Tuesday, October 13, 2015

October 13th, 1915

- At noon today British artillery commence a preliminary bombardment of a six-thousand-yard stretch of the German line north of Loos, the target of today's attack.  Most of the fire is concentrated on German trenches, machine-gun posts, and barbed wire, though 114 guns concentrate on German artillery positions identified by aerial reconnaissance over the past several days.  The lengthy preparation has also allowed the British to move up and deploy gas cylinders, which are opened at 150pm.  The wind carries the gas in the desired direction along the entire line except at the north, where the wind direction would have pushed the gas down the British trenches instead of across No Man's Land.  Ten minutes later at 2pm, whistles sound and four divisions of the British 1st Army go on to the attack.  To the north, 2nd Division of I Corps advances north of the Hohenzollern Redoubt against a trench known as Little Willie, while 46th Division of XI Corps, fresh after being redeployed from the Ypres salient, assaults the German redoubt itself.  IV Corp's other division - 12th - is to seize The Quarries to the south of the redoubt, while 1st Division of IV Corps moves against a stretch of the German line on the Lens-La Bassée road.

The British attack north of Loos, October 13th, 1915.

The gas, however, did not have a noticeable effect on the German defenders other than to warn them that an attack was imminent.  Moreover, the preliminary bombardment had not succeeded in knocking out the German artillery, which open fire on the British infantry in the open as they cross No Man's Land.  As a result, the British suffer heavy casualties before they even reach the German line.  On the northern flank, only one officer, a Lieutenant Abercrombie, and one soldier actually make it into the Little Willie trench, and when Abercrombie sends the other soldier back to ask for support, the latter is wounded and the message never arrives.  On his own, Abercrombie wages what amounts to his own private war against the Germans, putting a machine-gun post out of action with his grenades.  With no bombs remaining, Abercrombie manages to return to British lines unscathed, his success notable for its audacity but otherwise without significance on the larger battle.  To the south, 138th Brigade of 46th Division advances over ground partially sheltered from German view, and are able to break into the Hohenzollern Redoubt.  Efforts to secure Fosse Trench beyond, however, fail as the division's other brigade - 137th - fails to get into the Big Willie trench, leaving the forward elements of 138th Brigade exposed to flanking fire.  Further south, 35th Brigade of 12th Division gains a foothold in the southeast corner of The Quarries while elements of 37th Brigade seize 250 yards of Gun Trench, and both brigades are able to hold off German counterattacks.  On the other hand, the attack of 1st Division is an abysmal failure - artillery fire fails to break the German wire, and the attacking infantry, trying to work their way through the few gaps in the wire, come under withering fire and take heavy losses.

British artillery bombards the Hohenzollern  Redoubt as gas drifts towards the German lines, October 13th, 1915.

Overall the British attack has achieved certain tactical successes, capturing and holding toeholds in the German line from the Hohenzollern Redoubt to Gun Trench.  However, these positions remain precarious and further attacks will be needed simply to consolidate the British gain, to say nothing of driving beyond the German lines attacked today.  The four British divisions, meanwhile, have taken significant losses, and the commander of XI Corps decides that 46th Division suffered sufficient casualties as to necessitate its withdrawal from the line, and this evening he orders the Guard Division back to the front in its place.

- To the south near Vimy Ridge, the German Guard Corps, after a series of counterattacks, manages to retake the trenches at the Five Crossroads west of Givenchy today.  Meanwhile, meeting with Joffre today, Foch argues for a resumption of the attack, given that 'only a bound' can gain the crest of Vimy Ridge.  He argues that the attack of the 11th had broken down due to insufficient artillery support - the heavy artillery of 10th Army had fired 73 000 shells prior to the September 25th assault as compared to only 21 600 shells prior to the 11th.  Joffre, however, replies that he does not have the ammunition to give, and moreover that the most recent failure has shown that 10th Army does not have the ability to make another big push.  Joffre thus instructs Foch to halt further major assaults, only attacking to consolidate the gains won west of Vimy of Ridge over the past three weeks.

- Joffre's order to Foch effectively brings the French fall offensive to a close, given that the French commander-in-chief had halted operations in Champagne on the 7th.  The French have gained ground in both Champagne and Artois - up to four kilometres in the former and up to two kilometres in the latter.  However, the ground seized confers no great strategic advantage, and is a far cry from both Joffre's objectives and the possibilities that appeared to exist in the first days of the attack.  Especially in Champagne, the initial French attack broke through the main German defensive position, driving several kilometres in a matter of hours while inflicting heavy losses on the defenders.  The failure to follow up this success and push through the reserve German line after the 25th highlights once again that the true tactical difficulty on the Western Front is not the initial attack but the follow up; that poor communication, delays in reserve forces moving forward over broken ground, and difficulties in coordinating artillery fire in a fluid engagement all combine to impair subsequent assaults.  In both regions the French had fired almost 4.4 million light and over 800 000 thousand heavy artillery shells, but only on the first day, when they had been firing on German defences that were well-known and whose position had been precisely known, had the bombardment had a decisive effect.  In the following days, when the artillery was firing on unfamiliar, and in some cases unknown, German positions, the bombardment had been much less effective.  It points to the necessity of accurate knowledge of enemy defences and where artillery fire is needed during battle, but the delays in communicating by foot across the former No Man's Land renders this exceedingly difficult.  Overall, the small French gains in Champagne and Artois had come at the cost of just over 190 000 casualties, including 30 000 dead, 110 000 wounded, and 50 000 missing in action.

On the German side, 6th Army in Artois lost just over 50 000 while the casualties of 3rd and 5th Armies in Champagne numbered just over 80 000.  The battle had a notable impact on Falkenhayn; in the first days of the fighting, as the battle hung in the balance and French breakthrough appeared possible, he was acutely aware of how he had stripped the Western Front of reserves for his earlier campaign in Russia and the ongoing operation against Serbia.  When Lieutenant-Colonel Gerhard Tappen, OHL's operations officer, met Falkenhayn on the 27th, he found the German chief of staff 'very dejected'.  However, as the German armies have held on over the next three weeks, Falkenhayn draws different conclusions from the course of the fighting.  Despite Entente superiority in manpower and material, the achievement of operational surprise, and the reduction of German reserves, the British and French had been unable to break through the German lines.  It confirms Falkenhayn's emphasis on the importance of constructing multiple trench lines to contain enemy assaults.  More importantly, Falkenhayn concludes that if an attacking can not achieve a breakthough in such propitious circumstances, a breakthrough is not a realistic possibility given the conditions of the war on the Western Front.  This informs not only Falkenhayn's defensive outlook; instead of attempting to break through Entente lines in the future, another strategic objective will have to inform future German offensives.  Moreover, the failure of the French fall offensive serves to reinforce Falkenhayn's poor opinion of the French army, believing it to be approaching the end of its strength.  These two threads, comprising the key lessons Falkenhayn takes from the fall fighting in Champagne and Artois, will figure decisively in the course of the fighting in 1916.

- In Serbia the storm portented in yesterday's weather has engulfed the region.  It is a Kossava, an autumnal weather sytem that comes up from the southeast, bringing heavy rains and high winds.  Though the storm had been expected, its intensity takes the Germans by surprise.  On the Danube and Save Rivers waves reach six feet high and more, and parts of the islands on the rivers flood.  By the end of the day the raging torrents have destroyed or rendered unusable all of the bridges that German and Austro-Hungarian engineers built across the rivers since the offensive began.  This effectively cuts the German and Austro-Hungarian forces on the southern banks off from their supplies and heavy artillery on the northern bank.  Further, the heavy rains turn the dirt roads of the region into impassible mud.  The conditions makes a pause in the offensive to resupply and await better conditions an obvious option, and General Gallwitz of the German 11th Army argues for precisely this course of action.  Mackensen and Seeckt, however, speed is of the utmost priority to prevent the Entente forces recently landed at Salonika from moving north and reinforcing the Serbian army before it can be defeated in battle.  Moreover, despite the successes to date the bridgeheads of the two armies are still almost twenty miles apart, and creating a continuous front will put more pressure on the Serbs.

On the ground, the next objective of the German XXII Reserve Corps and the Austro-Hungarian VIII Corps of the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army are the Avala Hills, but when they advance today they encounter well-developed defensive positions manned by the Serbian 1st Timok, 2nd Timok, and 1st Morava Divisions.  In the poor weather and advancing over difficult terrain, the attackers make minimal progress.  To the west, additional attacks by the Austro-Hungarian XIX Corps failed to secure significant gains yesterday, and today Mackensen orders the corps to leave only enough soldiers to hold the bridgeheads and redeploy the rest east to cross the Save River at Big Zigeuner Island where it can take its intended position on the western wing of the Austro-Hungarian 3rd Army.  On the front of the German 3rd Army, despite Gallwitz's reservations, the German 107th Division attacks east of Požarevac, fighting its way through a Serbian defensive line at Kalidol, while X Reserve Corps seizes the high ground at Lipovac.

Meanwhile, the Bulgarian government formally severs diplomatic relations with Serbia today, a prelude to the planned invasion of the country tomorrow.  General Zhekov, chief of the Bulgarian general staff, has deployed two armies - 1st and 2nd - along the country's western frontier with Serbia.  To the north, 1st Army, consisting of 6th, 8th, 9th, and 1st Divisions, is deployed east of its ultimate objective, the de facto Serbian capital at Niš.  To the south, 2nd Army, with 3rd and 7th Divisions, is push westwards into the Vardar River valley and sever the railway linking Niš and Salonika, thus preventing the rapid movement of Entente forces at the latter into Serbia.

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