Saturday, September 26, 2015

September 26th, 1915

- At 1am, the German counterattack around Loos is undertaken by the reserve forces of 6th Army, newly-arrived at the front.  Though 8th Infantry Division, attacking from the direction of Lens, is unable to gain any significant ground, 26th Brigade attacking from the northeast has more success; their advance happens to be directed at a weak point in the new British line where reinforcements are in the process of arriving, and they manage to push the British back five hundred yards and recapture the Quarries northwest of Hulluch.  The Germans also score a coup when they capture the commander of the British 27th Brigade.

Meanwhile, the British 21st and 24th Divisions continue to struggle across the broken terrain of the old No Man's Land towards the new front line.  Due to the communication delays endemic to the modern battlefield, Haig's order of 827pm for the two divisions to take up position between Hulluch and Hill 70 does not even arrive at the headquarters of the latter until 2am this morning, and the former receives the directive even later.  By the time they reach the new position and sort out the confusion caused by the march, it is already dawn.  Haig has assumed that the two divisions would reach the line Hulluch-Hill 70 much earlier overnight and would have had time to rest before they attack this morning.  In reality, the men are already exhausted without a shot having been fired in anger.

Haig's plan for the second day of the British offensive is to attack what is perceived to be the weakest point of the German line, that stretching from Hill 70 to just north of Hulluch, where the British had secured the greatest gains yesterday.  On the northern end, I Corps is instructed to capture the village of St Elie, while IV Corps is ordered to seize Hulluch as well as recapture the high ground of Hill 70.  In between these two points, 21st and 24th Divisions of XI Corps are to drive over the second German trench line, advancing three miles to the Haute Deule Canal.  The most important advance is thus of the 'fresh' 21st and 24th Divisions.  Both formations are part of Kitchener's 'New Armies', composed of men who volunteered for military service in the first months of the war.  This is not the first time divisions of the 'New Armies' will enter combat - two of the six divisions that had attacked yesterday were from the 'New Armies'.  However, those formations had been given substantial time to prepare an attack against defences that had been subject to a four-day bombardment.  Today's attack by 21st and 24th Divisions, however, are to be undertaken by already-exhausted formations against German defences that will have been bombarded for only a couple of hours.  Such circumstances are hardly ideal, but Haig believes the Germans remain weak, and regardless the two divisions are the only reserves immediately at hand: if the offensive is to be continued, they need to be committed to the attack.

The orders for the preliminary attack on Hill 70 only reach the involved battalions at 7am, leaving little time for preparations for the attack scheduled for 9am.  More seriously, the artillery bombardment is hindered by a lack of ammunition: batteries that had moved forward to Loos overnight cannot be resupplied over roads that are clogged with the debris of battle and under constant German artillery fire, and thus can contribute only the shells they brought with them.  Confusion over where exactly the front line was, combined with the delay in communication orders, also means that a few of the British shells fall short among their own infantry.  When the infantry attack Hill 70 at 9am, a morning mist that had impeded the artillery bombardment lifts just in time for the German machine gunners to take a terrible toll on the advancing infantry.  Some manage to get into the redoubt on the top of Hill 70, but in bitter close-quarters fighting are unable to push the Germans back, and the survivors soon retreat westwards.  Attempts by the British to attack again are futile - four senior officers, starting with the Lieutenant-Colonel commanding 10/Green Howards, climb out of the trenches to encourage the infantry to advance once more.  Each of the four is killed in turn, and the soldiers prefer to take what cover is possible from the growing tide of German fire.

Despite the failure to take Hill 70, the commander of XI Corps orders the main attack by 21st and 24th Divisions to go ahead as planned.  Here too the preliminary bombardment is ineffective - in the chaoes of the battlefield the artillery of the two divisions had struggled to get forward, and when the morning mist clears at 9am they find that they have positioned themselves in full view of the German lines.  The result is that the Germans pour artillery fire of their own on the British guns, and the latter are understandibly unable to provide much of a preliminary bombardment of their own.  At exactly 11am the infantry of the two divisions leave the trenches hastily-constructed early this morning and begin to cross the thousand yards that separate them from the second German trench line.  This position is not nearly as elaborate as the old first German line - it lacks the usual support or communication trenches - but otherwise the Germans are in a favourable position.  Though the counterattack overnight largely failed, 8th Division is now available to aid 117th Division in repelling the British attack.  Artillery of both divisions, supported by fire from Hill 70, tear great holes in the ranks of the advancing infantry, and German machine guns sweep back and forth, felling hundreds at a time.  Despite the horrendous losses and the horrific baptism of fire, the British infantry continue to advance eastward.  The German trench is protected by great belts of barbed wire, which the preliminary bombardment has done nothing to disperse.  The survivors who reach the barbed wire can find no way through, and while their search for a way forward losses continue to mount.  Officers capable of coordinating attacks fall - five of the eight battalion commanders of 24th Division that went over the top are killed or wounded - and communications to the rear were nonexistant.  No formal order is given for the divisions to retire - there hardly remains anyone alive to even give such an order - but slowly the survivors begin to pull back from the German wire and return to the trenches from which they had departed.  The German defenders are impressed by the determination and bravery of the British infantry in making it as far as they did in the face of murderous fire, and so great has been the slaughter that out of compassion for a thoroughly beaten foe the German machine guns fall silent as the British withdraw.  German medics even move into No Man's Land to minister to those British wounded not yet beyond aid, and allow them to return to their lines unmolested.  The Germans refer to the battle as der Leichenfel von Loos - the Field of Corpses of Loos.  Of the 15 000 men of 21st and 24th Divisions, over 8000 have been killed or wounded in just four hours of fighting - for all intents and purposes, the two divisions have been destroyed.

When the first news of the attack reach Lieutenant General R. C. B. Haking of XI Corps, he simply cannot believe that it has been such an abject and thorough failure.  Neither can Haig, present at Haking's headquarters, and a staff officer is sent forward to ascertain the actual state of affairs.  When he returns shortly after 4pm, the report he provides extinguishes hope that any success has been accomplished by the attack.  The most significant reserve force available to Haig has thus failed to maintain the momentum of yesterday.  The only other reserve that remains is the Guards Division, which remained under Field Marshal French's control when 21st and 24th Divisions had been ordered forward on the 25th.  Now orders go out to the Guards to advance to the new British line from which the two 'New Army' divisions had attacked this morning.  They are to prevent a German counterattack against the shattered divisions from retaking the ground gained yesterday while also placing them in position to resume the offensive.  Again, orders are delayed and movement across the battlefield is painfully slow: it is not until 6pm that the Guards reach the old British front line trench from which the offensive had begun yesterday, and only reach the new front line after dusk, where they being to relieve the shattered remnants of 21st and 24th Divisions.

- To the south of the British 1st Army, the two northernmost corps of the French 10th Army attack at 110pm this afternoon after an artillery bombardment this morning, and though they are able to capture the pulverized ruins of Souchez, they are unable to advance further.  The attacks south of Arras yesterday, however, are not renewed, General d'Urbal having concluded, with Foch's agreement, that the offensive should only be continued where there was reasonable prospects of success, which existed only where 10th Army had gained ground the prior day.  Future operations of 10th Army are further limited as a result of a meeting of Joffre and Foch south of Amiens at 3pm, where the former remarkably instructs the latter to 'stop the attacks of 10th Army but avoid giving the British the impression that we are leaving them to attack alone, or the Germans that our offensive is slackening off.'  Believing that the operation in Champagne has the greatest chance of succeeding, Joffre wants to concentrate all resources there and draw down the commitment to Artois.  The meeting is also a telling reflection of Joffre's opinion of his British ally.

For their part, while Foch and d'Urbal narrow the scope of 10th Army's activities, they do not completely abandon offensive operations, if only to show the British that they are doing something.  There is a momentary surge of optimism late today when a message reaches 10th Army headquarters that XII Corps has broken through near Neuville.  The report, however, is mistaken, and such misinformation is another consequence of the chaos and interruption of communication on the modern battlefield - in such conditions, reports from subordinate formations of minor advances can become exaggerated and reflect instead the hopes of recipients.  Before the report can be corrected, orders are issued to two corps in the centre of 10th Army to attack, and though the orders are cancelled before they can be carried out, the corps are left sufficiently disordered to be unable to participate in other operations tomorrow.

- In Champagne, Falkenhayn believes that the German 5th Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm reacted better to the French offensive than 3rd Army, and that the command staff of the latter largely lost control of the battle and had made no attempt to inform itself of the state of VIII Reserve Corps.  The German chief of staff thus decides to place 3rd Army under the direction of Crown Prince Wilhelm, so that the efforts of the two armies could be better coordinated.  When news of the change in the command structure is telephoned to 3rd Army headquarters, the chief of staff of 3rd Army objects to serving under 5th Army's chief of staff, who by rank is his junior.  Falkenhayn's reply is to fire 3rd Army's chief of staff and replace him with Colonel Fritz von Lossberg, deputy chief of the Operations Section at OHL.  Arriving at 3rd Army headquarters at 330pm, he receives a call from General Fleck of VIII Reserve Corps, asking whether the withdrawal he proposed yesterday is to be carried out.  Keeping in mind his instructions from Falkenhayn to hold the line, Lossberg instead replies that 'VIII Reserve Corps must stand and die in its current position.'  A later tour of VIII Reserve Corps' line convinces Lossberg that it can hold on with reinforcements now arriving at the front, though he also orders the construction of a new reserve line several kilometres to the north.  He also instructs that the primary responsibility for halting French attacks is to fall on the artillery, which is to cut down the attacking infantry before they reached the German line.  This reflects not only the superiority of artillery on the modern battlefield but also acknowledges the heavy losses VIII Reserve Corps has already suffered.

On the French side, after their gains yesterday the inner wings of 2nd and 4th Armies resume their attacks this morning, focusing on the reserve defensive line of the battered VIII Reserve Corps north of Souain and Perthes.  Though this position is not nearly as fortified as the primary line the French overran yesterday morning, the one advantage it does have is that it is on the reverse slope of the Py Valley, which prevents French observation.  As a result, artillery bombardment early this morning is less effective, and most of the belts of barbed wire remain in place.  The French XIV Corps of 2nd Army attacks twice this morning, but is halted both times just north of Tahure.  Another attempt is made this afternoon, and in bitter fighting a brigade manages to work its way through the second line of trenches.  By this time, however, reinforcements ordered to the front yesterday by Falkenhayn are reaching the scene, and elements of the newly-arrived German 56th Division drives the French brigade back.  To the west, the French VI Corps, ordered into the line yesterday, attacks at 230pm, but barbed wire belts up to sixty meters deep prevent the infantry from reaching the German trenches.  Some success is achieved further to the west, where the French VII Corps, which had not gained ground yesterday, pushes through the first German trench line and reaches the second line, bringing it level with II Colonial Corps.  Though its efforts to fight through the reserve line are also frustrated, its advance raises hopes that another push tomorrow will finally break the German lines.

French artillery firing during the 2nd Battle of Champagne, Sept. 26th, 1915.

- Given Falkenhayn's instructions of yesterday and the inability of the German 10th Army to advance further past Vilna, Ludendorff acknowledges the inevitable and calls his September, or Sventsiany, offensive to an end.  Instead the armies of OberOst are instructed to establish a permanent line of trenches on which they will stand for the foreseeable future.

Ludendorff's decision to call off the offensive of the German 10th Army effectively brings an end to German operations on the Eastern Front, which had originated in the attack of Mackensen's 11th Army at Gorlice-Tarnow at the beginning of May.  In the months since, the Russian army has been forced to evacuate Poland while the Russian pressure on Austria-Hungary has been relieved.  Though the Russian army escaped the massive envelopment envisioned by Ludendorff, they have still suffered crushing losses: since the spring, the Russian army has lost over two million men, including a million prisoners of war.  Of almost equal significance, the fighting since May has reinforced the belief among Russian generals that the German soldier is inherently superior to his Russian counterpart, which has left them extremely reluctant to undertake offensive operations against the Germans.  Thus, despite the fact that the Russians still have a marked numerical superiority over the Germans - the former has seventy-five divisions arrayed against the forty-five divisions under Ludendorff - Falkenhayn has accomplished his objective of destroying the offensive capability of the Russian army, a victory as psychological as material.  This is the necessary prerequisite for offensive operations planned by Falkenhayn in other theatres - even if the Russians have not been knocked out of the war, they have been sufficiently damaged to allow for a significant redeployment of German divisions elsewhere.  It is also a vindication of Falkenhayn's operational approach of eschewing grand envelopments in favour of concentrating firepower to crush the enemy line and grinding the enemy down.

The Eastern Front at the end of the German offensives of 1915.

- This morning the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army discovers the Russians on the opposite bank of the Styr River have retreated overnight, but their own pursuit is delayed by a lack of bridges and boats, and it is not until evening that significant elements of the army have crossed to the east bank.  As a result, though Lutsk is recaptured, 4th Army has completely lost touch with the withdrawing Russian 8th Army.  Meanwhile, to the north the German XXIV Reserve Corps, the core of a group under General Friedrich Gerok sent from the Army of the Bug, crosses the Styr River at Kolki.

- With the imminent Anglo-French expedition to Salonika, Italian Prime Minister Sydney Sonnino asks his military advisors whether Italian forces can be commited to the operation.  Given that Italian governments have traditionally seen the southwestern Balkans as properly within their sphere of influence, an Entente deployment to the region without Italian participation may be detrimental to Italy's long-term interests.  Lieutenant-General Vittorio Zupelli, the war minister, argues that nothing can be spared from the Italian Front and that supplies to support such an expedition do not exist and are beyond the capability of Italian industry to produce.  Lieutenant-General Luigi Cadorna, the Italian chief of staff, takes the opposite view, believing that Austro-Hungarian forces tied down fighting in the Balkans means fewer defenders along the Isonzo River.  Though he is planning a major offensive for October, Cadorna states that afterwards he will be able to spare 20 000 men for the Balkans.

- West of Kut-al-Amara the British 6th Indian Division approaches the Ottoman defences, with 16th and 17th Brigades on the south bank and only 18th Brigade on the north bank.  Opposing them are two Ottoman divisions, one on either bank, with further battalions in reserve.  The British force, however, outnumbers the Ottomans almost two to one, at eleven thousand men to six thousand.  The two British brigades on the south bank establish a very conspicuous deception camp, and successfully convince the Ottomans that the main British attack will come south of the Tigris River, Ottoman artillery firing shells into the 'camp'.  The British had also hoped to encourage Ottoman guns north of the Tigris to fire, since it is here that the main British effort will actually be made and it is desirable to know the location of enemy guns so they can be knocked out when the main attack goes in on the 28th.  However, the British deception has been too effective; thinking there are no valuable targets north of the Tigris, the Ottoman artillery here remains silent.  The British here resort to any number of ruses to get the Ottomans to fire, including one captain who walks out into the open and, in full view of the Ottomans, sits on the desert ground and proceeds to read The Times.  Even the captain, though, was not tempting enough for the Ottoman gunners.

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