Sunday, 28 June 2015

Continuing reverses on the Eastern Front, summer 1915.

Russian Reverses Summer 1915
(adapted from Churchill: The Great War p716) 
This post will take us a bit ahead of ourselves chronologically, but the breakthrough between Gorlice and Tarnow was so profound, that the shock waves reverberated persistently
across the whole conflict. The rapid progress of the Germans over the next four months, represented in the map to the R side of the page, effectively removed the whole of modern Poland from the battle zone, and transformed the huge Polish salient to a more or less straight north - south line. The successive loss of key cities and positions - Warsaw the most significant, on 5th August - is summarised below. 
The impact was far reaching: Germany was able to keep her forces at steady state on the Western Front, in their impregnable defensive positions; she was able to turn resources to the south east to address the rapidly changing situation in the Balkans; Austria was saved, for the moment, from ruin, and was even able to move forces from Galicia to the south to hold off Italy; Russia was exposed even more in the Caucasus by the ongoing failure of the British and French advance on Constantinople via Gallipoli; and the volatile political positions of the neutral Balkan states lurched towards the central powers.

The Russians still had large armies, but were painfully short of munitions and all kinds of supplies. Following Mackensen's breakthrough, the three Russian armies on the Carpathians were forced to retreat towards Lemberg, which itself fell on 22 June. Przemysl had been evacuated on 1 June, after an attempt to defend the river San at Jaroslaw failed.  Germans then turned north, and began an advance to the east of Warsaw, while a second German attack (Twelfth Army), from the north created a pincer that forced the Russians to abandon Warsaw on 5 August. By July Lemberg had been retaken, and Mackensen was poised to strike north to cut the main Russian railway connections. Once more, disputes arose between Falkenhayn at German HQ, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff, in action at the northern end of the German lines. The latter wanted to push further north to capture the main Warsaw to Petrograd rail supply lines beyond Kovno. Falkenhayn had a wider perspective and wished to conserve resources for the Western Front and the Balkans. Both parties gained something from the dispute. Having lost the critical south eastern positions of Przemysl and Lemberg in June and July, the Russians ceded control successively of Warsaw (5th August); Kovno (10th); and Novo Georgiesk at the westernmost part of the salient (26th). On 25 August the key city of Brest-Litovsk fell to the Germans.
By the middle of September the Russians had been forced back to a line that ran from Lithuania south to the Pripet Marshes and the Rumanian border. Russian Poland had been lost, and any direct threat to Germany or to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was gone. Consequent on this dramatic reduction in length of the Eastern Front, Austria found herself no longer under pressure on her Galician border. Conrad was able to transfer large numbers of troops to the south just as Italy was entering the fray. The Italians, instead of the easy gains they had counted upon, soon found themselves pitted against numerous and well prepared Austrian defenders, and entered a stalemate not unlike the Western Front.

Grand Duke Nikolas Nikolaevich 
A million soldiers and civilians were taken prisoner or displaced in Poland in those two months alone. The Russian commander in chief in the west, Grand Duke Nicholas, retreated ahead of his troops and avoided capture. The Grand Duke, uncle to the Tsar - or more correctly his first cousin once removed -  had conducted a skilful retreat and also preserved a large part of the Russian army, but the scale of the defeat led the Tsar to remove him from command and banish him – not to Siberia, but the Caucasus. On 21 August Tsar Nicholas II took direct command of the armies facing west. This established a clear link between the Tsar and progress of the war that would play a significant role in his downfall in the fatal events of 1917.

Tsar Nicholas II -
a dead ringer for his cousin
King George V
These four months represented a great triumph for German miltarism. The only negative element of the campaign from their viewpoint was the growing weakness of their Austro-Hungarian allies, who had lost over one million men since the start of 1915, and were becoming completely dependent on German aid to maintain their war effort. The process that saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire go from being Germany’s (almost) equal ally to being their costly dependent was well under way. 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

The breakthrough at Gorlice-Tarnow

KW2 meets Mackensen at German GHQ 1915
They didn't teach us any of this - either at school or in documentaries (and according to a Russian friend they certainly learned nothing of it there as schoolchildren or beyond) - and yet the mighty German assault on the west of the Galician front was the most conclusive and significant of military actions during 1915. Ironically it was ordered by Falkenhayn - great champion of 'decisive action in the West' school of German thought - who agreed this only as part of his need to support Austria, and his ongoing disagreement with Hindenburg and Ludendorff about east/west strategy. The latter wanted another great pincer movement, south and north, to isolate and crush the faltering Russians, whereas Falkenhayn favoured a central assault on a wider front (nearly 40 miles) than the Allies had attempted in Champagne and Artois. With even more irony, the breakthrough was achieved by the new German 11th Army, which had been created by Falkenhayn, initially for another decisive attack in the west, but then destined for Serbia to cover the unstable Balkan situation that surrounded the Gallipoli campaign. Germany could not afford for Austria Hungary to be overwhelmed from the south and east if Turkey succumbed to the Allied efforts in Gallipoli. However, what began as a fairly modest plan to attack by Conrad's Austrian forces between Gorlice and Tarnow, (now both in southern Poland) became a massive hammer blow, intensified by the new 11th Army and led by the (now) legendary Colonel Ludwig Mackensen (subject of a later post).

From the outset the line of the Eastern Front had been dominated by the Polish Salient - Russian occupied Poland jutting west towards Germany. To both sides it represented an opportunity and a danger. It gave the Russians the chance to attack west into industrial Silesia or towards Berlin, north into East Prussia or south towards the Carpathians and the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However the salient was also vulnerable to German and Austro-Hungarian attack, with a risk that the Russian armies in Poland could be trapped in the west. 
In the autumn of 1914 Russia had enjoyed great success against Austria-Hungary to the south of the salient in Galicia, particularly at Lemberg and Przemysl; but to the north of the salient, the Germans had spectacular victories, with Tannenberg the highlight. A German attack on Warsaw in the autumn of 1914 had briefly allowed the Austrians to restore their own situation, but by the spring of 1915 they were once again fighting in the Carpathians and faced a real danger that the Russians might break through into Hungary.
The Austrian Chief of Staff, General Conrad von Hötzendorf, devised a plan to retrieve the situation, but needed German troops to bolster his own forces. He called for four German divisions to be moved to the relatively quiet western end of the Carpathian Front, where the front line turned north. This German force would break through the Russian lines and advance east behind the Russian armies in the Carpathians, forcing them to retreat or risk surrender.
The Austrian plan basically was hijacked by the German High Command. Falkenhayn decided at this point to move his 11th army to that sector of the front line that ran north from Gorlice, at the edge of the Carpathians, to Tarnow. In a brilliant piece of subterfuge, the entire army was moved in secrecy from the Western Front. The gas attack that opened the second battle of Ypres was one of a series of diversions launched to hide this movement. Another was in the extreme north of the Eastern front with German fleet bombarding Russian positions from the Baltic. It worked brilliantly. Buchan comments "German organisation had put forth a supreme effort. The world had never seen a greater concentration of men more swiftly or more silently achieved." So while the Allies in the west were hoping for a decisive Russian breakthrough into Hungary to finish Austria, the reverse was about to happen.
Mackensen, who had distinguished himself in the battles of the Masurian Lakes and at Tannenberg, was put in command of the 11th Army, and also of the supporting Austrian forces, which were moved to the rear. By 28th April the Germans were in place. Apart from the Russian army, their main barriers were three rivers - the Donajetz, the Biala and the San - beyond which they would be able to pour through and take control of Galicia and the south of the Polish salient.
Between Tarnow and Gorlice, the target of Mackensen's hammer, the Russians were heavily outnumbered on men and equipment. The Germans had 170,000 men, with more than 700 field guns and nearly 300 heavy guns. In the area to be attacked, the Russians had only two divisions from Radko-Dmitriev’s Third Army (about 20,000 men). 
Gorlice braces itself for the German onslaught

 The German plan was for a simple frontal assault, supported by a heavy artillery bombardment. It was thus very different from the more ambitious plans for envelopments and double envelopments that had previously dominated German thinking (Schlieffen and also Hindenburg's preferences). It was a type of attack that would probably have failed on the Western Front, despite its breadth and scope,  but the Russian lines between Gorlice and Tarnow were much weaker than the French or British lines in the west.
At 6 am on 2 May a four hour bombardment began. This was the heaviest yet seen on the Eastern Front, and destroyed the Russian defences. At 10 a.m. the first wave of 30,000 German and Austrian infantry attacked, and by the end of the day had captured the Russian first and second lines.
On 4 May a Russian counterattack failed, and the Germans broke out into open country. They made rapid progress to the east, threatening the entire Russian Carpathian Front. By the end of the first week of the offensive, the Germans had captured 140,000 prisoners and 100 guns, and the Russian Third Army had been destroyed. Most of its divisions were down to 1,000 men, less than 10% of their full strength. 
Russian trenches were primitive compared
to the Western Front, and unable to cope with
the German juggernaut
The Russians managed to dig in and hold the line of the San for a few days. However, on 10 May the Austrians advancing on the German right forced their way across the river San at Sanok, and began to advance towards the fortress of Przemysl. 
The German and Austrians continued to advance throughout the summer - watch for the next post. Compared to the attritional stalemate actions of the Western Front, and the numerous embarrassments of the Gallipoli failures, this was 1915's brilliant and decisive military campaign by the German war machine.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Allied offensives in Champagne and Artois

The Lens Salient 1915
Of all the combatants on the Western Front, the French were understandably the most impatient to make progress and eject the German invaders from their sovereign territory. In military terms, Britain was very much the junior partner to France, and more than once during 1915 the BEF was to find itself committed to battles and offensives more for political reasons than for sound military strategic ones. Nevertheless, it was France who took the brunt of the action and therefore the losses during this desperate phase, which produced minimal gains at terrible cost.
In the few months since taking the decision to hold a defensive line on the Western Front, the Germans had moved rapidly to enhance trench warfare to new levels of robustness and sophistication, and the Allied soldiers would pay the price.

From late December to March the French had launched their first Champagne offensive. This was a major effort by de Langle’s army, strengthened by the addition of large numbers of colonial troops, 1 Colonial Corps. Numerous small attacks were made against tactical objectives, rather than a single continuous assault. During the same period and into Spring, other Allied attacks were carried out against the German Front from the Yser sector in the Belgian coastal region to the Woeuvre heights. The most promising moves were in the south west in Alsace and Lorraine, where Dubail’s Army Group moved on the St. Mihiel salient between Verdun and Belfort in February. During this time the Germans responded with the first use of flame throwers. The gain in ground for the Allies in this period was very little, being up against a well-entrenched enemy as they were, and by the end of the offensive French casualties were well in excess of 100,000.
Further, because of the massive pressure that was building on the Russian armies in Galicia, it was deemed necessary to support them by more strategic action in a part of the Western Front that would occupy more German resources.  Joffre took the view that artillery preparation for the actions so far had been insufficient; and he resolved on a major frontal campaign. He chose Foch as his General to lead the campaign for a major offensive north of Arras towards Lille. This became the Second Battle of Artois (9th May - 18thJune 1915) with its aim to push the Germans off the dominating high ground of the Loretto and Vimy Ridges north of Arras.
The heroics of Ferdinand Foch resulted
in memorials and statues all over France

The BEF had also been strengthened by the transfer of further English and Canadian Divisions across the Channel in January and February. The action at Neuve Chapelle that we have seen was almost a pilot for the summer and autumn moves in Champagne and Artois. The 1915 actions to date had been costly failures in terms of ground gained, and needed a larger scale thrust to take the strategically important town of Lens. The British contribution would be at the northern end, pushing towards Lille from La Bassee.
The German front line in Artois bent in a sharp salient to the east of Lens to protect industrial town that guarded the upper plains and flat country to the east towards Douai (see Map). On 9th May the French began their bombardment of the point of the salient around La Targette and Corency. It was the heaviest bombardment on the Western Front to date. The French infantry then hurled themselves at the salient with great valour and high casualties. They had success in the southern sector, and by dusk were not far from Vimy, and its important ridge. Their 2.5 mile advance was the most significant of the year to date, but further north the French were held up still at Corency. In the following 2-3 days, huge efforts carried the heights of Notre Dame de Lorette and another 1-2 miles to the east. 
Notre Dame de Lorette.
Memorial, cemetery, ossuary and
mausoleum. A moving place to
visit if you have the chance

Thereafter came two weeks of fierce fighting across the whole salient against a stubborn and well prepared defence, which by now had second and third lines of defensive fortifications. Multiple trenches and tunnels served redoubts, which became little islands of German resistance. Many such places were taken several times, only to be re-taken by counter-attacks. By the end of May, the French part of the Battle of Artois had virtually ground to a halt in exhaustion. Much ground had been taken, and the salient line straightened to some extent, but the Germans still held Vimy, and the ridges that surround Lens.

The British attacks took place a further north on the flat Flanders plain, but followed a similar pattern. Initial attacks from Festubert on 15th May advanced in the direction of Aubers ridge east of Neuve Chapelle, but ran into deep German resistance, organised behind the first line. By the 25th May, Sir John French was ordering Haig to cease the attacks and consolidate. They had at least drawn German resources away from Ypres, and thus the battles of Ypres 2 and Festubert effectively finished together. At the end of the offensive there were over 100,000 French casualties, 26,000 British casualties and approx. 90,000 German casualties. It was becoming apparent that even attacks on a broader front could not succeed against deep defences and sophisticated trench systems – not that this stopped further efforts in the autumn.