Monday, September 28, 2015

September 28th, 1915

- Near Loos the British 2nd Guards Brigade makes a second attempt to capture the ruined buildings at Puit 14 at 345pm today.  The brigade commander, Brigadier-General J. Ponsonby, had been extremely reluctant to undertake the attack, given that the first effort with greater artillery support had failed yesterday.  However, a message to Major General the Earl of Cavan, commander of the Guards Division, suggesting a postponement until tonight is not replied to by 345, and Ponsonby has no choice but to go through with the attack.  Predictably, the assault fails in the face of intense German machine-gun fire, and 2nd Guards Brigade suffers 250 casualties for no gain.  Elsewhere on the British front, 28th Division, which had formerly been the reserve of the British 2nd Army to the north, comes into the line today west of Haisnes, having been reassigned to 1st Army.  Its orders are to retake the Dump, a huge slag heap just west of Fosse 8 recaptured by the Germans yesterday.  When the attack goes in at 930am, the six battalions of 28th Division are repulsed, with two battalion commanders killed.

A German trench wrecked by British artillery fire near Loos, Sept. 28th, 1915.

Given the failure of the Guards Division yesterday and 28th Division this morning, Field Marshal French no longer has any reserves immediately available that he can commit to the battle, and he writes to Joffre requesting that the French 10th Army take over part of the British line south of Loos, to allow the British forces there to go into reserve.  If this cannot be done, Sir John French suggests that the British may have to abandon the offensive.  Though Joffre's focus is now on the ongoing battle in Champagne, he still believes that British attacks are important in forcing the Germans to keep some of their reserves in the north, and thus he instructs Foch to accede to the BEF commander's request.  Later today Foch meets with Sir John French and agrees that the French IX Corps of 10th Army will take over the stretch of the line currently held by the British 47th Division, southernmost of 1st Army's forces.

- Even before Foch and French meet, however, the French 10th Army achieves an unexpected success.  Whereas the attacks yesterday east of Souchez accomplished nothing, when the assault is renewed today by the right wing of XXXIII Corps and the left wing of III Corps, they are able to push through the first German trench line and advance towards Giesler Hill (also known as Hill 119) and Vimy Ridge.  In an attempt to follow up this success, General d'Urbal orders the three corps on the northern wing of his army to attack at 140pm.  The German 123rd Saxon Division and VI Corps are forced backwards, and elements of XXXIII Corps capture Giesler Hill while elements of III Corps reach Hill 140, the highest point on Vimy Ridge.  An immediate German counterattack by 123rd Saxon Division fails to recover most of the lost ground, and Rupprecht at 6th Army headquarters orders elements of 11th Division and 1st Guards Division to prepare for a counterattack.  Before this can occur, a report reaches 6th Army headquarters that the French had seized the village of Givenchy east of Giesler Hill and broken through the last German trench line.  When no further information reaches him tonight, Rupprecht has to assume the worst - his position north of Vimy Ridge has been broken.  At OHL Falkenhayn orders 2nd Army to send detachments equivalent to a division to 6th Army, and Rupprecht is also authorized to call on a brigade from 4th Army if necessary.  In reality, no such breakthrough at Givenchy has occurred; reports of the initial French capture of Giesler Hill have become misinterpreted and exaggerated as they passed up the chain of command.

- In Champagne, while the French 4th Army attacks again today, 2nd Army does not after the failed efforts of yesterday led Pétain to conclude that further assaults without adequate preparation would accomplish nothing.  This reticence, however reasonable, hardly endears Pétain to his superiors; later today Joffre himself arrives at Pétain's headquarters where he in no uncertain terms orders 2nd Army to resume the offensive.  Unable to disobey a direct order, Pétain afterwards issues a terse order to his corps' commanders to resume the attack tomorrow.

Meanwhile, drama of a different sort, echoing today's events in Artois, occurs to the west along the front of 4th Army.  During an attack today a brigade of 14th Division, VII Corps captures what is known as the Trench of Tantes, five hundred metres west of Ferme de Navarin.  However, beyond the Trench of Tantes is another German trench line, and when the French brigade attempts to advance further the infantry come under a hail of machine-gun and artillery fire, and are forced back.  However, the report to 14th Division headquarters is misinterpreted as indicating that the brigade has broken through the entire German second defensive line, and news of the 'breakthrough' races up the command structure.  At Castlenau's headquarters the report is received with joy, and the mood is further buoyed when subsequent messages report that the breach is seven hundred metres wide and that several brigades have passed through it.  The false report is another example of the chaos the modern battlefield can have on communications, but among Castlenau's staff there is no desire to critically evaluate news they have been desperately waiting for since the 25th.  Castlenau orders General de Langle of 4th Army to move all available forces forward to enlarge and pass through the breach, and the latter orders his cavalry to the front to exploit the apparent success.  Castlenau instructs Pétain, meanwhile, to do everything possible to support 4th Army's advance.  French forces are now surging towards a break in the German line that does not exist.

- Mackensen issues his formal orders for the Serbian campaign today.  He has two armies under his command: 11th German and 3rd Austro-Hungarian, with the former deployed east of Belgrade along the Danube and the latter opposite Belgrade itself and along the Save River to the west.  The commanders of both - General Max von Gallwitz of the former and General Hermann Kövess of the latter - have, like Mackensen, made their reputations on the Eastern Front; whereas Gallwitz commanded an army group and later 12th Army alongside Mackensen's advance, Kövess is one of the few Austro-Hungarian officers who has demonstrated any semblance of competence in the war, the capture of Ivangorod by forces under his command making him the man of the moment in Vienna.  Crucially, both Mackensen and his chief of staff, General Seeckt, view Kövess as competent, a rare enough German evaluation of any Austro-Hungarian commander.  Each army has three corps under its command, with the German III, IV Reserve, and X Reserve Corps assigned to the German 11th Army.  Because the debacle of the Herbstsau offensive forced Conrad to keep some of the Austro-Hungarian formations assigned to the Serbian campaign instead on the Eastern Front, the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army has only two Austro-Hungarian corps under its command - VIII and XIX - which number three divisions and several brigades.  To make up this shortfall, 3rd Army has also been assigned the German XXII Reserve Corps of three divisions under the command of General Eugen von Falkenhayn, older brother of the German chief of staff.  The mixed composition of the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army is yet another reflection of the weakness of the Austro-Hungarian army and the necessity of the Germans to prop their ally up with German formations.

Mackensen's overall plan for the campaign is to take advantage of the specifics of the convention signed with Bulgaria on 6th, whereas the latter is to attack five days after the German and Austro-Hungarian attack.  The two armies under his direct command would execute a series of carefully staged crossings of the Danube and Save Rivers.  The Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army is to begin its artillery bombardment on October 5th and cross the Save just west of Belgrade on the 7th.  To the east, after artillery preparation on the 6th, the German X Reserve Corps is to cross on the 7th as well, with III and IV Reserve Corps crossing on the 8th.  The hope is that these assaults, in addition to securing the high ground south of the rivers, would draw the Serbian army north prior to the attack of the Bulgarian 1st Army from the east.  If the Bulgarians are able to successfully cut across the line of communications of the Serbian armies along the Save and Danube, the allied armies may be able to surround and destroy the Serbian army in the valley of the Morava River.

The deployment of the corps of the German 11th and Austro-Hungarian 3rd Armies for the Serbian Campaign.

- General Maurice Sarrail of the French Army of the Near East is informed today that his command will be deployed in the Balkans, not on the coast of Ottoman Anatolia, and he is requested to provide an assessment of operations in the region.

- At 2am this morning east of Kut-al-Amara, 16th and 17th Indian Brigades begin to cross from the south bank of the Tigris River to the north across a bridge of boats.  Before dawn the brigades reaches Suwada Marsh, where they divide into two columns: the first, commanded by Brigadier-General W. S. Delamain and consisting of one and a half battalions from 16th Indian Brigade, turns west to attack the three Ottoman redoubts north of Suwada Marsh, while the second, commanded by Brigadier-General F. A. Hoghton and comprising 17th Indian Brigade along with the remainder of 16th Indian Brigade, continues further north before it too turns west, its objective being to pass through the 300-yard-gap between the northernmost Ottoman redoubt and Ataba Marsh further north.  To the south, 18th Indian Brigade holds the line from Suwada Marsh to the Tigris opposite the primary Ottoman defences.  By redeploying 16th and 17th Indian Brigades overnight after demonstrating for the past two days on the south bank, General Townshend hopes to deceive the Ottoman defenders as to where the main attack will fall.  In this Townshend's plan has succeeded - as the two Indian brigades are moving north, Colonel Nur-ur-din, commander of the Ottoman defenders, is moving his reserves from the north bank to the south.

By 6am, however, the British plan has gone awry.  As the sun rises, Hoghton's column realizes that their march overnight has been misdirected - in the featureless terrain, inaccurate compass bearings, compiled from aerial reconnaissance, has led them astray.  Instead of passing between the northernmost Ottoman redoubt and the southern edge of Ataba Marsh, they are passing across the northern edge of Ataba Marsh.  Hoghton decides that it would take too much time to retrace the column's steps, and decides to keep going the long way around the Ottoman line.  This takes several hours longer than intended, during which Hoghton's column stumbles across a reserve Ottoman battalion, which is routed by a bayonet charge by 104th Wellington Rifles, which takes 112 prisoners.

It is 820am before Brigadier-General Delamain sees Hoghton's column on the horizon.  To this point Delamain has been postponing his attack, unaware of Hoghton's whereabouts, as the latter's detour has exhausted his column's telephone wire.  Though 6th Indian Division has two wireless sets, they are with Generals Townshend and Nixon, a less-than-ideal use since today both are actually in the same observation tower.  When Hoghton's column makes its belated appearance, it and Delamain's column attacks the three Ottoman redoubts, starting with the northernmost, and despite fierce Ottoman resistance and blowing sand hindering artillery fire, the three redoubts are cleared by 1245pm.

Having occupied the Ottoman positions between the Ataba and Suwada Marshes, the two British columns combine and move south towards the Tigris, aiming to envelope the main Ottoman defensive position between Suwada Marsh and the river.  The British soldiers, however, have been marching since 2am, and their water bottles have long since run dry.  Further, ammunition is running low and blowing dust makes for slow going.  At 330pm the two columns halt, but find themselves under fire from Ottoman guns near the Tigris.  A subsequent advance runs into another Ottoman battalion that had been rushed back across the Tigris, and though it is driven off the field via the bayonet, the exertion required exhausts the remaining strength of the two columns.

By nightfall, 6th Indian Division has been exhausted by the day's fighting, having decisively turned the northern flank of the Ottoman position.  However, the lines of communication of the Ottoman defenders remain open, and Colonel Nur-ur-din is able to order the 35th and 38th Divisions to retreat overnight.  The British have thus won an incomplete victory: though they have forced the Ottomans from the field, the Ottomans have escaped to fight another day.

The First Battle of Kut-al-Amara has cost the British 1233 casualties, including 94 dead, as compared to approximately 4000 Ottoman casualties, which count among their number just over a thousand prisoners.  Though the casualty ratio is very favourable to the British, geography negates much of this advantage: while the Ottomans can fall back towards Baghdad and reinforcements, British casualties have to travel all the way down the Tigris to the base hospital at Basra.

No comments:

Post a Comment