The German Phalanx Chases Russia I THE GREAT WAR – Week 42


War is expensive. Think of the millions of
bullets fired so far this war and realize that every one of them had a price tag, and
of course, the shells for the big guns were even more costly. This week, we see all over
Europe, what happens when military production cannot keep up with the demands of the war.
Here’s a hint; thousands of people die. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week a German U-Boat sank the passenger
liner Lusitania with over 100 US citizens aboard, provoking outrage and war lust across
America. The Germans launched a massive offensive in the east that put the Russians in full
retreat, while an allied attack at Gallipoli failed with enormous carnage. We’ve mentioned a few incidents over the
past weeks far to the south in German Southwest Africa, but I’d like to look at it a little
deeper today. Union forces had made gains throughout the
spring, but this week, on May 12th occupied their main objective, the capital of German
Southwest Africa, Windhoek. But really, the Germans were in a hopeless position down there.
Often outnumbered and with no hope of being reinforced from Germany, they also had to
sometimes fight in one of the world’s most desolate regions, but as they lost, they were
actually allowed to return to their farms and families and it’s kind of interesting
to note that today, 100 years later, German is still used as an everyday language alongside
Afrikaans in parts of Windhoek, now the capital of Namibia, though it hasn’t been official
since 1990, and there is still a German subculture there, more so than pretty much any other
city in the southern hemisphere. But back to the Germans in the northern hemisphere,
who were making great headway in the east as the Gorlice-Tarnow offensive continued. After pushing the Russians back into full
retreat last week, the advance continued all this week in Galicia and the Carpathians.
This offensive was German General Mackensen’s ambitious plan to knock Russia out of the
war. Thing is, though the Russians were retreating, the advancing Germans and Austro-Hungarians
were only making about 10 kilometers a day, facing stubborn resistance, and the Russian
army did not become a rabble, it was still very much an army. But their leaders’ lack
of foresight and lack of preparations had betrayed them and at this point they had no
alternative than to continue to retreat toward the next point of defense, Przemysl fortress,
which the Russians had finally taken from Austria-Hungary only weeks ago after a siege
lasting months. The Russians, in their retreat, were now destroying
railway lines, tunnels, stations, and more, which would take weeks for the attackers to
rebuild, slowing them even further, and the German gains were dearly bought. One estimate
puts their casualties from May 2nd to May 12th at over 120,000 (Story of the Great War).
However, Mackensen claimed in this same period to have taken 103,000 Russian prisoners, 69
guns, and 255 machine guns in addition to inflicting casualties far greater than those
his army took, so it was still a huge success. But the Russian supreme Commander Grand Duke
Nicholas had a basic plan now. A continued retreat on a gigantic scale would stretch
the German lines enormously, and even if it meant the sacrifice of Warsaw or Lemberg,
it was the same tactic that worked against Napoleon 100 years earlier. Just a side note here, the Russians were actually
successful further south this week in Bukovina pushing the Austrians back until the middle
of the month when the fighting petered out there. They were also somewhat successful
in the far north: while losing Libau the 8th, they beat the Germans at Krakinow the 9th
and forced them to retreat on the 10th. But the fighting was certainly not petering
out on the western front, where the Second Battle of Ypres was still in full swing, and
even more fighting got going May 9th, which marked the first time in the war that combined
Anglo-French forces attempted to break strongly fortified German trench lines as they launched
the Second Battle of Artois. French General Joseph Joffre was determined
to launch another great offensive and thought he’d learned a lot from the First Artois
and Champagne offensives during the winter. He had this to say, “Attackers at all echelons
will be imbued with the idea of breaking through, of going beyond the first trenches seized,
of continuing to attack without stopping until the final result.” (Hart p.144) Well, that’s
a translation, but now you had the $64,000 dollar question: Did the allies now have the
means or the knowledge to break the German lines? The French attack was launched at Vimy Ridge
under General Victor D’Urbal. First, five hours of shrapnel bombardment was to take
care of the German barbed wire emplacements, but it didn’t work and when the French attacked,
they were slowed or stuck by the wire and then they were nailed by machine gun fire,
but they did eventually force the Germans to withdraw to new lines, some as far back
as five kilometers. Unfortunately, the Frenchmen that advanced that far were fired upon by
their own artillery. The British attack was launched to capture
Aubers Ridge. But their artillery bombardment also failed, many shells were actually duds,
and the British were unable to break through the mostly undamaged German defenses. What
actually happened, though, was more disastrous than it just sounded; when the first British
assault failed, many men who had been wounded or took cover in no man’s land were killed
by a 40-minute British artillery bombardment, and British soldiers running back to their
own lines after the failed assault were not only fired upon by Germans, but since they
had a bunch of prisoners their own side thought it was a counter-attack and fired as well.
Few survived the crossfire. General Sir Douglas Haig ordered a second
attack, in spite of two of his three generals protesting, and it too was savaged by German
machine guns. For the one-day Battle of Aubers Ridge, 11,161 men, 458 officers, were lost. Thing is, the main reason this failed and
the reason there was no attack the next day, was because of insufficient and inadequate
artillery shells. British Commander John French had given orders for shells to be 75% shrapnel
and 25% high explosive, but at Aubers Ridge they had been only 8% high explosive. Six
million shells were supposed to be delivered to the army by this time; around two million
had actually been delivered, so the British had a real artillery crisis. And the newest British and French front also
seemed to be in crisis this week. At Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, the much
hoped for, even expected, advance and victory had descended into trench warfare by this
week, and by May 13th, when 570 British sailors drowned when the Battleship Goliath was torpedoed
by the Turks, all plans for a renewed naval assault through the straits of the Dardanelles
were called off. It was evident by this time that there would be no advance without significant
reinforcements. In trench warfare situations we have seen time and again that it was almost
impossible to advance without artillery support, but here, both sides were short of shells. There was one bright moment there this week
for the Allies on the 12th as an Indian brigade of Gurkhas managed to creep behind Turkish
lines under cover of darkness and take the hill at Y beach, known in future as Gurkha
Bluff, and force the Turks to withdraw, but in future Turkish defenses reached right down
to the waves and this maneuver would not happen again. And further to the east a dark chapter was
still being played out as on May 10th, 950 Armenian leaders were arrested in Diyabakir. And so the week comes to a close, with the
Germans continuing to drive the Russians back in the east, the Russians holding their own
in Bukovina and Lithuania, nobody going anywhere at Gallipoli, German Southwest Africa slowly
changing hands, and not one, but two major battles in progress on the eastern front. Imagine being those Russians fighting this
week on the eastern front. The German High Command had counted on the Russians being
forced back by the German advantage in heavy artillery and they were right, but the Russians
were stubborn and threw themselves time and again against heavy batteries with bayonet
charges, suffering tens of thousands of casualties desperately trying to disable the artillery
and tens of thousands more desperately trying to hold on to the little artillery they had.
Or the French and British in the west, running out into no-mans land and then realizing that
their artillery was firing duds and they were exposed to the enemy. In Gallipoli too, where
the war had sunk to the monotony and filth of the trenches you see the same lesson that
only now were leaders beginning to learn. You can’t win this war if you don’t equip
your soldiers; all you can do is send them by the thousands to certain mutilation and
death. Check out our episode from week 24 of the war right here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *