30/12/1915 Falkenhayn plans Armageddon

Earlier this month Allied military leaders met at Chantilly to work out a common strategy for the coming year. They agreed simultaneous offensives next summer in the hope of overwhelming Germany and Austria-Hungary.

But what of their enemies? Germany and Austria-Hungary are now developing their own plans for next year but due to a breakdown in communication between Falkenhayn & Conrad, the two countries’ army commanders, they are preparing strategies in isolation. Conrad is planning a counter-offensive against the Italians, which he hopes will knock them out of the war.

Falkenhayn is planning an assault on the French. He has outlined his thinking in a memorandum to the Kaiser. He sees Britain as Germany’s main enemy in the war; indeed, he sees the war as resulting from a plot by the British to destroy Germany. The war will only end when the British realise that they cannot defeat Germany. But how to make them realise this?

British naval superiority means that Britain itself cannot be directly attacked. Falkenhayn also argues against attacking British forces on the Western Front, as the terrain in the positions they defend is unsuitable (he may be remembering his unsuccessful assaults on the British at the Battle of Ypres). As far as Falkenhayn is concerned, the way to defeat Britain is to knock her allies out of the war; they are the tools of Britain’s anti-German policy.

Falkenhayn considers an attack on the Italians to be a waste of time, as they are too marginal to the Allied war effort. Russia is vulnerable but the lesson of this year is that she always has space to retreat into and can always find more men to replace those lost in battles. In any case, he predicts that Russia’s internal problems could soon force her out of the war without further German military action.

That leaves France, described by Falkenhayn as “England’s best sword”. He proposes an offensive against France that will knock her out of the war, not by the kind of Napoleonic war of manoeuvre attempted in 1914 but by inflicting unsustainable casualties. He proposes to attack a prestige target that the French will throw in every man to defend; superior German artillery can then be brought to bear so that, in Falkenhayn’s words, “the forces of France will bleed to death”. With the French defeated, the British will hopefully realise that they cannot defeat Germany and agree to peace.

Falkenhayn proposes the fortified town of Verdun as the target for his offensive. The Kaiser agrees. The local commander of the offensive will the Kaiser’s son, the Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, guided by his chief of staff, General Schmidt von Knobelsdorf (unlike the Crown Prince, Knobelsdorf is a professional soldier).

Detailed planning begins, but under the greatest secrecy as the element of surprise is to be maximised. The assault will begin in mid February.

image sources:

Erich von Falkenhayn (Wikipedia)

map (Mental Floss)

Note: I particularly recommend the Mental Floss article Invitation to the Devil – Verdun by Erik Sass as a further guide to the analysis by Falkenhayn that led to his targeting of Verdun in his offensive.

29/12/1915 Durazzo: Austrian ships mostly flee to safety

Austro-Hungarian ships have sailed out to attack the Italian-occupied port of Durazzo in Albania. However they managed to sail into a minefield and now they are slowly making their way back northwards, towing the stricken Triglav. They hope to return to base before being caught by pursuing ships of the British, French and Italian navies.

French ships are the first to catch up with the Austro-Hungarians. The Triglav is abandoned to its fate and scuttled. British ships engage the others at long range but the Austro-Hungarians manage to make it to safety, though not without suffering damage.

The Austro-Hungarians have learned the hard way that they run great risks when they send their ships out into the Adriatic.

28/12/1915 Durazzo: an Austrian naval raid goes awry

The Serbian army has retreated into Albania to escape destruction at the hands of the German, Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian invaders of their country. Many of the Serbian soldiers and the civilians fleeing with them have died crossing the Albanian mountains, mostly from exposure and the effects of hunger but some at the hands of Albanian raiders; many Albanians are less than pleased at the Serbs bringing the war into their country.

The Serbs are making their way to the coast, where they hope to be brought to safety by Allied ships. To interfere with this evacuation an Austro-Hungarian naval force headed by the Helgoland sails down into the Adriatic to attack the Albanian port of Durazzo, now under Italian occupation (and renamed from the Albanian Durrës). On their way they spot and sink a French submarine. Then they bombard Durazzo and sunk some Greek ships that may have been planning to assist the Serbs. Then their luck runs out as they blunder into a minefield. One Austro-Hungarian ships is sunk, another, the Triglav severely damaged.
The Austro-Hungarians now decide that discretion is the better part of valour and begin to retreat back to base, towing the crippled Triglav. But there is danger ahead for the slow-moving flotilla. British, French and Italian ships are converging, intent on destroying the Austro-Hungarian squadron. They race northwards hoping to catch the enemy ships before they reach safety.

image source:

SMS Helgoland (Wikipedia)

26/12/1915 The Battle of Lake Tanganyika: first blood to the British

The British have secretly transported the Mimi and Toutou, two motorboats, to Lake Tanganyika, on the border of German East Africa. The hope is that the two gunboats will put a stop to the free rein that German boats have been enjoying on the lake.

After their recent launch on the lake today the Mimi and Toutou have their baptism of fire. Geoffrey Spicer-Simpson, the British naval commander on Lake Tanganyika, is leading Sunday prayers when German gunboat the Kingani is spotted patrolling in the area. The Mimi and Toutou rush out to do battle with the surprised enemy. The action is short. After only 11 minutes the commander of the Kingani and several senior officers have been killed. The survivors haul down their colours and surrender.
Spicer-Simpson is pleased with the results of the first engagement between his boats and the Germans. He sets his men to repairing the Kingani, ready to bring it into action as another boat for the small British flotilla. It is given a new name: HMS Fifi.

image source (History and Heritage Travel in Africa)

26/12/1915 Britain makes a new Arab friend

Abdulaziz ibn Saud is the emir of Nejd, a territory on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula. Much of his power derives from his family’s long alliance with followers of Wahhabism, a particularly austere Islamic sect.

Today Ibn Saud meets with representatives of the British government on the Persian Gulf island of Darin. He signs a treaty agreeing to accept the protection of the British and their support in his ongoing struggle with the Rashidi family. The Rashidi have accepted the suzereinty of the Ottoman Empire. Ibn Saud hopes that the support of his British friends will even the odds against his enemies.

British goals in the treaty are as much to contain Ibn Saud’s ambitions as to send him to war against Turkish clients. The treaty obliges Ibn Saud to respect the independence of Britain’s other Arab allies: Qatar, Kuwait and the Trucial Coast emirates.

Britain may however be drifting into mutually incompatible obligations in the Middle East. British officials are also in discussions with Sharif Hussein bin Ali, ruler of the Hejaz (the western Arabian region in which Mecca and Medina lie). The British want Hussein to lead an Arab revolt against the Turks that will set the Middle East alight, implicitly offering to make him the ruler of a vast state stretching from Syria to the Hejaz. Britain’s treaty with Ibn Saud does not oblige him to leave the Hejaz alone. This could be an unfortunate oversight, given Ibn Saud’s ambition to dominate the entire Arabian peninsula.

image sources:

Abdulaziz ibn Saud (Nunnita on Tumblr)

map (Michael McInneshin: the Third World in the Twentieth Century)

25/12/1915 India and Egypt: a rebellion fails to materialise, Jihadi warriors defeated

The Ottoman Empire is trying to use the power of religion in its war against the Allies. The Turkish Sultan and Caliph has already declared a Jihad against the enemies of the Ottoman Empire, calling on all true Muslims to rise up against Britain, Russia and France. Results have however been disappointing.

Nevertheless, Turkish and German agents continue to try and use Islam as a tool against their enemies. In India agents have been active, trying to stir up disaffection amongst the many Muslims of that key British possession. They had even fixed a date for a Muslim revolt against the British, that date being today. For when would the British be less on their guard than on Christmas Day?

Unfortunately the Muslim Indian revolt is still born. British intelligence operatives are following the plot’s progress and have arrested the leading members of the conspiracy. The rebellion fails to materialise.

Meanwhile in Egypt the Turks are also hoping to use Islam against the British. The Senussi religious brotherhood have crossed from Libya into the western desert and attacked isolated positions. The Turks hoped that this would provoke an uprising by the Muslims of Egypt. However, although some Egyptian army units have proved unreliable, no general revolt has occurred. And now the tide appears to be turning against the Senussi.

Near Marsa Matruh British forces launch a surprise attack on a Senussi position. The Senussi suffer an initial rout but are rallied by Turkish officers. However the might of the British, supported by an offshore warship, is too much for the Senussi. At sunset they flee, leaving behind their dead and wounded and much of their stores.

25/12/1915 Persia: Ahmed Shah decides to side with Russia and Britain

King Ahmed Shah of Persia has been toying with the idea of throwing his lot in with Germany and its allies. His country is notionally independent but in practice divided into spheres of influence by Russia and Britain. Perhaps with German help Persia could become truly independent once more.

The Allies were less than pleased with Ahmed Shah’s German intrigues. British and Russian diplomats have warned Ahmed Shah to expel German and Turkish agents from his country. To make the point in a more forceful manner, Russia has marched an army to Teheran, where they have defeated a force of pro-German Persians.

Ahmed Shah had sent leading officials from his court to the holy city of Qom, less accessible to Russian forces. Perhaps the young king had planned to join them there, emulating the flight to Medina of the Prophet Muhammed. But he demurs and decides against confronting the Allies. Instead of fleeing to Qom, Ahmed Shah appoints Prince Firman Firma as prime minister. The new prime minister is reliably pro-Allied; he sets to work chasing German and Turkish agents out of the country.

Ahmed Shah’s decision to row in with Russia and Britain may have been motivated by more than just caution. Faraway Germany is not really in much of a position to supply him with active assistance. The Turks are closer, but their ability to help is also limited. And in any case, while the Germans may genuinely want to advance the independence of Persia, Ahmed Shah knows that the Turks would prefer to dominate his country. In siding with them he could just be exchanging one set of masters for another.

image sources:

map (Fouman: Iranian History)

Ahmed Shah (Wikipedia)

25/12/1915 Mesopotamia: not much Christmas cheer in Kut

In Mesopotamia the British under General Townshend are besieged in Kut-al-Amara. Yesterday the Turks tried to storm the town but were bloodily repulsed. Today the space in front of the British trenches is littered with dead and wounded Turkish soldiers. The sufferings of the wounded under the sun’s heat is unimaginable. There appears to be no truce here and so the wounded are left to their fate, with gunfire from both sides making it impossible to bring them to safety.

Yet there is some humanity amid the horror. From the British lines there are many instances of soldiers throwing food and water out to their wounded enemies. Most of the British soldiers were recruited in India; as Muslims and Hindus they are probably more motivated by empathy for the sufferings of other soldiers than Christmas cheer. Their efforts perhaps keep some of the Turks alive until they are able to crawl away to safety after dark, though for most of the wounded it is only death that brings their sufferings to an end.

With the failure of yesterday’s attack, Turkish commander Colonel Nurredin changes his tactics. Instead of trying to storm the town he has his men tighten the blockade around Kut. The British are also to be worn down by artillery fire and sniping. These efforts will add to the attrition the British are already suffering from disease within the hot and overcrowded town.

25/12/1915 Christmas on the Western Front

It is Christmas Day. On the Western Front, the high commands of both sides are determined that there will be no repeat of the informal truces of last year. Orders are issued forbidding fraternisation with the enemy in the sternest terms. Heavier than usual artillery bombardments are ordered to keep the soldiers hunkered down in their own trenches.

And yet, in some parts of the line there are instances of Christmas cheer overwhelming the martial spirits of the troops. These local truces mainly occur where British soldiers face the Germans, as the French and Belgians are less inclined to fraternise with the invaders of their countries.

In northern France, near the village of Laventie, British and German troops sing Christmas hymns to each other at night and then in the morning they leave their trenches and meet in No Man’s Land. After exchanging gifts and souvenirs, someone produces a football and the men start playing. “It wasn’t a game as such, more of a kick-around and free-for-all,” recalled British soldier Bertie Felstead later. “There could have been fifty on each side. No one was keeping score”.

At Laventie the fun stops when an irate major appears to remind the British that they are there to fight the Germans, not make friends with them.

Laventie appears to be the only place where the British and Germans played football but other shortlived truces occur elsewhere, usually brought to a halt in a similar manner by angry officers. Then the war resumes.

The 1915 truces will not be as remembered and mythologised as those of 1914, but they have their adherents.

image source:

Bertie Felstead (History Learning Site)

24/12/1915 Mesopotamia: Nurredin attempts to storm Britsh-held Kut

British forces have retreated to Kut-al-Amara after being defeated by the Turks at Ctesiphon. They are now under siege, hoping that relief will arrive before they run out of supplies.

The overall commander of Turkish forces in Mesopotamia is Germany’s General Goltz. Goltz favours starving out the defenders of Kut, conserving Turkish forces to be used against any relief force that tries to come to their rescue. However, Colonel Nurredin, the Turkish commander at Kut, has different ideas. Emboldened by his victory at Ctesiphon he decides to launch a determined assault on Kut to bring the siege to an immediate end.

Nurredin’s artillery blasts the walls of the city and then waves of Turkish infantrymen attack. The fighting is brutal and bloody. Though the Turks press their attacks with great determination, they are unable to break through the British defences. As night falls the defences of Kut remain in Britsh hands. Nurredin’s attempt to storm the town has failed.

Kut (Today in World War I)