Friday, September 25, 2015

September 25th, 1915

- At 3am General Haig and his chief of staff meet once more with Captain Gold, and the latter informs the commander of 1st Army that the wind would be most favourable at dawn.  Haig then issues orders for the chlorine gas cylinders to be opened right at dawn at 550am, with the infantry assault beginning at 630am.

The divisions of the British I and IV Corps prior to the attack at Loos, Sept. 25th, 1915.

The first British use of gas, however, is not without difficulties.  At 440am, a German shell strikes one of the cylinders in the sector of 3rd London Regiment of the Indian Corps, and some of the infantry are impacted by the gas before enough dirt can be shoveled onto the burst cylinder.  Elsewhere shifts in the wind affect the direction of the gas clouds.  In some sectors the gas settles into No Man's Land, and in a few places actually blows back on the British infantry; on the northern flank of I Corps, a gas cloud blows back on two platoons and the battalion machine gun section of 1/9th Highlanders of 2nd Division before they had their gas masks in place, and within a minute only sixteen of eighty men remain capable of action.  Though two reserve platoons are called up to take their place, given that the Germans opposite are now fully awake the British attack here is abandoned.  The employment of gas is of greater help on the front of IV Corps, the southern wing of 1st Army.  In some places the gas clouds at least mix with smoke to obscure the advance of British infantry (equipped with effective gas masks) until they are almost on top of the first German trench line.  In front of 15th Division (opposite the village of Loos) and 47th Division to the south, the gas works as intended, the clouds slowly rolling over the German trenches, with the attacking infantry following immediately behind.

North of La Bassée Canal, the diversionary attacks of 8th Division at III Corps and the Meerut Division of the Indian Corps capture several stretches of the first German trench line.  However, those elements that push forward successfully find themselves under attack on their flanks from those portions of the first German trench lines that remain in enemy hands, and by nightfall the Germans have recaptured their lost positions.  British casualties here are heavy - the Meerut Division alone loses four thousand men - but the attacks at least serve to pin the German forces opposite and prevent them from moving south against the main British attack.

South of La Bassée Canal, 2nd Division, attacking over broken terrain of brick heaps and shell craters, gets nowhere while suffering heavy casualties.  On its right 9th (Scottish) Division has more success: while its 28th Brigade to the north never reaches the first German trench line, 26th Brigade on the right, covered effectively by smoke and gas, breaks into and clears a German strongpoint known as the Hohenzollern Redoubt, passes through the second trench line, and reaches its objectives for the first day, all in the first hour.  26th Brigade, however, has suffered terrible losses for its success; of eight hundred men who attacked at 630am, only one hundred remain in action an hour later.  On 9th (Scottish) Division's right, 7th Division also achieves notable success: by 730am both of its brigades have pushed through both the first and support German trench lines, and by 930 have captured an old chalk mining area known as the Quarries in addition to capturing a German battery of eight artillery guns.  As of 11am they have reached the second German line opposite the villages of St. Elie and Hulluch, but as with the Scots to the north, the two attacking brigades of 7th Division have paid a high price to secure their gains.

Most of General Rawlinson's IV Corps also achieves significant gains in the first hours of the offensive.  On the corps' northern wing, though 1st Brigade of 1st Division is initially held up at the German wire, 2nd Brigade passes through the German lines and by late morning is also approaching the village of Hulluch.  In the corps' centre, 15th (Scottish) Division advances the furthest this morning: by 705am most of the first German line has been captured, and shortly thereafter British infantry pass through the ruined village of Loos itself, where the British artillery has been particularly thorough in wrecking the German communication trenches.  By 800am men of 44th Brigade reach Hill 70, the 'tallest' feature on the Loos battlefield and soon sweep over the crest, capturing the partially-completed redoubt the Germans were still in the process of constructing on the summit.  On the corps' southern wing, 47th Division pushes forward and has captured all of its objectives for the day by 9am.

Infantry of the British 47th Division advance into the clouds of chlorine gas released just prior to their attack, Sept. 25th, 1915.  The
photograph is taken from the forward British trenches looking towards the German lines.

Despite the failure of the use of chlorine gas to have a decisive effect, by late morning the bulk of the British 1st Army has pushed through the first German trench line and has reached the second trench line, in some cases advancing over three thousand yards.  On the German side, 117th Division of IV Corps, responsible for the stretch of the front from south of Haines to south of Hill 70, has suffered the worst, with fifteen companies destroyed and twenty-two guns lost.  It no longer has the strength to garrison the entire length of the second trench line it has been pushed into, and has lost touch with 7th Division on its southern flank.  When reports of the crisis reach the headquarters of the German 6th Army, Rupprecht immediately orders his entire army reserve - 8th Division, 26th Brigade, and three battalions drawn from II Bavarian Corps - to reinforce the battered IV Corps.  It will be late afternoon at the earliest before these forces can reach the battlefield, however; further British attacks in the hours ahead will have to be held by the battered remnants of 117th Division.

On either side of Arras, the assault infantry of the French 10th Army are in their forward trenches by 430am, and the artillery bombardment reaches its crescendo at 9am.  However, Foch's plan does not have them attack until 1225pm, the delay hopefully giving time for the British attack to the north to draw German attention and reserves.  Shortly before noon, however, rain begins to fall, and the resulting mud makes movement difficult.  It is too late to abandon the attack, however, given that the coordination of the overall Entente offensive depends on each main assault occurring on schedule.  Thus the French infantry go over the top at the scheduled hour.  Unlike the British, the French do not mass-release chlorine gas; instead, French artillery fires gas and smoke shells on rear areas and specified targets.

Overall, the assault of the French 10th Army has mixed results.  The attack of the French 43rd Division, located on the northern wing of 10th Army adjacent to the British, is repulsed by the German 7th Division opposite.  To the south, however, the weather works to the advantage of the French 13th and 70th Divisions northwest of Souchez - the trenches of the German 123rd Saxon Division of VI Corps have become waterlogged, and when the French infantry emerge from the smoke they overrun the German defenders and are able to push forward two kilometres to the base of Giesler Hill.  Further south, at Neuville St. Vaast, French infantry push through the German lines at several points, with some reaching the forward slope of Vimy Ridge itself.  On the other hand, the southern wing of 10th Army is unable to make any progress opposite and south of Arras against the German 1st Bavarian Corps.

For the Germans opposite the French 10th Army, the multiple enemy advances between Souchez and Neuville St. Vaast pose the greatest danger, where VI Corps struggles to hold the line.  However, the ability of either General Kurt von Pritzelwitz of VI Corps or Crown Prince Rupprecht of 6th Army to direct the defence of the threatened sectors has been impaired by the destruction of telephone lines by artillery fire and aerial bombardment, leaving the German commanders in the dark about the specific circumstances at the front.  Moreover, Rupprecht has already had to dispatch all of his army's reserves to contain the British assault at Loos, and thus has nothing left to send VI Corps; the forces already in the line will have to fight and contain the French on their own.

The ground seized by the French 10th Army north of Arras, Sept. 25th, 1915.

In the Champagne, at 9am the French artillery shift their fire to concentrate on the first German trench line, and add gas and smoke shells into the mix to reduce the visibility of the enemy defenders.  Fifteen minutes later, infantry from eighteen divisions go over the top, and the heaviest attack is undertaken on the inner wings of the French 4th and 2nd Armies, with II Colonial Corps of the former on the left and XIV Corps of the latter on the right.  Here the French artillery bombardment has been particularly effective - many of the German defensive positions have been completely destroyed, while many of the German survivors are too stunned to offer serious resistance.  So thick is the smoke and gas clouds laid down by the artillery that in some cases the French infantry reach the German trenches before the German soldiers can even emerge from their dugouts, and the latter are captured or killed before they are ready to even fight back.  The French bombardment has also cut most of the German telephone lines, cutting off communications and preventing frontline commanders from calling for reserves or counterartillery fire.  The result is that XIV and II Colonial Corps simply roll over the first trench line of the German VIII Reserve Corps.  By noon, both French corps have advanced three to four kilometres and are assaulting the final German reserve line just south of Somme Py.  The advancing French also turn east and west, and begin to roll up the flanks of the German forces on either side of the breakthrough.  In response, the German divisions on either side of VIII Reserve Corps, though more successful in repelling the French attacks, have to pull back several kilometres to avoid having their inner flanks turned.  Several German artillery batteries are overrun and captured by the French, and each of VIII Reserve Corps' three divisions suffer five thousand casualties.

The gains of the French offensive in Champagne, Sept. 1915.

One of the defining characteristics of the Western Front in the First World War is the length of time it takes information and orders to pass up and down the chain of command.  In an era before portable wireless radio, reports are either relayed by telephone or send by messenger; the former are extremely vulnerable to artillery fire, while the latter, making their way from newly-won or heavily attacked positions, must navigate both enemy fire and the broken terrain of the battlefield.  Delays in communication will be central to the outcome of the fall offensive of the Entente, but one of its first manifestations is seen on the German side.  Continuing his inspection tour of the army headquarters on the Western Front, this morning Falkenhayn arrives at Montmédy, and even though British and French forces have been attacking (and advancing) for several hours, now significantly out-of-date reports from 3rd and 6th Army headquarters are sanguine, indicating nothing more than the continuation of artillery bombardments that have been ongoing now for several days.  Believing that nothing in particular is amiss, Falkenhayn issues no new instructions and departs shortly thereafter for Stenay, headquarters of 5th Army.  While enroute, 3rd Army headquarters finally learns of the plight of VIII Corps, and sends an urgent plea for reinforcements to its neighbour 5th Army, saying that the 'enemy has broken through in the area of Souain-Somme Py.  Having also been attacked this morning, 5th Army is in no position to send aid, and its commander, Crown Prince Wilhelm, refuses.  With Falkenhayn having recently arrived at 5th Army headquarters, the request by 3rd Army is submitted directly to the German chief of staff.  Almost simultaneously, at 1230pm 6th Army headquarters in Artois sends an equally urgent message to Falkenhayn: 'Aided by gas the enemy has broken into the positions of IV Corps at Haisnes and Loos . . . The entire Army Reserve and the 8th Division had to be put at the disposal of IV Corps.  Further reinforcements for the army are urgently required.'  A telephone conversation with 3rd Army commander General Einem and his chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Ritter von Höhn, further brings home to Falkenhayn the perilous state of affairs, and the German chief of staff feels compelled to remind the badly-shaken Einem and Höhn that the Kaiser expects 'every man to do his duty.'

In an instant, Falkenhayn's understanding of the situation was transformed.  Not only were the British and French undertaking significant operations, but they appeared to be on the verge of achieving breakthroughs in both Artois and Champagne - Falkenhayn's strategy of standing on the defensive in the west to permit offensives in the east and the Balkans now appears to hover on the brink of disaster.  It was essential now to rapidly move all available reserves to 3rd and 6th Armies to allow them to hold their present lines.  Falkenhayn immediately orders 192nd Brigade transferred from 7th Army's reserve to 6th Army and 56th Division from Lorraine to 3rd Army.  Shortly after 1pm he departs Stenay for Mézières, OHL's headquarters on the Western Front, to better coordinate the response to the Entente offensive.  Here he instructs the Guard and X Corps, currently in Belgium resting and recovering after lengthy service on the Eastern Front, to move to reinforce 6th Army and 3rd Army respectively.  It would take hours for these reinforcements to arrive, however, and in the meantime 6th and 3rd Armies will have to hang on with what they have in hand.  Falkenhayn's entire strategy for 1915 hangs in the balance.

Meanwhile in Flanders the focus of British commanders this afternoon is pushing up reinforcements to continue the advance.  In each division, two brigades had led the attack this morning, while the third brigade was held in reserve, and the struggle now is to get these brigades forward to exploit the gains already won.  Now the British experience the difficulties in communicating on the modern battlefield.  At 910am, the commander of 1st Division, whose 1st Brigade has advanced almost to the village of Hulluch, issues orders for a two-battalion detachment under Lieutenant-Colonel E. W. B. Green (imaginatively named Green Force).  Several messengers are dispatched from 1st Division headquarters with the instructions, but several are struck by German artillery fire or get lost in a landscape where almost every identifying feature has literally been blown away.  As a result, the order to advance does not reach Lt-Col Green until 1055am, even though the latter's headquarters was only 2500 yards from the former.  It then takes another hour for the order to pass down through battalion and company commanders, so it is not until after midday that Green Force actually begins to move forward.  Similarly, to the north 27th Brigade, the reserve of 9th Division, is ordered forward towards Haisnes.  Prior to the battle, two communication trenches had been assigned to 27th Brigade to facilitate their movement to the front, but as the infantry attempt to pass through them they find the trenches blocked with wounded coming back to medical stations.  When they attempt to move around the blockages they find themselves under German artillery fire, so the brigade has suffered significant casualties before even reaching the front.  By the time they approach Haisnes, the German line has been reinforced, and the exhausted infantry instead concentrate on improving the defences of the ground seized.  The experience of 21st Brigade, the reserve of 7th Division, is similar - ordered forward to push through the German line north of Hulluch, as they approach the front line just west of St Elie German shrapnel shells cut great swathes through their ranks, and to the survivors who reach the front line it is clear no further advance is possible without more extensive artillery support.

With the delays and difficulties encountered by the divisional reserves, it will take the commitment of further reserve forces to maintain the momentum of the British attack.  However, neither I or IV Corps has any reserve, nor does 1st Army.  Instead, XI Corps, consisting of 21st and 24th Divisions, the Guards Division, and the Cavalry Corps were under the direct command of Field Marshal French.  The commander of the British Expeditionary Force has never been enthusiastic about the offensive at Loos, and it is possible that he retained direct control over these forces to prevent their commitment to a losing cause - the BEF still numbers only thirty-seven divisions, six of which are Territorial divisions with little experience and six of which are 'New Army' divisions with none at all, and given that Britain does not yet have conscription, the destruction of the six divisions of the BEF reserve would have been a serious setback.  The practical implication, however, is that after the success of the morning attack, another layer of command is added to the communication delays intrinsic to the First World War battlefield, and will become a major point of contention among the senior leadership of the BEF after the battle.

When the infantry attacked at dawn this morning, the lead columns of 21st and 24th Divisions were about four and a half miles behind the British front line, but the infantry are exhausted after marching all night from their prior concentration areas to the west.  At 7am, Haig sends a staff officer by car to French's headquarters, informing the latter that the attack is progressing satisfactorily and requesting the release of XI Corps.  Though it ought to have taken only forty-five minutes to cover the ground between the two locations by car, at 845am no response has been received and Haig dispatches another officer.  This message reaches French, who in turn at 930am orders the commander of XI Corps to begin moving his two divisions to the front.  It is another hour before the order reaches the divisional headquarters, and another forty-five minutes before the lead elements actually begin to move - by this time, the British advance means that they are now seven miles behind the current front line.  The exhausted infantry do their best to push forward, but the few roads are already clogged with military traffic and their progress is painstakingly slow.  Impatient, at 235pm Haig orders the commander of XI Corps to detach one brigade from each division and prioritize getting those forces to the front as quickly as possible, hoping they can launch an attack today towards the Haute Deule Canal, several kilometres past Hulluch.  It is not until 6pm that the first infantry of 62nd Brigade of 21st Division actually arrive at the front, and Haig realizes that it will be impossible to to attack this evening.  Instead, just after 8pm he orders XI Corps to take up position between Hulluch and Hill 70, in anticipation of an advance by the full corps early tomorrow morning.

On the German side, the hours of the afternoon pass without the expected resumption of the British advance.  Though fierce fighting continues, there is no concerted push against the reserve German trenches.  As the first reinforcements arrive later in the day, IV Corps uses them to reestablish a continuous front.  To the north, elements of 2nd Guard Division, transferred from VII Corps, reestablish contact with the northern flank of 117th Division between Auchy and Haisnes, while to the south, elements of 7th and 123rd Saxon Divisions, sent from VI Corps, advance to Hill 70 and make contact with the southern wing of 117th Division.  Though the Germans have suffered heavily, by evening they have recreated a cohesive front line, without gaps that could be exploited by the British.  Limited counterattacks have also been undertaken, and though little ground is retaken they have the virtue of at least keeping the British forces off guard, and help convince the lead British brigades that, after the morning battles, they need to wait for reserves before the advance can be resumed.  On the southern wing of the British gains, however, the infantry of 44th Brigade that captured the summit of Hill 70 and pushed down the eastern slope come under increasingly heavy German fire from the ruins of workers' cottages to the east.  Moreover, their very success means they are now confronted with German defenses that had not been given the same attention from British artillery as the first German trench line.  Taking losses, the men of 44th Brigade pull back from the eastern slope of Hill 70, and, given that the summit is now being swept by enemy machine gun fire, they retreat to the western slope and entrench.

As the situation stabilizes through the afternoon, the commander of the German IV Corps decides that the primary reserves dispatched from 6th Army headquarters - 8th Division and 26th Brigade - should be used to counterattack the salient around Loos carved out by the British.  Initially hoping to attack this evening, delays are experienced in getting the reserves to the front: 26th Brigade is attempting to deploy into trenches still contested by British infantry, while the soldiers of 8th Division have to move through the maze of ruined houses in the town of Lens.  Postponed several times, the counterattack is finally scheduled to go in at midnight.

The first day of the Battle of Loos has seen several British divisions advance several thousand yards, sweeping over the first German trench positions, seizing the village of Loos itself, and pushing up to the German reserve lines.  Having achieved this notable success, the pace of the advance faltered, as the forces of the initial attack have suffered losses and reserves have been delayed in getting to the front.  Nevertheless, Haig believes that the planned attack of 21st and 24th Divisions at dawn tomorrow will complete the breaking of the German lines.

The gains of the British 1st Army at Loos, Sept. 25th, 1915.

After its progress in the morning, the situation of the French 10th Army deteriorates in the afternoon.  Three regiments of the German 123rd Division, supported by the southern flank of the German 7th Division, attack after dark the French infantry that had pushed to Giesler Hill, and the exhausted French yield some of the ground won earlier today.  Opposite Neuville St. Vaast, further French assaults are unable to break through the reserve German trench lines, and though the Germans are unable to recover the forward trench lost this morning, they are able to reestablish a solid defensive line.

In Champagne, the German VIII Reserve Corps fights desperately throughout the afternoon to hold on to its reserve trench line.  To stem the French tide, the corps commander orders his recruiting depot (consisting of new recruits from the home front and returning wounded veterans) into the line at Somme Py.  In addition, most of 5th Division, located in 3rd Army's rear area and whose orders to transfer to the Balkans had been cancelled just yesterday, is fed into the battle over the afternoon and evening.  On the French side, the experience in the aftermath of initial success is similar to that of the British in Flanders: the lead infantry are exhausted and have taken significant losses.  Further, in the chaos of battle battalions have been hopelessly mixed up and lines of command confused, while the very extent of the French advance has caused its own problems, as isolated groups of German infantry, bypassed by the initial attack, now emerge to fight in ground the French believe they have already captured.  The result is that bitter fighting through the afternoon is not nearly as successful at that of the morning, and the Germans are just barely able to hang on.  Nevertheless, General Friedrich Fleck, commanding VIII Reserve Corps, and General Einem of 3rd Army believe the crisis is far from having past, and as the breakdown of communications prevents accurate news from reaching headquartesr to the rear, in the vacuum of news pessimism reigns.  Indeed Fleck, believing his command is on the verge of disintegration, requests permission this evening to withdraw from the reserve defensive position northwards past Somme Py and out of the trenches.  This retreat, if implemented, would give the French precisely the breakthrough in Champagne they are so desperate to achieve.

On the French side, as reports filter back to the headquarters of the French 2nd and 4th Armies of the successful advance of II Colonial and XIV Corps, General Castlenau of the Army Group of the Centre at 415pm orders the two divisions of VI Corps to enter the line and follow up the attack of and expand the ground seized by II Colonial Corps.  Again, however, it takes time for orders to make their way down the chain of command, and for the infantry to make their way across the shattered landscape, and it is midnight before VI Corps is in the front line.  Optimism remains high, however, that further attacks tomorrow will shatter the weakened Germans and push on to the north.

- South of Vilna, the withdrawal of Russian forces to counter the German offensive at and north of the city has allowed the German 12th Army to reach the Berezina River east of Lida while the army group under Prince Leopold has arrived at the Szczara River.  To the east of Vilna itself, the German 10th Army has ground its way towards Smorgon, but against increasing resistance has been unable to advance further.

To Falkenhayn, Ludendorff's September offensive at Vilna and Sventsiany has achieved exactly what the German chief of staff expected - namely, a minor advance of no great strategic consequence.  Considering both the impending invasion of Serbia and the Entente offensive on the Western Front, Falkenhayn believes it is both necessary and desirable to end operations on the Eastern Front.  Though the great German victories achieved since the attack at Gorlice-Tarnow in May have not convinced the Tsar to agree to a negotiated peace, they have sharply reduced the strength of the Russian army and it will likely be many months until the Russians are again capable of major offensive actions.  As such, Falkenhayn today issues orders for German forces on the Eastern Front to hold their present positions and construct a strong defensive line that can be held with a reduced commitment of forces.  At the northern end of the line, the armies under OberOst are to entrench on a line running from west of Riga through Mitau and west of Dvinsk to Lake Narotch and the mouth of the Bierieza River.  From here, the army group under Prince Leopold and the Army of the Bug will hold on a line running from the Bierieza River through Baranowicze to Pinsk.

- Russian cavalry and aircraft have reported the movement of the German XXIV Reserve Corps and other formations southeastward toward the northern flank of the Russian 8th Army.  Though General Brusilov wishes to stand on the Styr while redeploying the Russian XXX Corps towards Kolki to block the German advance.  His superior, the more cautious General Ivanov, disagrees and, seeking to avoid a potential envelopment, orders Brusilov's 8th Army to retreat eastward towards the Putilowka and Kormin Rivers.

- As plans are finalized for the Serbian campaign, preliminary operations are deemed necessary to seize several large islands in the Danube River east of Belgrade - in German or Austro-Hungarian hands, the islands shorten the distance needed by the main crossings, and can serve as platforms to position light artillery closer to the front.  The most substantial island is Temesziget, over twelve miles long and up to three miles wide, and its capture has been assigned to 11th Bavarian Division of IV Reserve Corps.  Overnight elements of the division crossed to the north shore of the island, and the small Serbian detachments are quickly overwhelmed.

- After several days of debate, the French Council of Ministers decides to go to the aid of the Serbs, and authorizes the dispatch of an expedition to the Balkans.  A telegraph is sent to the Greek government informing it that the Entente will provide the 150 000 troops required by Greek Prime Minister Venizelos to activate the convention with Serbia and bring Greece into the war.  The British government also agrees to commit forces to the Balkans, though with considerably more disagreement: while David Lloyd George is in favour of contributing to the expedition, Lord Kitchener argues that redeploying forces from Gallipoli to the Balkans is 'jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.'  In order to maintain the aura of neutrality, Prime Minister Venizelos requests twenty-four hours notice of the landing of the first Entente forces in Greece, so his government can lodge a diplomatic (though meaningless) protest.  The Entente plan is to land at the port city of Salonika in northern Greece, using it as a base of operations for forces moving north to Serbia's aid.

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