1915 – Situation at the Fronts

The Fronts in 1915:

preparing a gas attack

German soldiers are preparing a gas attack.

Both sides made attempts to break through the Western Front but to little effect despite huge casualties. Not even the German chlorine and phosgene poison gas-cloud attacks (April and December) achieved any decisive result. British operations continued to be gravely hampered by lack of high-explosive shells and heavy guns. During the first winter of trench warfare (1914-15) BEF C-in-C Sir John French had repeatedly asked for more shells and vast increases in high-explosive output. He was told that he must economize. In spring 1915, the British guns were, with few exceptions, rationed to four shells per gun per day (‘not to be used unless necessary’!). Hand grenades were improvised from discarded bully beef and jam cans. War Minister Kitchener, when pressed by Prime Minister Asquith, denied that there was a shell shortage. But Colonel Charles Repington, military correspondent of The Times, after returning from the front, revealed that the British attacks at Festubert (April) had failed almost entirely because of lack of HE projectiles to dislodge the Germans from their strongpoints.

On 21 May 1915, a headline in the Daily Mail screamed ‘The Tragedy of the Shells’. The paper asserted that Kitchener ‘had starved the army in France of high explosive shells’. Kitchener claimed (perhaps with some justice) that his comments had been misinterpreted by Asquith. Be that as it may, drastic action was obviously called for. On 26 May, the British Government announced the creation of a Minis­try of Munitions with wide powers, to be headed by David Lloyd George. The Ministry began to function on 2 July 1915 and quickly achieved dramatic results. Four months later an inter-allied munitions organization was established by Lloyd George and his equally dynamic French counter­part, Albert Thomas. In spring 1916, Kitchener attempted to persuade a brilliant engineer, Herbert Hoover (later US President) to renounce his American citizenship and join the Ministry of Munitions as Lloyd George’s eventual successor. Nothing had been settled when Kitchener was drowned and Lloyd George took over the War Office (June 1916).

Kitchener had seen, with unusual clarity, that the war would last for at least three years and that Germany ‘will only give in when she is beaten to the ground’. He laid detailed plans for a ‘New Army’ of 70 divisions (1.2 million men) by 1917; all would-be volunteers unconnected with the Territorial system. As a young volunteer in the Franco­-Prussian War, Kitchener had noted with disgust how the French Territorials had decamped en masse from the hastily improvised Prussian Army of the Loire.

French left the BEF in December 1915 and was succeeded by Haig. A bitter argument over Allied grand strategy was now in full swing. Haig and the new Chief of Imperial General Staff, Robertson, belonged to the so-called ‘West­erner’ faction, which advocated total concentration of all fighting men and guns in France. The opposing ‘Easterners’ (including Lloyd George and Churchill) advocated decisive action against the weaker brethren among the Central Powers; Austria, Italy (the latter entered the war on the Allied side in May 1915) and Ottoman Turkey.

landing at Gallipoli

Allied troops landing on the beach at Gallipoli.

Turkey had entered the war in November 1914 but by early February 1915 had been defeated both in the Russian Caucasus and near the Suez Canal. The British had invaded and taken the Gulf end of Turkish-ruled Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), initially to protect their oil fields in Southwest Persia. A powerful Anglo-French fleet attacked the Dardanelles in February­-March 1915, and an Australian, New Zealand, British and French force began landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula south-west of Constantinople in April. If this operation had been launched sooner, Turkey might have been knocked out of the war, permitting unhindered communication with Russia through the Black Sea. But Allied procrastination and mismanagement merely reproduced all the features and senseless slaughter of the Western Front. And an over­optimistic British autumn dash up the Tigris for Baghdad, to offset the Gallipoli failure, ended down river in another entrenched stalemate at Kut.

Denied large-scale supplies of Allied munitions, the Rus­sians had to endure from April successive crushing German offensives in the south (Mackensen) and in the west (Hin­denburg) supported by overwhelming concentrations of heavy artillery. All Russian Poland, including Warsaw (4 August), was overrun by the Germans. The Eastern Front did not stabilize until late September 300 miles to the east by which time the Tsar’s armies had sustained over 2 million casualties, half of them prisoners, with the loss of nearly 3,000 guns. The Tsar himself had felt impelled to replace his uncle Grand Duke Nicholas as C-in-C (5 September) thus further divorcing himself from the vital events on the home front. No wonder Falkenhayn, the German Chief of Staff, felt he had achieved his spring aim of ‘the indefinite crip­pling of Russia’s offensive strength’. He withdrew victori­ous divisions across the Central Powers’ superb railway network to strike down Serbia which had ferociously resisted her Austrian attackers for over a year. In a little over six weeks (October-November), Mackensen’s veterans, aided by Bulgaria’s stab-in-the-back intervention, had overrun Serbia leaving her armies to make a memorable winter retreat to Albania and the sea. Franco-British land­ings at Salonika (Northern Greece) were too little and too late to affect the outcome.

Entente tried the Italian soldier

The Entente tried the Italian soldier – who is tied to the neutrality – to seduce with gifts (Trieste and other areas) to enter the war.

The four Central Powers now formed an unimpeded bloc. Furthermore, Austria’s initial two-front burden had been decisively eased and she was standing up well to Italy’s opportunistic attacks on the Isonzo and in the Alps (June onwards). The one foe that really united her polyglot army was the traditional Italian one it had humbled before in 1848-49 and 1866.
Falkenhayn felt he was now free to pursue his most cherished strategic aim to wear down the already sorely-tried French Army so that ‘breaking point would be reached and England’s best sword knocked out of her hand’ (December). The Entente should collapse before the new Kitchener armies could exert their million-strong pressure on the Western Front.

Only in remote African theatres did the Allies score clear­-cut 1915 military successes. Anglo-French colonial forces completed the hard-won conquest of the Cameroons (October 1915-February 1916) after Botha’s South Africans had triumphantly overrun German South-West Africa (February-July 1915) in a model campaign of desert logis­tics and Boer-mounted commando advances. Imperial forces were now available to invade German East Africa after a year on the defensive.

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