Friday, 18 December 2015

December Visits

Prompted by two days of touring a waterlogged Belgium and North East France here are a few snippets revisiting events of the Blog to date 

Battle of the Yser - late 1914 

I hadn't fully appreciated that a small north corner of Belgium remained unoccupied by Germany throughout the war, on account of the Battle of the Yser; and that from here, based in the small town of De Panne, King Albert led his country's defence throughout that time. The Belgian Government meanwhile was evacuated to safety in Le Havre. Small wonder that the grateful nation erected this large memorial to him at Nieuwpoort, a hero on horseback.
Even more fascinating, the Goose Foot system of sluices (you can see why so named, below) at the same site that made this possible. At the northern limits of the race to the sea - when it looked likely that the advancing Germans would break along the coast and threaten Dunkerk, Calais and Boulogne - the order given to open these sluices flooded the plains around the Yser as far south as the existing northern limit of the front at Dijksmuide, and stopped any further advance.

On the left, a gloomy December day's view of one of the sluices.
Below an aerial view and diagram of the brilliant Belgian engineering system that in peacetime had reclaimed land behind the dykes. Under constant shelling from the Germans, they somehow managed to retain this barrier throughout four very soggy and difficult years

Vladslo Cemetery

Kathe Kollwitz, a remarkable German
sculptor, symbolised the grief felt by all
bereaved families in this famous sculpture.
The Grieving Parents, a memorial to Kollwitz's
son Peter, can be seen at the far end of the
 cemetery. Peter is buried just in front of
the father
Vladslo is one of four German mass cemeteries in Belgium, consolidated from numerous smaller ones. This was my first visit here, though I have been several times to Langemarck, outside Ypres. They have a very different feel to the British and French sites, but are equally moving.

A fascinating exhibition created for the WW1 centenary 
occupies floors 21 down to 3 of this large 
structure. The tower was built nearly 70 years ago to replace the original WW1 memorial, which was sabotaged at the end of WW2. Not by the Germans, as it turns out, but by the opponents of Flemish nationalism, which was a source of glorious resistance in 1914-18 but had grown close to fascism by the 1930s. Many of them were suspected or accused of fighting with the Germans in WW2. In recent years it has become symbolic of the peace movements, but still retains the Flemish insignia AVV-VVK ("All for Flanders - Flanders for Christ")

The white lettering at the base reads "No more war" in four languages.

Second Battle of Ypres

Squelching evocatively through the muddy roads and fields around Ypres I revisited some touching reminders of the heavy fighting the followed the german gas attack at Ypres 2. The battle of St. Julien was a desperate phase to hold on after the initial ground losses brought about by the gas. The Seaforth Highlanders lost heavily in this battle and the Seaforth Cemetery on the site of a farm based redoubt nicknamed Cheddar Villa looks out over bleak landscape, with slopes of Passchendaale in the distance.

Other heroic actions were fought, especially by the Canadians between the Poelkappe and Konnebecke roads. At the crossroads named Vancouver Corner is the famous memorial of the Brooding Soldier. He is looking downwards and in the direction from which came the poison gas cloud on the evening of 22nd April 1915.

Battle of Loos

Sir Herbert Baker's amazing Loos Memorial. It resembles his largest at Tyne Cot, and
carries the names of over 20,000 British lost at Loos and other battles in the area.

After crossing into France through Mesen and Armentieres, I looked at sites around Aubers Ridge, Neuve-Chappele and Festubert - where early spring actions took place in 1915 - before moving further south to Loos. Loos was the British contribution to Joffre's second major attempt of 1915 to break through German positions in Champagne and Artois. Loos was at the northern end of the assault and was part of the effort to break the Lens salient and cut German communications with their forces further south, especially in Champagne.

It was, as we know (Battle of Loos, 6/10/15 post), a costly failure right along the front. The valiant British troops were able to take the first lines of defence, following up a huge preceding bombardment, but were to discover the extent to which the Germans had consolidated deeply, with second and subsequent lines of defence mauling the attackers. The British reserve forces were badly managed by Sir John French, and he paid for this with his job by the end of the year.
The battle was carried on through the industrial heartland of north east France and the coal mining slag heaps are still very much in evidence. The Loos Memorial stand right by the main road north of Loos-en-Gohelle and traffic thunders by as you look over the scene.

In Loos itself is a beautiful small cemetery, St. Patrick's, with mostly Irish headstones but, unusually, also some French graves and one German. The cherry trees were in blossom in mid-December!

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The final weeks of 1915

The daily Last Post ceremony at the
Menin Gate, Ypres
As 1915 drew to a close, there were very few positive points for the Entente powers to reflect on - defeated on the Eastern front and at Gallipoli; almost pushed out of the Balkans, and under siege in Mesopotamia. Belgium and large areas of north eastern France were still under German occupation, and the costly stalemate of the Western Front was increasing the pressure on the French political and military leadership. Despite this, the central powers were, if anything in a worse long term position at the year's end. Their leadership realised that they were committed to a long and drawn out war, in which the superior numbers and resources of the Entente powers would eventually succeed. Their civil populations, notwithstanding propaganda and censorship, were coming to the same viewpoint. In the first year of the war, the 'Burgfrieden', or political truce, achieved by Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg ensured full and patriotic home support for the campaigns of the military at the front. By late 1915, increasing cost and scarcity of food, plus the mounting losses of friends and family at the front lines, were relentlessly gnawing away at morale on the German and Austrian home fronts - and it would get much worse through 1916 and 1917. The Central Powers' strategy began to turn more towards a peace settlement negotiated from a position of maximum strength, rather than outright victory. 

In England Churchill, having resigned from the Government, wasted no time in enlisting with his regiment, the 2nd Battalion of Grenadier Guards, and crossing to France to familiarise himself with the trench warfare on the Western Front. Via his contacts, he learned from a distance about the continuing efforts of de Wemyss (now replacing de Robeck as senior officer of the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet) and Keyes to advance their plan to cut off the Turks on the Gallipoli Peninsula and to prevent, by bombardment, reinforcements reaching them. However, on December 9th, the decision to evacuate was transmitted. This brought a vehement and passionate protest from de Wemyss, but he was overruled and ordered to withdraw from the Dardanelles and prepare for evacuation. The immediate consequences of failure at Gallipoli were:
  •        Serbia destroyed
  •        Bulgaria joining the Central Powers in war
  •        Romania and Greece “frozen in territorial neutrality”
  •        Twenty Turkish Divisions released for duty to the west, north and south east.  
  •        Loss of access to Russia for supplies in both directions
Leadership changes
Recruitment Poster late 1915.
Civilian populations on home fronts of all
combatants had low morale and increased
anxiety by end 1915.
Lord Kitchener. The failure of Gallipoli was fatally damaging to Kitchener. He had backed the latest costly engagements on the Western Front for no gains, and his increasingly confused pronouncements regarding Gallipoli exposed the effects of the great strain he had been carrying on his own shoulders. On December 3rd the War Committee resolved to support him (effectively replacing him) by recreating the Imperial General Staff at the War Office. Sir William Robertson, who had been doing a remarkable job as Quartermaster General to the BEF in France, was recalled to become the Chief of this staff (CIGS). Kitchener was thereby relieved of many of his duties and burdens.
Sir John French. The decision was also taken in London to relieve Sir John French as Commander in Chief of the BEF. He was put in charge of the British Home Forces, and replaced by General Douglas Haig. French’s indecision with the reserve at Loos was the final straw, but he had been under something of a cloud since the Great Retreat of 1914, and his altercation with Kitchener over the Marne. French did not take the decision well, and accused Haig of engineering it. Both Churchill and Buchan make generous analysis of French’s qualities as a soldier, if not as a man. However, his infamous self justifying post-war memoirs lost him a lot of respect. Haig was the obvious and outstanding candidate to replace him. Apart from his own personal wobble on the Great Retreat, his conduct to date and his performance had been excellent, particularly at Ypres 1. History has given us mixed views, at best, about Haig, but clearly he was the best man at that time to take on an enormous and thankless task.

France In France there was also pressure on the government, and even on Joffre, after 1915’s unsuccessful carnage in Champagne and Artois. Delcasse had resigned as Premier on 13th October, exhausted by events on the Western Front and disagreements over Balkans policy. He was replaced by Briand, who formed a new government in early November. Briand replaced Millerand as War Minister with the veteran General Gallieni, the redoubtable defender of Paris during the Marne crisis. Joffre was ‘moved upstairs’ to a government office in Paris, as ‘general of generals’. Ostensibly a promotion, this moved Joffre out of day to day control of any French army, while Castelnau was installed as Supreme Commander of the armies in France.

As the year drew to a close, the strategic failure of the Gallipoli campaign brought both sides to the realisation that they were locked in a long war of attrition and exhaustion. For all their convincing victories during the year, the Germans were still locked in struggle on two enormous fronts – and the Eastern front now had its extension into the Caucasus and the Middle East. Britain’s sea losses during 1915 were numerous, but even had it lost fifty ships, this would have represented only a small proportion of the total fleet, and made no impact on the ability to patrol the oceans, protect trade supplies and enforce blockades against the enemy. Germany realised that success on land could not bring real victory unless Britain’s navy could somehow be negated. This was the real meaning of sea power. Churchill and the British public wanted regular Trafalgar style triumphs, but this was more effective.

There were only one or two instances of a Christmas truce to end the year, compared with what happened spontaneously along the British stretch of the front in 1914. A further year of bitter struggle and loss had hardened hearts, and in any case the Military Commanders were more prepared this time, and threatened executions for any connivance with the enemy. Despite this there were a few brief episodes of truce, and one reliably recorded impromptu football match. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The War at Sea 1915

HMS Dreadnought after launch in 1906
Through the Georgian and Victorian eras, Britain enjoyed a post Trafalgar century of sea dominance and its Grand Fleet was the finest the world had ever seen. However in the early 20th century the organisation was creaking. A combination of complacency; nepotism and class divisions; conservatism and bureaucracy gave the Royal Navy a vulnerability of which, for the most part, it was blithely unaware.
Captain Alfred Mahan, an American Naval Academic published in 1893 a seminal work "The Influence of Sea Power on History", and emphasised how the British Empire had been sustained by its sea power. The book made a global impact, but particularly on the younger ambitious navies of USA, Japan and, above all, Germany. Its message was even heard in complacent England and the appointment of

John Arbuthnot "Jacky"Fisher as First Sea Lord in 1904 lit the blue touch paper under the Admiralty. Fisher began a radical process of modernisation of the British Navy. He was not a war monger, but believed in the power of overwhelming deterrence and the Dreadnought class of super battleships was his cause celebre. Although he was also a great enthusiast for innovation and technology, in particular the development of mining and the submarine, he was somewhat one eyed regarding the supremacy of the battleship man of war. Dreadnoughts were hugely expensive to build, with their massive armamentarium, but relatively little thought was given to their protection, either on board or in the naval bases where they would be anchored. Fisher’s opposite number in Germany was Tirpitz, an avid follower of Mahan’s principles, and he argued for a German fleet to match the British. Tirpitz’s drive and ambition was supported and exceeded by Kaiser Wilhelm after his accession to the throne. As Queen Victoria’s grandson, Wilhelm had always been envious of the British Navy and jealous of its power. The economically damaging Dreadnought arms race that followed from 1906 to 1912 left the two nations anxious and protective of their great fleets' capital ships through 1914 and 1915. 

The energy brought by Fisher - regarded by many as Britain's finest sailor since Nelson - enabled development of Dreadnoughts and submarines, alongside swathes of organisational change and budget cuts required by a Liberal Government pursuing social reform. Churchill's appointment as First Lord in 1911 came shortly after Fisher’s actions had made him so many enemies that he was removed as First Sea Lord. Churchill was the first truly hands on politician to hold this office, and with his customary energy he continued Fisher’s reforms and preparedness for war. He proved to be great for peacetime to build on Fisher, but a mixed blessing in wartime - taking, as he did, dominant control over all decision making. Admirals on the spot were no longer masters of their own destiny. The return of Fisher in 1914 to join Churchill as his First Sea Lord added to the mix. This first manifest itself in the Mediterranean fiascos of August and September 1914, when Goeben and Breslau were allowed to escape (see previous post).

Much of the Home Fleet's activity in 1915 comprised defence actions to protect coast and key channels from German submarine and surface attack, and also the fairly thankless responsibility of countering the airship raids that became more frequent and audacious through the year. The Navy was not yet prepared for anti-aircraft combat. The most severe airship raid came on the East Coast and London on October 13, with 200 casualties.

The battle of the Dogger Bank in January (See post 1st April 2015) saw the first clash involving British Dreadnought class ships. It was something of a hollow victory. True, the old German Battle Cruiser Blucher was sunk, but the faster German cruisers escaped home due to a combination of British indecision and bad signalling; and Beattie's flagship HMS Lion was almost lost.

The experience and technology of submarine warfare was developing rapidly through 1915. With its global trade activities and responsibilities. Britain was more often the defender than the aggressor, and many in Germany saw unrestricted submarine aggression as their best chance to win a long war of attrition. So, despite having successes in  aggression, particularly in the Baltic and the Balkans, Britain focused more on developing new
The 15inch gun turret of the Monitor HMS Terror
defences against submarines and mines - such as microphones and early sonar devices; Monitors (heavily armed ships with flat hulls, deployed with some success off Gallipoli); Q boats and some aircraft. Elaborate net systems were laid in important channels and also frustrated U boats. At the same time, the Germans were improving their offensive capabilities, including new U boats able to lay mines at depth. The overall German strategy for submarine warfare remained ambivalent. Most politicians, the senior of them Bethmann-Hollweg the Chancellor, were wary of the adverse effects of unrestricted submarine attacks on the USA's neutrality; and the military chiefs wanted more resources for the armies. Tirpitz and his supporters continued to campaign for unrestricted submarine warfare

The Mediterranean sea was the most concentrated area of activity in 1915, dominated by the events of Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, but also the entry of the Italian navy as a combatant in May. Seven of nine battleships lost in 1915 met their end in the Mediterranean, and also the Turks lost one in the Sea of Marmora.

Perhaps the Germans' only strategic reverse in 1915 came from their Baltic exercise to blockade Russian forces and to land troops to link up with Hindenburg's left wing. They had some actions against the Russian fleet, but for once the boot was on the other foot, as their ships proved vulnerable to British submarines passing through the Kattegat to support the Russians. Two German battleships were badly damaged and four smaller vessels damaged or sunk by British torpedoes.

1915 Navy Recruiting Poster
The greatest impact of the British Navy was in its blockades - of free movement or trades - around the world. The main weapon was the continuing North Sea and English Channel blockade of Germany's supplies. Controversy remained at the time, both regarding its effectiveness and its legality, but in retrospect it had highly significant cumulative effects on the Central Powers resilience (and it was illegal). Other effective blockades were enacted off Africa and in various corners of the Mediterranean.

The main losses at sea in 1915 were merchant (nearly1000 lost, mostly to U boats) and civilian (most famously the Lusitania). Overall the loss of naval warships was light, in summary for all sides: 9 Battleships (6 British, but all pre-Dreadnought class);
13 Cruisers (6 German), and 46 Destroyers and smaller armed craft.

Main events of 1915

  • Panama-California Exposition opens to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal.
  • Action of the Dogger Bank. German cruiser Blücher sunk.

  • British Admiralty issue orders forbidding neutral fishing vessels to use British ports.Britain’s trade blockade is causing major tensions with USA.
  • Allied naval attack on the Dardanelles forts commences.

  • British blockade of German East Africa commences.
  • Allied Naval attack on the Dardanelles forts repulsed. The French battleship Bouvet and British battleships Irresistible and Ocean are sunk.

  • Indecisive action in Black Sea between the Goeben and part of the Russian Fleet. Turkish cruiser Medjidieh sunk by mine off Odessa.
  • British blockade of the Cameroons commences.

  • SS Lusitania sunk by German submarine U-20 off Queenstown.
  • Naval Convention signed between Great Britain, France, and Italy.
  • HMS's Goliath, Triumph, and Majestic sunk by submarines in the Dardanelles campaign.
  • Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord, Great Britain, tenders his resignation, triggering fall of government and resignation of Churchill as First Lord.
  • Italian fleet commences operations in the Adriatic and blockades Austro-Hungarian coast. British battle squadron concentrates at Malta prior to joining the Italian fleet.

  • Blockade of coast of Asia Minor announced by British Government.

  • Naval action in the Baltic between Russian and German squadrons off Gottland. 
  • German light cruiser Königsberg destroyed in Rufiji River, German East
  • Africa, by British monitors.
  • Italian cruiser Giuseppe Garibaldi sunk by Austrian submarine in the Adriatic.

  • Constantinople harbour raided by British submarine.Turkish battleship Barbarousse-Hairedine sunk by British submarine E-11 in the Dardanelles.
  • German naval attack on Riga begins (see 21st). German battle cruiser Moltke torpedoed by British submarine E-1 in Gulf of Riga.

  • German Government inform United States Government that United States demands for limitation of submarine activity are accepted.
  • Italian battleship Benedetto Brin destroyed by internal explosion in harbour at Brindisi.

  • Entente Governments proclaim blockade of Ægean coast of Bulgaria.

  • British hospital ship Anglia sunk by mine in home waters off Dover.

  • New style German merchant raider Moewe sails from Bremen on first cruise.