Tuesday, March 31, 2015

World War I: Part III


Opening Gambits and Early Battles
 

The opening of World War I on the Western Front is usually divided into two main phases, the Battle of the Frontiers and the Race to the Sea, which together took place between August and November of 1914. Usually, historians describe the earliest phase from the viewpoint of the Germans because, at least in Western Europe, they were the most successful at the outset in moving against enemy territory. In a sense, it was their war to lose at this stage, and some historians believe that the ultimate failure of the Germans’ opening gambit doomed the Germans to defeat no matter what they did for the next four years. Although the Russian army had been mobilizing since the end of July—and turned out to mobilize faster than the Germans had anticipated, nevertheless, the first notable fighting of the war broke out on the Western Front when Germany entered Belgium on the 4th of August and soon thereafter moved into northern France. This first phase began mere days after Germany, Russia and France had traded war declarations. The Germans’ successful attempt to push their frontiers into France was not quite matched when the French tried and failed to push their own frontiers into Germany.


General Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger


German General Helmuth von Moltke, the Younger, launched the invasion of Belgium, a country that had not declared war on anyone, although he had declined to invade the equally neutral Netherlandsdespite the fact that the Schlieffen Plan, from which Moltke was working, originally called for an invasion of the Netherlands as well. (However, the railroads of the tiny neutral country of Luxemburg also fell under the control of the German invaders.) Moltke’s forces did not move as quickly as he had hoped, partly because of unexpected Belgian resistance, but the Germans soon reached France. In the face of this onslaught, both the French, led by Marshal Joseph Joffre, and their new British allies fell back. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was led by General Sir John French (who, despite his name, did not speak French and did not get along with some of the French generals). Sir John was reluctant to commit his army which was below strength. While some of his divisions fought along side French troops, Sir John himself held back until the end of August, often reacting with over concern to exaggerated reports of losses to his divisions. General Charles Lanrezac was extremely frustrated with Sir John, regarding the British commander as timid to the point of cowardliness. In Sir John’s defense, Joffre, Lanrezac and their fellow French commanders were in retreat, too; it was not as if Sir John was the only commander falling back in the face of the German onslaught. (And Joffre would soon replace Lanrezac for being too timid!)

 

The Schlieffen plan called for splitting German forces into two armies, one of which was to sweep across northern France while the other encircled Paris, closing a large loop around the French capital and the troops defending it. Moltke’s two armies were like two separate arms, and their progress seemed encouraging at first. Then two types of problems developed. One was that the logistics of the plan required troops and supplies to be moved in a coordinated fashion, and it proved to be impossible to keep the two movements synchronized. It was also important to keep the two different armies that were involved in the operation more or less synchronized, although this may have been a greater problem in the minds of the German commanders than it actually was. This leads to the second kind of problem which was the self-inflicted one of not following—and probably not understanding—the spirit of the original plan. To Schlieffen, it had been important to understand which of the armies was carrying out the main attack, but Moltke ended up turning Schlieffen’s secondary movement into the main one. In addition, Moltke felt the need to react to two trouble spots by siphoning off some of his troops to deal with them.

 

In mid-August, the first of these trouble spots appeared when Joffre attempted the execution of Plan 17, which, like the Schlieffen Plan, was a preexisting operation intended to recover the Alsace-Lorraine territory that had been taken from France by Germany in 1871, but this scheme underestimated the Germans’ ability to bring troops quickly to this front. Modern railroad trains would play a crucial role in World War I in getting troops to the battlefield even though they could not get the same troops across the battlefield, which still had to be done on foot (until the first successful use of tanks, which only came late in the war). Joffre’s attempt to recapture the territories collapsed. It did, however, distract the Germans and bought France a little time, and, although it caused the French enormous casualties, including many of the finest French officers, it did not prevent Joffre from later amassing enough French troops to defend northern France.

 



General Paul von Hindenburg
General Erich Ludendorff


The second trouble spot for the Germans was the Eastern Front where, as already mentioned, Russia mobilized faster than the Germans had expected, invading East Prussia in August and actually capturing German territory. Alarmed, Germany not only sent troops eastward from Belgium and France, but brought out of retirement General Paul von Hindenburg to lead the German troops against the Russians. His aide was General Erich Ludendorff, who had already distinguished himself in Belgium. The two generals would work so well together—despite differing personalities and styles—that later critics referred to them as the Siamese twins. The Russian army was numerous but not well-equipped and trained. At the Battle of Tannenburg, at the end of August, they made the mistake of sending radio transmissions about troop movements in the clear—that is, not as coded messages. The Germans gambled that these messages were not a ruse and took advantage of the intelligence, with the result that the Germans knew exactly where the Russians would be and where they were weakest and thus succeeded in dividing and conquering their armies. Russian troop morale, not terribly high to begin with, generally fell and never recovered. The defeat of the Russians at Tannenburg made Hindenburg and Ludendorff heroes to the German public to such an extent that both of them were able to leverage this regard into political power both during and after the war. After Tannenburg, Germany captured territory from the Russians in Eastern Europe, the occupation of which was to become a mixed blessing for the balance of the war. While necessary to Germany’s security, occupation of the region required large numbers of troops that otherwise were needed in the west. While the Russians’ attack on Germany succeeded at first but then crumbled before Hindenburg, they also succeeded in invading Austria-Hungary's province of Galicia, which was recaptured only with German assistance.
 

Meanwhile, a gap had opened and expanded between the two arms of the German advance on the Western Front. While this was to be expected to some extent, it grew to a degree that worried Moltke and his commanders, who finally decided to close the gap by bringing the army that was supposed to encircle Paris further east and closer to the other German army. In this way, Moltke gave up any chance of encircling Parisand, by turning his flank toward the enemy, invited the very counterattack he dreaded. By early September, Allied generals Joffre and French had brought enough troops to bear against the now exposed German flank so that they put the invaders on the defensive. Famously, the French used every mode of transportation, including taxi cabs and bicycles, to get troops to the Marne Riverwhere the Allied armies made their effective counterattack (Hence this was called the Battle of the Marne.), forcing the Germans to fall back to the Aisne River before making a stand. They dug shallow trenches—forerunners of the deep, fortified trenches that would be dug later on. In mid-September, Moltke was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn, but it was too late to reverse the collapse of Germany’s opening gambit. The virtually unbreakable stalemate on the Western Front had already begun to take shape.

 

The second phase of the war’s opening, which lasted from October to November, is called the Race to the Sea, although it was not anyone’s intention actually to reach the North Sea; rather, there were a series of attempts by each side to outflank the other and get around the northern-most end of each other’s lines, in order to force the forward edge of the enemy's line to flatten along an east-west axis rather than remain north-south. Each attempt to accomplish this, by whichever side, failed, each side kept extending its line northward so that the other could not get in front and turn them back. Finally, both sides reached the North Sea and the English Channel and could go no further. Indeed, both sides were prevented from getting all the way to the sea because the last few miles of land between them and the sea were below sea-level, and the Belgians simply opened the sluices and let water completely flood their fields, stopping the Germans from pressing any further toward the coast.

 

It is an interesting historical note, which would only later take on some significance, that during the Race to the Sea an obscure private in the Bavarian army first saw action. His name was Adolf Hitler, and he belonged to a lowly reserve regiment made up of middle-aged veterans and raw recruits like himself. After only a few weeks of basic training, during which they had been taught to shoot with obsolete rifles, the Sixteenth Reserve Regiment was outfitted with unfamiliar new rifles on the eve of battle and not given helmets at all. (They wore oil cloth hats that, from a distance, looked enough like the helmets of the BEF to invite a number of instances of friendly fire from fellow German troops.) During their first battle in Belgiumat the end of October, their commanding officer, Colonel List, was killed. Ever afterward, the unit was affectionately called the List Regiment by its members.

 

The opening weeks of the war everywhere saw a grim introduction between nineteenth-century-trained soldiers and twentieth century machines of war, but the slaughter of Austria-Hungary’s highly trained officer corps was, perhaps, the fastest and most thoroughly devastating. Austria-Hungarynever recovered from this loss of military talent. The Austro-Hungarians also suffered from the fact that many of their troops were from occupied territories within the empire. Czechs and Poles, for example, felt no national loyalty to the Emperor Franz Joseph (who was to die in 1916, before the end of the war) and feared that their ethnic cousins would likely as not be directly across the battlefield fighting for the other side. While other combatant nations could appeal in their propaganda to a sense of national pride and patriotism, this justification of Austria-Hungary’s war aims made no sense and was abandoned after ill-received initial attempts. Before very long, the empire had reason to regret the part it had played in precipitating the Great War, the outcome of which would not merely determine whether or not Austria-Hungary would be victorious but whether it would exist at all after the shooting stopped.

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