Wednesday, May 13, 2015

May 13th, 1915

- Yesterday the British 28th Division, having suffered greatly in the recent fighting, was withdrawn from the eastern face of the Ypres salient, replaced by 1st and 3rd Cavalry Division fighting as dismounted infantry.  They gain a rapid initiation to the fighting at Ypres, coming under a heavy artillery bombardment early this morning that precedes another German attack.  Most of the British line holds, but 7th Cavalry Brigade is forced back hundreds of yards, and a subsequent counterattack by 8th and 10th Cavalry Brigades is unable to fully restore the position.

The front line at Ypres, May 13th, 1915.

Though desultory fighting will continue around the Ypres salient for several weeks, the 2nd Battle of Ypres has effectively drawn to a close.  In the context of major operations on the Western Front, the battle has undoubtedly been a German victory.  Not only were they able to advance several miles towards Ypres, but were also able to force the British to voluntarily yield ground, something virtually unheardof.  Moreover, while German casualties numbered 35 000, Entente casualties were in excess of 60 000, and the Germans accomplish this favourable casualty ratio while attacking, inverting the normal situation whereby attackers suffer more than defenders.  In a larger sense, however, the 2nd Battle of Ypres was a missed opportunity.  Because the operation had never been intended to be a major offensive, the Germans were not prepared when the initial gas attack proved more successful than anyone could have imagined.  The shock effect of gas literally blew a hole in the Entente line larger than any seen to date in the war, and with sufficient reserves the Germans might have been able to drive on Ypres and beyond.  In a familiar refrain, by the time the Germans realized the opportunity that existed, the moment to exploit it had already passed, and subsequent fighting was comparable to the static fighting seen in other major engagements - the vast majority of the ground captured by the Germans was achieved in the first hours after the gas attack.  The lost opportunity, however, is even greater than the specific context of the 2nd Battle of Ypres.  The most potent effect of gas is psychological: when it strikes soldiers who are unprepared, their willingness to stand and fight vanishes and resistance becomes impossible.  By definition this can only happen the first time gas is used; within twenty-four hours crude countermeasures were being developed, and in future soldiers who are gassed will have gas masks at hand.  This ensures that while gas still kills and has an impact on the battlefield, never again can it have the same psychological effect.  The most effective use of gas was always going to be the first time, and the Germans threw away this opportunity by not being prepared to exploit the situation.  The Germans have also earned the opprobrium of being the first combatant to use asphyxiating gas on the battlefield.  Though all countries will soon make extensive use of gas, and work to develop ever more lethal chemicals, 2nd Ypres becomes, in the eyes of many, yet another example of German 'barbarism', in line with the Rape of Belgium and the sinking of Lusitania.  For many in both Entente countries and neutrals such as the United States, it is yet another reason why Germany and 'Prussian militarism' must be crushed; one cannot compromise with barbarism.  Finally, the battle has been the baptism of fire for 1st Canadian Division.  The resiliency (if not sheer stubbornness) of the Canadians in the first days of the German offensive, holding their lines despite gas and overwhelming attacks until British and French reserves could arrive, was vital to preventing a greater German breakthrough, and becomes a celebrated feat of arms.  It is the first of many such accomplishments for the Canadians on the Western Front.

- In Artois French pressure forces the Germans to abandon most of the village of Ablain, but otherwise French attacks are unsuccessful today.  Nevertheless, Crown Prince Rupprecht, commander of the German 6th Army, believes that three of his front-line divisions are completely worn out and must be replaced, and requests further reinforcements from Falkenhayn.  The German Chief of Staff agrees, transferring 2nd Guard Reserve Division and two brigades from OHL control to 6th Army's sector.

- The battered Russian 3rd Army completes its retreat to the San River, taking up positions north of the fortification of Przemysl.  Its northern wing is entrenched on the east bank from Jaroslau almost to the junction with the Vistula River, where 4th Army covers both sides of the Vistula itself.  The southern wing of 3rd Army, between Jaroslau and Przemysl, is actually deployed on the west bank; because the west bank is much higher than the east, holding the river line itself here is not possible.  South and east of Przemysl sit 8th and 11th Armies, the latter connecting with 9th Army still conducting its offensive in the Bukovina.  Reinforcements are also en route; General Alexeyev has begrudgingly allowed XV Corps, formerly part of Northwest Front, to redeploy southwards, and it is to come into the line between 4th and 3rd Armies.

The German and Austro-Hungarian advance towards Jaroslau and Przemysl, May 13th to 16th, 1915.

- In east Galicia the Austro-Hungarian 7th Army continues its retreat to the Pruth River, and by nightfall most of its elements are across.  The west and centre wings were able to pull back relatively unmolested, but the east wing came under heavy attack, especially by the Russian XXXIII Corps, as it did so.  Here at least the Russians are having some success in the Carpathians, and the offensive has forced the Austro-Hungarians to divert III Corps, initially intended to garrison the frontier with Italy, to Bukovina.  Beyond this, however, it has had no impact on the larger strategic picture; Falkenhayn for one knows that if Mackensen and 11th Army continues to achieve success, and in particular force the San River line, the Russian position in the Bukovina will be outflanked and nothing that happens there will matter.

The Battle of Dniester, May 13th, 1915.

- At 5pm the Italian cabinet reconvenes, and since yesterday's meeting Salandra has met with party leaders over the question of peace or war.  He reports to the cabinet that only one - Leonida Bissolati of the moderate Socialists - supported intervention.  The cabinet then spends the next four hours debate the issue back and forth.  One concern is that if the cabinet, and by convention the king, endorses war, but then is repudiated by parliament, a constitutional crisis may ensue.  To clear the air and force the issue, Salandra proposes the government's resignation; his hope is that efforts to cobble together an alternative anti-war government will fail, and thus by default committing Italy to war.  At 9pm the cabinet agrees, and Salandra immediately drives to the royal palace at Villa Savoia to offer their resignations.  At 1030pm news of the resignation becomes public; the moment of decision is at hand.

- Today the German submarine U21 arrives at the Austro-Hungarian naval base of Cattaro, after several weeks at sea.  Due to its lengthy journey from Germany it had only barely made it to port, with only 1.8 tons out of the original 56.5 tons of fuel remaining.  Once refueled and resupplied, the Germans will have their first active ocean-going submarine in the Mediterrean (UB-8 is a much smaller coastal submarine).

- For weeks Entente warships have pounded Ottoman positions on Gallipoli with impunity, as none of the shore batteries could fire shells capable of penetrating the armour of the old pre-dreadnoughts.  Given their numbers, the Entente fleet has also shown no real concern with naval opposition, and largely assume they may sail and anchor as they please.  Overnight, the Ottomans do their best to disabuse the British and French admirals of their misplaced faith in their invulnerability.  With a full moon and heavy mist reducing visibility, the Ottoman destroy Muavenet, captained by a German, snuck through the straits and moved up the European coast of Gallipoli.  In Morto Bay, not a hundred yards offshore, the destroyer comes across the British pre-dreadnought Goliath at anchor, where it is waiting to continue its shore bombardment at dawn.  Surging forward, Muavenet fires three torpedoes and disappears back into the night and through the straits before anyone can react.  The torpedoes strike home, and within minutes rolls over and sinks.  Because the current here is four to five knots and moving away from shore, none of the British sailors in the water can swim ashore.  Five hundred and seventy drown, and only one hundred and eight survive.  It is a striking accomplishment for the Ottomans: the Sultan awards each sailor on Muavenet a gold watch and a purse filled with gold.

The sinking of Goliath shows that the waters off the Dardanelles are now contested, and the aftershocks of the loss of the pre-dreadnought reach London this afternoon, where news of the sinking prompts a passionate outburst from Admiral Fisher.  For months he has worried over the potential loss of warships during the Dardanelles campaign, and in particular is concerned about Queen Elizabeth, Britain's newest and most advanced battleship.  The loss of Goliath stokes these fears to a fever pitch, and Fisher insists that Queen Elizabeth be ordered to return to home waters immediately.  Churchill accedes to the First Sea Lord's demand, but later this evening the argument is joined by Kitchener when he visits the Admiralty on a different matter.  When the Secretary of War learns of Queen Elizabeth's recall, he goes into a rage, accusing the navy of abandoning the army after the army had come to the aid of the navy after the latter's failure to force the Dardanelles.  Fisher, never one to back down from a fight, fires right back at Kitchener, declaring that Queen Elizabeth will sail for home this instant or he would resign on the spot.  Kitchener returns to the War Office and pens an aggressive note to Asquith, but for now Fisher has won the argument: the orders for Queen Elizabeth's recall stand.  The crisis over the Dardanelles, however, is just beginning.

- In German South-West Africa the advance of South African forces from Swakopmund on the coast and from the south has been slow and irregular, disrupted by supply difficulties more than German opposition.  After several months, however, today the northern detachment, under the direct command of Prime Minister Botha, enters Windhoek, the capital of the German colony.  In doing so the South Africans also seize the main wireless station, disrupting communications between the remaining German forces in the colony, now retreating northeast along the lone railway, and the outside world.

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