late afternoon the British have recovered the support line east of Nonnebosschen, though similar to the situation just to the south the Germans hold the original British trench line.  The most serious breach of the day has been closed, and the German attacks have failed.

The attack of the German Guards regiments, November 11th, 1914.  The thick red line is the front at nightfall;
Nonneboschen, captured and lost by 1st Guards during the day, is to the west (left) of the inverted 'U'.

- The German 9th Army begins its advance southeast from the line Thorn-Poznan towards Lodz.  Advancing to the south of the Vistula River, three of 9th Army's corps collide with the V Siberian Corps of the Russian 1st Army.  Outnumbered five to one in artillery, the latter is shattered, with two-thirds of its men becoming prisoners.  The remnants of V Siberian Corps retreats along the Vistula, and the German 9th Army advances through a thirty kilometre gap it has blasted between the river and the Russian 2nd Army.  The Russian command structure, meanwhile, has no idea what has happened - General Ruzski of North-West Front, believing V Siberian Corps to be a second-rate formation anyway, ascribes its defeat to a mere two German divisions, and still believes 9th Army to be to the southwest, not northwest, of the main advance of 2nd and 5th Armies.

The Battle of Lodz, November 11th to 16th, 1914.

- In the Caucasus the Ottoman 3rd Army launches a second counterattack against the Russian I Turkestan Corps.  This operation is better-directed than the earlier advance of the 6th, and Russian artillery is unable to elevate sufficiently to hit Ottoman positions higher in the mountains.  By the end of the day the Russians have been driven back from Köprüköy to a line Horsan-Sanamer, still inside Ottoman territory.

The Battle of Köprüköy, November 1914.

- On the Shatt al-Arab an Ottoman force of about three hundred attacks the main British encampment at Sanniya.  The enemy advance is easily held, and a counterattack inflicts eighty casualties on the Ottomans for ten British and Indian killed or wounded.  Despite the victory, the British commander decides to hold his current position until reinforcements can arrive from India.

- Glasgow today arrives at the River Plate, where it is met by the armoured cruiser Defence, and together the two sail for Abrolhos Rocks, off the Brazilian coast, where British warships in the South Atlantic are to rendezvous.  The pre-dreadnought Canopus is not with them, however - it broke down again after leaving the Falkland Islands, and the First Sea Lord ordered it to return to Port Stanley and run itself aground in shallow water at the eastern end of the harbour, so that it could serve as a stationary gun platform to protect the Falklands.

The British pre-dreadnought Canopus grounded at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, November 1914.

Meanwhile, at 4pm the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible depart Plymouth for the South Atlantic.  Initially the head of the dockyard wanted to hold the ships until the 13th for further maintenance work, but Admiral Fisher was having none of that, ordering them prepared to sail today.  Work continued right up to departure, and Inflexible takes with it several dozen workmen whose tasks have not yet been completed.  The two battlecruisers are commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir Frederick Doveton Sturdee, formerly Chief of Staff of the Admiralty.  He has also been appointed Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic and Pacific, with orders to find and sink the German East Asiatic Squadron above all else.

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