Chapter nineteen: Head-on against the Wall
As the Dardanelles sideshow was going on, the opposing forces on the Western front were engaged in a series of fierce battles. As the German Army still occupied parts of France and Belgium, the French high command felt compelled to eject them from the occupied territory. However, the means to do that was sorely missing. Anyway, the Allies were obliged to initiate offensive measures, not only to remove the German forces from France, but also to alleviate the pressure upon Russia.
General Joffre felt that he had formulated the plan that would lead the Allies to victory: separate offensive thrust in Picardy and Artois would cause the German front to break in one of this two places, that may lead to the reduction of the salient into French territory, breaking the German line in the center, which would be followed up by a continuation of the offensive into Germany itself. For the offensive in Artois, Joffre would need the help of the British. To this effort French committed part of the BEF. Joffre blamed the BEF for its passive role in the last months, and pressed French to act more aggressively. Similarly, French was under pressure and wanted to demonstrate to Joffre that his army was ready to attack.
The British offensive was to be carried out by Haig’s First Army, supported by the Canadian corps, and would attack in the direction of Lille along a relatively narrow front between Béthune and Armentières. Lieutenant-General Monro's VII Corps and Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s IV Corps headed the attack. Meanwhile, Joffre was to throw the Seventh and Eigth French Armies against the German salient in Picardy, in a grandiloquent scheme that aimed too high. French was more sceptical, and attacked with a limited aim. The BEF’s shortage of artillery shells was to play a vital role in the battle, as the BEF was given just four days’ worth of shells for the upcoming battle.
Lacking artillery shells and enough heavy guns, the British offensive
was to find a hard nut to crack in the German lines
On January 11th 1915, the British attacked (First Battle of Artois, January 11th-16th, 1915) with a thirty-five minute bombardment provided by divisional and corps artillery. More than four hundred guns had been amassed, which opened a wild thunderstorm over the German fortifications, while the British infantry waited in the trenches. Finally, five divisions stormed the enemy lines, finding that much of the German wire had been cut and that the enemy was falling back in places. However, further progress was hampered and eventually stopped by the resistance manifested by German infantry on the flanks, and its machine guns kept the British back. In the center of the attack, two companies of the German Jäger Battalion 11 (with approx. 200 men and a single machinegun surviving the initial shelling) delayed the advance for more than six hours until forced to retreat. Worse still, the German artillery came into play, making further progress without reinforcements impossible. Any follow-up effort was doomed by poor communications, which delayed the arrival of fresh troops until it was too late. Primitive communication also meant that British commanders had been unable to keep in touch with each other and the battle thus became uncoordinated and this in turn disrupted the supply lines. By then, the Germans had reinforced their positions and that excluded any further advance without artillery support.
By the end of the first day, the Germans had been pushed back in areas but were again firmly established. Haig resumed the offensive the next morning. The onset of mist made the jobs of British artillerymen all the more difficult, resulting in shellfire being fired into the distance with little knowledge as to where it had landed. The results of the ensuing assault were mixed – some British units suffered terrible casualties without any tangible results, others were able to achieve their objectives. Problematically, the difficulty of battlefield communications appeared again, and this precluded the deployment the forces ready to exploit a gap -the brigades of Kavanagh’s Cavalry Corps. A further day of fighting followed, most of which resulted in little gain before Haig called off the offensive. Brief clashes occurred for the next three days, but by now Haig had given up hope of making real progress. On 15 January, German forces commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht launched a counter-attack which, although unsuccessful, did at least manage to end any chance of further advancement; the campaign was officially abandoned on 16 January: 60,000 British troops took part during the battle and suffered 12,000 casualties. The Germans lost around the same number. In total, the British succeeded in capturing just over 2 km of lost ground.
The First Battle of Artois, January 11th-16th, 1915
After the fighting Field Marshal French cabled Kitchener to tell him that the advance had only stopped due to the lack of artillery shells. Kitchener knew that the real fact behind the failure was the inability of First Army to feed reinforcements to the front due to the inherent problem of communications. In fact, in the first three days of the battle, the British expended more ammunition than during the entire Boer War. Further south, the French Seventh and Eigth armies attacked German positions in the First Battle of Picardy. The French sustained heavy casualties from the beginning, and eventually the operation was called off.
The First Battle of Picardy (January 11st-19th, 1915)
Two weeks later the French resumed their attack, this time with a four day artillery bombardment, in which over 1.2 million shells were fired. The French armies fought well and found initial success. However, as it happened to the British, the French were unable to bring up necessary reinforcements, and the attack eventually stalled in face of the repeated German counterattacks. The effort would be resumed again, when the Seventh attempted another breakout against the German lines at Vincennes (Second battle of Picardy, May 2nd-9th, 1915), during a long week of protacted and, in the end, useless fighting. On the first days, the offensive was successful and the Germans lost ground. As, reinforcements arrived for the Germans, the offensive began to loose momentum until it finally ended. The two battles resulted in little territorial gain, at a cost of 90,000 French casualties, and a similar number of German casualties.
The Second battle of Picardy (May 2nd-9th, 1915)
@quaazi: Stopford is going to make a great job taking care of the elephant traffic in Delhi, I promise.
@Enewald: If I had had at hand a whole corps of fine Finnish infantry, don't doubt that I would have persisted until its total obliteration
@c0d5579: Winnie will have his time to write his own version of "Crime and Punishment", don't worry (don't cry, Trekkie, as it will be a Churchillian adventure of its own).
@Nathan Madien: If only some US presidents knew how to do that, too
@FlyingDutchie: Are you suggesting that Melchett as CO of the BEF?
What a great idea! That's a win-win!!!
@Tommy4ever: That's what I thought, but, as we shall see, Lawrence is going to need somewhere else to shine.