Thursday, September 24, 2015

September 24th, 1915

- Overnight violent thunderstorms strike Flanders, and heavy rains turn the trench floors into mud, slowly the final movement of supplies up to the front for the British offensive scheduled for tomorrow.  At dawn visibility is reduced by low clouds and ground fog, preventing aerial bombing or reconnaissance, though artillery firing on pre-selected and pre-sighted targets.  The British bombardment of identified German artillery batteries is believed to be particularly successful, given that many of the positions targeted have ceased firing.  In practice, however, the Germans silenced their batteries voluntarily to give the impression that they have been knocked out.  They only await the main British attack before they resume firing.  Meanwhile, on the British side two field batteries per division are attached to their horses this evening, in expectation of immediately following the infantry as they advance tomorrow.

Meanwhile at the headquarters of the British 1st Army, Haig waits with his corps commanders Rawlinson and Gough for the latest weather updates, to see if conditions at dawn tomorrow will allow for the use of chlorine gas.  This afternoon Captain Gold reports that based on the morning's observations, there was a possibility only of a fair wind tomorrow morning.  As the hours passed and more recent observations could be added to his report, Gold become confident that the weather would cooperate for tomorrow - at 9pm he informed Haig that there was a favourable chance of a wind blowing west at ten miles per hour at ground level tomorrow morning.  With this assurance, Haig issues orders for chlorine gas to be used prior to the main infantry assault.

- In Artois the Entente artillery bombardment reaches a crescendo today, with the greatest volume directed against the German VI Corps in the Loos sector.  Further confirmation of the imminent enemy offensive comes via a French deserter, who is captured west of Vimy Ridge and reports that the French will attack at 5am tomorrow.

- In Champagne, French patrols enter No Man's Land to clear French wire, inspect and clear the remaining German wire, and observe the state of the enemy line.  Though they frequently come under fire from German defenders, it allows the French call down artillery fire on these surviving positions.  To this point most of the assault infantry have been kept several kilometres behind the front, to avoid casualties from German artillery fire, but after sundown they move up to their jumping-off points and prepare for the attack, scheduled for 915am tomorrow morning

- At Metz today, Falkenhayn receives reports during the day of continued heavy bombardments of the German 6th Army in Artois and the 3rd and 5th Armies in Champagne.  In response, the German chief of staff transfers several heavy artillery batteries to 3rd Army, and further agrees that 5th Division, scheduled to depart for the Balkans for the Serbian campaign, will instead be kept behind 3rd Army.  Nevertheless, Falkenhayn continues to have doubts that the Entente actually intend to launch an major offensive - in a telephone conversation with General Karl von Einem, commander of 3rd Army, that the French 'did not have the willpower' to attack.  Falkenhayn has allowed what he wants the French to do to cloud his judgement of what the French will actually do - his campaigns in the East and the Balkans are based on the premise that the forces left on the Western Front are sufficient to hold the line, and thus does not want to see an Entente offensive that could upset the delicate balance.

- On the northern flank of the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army, elements of the Austro-Hungarian 1st, 2nd, and 9th Cavalry Divisions clear Russian forces out of the Okonsk-Jablonka area as well as Borowicy and Kopyli on the Styr River, opening the path for the German XXIV Reserve Corps advancing rapidly from the north.

- At the request of Franz Joseph, Mackensen journeys to Vienna today to meet the aged Austro-Hungarian emperor, where he is awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Stephan and the two have a thirty-minute private audience after dinner.  Both Franz Joseph and his military retinue are won over by Mackensen's natural charm and character, as well as his reputation for success on the Eastern Front.  Mackensen is practically alone among his fellow German officers in being viewed positively by the Austro-Hungarian leadership (neither Falkenhayn nor Ludendorff can hide their oft-justified contempt), ensuring a degree of co-operation, even at times harmony, in the forthcoming Serbian campaign that is unimaginable had any other German general been in command.

- As the French Council of Ministers debates a French expedition to the Balkans to aid Serbia, Minister of War Alexandre Millerand sends a note to the French commander at Gallipoli, informing him that a division may be shortly ordered to cover the railway from the Greek port of Salonika to the de facto Serbian capital at Niš.  Meanwhile, Joffre advises the government that while he recognizes the desirability of propping up their Serbian allies, an expedition should be composed of four divisions - two French and two British - drawn from Gallipoli.  From his perspective, it is simply a case of redeploying the force already in the Near East from one theatre (the Dardanelles) to another (the Balkans).  This also has the advantage, from his perspective, of not requiring the withdrawal of forces from the Western Front to make up the expedition.

- The hesitant performance of the Italian navy to date has come in for criticism in the Italian press, and the unease claims a victim today as Vice-Admiral Leone Viale, the minister of marine, resigns today.  Ostensibly stepping aside for health reasons, having just undergone minor surgery, in practice he had quarrelled with Vice-Admiral Paolo Count Thaon di Revel and was increasingly left out of the loop regarding operational decisions.

- The British 6th Indian Division has completed its assembly at Sannaiyat on the Tigris River, and begins today the advance towards the Ottoman defensive line east of Kut-al-Amara.  Given the overall strength of the Ottoman position, General Townshend has decided on deception: the bulk of the division today moves slowly westward on the southern bank of the Euphrates River, giving the impression that it is here that the British intend to concentrate their attack.  On the north bank only 18th Brigade remains, which is deployed between the Tigris and Suwada Marsh.  North of Suwada Marsh sits another Ottoman defensive position, three redoubts supported by a trench system leading up to another marsh - Ataba - to the north.  This is the northernmost section of the Ottoman line, but reconnaissance has informed Townshend that Ataba Marsh is rapidly drying out, and that a gap of three hundred yards has emerged between the end of the Ottoman trenches and the start of the swamp.  It is this gap that has caught Townshend's attention and is to be the key point of the assault.  After the force on the southern bank makes a suitable demonstration of British intent to convince the Ottomans to keep significant strength here, this force is to cross over to the north bank at night and pass behind both 18th Brigade and Suwada Marsh where it will split into two forces: the first to assault the three Ottoman redoubts, and the second to pass through the gap to the north.  This force is intended to roll up the Ottoman line from the north, resulting in the capture of the Ottoman 35th Division deployed on the north bank.  It is a plan that would be inconceivable on the Western Front, but the conditions of the war in the Middle East - fewer soldiers and greater supply difficulties - means that flanks exist and can be turned.

The First Battle of Kut-al-Amara, September 24th to 29th, 1915.

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