Sunday, May 03, 2015

May 3rd, 1915

- Yesterday evening the German XXVI Reserve Corps, having assembled sufficient gas cylinders, launched an attack between Pilkem and St. Julien northeast of Ypres.  However, the effectiveness of the gas was limited by gusting winds and the primitive gas masks now available to the British and French soldiers, and the attack was repulsed.  Nevertheless, the continued German pressure has convinced the British that the Ypres salient, now squeezed from the north by the German gains of the past two weeks, cannot be held on present lines.  The decision is made to evacuate the easternmost portion of the salient stretching from Fortuin east to Grafenstafel, south to the Polygon Wood, and west to almost Hooge.  The orders having gone out, the withdrawal begins tonight.

The line at Ypres prior to the British withdrawal.

- At 530am this morning just over a thousand French artillery pieces, including almost three hundred heavy guns, open fire on German positions in Artois between Lens and Arras.  This bombardment is the first phase of the next major French offensive on the Western Front.  Despite earlier failures in the 1st Battle of Champagne, 1st Battle of Artois, and the Battle of the Woevre, Joffre believes that the French army has learned important lessons regarding the conduct of operations in the conditions of trench warfare, and has now acquired the proper weaponry, such as heavy artillery, to mete out sufficient damage to ensure success.  The objective of the offensive is to break through the German lines and seize the high ground at Vimy Ridge, followed by a pursuit that would force the Germans to abandon Douai.  To accomplish this, the French 10th Army, under newly-appointed General d'Urbal, has been assigned six infantry and one cavalry corps.  Three of these corps - XXXIII, XX, and XVII - will undertake the primary advance towards Vimy Ridge, while XXI Corps will attack and seize the heights at Notre-Dame de Lorette.  D'Urbal had argued for a brief preliminary bombardment of four hours to preserve the element of surprise, but the lesson Joffre believes the failed offensives earlier in the year has shown is that a prolonged and thorough artillery bombardment is essential to achieve success.  The artillery is thus to fire for four days until the infantry attack goes in on the 7th.  Sir John French has also agreed that the BEF will launch an co-ordinated attack to the north to draw off German reserves and support the French offensive.

- Today the American tanker Gulflight, carrying a load of oil from Texas to Rouen, is torpedoed by a German submarine.  Though it does not sink, two panic-stricken crew members jump overboard and drown, and tonight the tanker's captain dies of a heart attack.  It is the first American ship attacked since the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare.  It will not be the last - at the same time Gulflight is struck, the Cunard passenger liner Lusitania is two days out from New York, en route to Liverpool.

- In Courland the German 6th Cavalry Division reaches the town of Mitau in Courland.  Here the retreating Russians have halted and established strong defensive positions.  Unable to ouflank the enemy, here the German advance halts, and the front settles down along the Dubissa River.  However, in addition to the ground won, the German advance has achieved its larger strategic purpose - General Alexeyev of North-West Front has sent several divisions from elsewhere to Courland to contain the enemy advance.

The German advance in Courland towards Mitau, late April and early May, 1915.

- The German and Austro-Hungarian advance at Gorlice-Tarnow continues today, and by this evening the Germans have advanced eight miles.  Given the ongoing success, Mackensen sets new objectives further east, instructing his commanders to reach the Wisloka River.  At this point the primary impediments to the German advance are the management of the large number of prisoners taken and the difficulties hauling supplies over the ground destroyed by the artillery bombardment.

On the Russian side, both IX and X Corps of 3rd Army have been severely battered: over the two days of fighting the available strength of the latter has fallen from 34 000 to 5000, while to the north a second-line division of IX Corps has simply disintegrated.  A five-mile gap has opened between the two corps, and the Russian survivors are falling back in disorder.  The meagre reserves available nearby have been pushed into the battle to no effect, and two regiments force-marched into the gap simply disappear.  General Radko Dimitriev (interestingly, a Bulgarian), commander of the Russian 3rd Army, hopes to hold the heights at Biecz to use as the springboard for the intervention of the approaching III Caucasian Corps, and sends in half of 63rd Division to reinforce the Russian defences.  All this accomplishes is the destruction of the division, and by this evening the heights are in German hands.

German officers in the ruins of Gorlice, May 1915.

- In the Hungarian Parliament the opposition has brought forward a motion to grant the right to vote to all soldiers over the age of twenty, in an effort to encourage the rank-and-file of the Austro-Hungarian army and give them more of a stake in the fighting.  Prime Minister Tisza, however, rejects the proposal outright, seeing in it the first step to universal suffrage, which is entirely unacceptable.  Today Tisza is denounced in parliament by Mihály Károlyi, a leading figure of the Independence Party, who argues that the realities of modern war require a recognition of the sacrifices being asked by the men of Hungary.  It is just one example of the tin ear of the leadership of Austria-Hungary towards the importance of public morale in modern war.

- In Libya ongoing resistance to the imposition of Italian rule over the colony seized from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 has limited Italian control to coastal regions.  To prevent a complete collapse, Chief of Staff Cadorna orders today the dispatch of ten thousand soldiers to Libya.  The necessity comes at a very inopportune moment, given that the Italian army is supposedly preparing and concentrating for a war against Austria-Hungary.

- Overnight the ANZAC attack at Gallipoli has continued, and though isolated units are able to gain some ground, elsewhere the Ottomans stop the attack cold.  At 130am, despite having no indications that the operation was proceeding satisfactorily, the local commander commits two reserve battalions from the Naval Division, which only succeeds in raising the casualty total.  Soon the stream of wounded coming back down Monash Gully impairs efforts at any further advance.  A few men manage to scale the heights to the east, but are driven back after coming under friendly fire.  By mid-afternoon all of the ANZAC forces are back to their starting line of the night before, having accomplished nothing of any importance.

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