Friday, March 13, 2015

March 13th, 1915

- Today the Swedish merchant ship Hanna, carrying coal from the Tyne to Las Palmas, is sunk by a German U-boat off of Scarborough, the first neutral vessel sunk by torpedo without warning since the Germans began unconditional submarine warfare last month.

- At Neuve Chapelle the British decide to call off their offensive in the face of stiffening resistance.  For 13 000 casualties, including 4000 from the Indian Corps, the British have recaptured the village of Neuve Chapelle and advanced the line approximately a thousand yards along a three thousand yard stretch of the front.  Though the initial attack on the 10th was an immediate success, it has not led to any strategic advantage whatsoever - Aubers Ridge remains beyond the reach of the British.

In explaining the failure to exploit the initial breakthrough, a lack of artillery shells is highlighted, this despite the British firing one-sixth of their entire munitions stockpile on the Western Front in just three days.  This reflects the growing awareness that artillery is the master of the deadlocked battlefield in France and Belgium.  In analyzing the battle afterwards, Haig concludes that the thirty-five minute artillery bombardment was insufficient, lengthier bombardments necessary to thoroughly pulverize the enemy, and that attacks must be launched on a longer stretch of the front to prevent the enemy from concentrating their reserves at a single threatened point.  Unfortunately for the British, these are the absolute worst lessons Haig could of drawn from the battle.  The initial success was due precisely to the fact that the short-but-intensive bombardment both severely damaged German positions while catching them by surprise, while the concentration of the attacking force against a single point allowed for sufficient numerical superiority to overwhelm the defenders.  The lessons Haig draws from Neuve Chapelle will feature prominently in British operations to come, culminating in just over a year's time in the Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle does at least demonstrate that the British have some ability in planning and executing offensive operations in the context of trench warfare.  Joffre is pleased to see his British allies willing to go over on to the attack, though he is disdainful of the failed followup operations.  For the British, the battle also reinforces the belief that this will be a long war.  As Brigadier-General John Chateris, Haig's intelligence officer at 1st Army, comments afterwards, 'I am afraid that England will have to accustom herself to far greater losses than those of Neuve Chapelle before we finally crush the German Army.'  More prophetic words were hardly ever spoken during the war.

Soldiers of the Northumberland Hussars in the second line of trenches, north of Neuve Chapelle, March 13th, 1915.

- Today Falkenhayn receives a second proposal for an offensive operation on the Western Front, this one composed by the Chief of Staff of 1st Army.  It argues that an attack in Artois will only push the British backwards, and otherwise will have no strategic consequences.  Instead, the focus should be on finding that stretch of the front where the odds of a successful breakthrough are greatest, and 1st Army's conclusion is that the line on its left wing and the adjoining right wing of 7th Army along the Aisne River is ideal for this purpose.  The plan calls for four corps to cross the Aisne on a twenty kilometre from east of Soisson, with four corps and a cavalry corps following on to widen the breach, after which the offensive would continue in the direction of Paris.  In favour of 1st Army's proposal was that it would required fewer corps and less artillery to execute.  On a tactical level, the plan is very promising, but the question is whether the tactical success of a breakthrough along the Aisne can be converted into a decisive strategic victory.

- In the central Carpathians, a Russian attack this afternoon breaks through the line held by the Austro-Hungarian XIX Corps on the left wing of 2nd Army.  This corps, part of the stalled drive on Baligrod, now finds itself fighting a desperate defensive battle.  To the east, meanwhile, four Russian cavalry divisions and a rifle brigade drives back several Austro-Hungarian divisions in the centre of General Pflanzer-Baltin's line.

With the Austro-Hungarian offensive faltering, the garrison commander at Przemysl, General Hermann Kusmanek, is informed by radio today that 2nd Army may not be able to drive through Lisko to relieve the fortress by the 18th as hoped.  It is left to Kusmanek's discretion whether part of garrison should sortie and attempt to break through to Austro-Hungarian lines before the food supply is exhausted.

- Off the Dardanelles Admiral Carden replies to Churchill's message of the 11th, agreeing that the time has come for a more sustained effort and informing the First Lord that a major effort will be undertaken overnight.  Carden himself, however, is increasing ill, as Keyes notes today - the strain of the operation, combined with the pressure for results from London, is taking its toll.

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