31/3/1916 Verdun: the butchers’ bill

At Verdun the Germans are still trying to break the French army. German morale may be showing some signs of cracking, but discipline and esprit de corps keeps the men in the field. Their line inches forward. The Germans are taking terrible casualties but surely the smaller French army must be suffering even more?

In fact, yes, the French are having the worst of it, though they have not taken as many casualties as Germany’s Falkenhayn thinks. Since the start of the battle the Germans have taken 81,607 casualties, but French casualties amount to 89,000. The French have less reserves of manpower than the Germans. Falkenhayn is determined to continue the offensive, thinking that the enemy will run out of men before he does.

To keep the men fighting they must still be fed the prospect of victory. Wilhelm, Crown Prince of Prussia, commands the German army at Verdun, but he follows the advice of Knobelsdorf, his chief of staff. Knobelsdorf proposes now that the offensive be resumed in earnest on the east bank of the Meuse. Falkenhayn agrees, though he declines to supply reinforcements to the level Knobelsdorf is requesting, as he fears a French or British offensive elsewhere along the line.

image source (Wikipedia)

30/3/1916 Russia calls a halt to its failed Lake Naroch offensive

Russian troops have been attacking the Germans in the Lake Naroch area of Byelorussia and also near Riga on the coast. They hoped to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun and also to show the Germans that even after the disasters of last year the Russian army was still a force to be reckoned with. But the attacks have been a ghastly failure and today the Russian generals call a halt to the offensive. No significant gains in territory have been made and the Russian casualties (100,000) are five times those of the Germans. There has been no succour given to the French, as the Germans have repelled the Russian assaults without deploying any reinforcements.

The failure of the Russians at Lake Naroch provides further support to those who say that the Russians are essentially beaten and no longer able to mount a successful offensive. Senior figures in the German and Austro-Hungarian armies are convinced that they do not need to worry about what the Russians might be planning to do in the future.

29/3/1916 Verdun: German morale frays

Fighting at Verdun continues. French and German artillery turn the other side’s men into mincemeat. On the ground the infantry battle ebbs and flows backwards and forwards, men fighting and dying for tiny scraps of ground. On the west bank of the Meuse the French now stage a counterattack. At great cost the Bois d’Avocourt is recaptured, for now making more secure the vital high ground of the Mort Homme.

German morale may be beginning to crack. The French are rotating units in and out of the battle, but the Germans keep theirs fighting indefinitely, supplying raw recruits to make up the numbers in battle-scarred formations. For a German soldier at Verdun it cannot be long before the rolling dice ordain his death. With victory and an end to the horror no longer seeming imminent, It should not therefore be too surprising that there are reports of assault troops refusing to attack and men surrendering at the first opportunity.

image source (The Drinks Business)

[interlude] The Easter Rising


Ireland’s Easter Rising is the one bit of the First World War that happened in my own country. I will of course be covering it, but not until the actual anniversary of the rebellion. In the meantime, I have created an album on Flickr showing rebellion sites as they are now, together with other images of commemorative events taking place in Dublin. You can see it here.

These pictures include:
The crossroads of death
The crossroads of death

Boland's Mill
Boland’s Mill

Memorial
Kilmainham Jail and a memorial to the executed rebels

Pipers
Bagpipes

27/3/1916 St Eloi: a minor British assault on the enemy

The German offensive at Verdun means that the French are desperate for their Allies to relieve the pressure on them by attacking the enemy. Russian and Italian forces have already staged unsuccessful offensives in Byelorussia and the Isonzo. Shouldn’t the British be having a go at the Germans too? Britain’s Haig feels otherwise. The British are to conserve their strength for the great summer offensive they are to stage with the French in the Somme valley.

In the meantime, however, the British can still stage small local assaults on the Germans. Haig sees these as a useful way of keeping the men on their toes and making sure they do not lose their offensive spirit. One such local attack on the enemy now takes place at Ypres.

Ypres is an Allied salient jutting into German-held territory. The ebb and flow of fighting here means that the line is not even. At the southern end of the salient the German-held village of St. Eloi sticks out into the Allied lines. High ground here allows the Germans to observe British positions. This threat must be eliminated.

British troops dig tunnels under the German position. Today they explode mines under the enemy and then the infantry go forward to clear away the Germans. The fighting is not easy. The mines have so changed the ground that some of the attackers lose their way. Heavy rain and the effects of shelling and the mines make the ground swampy. German artillery cuts into the British soldiers. After a day’s fighting however they have managed to clear the Germans out of most of their St. Eloi salient. The British hope to capture the last German redoubt in due course.
THE BATTLE OF ST ELOI, MARCH-APRIL 1916
German prisoners© IWM (Q 496)

image sources:

Mine craters at St. Eloi (Wikipedia)

Jolly German prisoners, captured today (Imperial War Museum)

24/3/1916 The SS Sussex torpedoed: the U-boat campaign heats up again

After the USA effectively threatened war, Germany halted its U-boat campaign against Allied shipping. Or rather it limited the U-boats to attacks using cruiser rules, whereby they had to stop and search Allied ships for contraband before sinking them. This put U-boats at a severe disadvantage, as it left them vulnerable to attack by guns concealed on Allied merchantmen.

More recently the U-boat campaign has been escalated. This is at the urging of Falkenhayn, who sees the U-boat as a vital tool for use against Britain. The U-boats are still not free to attack enemy civilian ships on sight; instead they are only allowed to attack Allied ships that have been fitted with guns. However, as many Allied merchantmen and liners now have some guns fitted, this gives U-boats a pretty free hand.

Today the UB-29 is patrolling in the Channel when it spots the SS Sussex, a French-flagged ship carrying passengers between Folkestone and Dieppe. Perhaps it is mistaken for a warship or perhaps the UB-29’s crew assume that it probably has some kind of armaments fitted. Either way a torpedo is fired. The Sussex is hit. The crippled ship does not sink, but 50 people onboard lose their lives, some when their lifeboats capsize.

A number of American citizens are onboard the Sussex. They all survive but are shaken by the experience and aware of how lucky they have been.
H03992 SS Sussex torpedo incident, 25 March 1916

image source:

SS Sussex survivors (East Sussex County Council Libraries on Flickr)

23/3/1916 Verdun: Falkenhayn’s game

In writing about the Battle of Verdun I am largely following the standard view of what the battle was about. This sees it as an attritional struggle, an attempt by Germany’s Falkenhayn to inflict such casualties on the French that they would have to give up the war and sue for peace. There are two direct pieces of evidence for this being Falkenhayn’s intention. One is the “Christmas memorandum“, a document outlining his thinking, sent by Falkenhayn to the Kaiser in December 1915; this predicted that if the French were to defend against his offensive then “the forces of France will bleed to death”. The other is Falkenhayn’s own memoirs.

Many historians have however challenged this view of Verdun as a planned attritional conflict. They point out that Falkenhayn’s memoirs were written after the fact, an attempt to retrospectively explain and justify his actions. That still leaves the Christmas memorandum, but it too has its problems. Many believe that it is a forgery, written by Falkenhayn after the end of the war.

If Falkenhayn’s memorandum and memoirs are not necessarily a guide to his thinking in 1916 then his motives are a bit more mysterious. Falkenhayn seems to have kept his own counsel, declining to reveal his intentions to any of his fellow officers. One is left having to discern his intentions from his actions, but these are open to a number of interpretations.

Some believe that Falkenhayn’s intention at Verdun was to capture the town after a titanic struggle that would shake French morale and cause a collapse of their armies. Or that the Verdun offensive was intended as a breakthrough battle that would tear open the French line. But these are just suppositions.

I am sticking with the idea that Falkenhayn intended Verdun as an attritional struggle where he hoped to bleed France white. It seems as good an explanation as any. At the time this kind of strategy would have been anathema to German officers, who were wedded to the idea of a decisive battle being short and based on manoeuvre and envelopment of the enemy. The idea that a battle could be a long meat-grinder in which one side would win by being able to kill more of the enemy over the battle’s length would be a shocking one; if this was Falkenhayn’s plan it is not surprising that he kept it to himself.

But ultimately we will never know for certain what Falkenhayn’s plan at Verdun was, if he even had one.

image source (The Great War Blog)

22/3/1916 Verdun: the wheel turns

At Verdun the carnage continues. After a deplorable failure of French morale, German troops managed to capture the Avocourt forest. After regrouping they now press on to attack the Côte 304 position, which in turn should allow them to storm the Mort Homme, key to French defences on the west bank of the Meuse. But the remaining French troops appear to have been reinvigorated by their comrades’ recent failures. Advancing German troops are cut to pieces by well-sited French machine guns.

Wet weather has made the soil too swampy for the Germans to bring up mortars to eliminate the French machine guns. The Germans resort to human wave assaults, which fail when almost entire battalions are wiped out. The survivors retreat back to the woods, only to be pounded by the French artillery.

image source (The Great War Blog)

21/3/1916 East Africa: Lettow-Vorbeck retreats from Kahe

British Empire and South African forces commanded by General Smuts of South Africa have invaded German East Africa, the Kaiser’s last overseas possession. Lettow-Vorbeck commands the men defending the colony, locally recruited Askaris led by German officers. He has concentrated them at Kahe in the Kilimanjaro region. Smuts ordered his men to attack, hoping to defeat the Germans before the arrival of the rainy season. A tough battle has ensued, with the outnumbered Germans making great use of the terrain to frustrate their enemies’ efforts.

But now Lettow-Vorbeck orders his men to withdraw. They have given the enemy a bloody nose, but if they stay to fight any longer the Germans will be overwhelmed. Smuts’ men have control of the battlefield, but Lettow-Vorbeck escapes to fight another day.

image source (The Western Front Association)

21/3/1916 Lake Naroch and Riga: failed Russian offensives

Russian forces are attacking the Germans near Lake Naroch in Byelorussia. They are trying to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun. After the drubbings the Russians have received from the Germans last year they also want to show that they are able to take on and beat the Germans.

However the offensive is not going well. The Germans have inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians, whose advance has bogged down (literally: the spring thaw has turned the battlefield into a quagmire).

In a doomed attempt to pile further pressure on the Germans, the Russians now attack near Riga on the Baltic coast. This attack is over almost as soon as it has begun, with the Russians thrown back after suffering some 10,000 casualties.

image source (Metropostcard; the image may refer to fighting in late 1914 or early 1915)