Thursday, May 14, 2015

May 14th, 1915

- This morning the fuse lit by Sir John French five days earlier explodes on the pages of The Times newspaper, which runs an extensive report and editorial on the recent failure at Aubers Ridge.  Given the close relationship between French and the newspaper's military correspondent, it is no surprise that the coverage praises the plan for and management of the battle itself.  Instead, the paper is harshly critical of the supply of both artillery shells and heavy artillery pieces, and lays blame for this failure directly on the War Office and the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.  The proprietor of The Times, Lord Northcliffe, has come to see Kitchener not as the imperial hero, but as the stubborn incompetent whose mismanagement is damaging the British war effort.  Northcliffe is not alone in this view; some within the Conservative party, as well as the Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, have become exasperated with Lord Kitchener, and feel he must go if Britain is to fully mobilize its industry in support of the war.

The political impact of The Times' report can hardly be underestimated.  Just several weeks earlier Prime Minister Asquith had assured the British public at Newcastle that the supply of munitions was more than sufficient, words that now appear hollow at best and deceitful at worst.  In particular, the report crystalizes concerns among many Conservative backbenchers that the Liberal government is mismanaging the war effort.  This places the leadership of the Conservative party in a quandary: since the beginning of the war all of the major parties have observed a political truce, but it is increasingly difficult to restrain the backbenches from attacking the government over perceived incompetence, and The Times report pours gasoline on the simmering fire.

This afternoon, meanwhile, the first meeting of the War Council is held in London since April 6th.  With the allegations from The Times hanging in the air, Kitchener is in a foul mood, and complains bitterly about the navy abandoning the army at Gallipoli.  Fisher has finally had enough, and for the first time speaks of his constant opposition to the Dardanelles operation, a position that is news to most of those in the room.  Churchill, annoyed by Fisher's outburst, attempts to defend his own position afterwards in a letter to Asquith, arguing that Fisher has signed off on every order touching on the Dardanelles operation.

Later this evening Churchill and Fisher meet at the latter's office to discuss possible reinforcements for the Dardanelles now that Queen Elizabeth is being withdrawn.  Once again Churchill overawes the older Fisher, and the latter agrees to send several monitors to the Mediterranean to allow for the recall of several battleships.  After Fisher departs for the night, Churchill adds two submarines, as requested by Admiral de Robeck, to the list of proposed warships to be sent to the Dardanelles.  It is a fateful decision.

As the political turmoil swirls in London, Prime Minister Asquith is suffering from a much different kind of angst.  For several years he has been desperately in love with Venetia Stanley, a close friend of his daugher Violet.  He has shared all manner of state secrets with her, and relies on her utterly for moral support.  Today, however, Venetia informs Asquith that their relationship is at an end, and that she is to marry Edwin Montagu, a fellow Liberal politician.  Asquith is utterly shattered; he writes to Venetia today that 'this is too terrible; no hell could be so bad.'  The gravest crisis the Liberal government has ever faced is at hand, and the Prime Minister is a broken man.

- Today repeated French attacks secure most of Notre-Dame de Lorette in Artois, but the Germans stubbornly remain entrenched on the eastern edge, and from this position they are able to fire into the northern flank of the French XXXIII Corps and prevent a further advance towards Souchez.  On the German side additional reinforcements come forward, and 5th Bavarian Division, which has lost two-thirds of its strength since the 9th, is pulled out of the line today.  However, when 6th Army commander Crown Prince Rupprecht requests further reinforcements from Falkenhayn, the latter instead replies with a sharp rebuke: most of the reserves on the Western Front have already been sent to 6th Army, and that the forces now available in Artois ought to be more than sufficient to hold the line.  In part this reflects Falkenhayn's irritation at Rupprecht's constant demands, but also that the shift to the east in April has meant that the Western Front must defend itself with what it has, and few reserves remain.

- Today the German 11th Army approaches the Russian positions at Przemysl and the San River, and prepares to attack the enemy line at Jaroslau tomorrow.

- When the Austro-Hungarian 7th Army retreated to the Pruth River it left a bridgehead on the north side at Kolomea, and this is the target of an attack by the Russian XXXIII Corps after midday.  Despite heavy Russian pressure, the Austro-Hungarians are able to hold on, in part due to the arrival of the first reinforcements from III Corps.

- The resignation of the cabinet of Prime Minister Salandra yesterday evening is a shock to the Italian public.  In particular, those who favour intervention in the war on the side of the Entente are shocked, and fear that they will be denied their war at the last moment.  What happens next, however, will transform the political situation.  Starting today, significant numbers of the urban middle class gather in major cities and towns throughout Italy to call for war against Austria-Hungary.  This is the same social group that were the predominant presence in the crowds that in other countries celebrated the outbreak of war last August.  These demonstrations appear spontaneously with no organization and little support from the upper classes or political elites other than a few wealthy northern landowners and the owners of industrial concerns such as Fiat.  Indeed, the sudden outbreak of pro-war protests comes as a shock to Salandra, Sonnino, and their allies; the old cabinet, in its capacity as a caretaker government until the king appoints a replacement, authorizes local prefects to call in the army if necessary to maintain public order.  In practice, the gatherings are generally peaceful, as befitting crowds of the 'respectable' middle-class.

These demonstrations become known as the 'Radiant Days of May' and, precisely because they were so unexpected and spontaneous, they have an impact on the political class far outweighing the actual size of the crowds.  Dozens of parliamentary representatives who previously had opposed war now declare in favour of intervention, wanting to stay in step with public opinion.  The demonstrations also influence Victor Emmanuel, believing they will sway the votes of a sufficient number of parliamentary representatives as to make the formation of an anti-war cabinet impossible, and thus making the recall of Salandra to the premiership palatable.

- Today Admiral de Robeck receives the Admiralty reply to his message of the 10th regarding a further naval attack on the Dardanelles.  In line with Fisher's views, Churchill writes that 'the moment for an independent naval attempt to force the Narrows has passed . . . your role is therefore to support the army in its costly but sure advance and to reserve your strength to deal with the situation which will arise when the army has succeeded.'  The fleet is to remain in a subordinate position to the army, and success will depend on the army securing Gallipoli.

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