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.