1915, The War Escalates
How the belligerents of the First World War tried to unlock the deadlock of 1914.
The end of 1914 left the belligerent powers with the realisation that this was not to be an “over by Christmas” affair. None of the plans laid down before the war had succeeded and now the belligerents needed to find new war winning strategies.
The problem of the Western Front loomed large in the minds of France and Great Britain and the focus was to remain there, despite attempts to find alternative options. Germany spent much of the year on the defensive, with no imperative to waste manpower on costly offensives.
In terms of major encounters, the beginning of the year saw action on the Eastern Front with the Winter Battle of the Masurian Lakes, which saw the Germans inflict a defeat on the Russians, forcing them out of East Prussia. From the 23rd of January, Austro-Hungarian forces launched a series of desperate attempts to relieve the fortress of Przemsyl. The fortress finally surrendered to the Russians on the 22nd of March, but only after Austro-Hungary had lost around 800,000 men attempting to break through to the beleaguered garrison.
Britain, with naval superiority at its disposal, continued to enforce its distant blockade, plugging the sea routes to the north of Scotland and south of England and toughening its enforcement against contraband goods. In response to the blockade of all shipping in the North Atlantic, February saw Germany respond with a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, resulting in the sinking, amongst others, of the Lusitania, a British ocean liner carrying civilians. 1,198 passengers and crew died in then sinking, including 128 Americans. The German policy was a calculated gamble as it risked turning public opinion in the United States against neutrality.
But blockade was not the only naval option discussed in senior circles. The quest for a way around the barbed wire and trenches of the Western Front led to a search for alternate theatres that could prove decisive; the Anglo-French venture in the Dardanelles was the result of such thinking. Control of the straights that separated Europe from Asia would provide a sea route through which Russia could be supplied and could knock Turkey out of the war. It was even possible that a striking success might sway the remaining neutral powers in the Balkans, Romania, Greece, and Bulgaria, to join the allies against the Central Powers.
The British allocated a fleet of older, otherwise redundant, warships to the task and in March they attempted to force a passage against determined artillery fire. The attempt failed and the ships were forced to withdraw. Only now did the British decide to commit land forces to the Dardanelles, but the reinforcements were much delayed with concerted landings only taking place on the Gallipoli peninsula on the 25th of April. The British, Australian and New Zealand forces were able to seize a small precarious foothold against determined Turkish resistance but were never to move far beyond their initial positions.
March saw more offensive action with the first major offensive by British forces at Neuve Chapelle. Here, a short bombardment followed by an attack proved that it was possible to have localised success but breaking through and exploiting a breach was a much more difficult proposition. The attack at Neuve Chapelle was a part of the Joffre’s (the French commander) plan to attack in Artois and Champagne, pushing against either side of the large German salient that thrust into France.
Hot on the heels of Neuve Chapelle in late April, a surprise German offensive at Ypres was notable for the first use of poison gas by the Germans, but, as was often the case, an initial breakthrough proved hard to exploit. This was a problem faced by both sides; if a breakthrough was achieved, the advancing troops rapidly outstripped their supply lines and artillery support, allowing the defenders time to regroup and halt the offensive.
In May and June, the French launched the Second Battle of Artois, intending to capture Vimy Ridge and capture key railway lines that would cut the German supply lines and force them to retreat. The attacks retook limited amounts of territory at a cost of over 100,000, mainly French, casualties and failed to take their strategic objectives. The Germans lost over 70,000 men but learnt much about developments in Allied offensive practices that were rapidly absorbed and resulted in much stronger defensive positions, especially in terms of dugouts and second line defences.
In early May, the Germans launched an attack in the east. The Russians were badly supplied, badly led and ordered to hold their positions rather than retreating to more tenable positions. By the 10th of May, German and Austro-Hungarian forces had captured 140,000 Russians and 200 artillery pieces. As the Germans advanced over the River San, the Russians failed to reinforce effectively and began to suffer a major munitions crisis. The Russians lost Przemysl on the 4th of June and Lvov on the 22nd. However, despite their successes in the east, they knew that the war would be won or lost in the west and retained over 60% of German forces in the western theatre.
German and Austro-Hungarian forces pushed into Southern Poland from Galicia, while German forces pushed into Northern Poland, threatening the Russians with a huge encirclement, but to the Russians withdrawal was not an option. Huge and very expensive forts protected Russian Poland and the Russians were simply not willing to give them up and lose their investment.
On the 19th of August, the fortress of Novogeorgievsk surrendered, losing the Russians its garrison, a million artillery shells and 1600 artillery guns. Meanwhile, German forces had penetrated the Baltic states and captured the Russian Lithuanian fortress at Kovno. Now the Russians fell back across their vast territory, extending German supply lines, and destroying infrastructure as they went. The offensives of 1915 had, by the 18th of September, cost the Russians over a million men and had effectively neutralised Russia for the foreseeable future.
On the 25th of September, the French continued their efforts with a major attack in the Champagne region, pitching over half a million men and concentrating much of the French army’s available artillery ammunition against the German front lines. The advance pushed the Germans back by about four kilometres but was unable to break through defences situated on reverse slopes. The French found that troops sent to exploit gaps tended to bunch up and become entangled with leading units they were supposed to be leapfrogging. By the 29th, German counterattacks were retaking some of the breaches the French had made and Joffre suspended the offensive, switching to a policy of attrition instead of breakthrough. Offensive actions were officially suspended on the 6th of November; the French had suffered 144,000 causalities, the Germans around 80,000–90,000.
Supporting the major effort in Champagne, the French launched the Third Battle of Artois between La Bassée and Arras, intending to take the high ground of the Vimy Ridge. A four-day long bombardment, culminating in four hours of intense artillery fire was intended to destroy the German defences, allowing concentrated French troops to pour across no man’s land and break through the German defences. On the 25th of September, the assault began and found that the defences were not as badly damaged as anticipated, resulting in heavy casualties for the French. Eventually, the French captured the top of Vimy Ridge on the 28th of September, but German counterattacks forced them back again. Fighting was to continue into October but was halted on the 14th to save artillery shells for the battle in Champagne.
As a part of the main French battle, The Battle of Loos, which marked the first use of gas by the British was launched, despite British concerns about the terrain over which they were to advance. Employing six divisions and generally known as “the big push”, the attack made limited gains but was unable to exploit the gaps made, mainly because of the perennial problem of troops outreaching their artillery capability and the difficulties in bringing supplies and men forward. The battle ended in recriminations over Sir John French’s leadership and his failure in bringing up reserves, resulting in his replacement by Haig in December.
Bulgaria finally entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, deciding on the 14th of October that the time was ripe to attack Serbia. Although militarily small, Bulgaria’s intervention knocked Serbia out of the war by early December, allowing the Central Powers to concentrate on other fronts and opened a rail supply route between Germany and the Ottoman Empire for the first time.
In December, representatives of all the allied powers met at Joffre’s headquarters at Chantilly to discuss how to progress the war in 1916. Throughout 1915, the scale and scope of the violence had escalated, and this trend would continue through 1916 with the belligerents throwing more and more men and resources into the conflict in an attempt to overwhelm their opponents. The Chantilly conference agreed that all the allied nations would attack simultaneously in 1916 in a concerted attempt to break the deadlock and overwhelm the Central Powers. However, at about the same time, the German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn was outlining his plan to “bleed to death” the French by attacking at the crucial pressure point of Verdun.
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