In This Chapter
- The First Battle of Champagne
- The missed lesson of Neuve Chapelle
- Aerial bombardment of London and other English cities
- Poison gas at Ypres
- The Allied offensives of summer and fall 1915
- The British get a new commander
By 1915, both sides should have realized that this war would have no winners, only losers. Typically, at any given point in a conflict, at least one side feels that it is winning. In 1915, however, both sides felt only frustration.
The German chief of staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, clung to the belief that the outcome would ultimately be decided on the Western Front. Yet he also recognized that the struggle on this front would be long and drawn out and that, for the present, the only opportunities for immediate gain lay in the East. It was an odd and demoralizing position, this notion that victory had to be achieved in the West but that, at least in the short term, productive action was possible only in the East.
The Allies were even more frustrated and discouraged than the Central Powers. There was little unity of command between the French and the British, and there were very deep divisions within the British hierarchy. This chapter focuses on the grim realities of the Western Front in the second year of the war.
In view of the bold promise of rapid victory represented in the Schlieffen Plan, it is remarkable how readily the German military, government, and people now accepted the prospect of a long war. German officials recognized that a protracted war of attrition required careful husbanding of raw materials, supplies, and provisions. Accordingly, they instituted a stringent program of rationing and distribution, as well as the development of ersatz (substitute) commodities for supplies cut off by the British naval blockade.
In contrast to Germany’s attitude of acceptance and positive action, the subject of supply and provisioning created a bitter and divisive crisis among the Allied leadership. Turkey’s entrance into the war (see Chapter 10, “The Sick Man and Serbia”) had cut off Russian access to supplies from France and England. This was bad for the Russians, of course, but also hard on the armies of the Western Allies; from their point of view, the function of Russia had been to occupy as many German and Austrian troops as possible, thereby making them unavailable for service on the Western Front. Moreover, the western Allies also depended on the Ukrainian grain fields to help ensure that their people and armies were fed. Turkey’s entry had cut off access to this source of supply.
To restore access to Russia, the young First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, advocated an immediate and concerted campaign to seize from Turkish control the Dardanelles, the strait affording passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Churchill and his adherents argued that this was essential not only to aid the Eastern ally, but also to ensure a steady source of supply for the long haul ahead.
Others, including British War Minister Field Marshal Horatio H. Kitchener and France’s Papa Joffre, believed that diverting resources from the Western Front to address the Dardanelles was sheer folly. They insisted that it was still possible to achieve victory on the Western Front and that everything should be concentrated there toward that goal.
In the end, an amphibious operation against the Dardanelles was grudgingly approved, but in part because the resolution to act was half-hearted—and was carried on simultaneously with a decisive offensive in the west—the assault was doomed, as we shall see in Chapter 14, “The Gallipoli Disaster.”
At the end of 1914, Joffre mounted a general Allied offensive from Nieuport on the Belgian coast of the English Channel all the way southeast to Verdun in the Argonne Forest. From December 14 to December 24, British and French forces beat against German lines that were being rapidly entrenched and fortified. The door was slamming shut on any possibility of maneuver.
On December 20, the First Battle of Champagne commenced and expanded with the new year into an Allied offensive spread throughout the Champagne and Artois regions. Joffre focused on the so-called Noyon salient, a vast pocket of Germans bulging into central France between Reims and Verdun.
Progress was measured in yards. The First Battle of Champagne gained 500 yards for the Allies—at the cost of 50,000 Allied troops. In response, the Germans made only limited counterattacks along the La Bassé Canal and near the town of Soissons during January 8 through February 5. But these were sufficient to arrest the pathetically small and monumentally costly French advance.
Joffre regrouped and made another foray in March, but got nowhere.
From the Front Combat in the Champagne and Artois regions resulted in some 400,000 French casualties. British and German losses were also heavy.
As mentioned in Chapter 12, “Deadlock,” Neuve Chapelle, just below the Lys River in northwestern France, was the site of a new approach to offensive combat. British general Sir Douglas Haig began an assault by his First Army with an intensive 35-minute “artillery preparation.” This was part of a very carefully planned assault that, in contrast to the vast and massive efforts of Joffre, was surgically concentrated in a very narrow front of a mere 2,000 yards. The object was to reduce the small salient (German strong point) near Neuve Chapelle and use this breach as a way to break out with a second offensive onto the plain of Douai. This area offered a rare opportunity for productive maneuver and a chance to disrupt German supply and communication lines.
Because it was a thoughtful approach (Haig made extensive use of aerial reconnaissance photographs) to a modest but valuable objective, Neuve Chapelle had a real chance for success. Haig massed 40,000 men supported by 62 light artillery batteries against a much smaller force of German defenders and began the attack at 7:30 on the morning of March 10.
At first the operation went very well, but then got bogged down. In several places the British troops broke through the German lines into the rear areas. Although the planning had been impeccable, management of execution was poor, communication broke down, and the attackers even had to wait for their own supporting artillery to cease fire. Hesitant leadership and poor communication led to battalions milling around behind the lines on the assumption that they were to regroup and assault a second line of trenches—which, in fact, did not even exist.
The British advance was delayed until late in the afternoon, by which time the Germans, whose system of backup troops was always highly flexible, had managed to bring up large numbers of reserves. By the time the assault resumed in earnest, at 5:30 in the afternoon, German machine guns and artillery beat back the advance. In the later stages of the battle, the British artillery was unable to support continued infantry attacks because nearly all of the ammunition had been spent in the battle’s early phase.
Voices of Battle “ . . . a bullet pierced the exact centre of the helmet of the man on my right as he walked forward with his head down. He spun round as he fell with a stream of blood spurting out of a circular hole in the top of his head, and he scrambled back for about ten yards then rolled over. A short, white-haired lad rushed screaming, right along our line with an eye shot away. Another near neighbour was hit in the groin and lay in the ditch at the foot of the slope screaming.”
—British soldier recalling his experience at Neuve Chapelle, quoted in Denis Winter’s Death’s Men: Soldiers of the Great War (1978)
Haig’s frustration over the collapse of his offensive was intense. He had come so close to achieving a breakthrough! What had gone wrong?
In the opinion of the Allied generals, the attack had failed because artillery preparation and subsequent artillery support had been inadequate due to a shortage of ammunition. The answer for the future, they concluded, was to stockpile more ammo for longer “preps.”
In fact, by concentrating on the reasons for the failure of the offensive instead of on the reasons for its near success, the Allied commanders missed the real lesson of Neuve Chapelle. Success came within grasp because Haig had managed to preserve much of the element of surprise—a rare commodity on an entrenched front, where enemies continually look one another in the eye. By deciding to stress artillery preparation in the future, however, the commanders completely sacrificed surprise (for there is no louder announcement of intention than an artillery bombardment), neglecting the very key to a success that had been narrowly missed. The real frustration of Neuve Chapelle was not so much that a modest offensive had failed, but that the commanders had failed to draw from it the correct tactical lesson.
In Chapter 5, “Battle of the Frontiers,” we saw how a German zeppelin was used to bomb the Belgian fortress town of Liège during the opening days of the war. During January 19–20, 1915, zeppelins were deployed by the German navy to bomb English cities. Little damage resulted, and Londoners reacted not so much with panic as with rage. Eighteen such attacks occurred during 1915, including several directed against London. Naval captain Heinrich Mathy bombed the capital extensively on September 8, and even more damage was caused by multiple airship attacks on October 13. After this raid, a London coroner’s inquiry returned indictments for “willful murder” against Kaiser Wilhelm II.
It is arguable that airship attacks did more harm to the German cause than to their British targets. The attacks stirred English patriotism and created outrage against Germany, not only among the people of Britain, but also among various neutral nations, including the United States.
From the Front Zeppelins created terror and outrage among the civilian population of England, but they actually caused little damage. German airships dropped 196 tons of bombs on England, killing 557 and wounding 1,358 civilians. Total property damage was estimated at £1.5 million. (To put this in perspective: In 1915, rats caused British property owners an estimated £70 million in damage.)
Not that British authorities stood idly by during the attacks. Defensive measures were quickly put into place. Searchlight and antiaircraft artillery batteries were installed in and around major cities. The guns were loaded with incendiary shells, designed to ignite the highly explosive hydrogen with which the zeppelins were inflated. Approximately 110 fighter aircraft were also stationed near target cities and were dispatched to shoot down attacking airships. By 1916, such defenses were proving highly effective, although the Germans continued to conduct zeppelin raids periodically through the end of the war. The increasing success of British aircraft, however, forced the Germans to operate from higher altitudes, which made their bombing far less effective.
Words of War An incendiary shell is an artillery shell loaded with highly flammable material, such as magnesium and phosphorous, intended to start and spread fire when detonated.
Along the Western Front were various bulges or incursions of German strength, the two most prominent of which were the Noyon salient and the St.-Mihiel salient. The latter, located between Verdun and Toul, projected well beyond the main German lines and loomed throughout the war as an inviting target for Allied offensives.
During April 6 to April 15, French units repeatedly attacked the northern face of the St.-Mihiel salient at the Battle of Woëvre. The Germans held fast, and the French withdrew with very heavy losses.
From the Front The attack at Ypres was the first use of lethal poison gas in the West. Earlier in the war, both the French and the Germans had occasionally lobbed nonlethal tear gas grenades and even tear gas artillery shells at one another.
Far to the north of this action, the Allies prepared for a second attempt at an offensive against Ypres, Belgium. We saw in Chapter 12 that, while preparation was underway, the Germans launched the first poison gas attack on the Western Front.
The attack caused at least 5,000 Allied deaths and created great panic along a four-mile stretch of front. This probably wouldn’t have happened if the attack had not come as a surprise. And it should not have come as one. Back in March, German prisoners of war had supplied French intelligence officers information about the storage of the gas and the intended method of discharge. Somehow the French intelligence service failed to pass on this information to the commanders in the field. The troops were entirely unprepared for the gas.
Voices of Battle “23 April
“Terrible day, no food or water, dead & dying all around.”
—Diary of Sgt. S. V. Britten, 13th Battalion, The Royal Highlanders of Canada, April 23, 1915, at Ypres
The Germans themselves seemed to have little confidence in the effectiveness of gas as a weapon. Falkenhayn deployed it at Ypres primarily to distract Allied commanders from the large movement of forces that was underway as he transferred troops from the Western Front to the east to participate in the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive (see Chapter 9, “Duel of Doomed Empires”). The German commanders did not expect that the gas would create a breach worth exploiting, so no reserve troops were made available to occupy the territory vacated by the panic-stricken French soldiers. Without troops to hold their new positions, and harried by fierce British and Canadian counterattacks, the Germans retreated, and the Allies soon regained the positions they had lost.
Thus the Second Battle of Ypres ended, as did virtually all the battles on the Western Front, in continued deadlock.
To the southeast of Ypres, in northwestern France, the British staged an offensive in May, gained scant territory, and then were stopped cold at Festubert, southwest of Neuve Chapelle, by May 26.
Just south of the Britishers, the French launched a vigorous offensive against Vimy Ridge, seeking to push the Germans off this commanding piece of high ground. This battle, near the French town of Souchez, stretched from May 16 to the end of June, when the exhausted Allies finally broke off the attack, utterly spent.
Vimy Ridge was to be the last major Western Front offensive of the summer. The exhausted and thoroughly demoralized Allies withdrew to their trench lines to rest, to reorganize, and to reinforce.
For their part, the Germans were in no position to press their advantage. They, too, had suffered heavy casualties and were drained by having fended off so many attacks. They used the summer lull to reinforce the west with troops released from operations in the east.
By the early summer of 1915, another commodity was in short supply on both sides: ammunition. The Allies as well as the Germans were deep into their ammo reserves by now, and they had little choice other than to wait for production to catch up with demand.
From the Front At Second Ypres, German casualties numbered 35,000 killed and wounded; British, 60,000; French, 10,000.
The Artois and Champagne regions had already been the scenes of extended—and quite futile—French offensives. With the coming of fall, Joffre decided to renew the Allied offensive and determined to hit the German line in the Champagne region yet again. From September 25 to November 6, the fighting was some of the most intense of the entire war. The Second Battle of Champagne resulted in 75,000 German casualties—a catastrophic number, until you look at the French casualty roles: 100,000 men wounded or killed.
From the Front The death toll for the Western Front, 1915, was nothing short of appalling: 612,000 German soldiers killed or wounded; 279,000 British troops killed or wounded; and 1,292,000 French troops killed or wounded. Beyond the loss of life, nothing had changed since the autumn of 1914. The Western Front remained a long, motionless scar from the English Channel coast to the frontier of Switzerland.
During September 25 to October 30, at the Third Battle of Artois, the French once again chipped away at German positions on Vimy Ridge. They made minor territorial gains at the cost of another 100,000 casualties.
While the French battered themselves against Vimy, the British, a few miles to the north, attacked Loos (September 25–October 14). Again, they managed to achieve small gains in territory, but at a disproportionately heavy loss: 60,000 casualties. German losses from the Artois, Vimy Ridge, and Loos battles totaled about 65,000 killed and wounded.
Combatants British General Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, 1st Earl of Ypres (1852–1925) served with great distinction in the Second (Great) Boer War, but led the British Expeditionary Force to its early disasters in World War I. Born in Kent, the son of a naval officer, French served first in the Royal Navy before transferring to the army in 1874. After distinguished service in North Africa, French was promoted to brigadier general, and was dispatched to a cavalry command against the Boers in South Africa, ultimately achieving promotion to lieutenant general.
With the conclusion of the war in Africa, French returned to Britain, was promoted to general in 1907, and was appointed inspector general of the army. In 1912, he was named chief of the Imperial General Staff and, the following year, promoted to field marshal. When World War I began in August 1914, it was French who was chosen to lead the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
French directed all BEF operations in France and Belgium during the disastrous opening months of the war. The dismal Allied performance at Ypres I (October 19–November 22), Ypres II (April 22–May 25, 1915), and the Loos offensive (September 25–November 4) was in significant measure due to French’s irascible refusal to coordinate his actions with those of the other commanders. On December 15, 1915, French was relieved as BEF commander and replaced by Sir Douglas Haig. Although removed from combat command, French was created a viscount, was named commander in chief of home forces, and, in 1918, given the office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.
After thousands of British lives had purchased nothing, high command decided to make a change. Sir John French, who had led the BEF into combat, was a brave commander, but he was also quirky, mercurial in temperament, subject to intense mood swings, and mired in nineteenth-century concepts of warfare. He argued bitterly with his superiors—especially Lord Kitchener—and with his subordinates as well, especially Sir Douglas Haig.
At Loos, Haig, encouraged by local successes, had wanted to call on all reserve forces to press the attack to a conclusion. However, Field Marshal French refused to release them. The result was an offensive failure to make much headway against the German line. Realizing this only after the fact, French altered the record of the orders he had given to make it appear that he had indeed made the reserves available. This transparent fraud was discovered, and King George V personally prevailed on Prime Minister H.H. Asquith to relieve the commander. Asquith offered French the more honorable alternative of resignation, and on December 17, 1915, the field marshal stepped down to be replaced by Sir Douglas Haig.
Before the war, Haig had been described by R.B. Haldane, Secretary of State for War, as “the most highly equipped thinker in the British Army.” He was regarded as aggressive, decisive, and highly skilled, and he was popular with his subordinates as well as with politicians and the general public. The British—and the French—looked upon his appointment with great hopefulness. His name, they believed, would be linked with glorious deeds that might yet be wrested from the death grip of the deadlocked Western Front. In fact, the name of Douglas Haig would be forever wedded to the two campaigns, the Somme of 1916 and Passchendaele of 1917, that piled up British corpses in record numbers.
- The year 1915 opened with both sides frustrated by the deadlock on the Western Front.
- By 1915, the Germans were resigned to maintaining a defensive posture in the West as they continued to make great gains in the East; for their part, the British and the French were deeply divided on what strategy to pursue.
- The Battle of Neuve Chapelle introduced the tactic of artillery preparation—which often turned out to be more of a liability than a means of promoting the success of an offensive.
- Despite almost complete lack of success and staggeringly high casualties, the Allies continued to hurl one futile assault after another against the German defensive lines.
- At the end of 1915, a frustrated British government and high command replaced the doddering Sir John French with the dynamic Sir Douglas Haig as commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force.