Saturday, November 22, 2014

November 22nd, 1914

- The readjustment of the position of the British Expeditionary Force on the line has been completed.  All British units are now together, and hold the front from Wytschaete, south of Ypres, to the La Bassée Canal at Givenchy, a stretch of 21 miles.  For their part the Belgians hold 15 miles of the front adjacent to the English Channel, and the French, responsible for everything else, covers 430 miles.  This graphically illustrates the extent to which the French army has shouldered the overwhelming burden of the fighting on the Western Front.  While the Belgians and the British have made vital contributions, and won deserved acclaim for their successful struggles along the Yser and around Ypres, in the end the great German attack in the west has been halted first and foremost by the French.  In saving themselves, they have preserved the hope of all in the Entente that ultimate victory may yet be achieved.

The Western Front on November 22nd, 1914, showing the position of
the BEF and the Belgian army; everything else is held by the French.

Though all three of the major combatants at Ypres consider the battle to have ended on different days, the British place its conclusion today with the end of their redeployment, which suffices as a moment to review the fighting in Flanders (incidentally, the French see the 13th and the Germans the 30th as the end).  Despite later claims by the Germans, the First Battle of Ypres has been a victory for the Entente.  The Germans had significant, sometimes near-overwhelming, numerical superiority in almost every phase of the fighting, but consistently failed to break through the British and French lines.  The failure to convert their numbers advantage into victory has been due not only to the strength of the defence in the context of the military technology of 1914, such as the machine gun, as they consistently repeated several tactical errors during the battle.  First, major German attacks were undertaken against long stretches of the Entente line in an effort to probe for weakness, as opposed to concentrating overwhelming force to break through at a place of their choosing.  Second, they consistently overestimated the size of the enemy confronting them, not realizing at several key moments how close they were to breaking through.  Third, they would use all available infantry in their attacks, leaving no reserves that could be sent to exploit the successes they achieved on several occasions.  Fourth, when they did break the British lines, in particular on October 31st and November 11th, the unit that did so did not advance further, being exhausted from their efforts and unaware of what they had accomplished, giving time for British reserves to arrive and counterattack.  Some of these mistakes could be rectified in future battles, but they pointed to one of the greatest difficulties attackers faced in the First World War - it would be consistently easier for the defender to send reserves to restore their lines than it was for the attacker to exploit any breakthrough they could achieve.

The conclusion of the First Battle of Ypres signals the end of the movement phase of the first months of the war.  Both sides are now committed to entrenching, and the rudimentary trenches dug hastily during the fighting are increasingly converted to more substantial trench systems.  The fighting at Ypres itself reflected the transition from mobile to static fighting.  Artillery did not yet dominate the battlefield as it would do so in future - foot soldiers played a vital role and the climactic moments were decided by infantry charges, not artillery bombardments.  First Ypres was also a battle still largely decided by junior officers responding to sudden circumstances, as with the British brigade commanders who ordered forward reserves at the critical moments, as opposed to the increasingly orchestrated and detailed assault plans of later set-piece battles.  Cavalry also had a role to play at Ypres, fighting in the front line and using their horses to rapidly redeploy on the battlefield.  On the other hand, First Ypres clearly indicated that small defensive forces could hold off attackers even when overwhelmingly outnumbered, and the Kindermord in particular demonstrated that no amount of spirit or elan among advancing infantry could allow them to carry a position in the face of sustained rifle and especially machine gun fire.

An exact accounting of the losses suffered by both sides is impossible, given the incompleteness of records, especially on the German side.  At minimum, the Germans suffered 134 000 casualties in the First Battle of Ypres, but possibly much more.  Of the four reserve corps thrown into the fighting in late October, each lost about half of their infantry.  French casualties were between 50 000 and 80 000, which comprised a majority of the 104 000 losses sustained by the entire French army in October and November 1914.  For the Belgians, approximately a third of those who escaped Antwerp before its fall on October 10th were lost by the end of October in the fighting along the Yser River.  British losses were calculated after the war to have been 58155, of whom 7960 were dead and 17 873 missing, most of the latter consisting of fallen soldiers whose bodies could not be recovered to verify their death.

Given that the First Battle of Ypres signals the end of the war of movement, an accounting can also be made of the losses suffered by the two sides since the outbreak of war itself.  The numbers are staggering - total French casualties are nearly one million, and include approximately 265 000 dead, while the comparable German numbers are over 700 000 losses, among which are about 241 000 dead.  The titanic and climactic battles that both sides expected have been fought, especially at the Marne, but the clashes have not brought the decisive outcome that all anticipated.  Instead, the casualty lists are merely the first installment of the ever-growing butcher's bill.

Total casualties for the British Expeditionary Force in the war to date have been 89 864.  Remarkably, the original strength of the first seven divisions to have been deployed in France had been only 84 000 - the BEF is only able to remain in the field due to replacements sent from home.  For all intents and purposes, the original British Expeditionary Force dispatched to France in early August had ceased to exist.  In most regiments an average of a single officer and thirty other ranks have survived since the first fighting at Mons on August 23rd.  The future of the BEF rests with soldiers recruited since the outbreak of the war, as the last of the BEF's original strength had been expended in the Ypres salient, fighting beyond the point of exhaustion to prevent a German breakthrough that might have had decisive results.  Ypres thus takes on an emotive significance to the British, the area becoming known as the 'Immortal Salient'.  The land is seen as consecrated by their dead, and no British commander can countenance yielding ground that had been so dearly bought.  It reflects another of the paradoxes of the First World War that will appear in future - sacrifices made on an earlier occasion become the justification for further losses to preserve what had been gained by the earlier casualties.

The lessons drawn from the battle by the British leadership, and General Haig in particular, will also have future reverberations.  Haig is well aware how close the Germans came to shattering his lines at Gheluvelt and Nonneboschen, and concludes that the Germans failed because they did not persevere in their attacks when just one more big push would have brought decisive victory.  Haig is determined that when the roles are reversed, no British attack he commands will ever fail because it was not pushed hard enough and long enough to achieve success.  It is, of course, the absolute wrong lesson to be drawn from First Ypres, and thousands of soldiers in the years to come will pay for this error with their lives.

Finally there is the contrast between the original BEF, the 'Old Contemptibles' as they referred to themselves, and the German volunteers of the reserve corps.  Both had made a conscious decision to join the army, as opposed to being forced to fight by conscription, and both were largely destroyed at Ypres.  Here, though, the similarity ends.  The German volunteers of August 1914 were motivated primarily by nationalist enthusiasm - they fought and died in the belief their service and sacrifice would benefit the German people for all time.  The soldiers of the old BEF were not driven by such high ideals - instead, each had made a deliberate and much more mundane choice to pursue, for whatever reason, a career in the army.  They had spent years, in some cases decades, honing their skills; the army was their livelihood, and when the day came for them to put their training to work they did not shirk their responsibilities and were equal to the task.  At Ypres the German volunteers died for their nation; the British soldiers because it was their job.

- Though the German effort to seize Ypres has been called off, the suffering of the town is only beginning.  It has been the target of enemy artillery fire before, but today the Germans deliberately target the magnificent Cloth Hall, symbol of the town's rich medieval heritage.  The bombardment begins at 6am, and by 9am shells are falling on the Cloth Hall, the first striking the tower and the third destroying the clock.  Within two hours the entire building is in flames and ruins.  The Germans claim that the British and French were using the Hall's tower to direct artillery fire, arguing later that 'German life is more precious than the finest Gothic architecture.'  The Germans are wrong - their lines are hidden from the tower's sights by various hills and valleys - and the destruction of the Cloth Hall is seen in much of the world as yet another example of German barbarity, that having been defeated in their efforts to take the town, they destroy it out of spite.  Its ruins become one of the iconic symbols of the destruction wrought by the First World War.

Ypres' Cloth Hall prior to the First World War.

The Cloth Hall burning under German artillery bombardment, November 22nd, 1914.

The ruins of the Cloth Hall later in the war.

- At Lodz the situation continues to deteriorate for the German 9th Army.  Its supply lines stretched to the breaking point, German units are running out of shells for their artillery.  To the east, General Rennenkampf of the Russian 1st Army has sent a force consisting of one and a half infantry and two cavalry divisions and named the Lovitch detachment southwestward towards the northern escape route for the German XXV Reserve Corps and Guards Division.  When an element of the Lovitch detachment occupies Brzeziny today, it appears the German corps and division are doomed - the Russian General Staff orders trains brought to Lodz to take the expected fifty thousand prisoners back to camps in Russia.

- The Yugoslav Committee is formed today in Florence by Ante Trumbic, a Croatian deputy in the Austrian Parliament.  The aim of the Committee is to unite all South Slavs, inside and outside Austria-Hungary, into a single independent state.

- In the Caucasus the Ottoman 3rd Army, suffering from ammunition shortages and command confusion, breaks off its operations against the Russian I Turkestan Corps and concentrates at Köprüköy.  Nevertheless, 3rd Army's attacks have stymied the Russian advance, giving the engagement the impression of being a notable Ottoman victory.  Enver Pasha in particular draws an out-sized belief in the fighting ability of 3rd Army, which will have fatal ramifications in the coming months.

- In Mesopotamia the main force of Indian Expeditionary Force D arrives at Basra shortly after midday.  They secure British control over the city and put an end to the looting of the past two days.  The trials of IEF D do not end, however - the bridges in Basra have to be reinforced before they can be used by any significant detachment of infantry, and the 'indescribably filthy condition of the town,' in the words of IEF D's commander, means the British have to set up camp outside Basra.

No comments:

Post a Comment