The military situation (1)

In the course of the First Battle of Ypres (19 October – 22 November 1914), the French, Belgian and British armies had fought Falkenhayn’s army to a standstill; but at a terrible cost. Beckett (2013) estimates German losses at a minimum of 134,300, of whom approximately 19,600 were killed. French losses are difficult to quantify for this period, but appear to have been between 50,000 and 85,000. The Belgians lost 18,522 — a third of their army that had escaped Antwerp. BEF casualties were 58,155 including 7960 dead.

One of the reasons for the Germans’ defeat at Ypres was that Falkenhayn had thrown thousands of under-trained reservists and student volunteers against what were veteran regular soldiers. Almost all commentators agree with Sir James Edmonds, the official historian of the Great War, that the BEF was ‘incomparably the best trained, best organised and best equipped British Army that ever went forth to war’. But Ypres was its graveyard. The ‘old’, professional, patrician Army was no more. Followers of this blog may recall that on 27 October the commander of IV Corps, Henry Rawlinson, found himself with no corps to command, since his infantry (7th Division) had lost so many men that it had to be amalgamated with Haig’s I Corps and his cavalry (3rd Division) was transferred to Allenby’s Cavalry Corps. On 1 November 7th Division’s commander, Thompson Capper, actually said there was ‘no division left, so that I’m a curiosity — a divisional commander without a division’. This was the division that contained the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, in which George Calderon had briefly served as a second lieutenant on 29 October.

The Kaiser, who had planned to make a triumphal entry into Ypres on a white horse, was profoundly depressed by the outcome of the battle. Falkenhayn himself concluded that Germany might not have another opportunity to win the war, and recommended a diplomatic solution. But this was politically unacceptable.

Both sides dug in as fast and impregnably as they could. Trenches now stretched 500 miles from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border and the war was evidently entering a different phase. How could trench warfare be won? Practical answers were already exercising generals’ minds on both sides. More lateral thinkers, however, were meditating on other ways of breaking the military stalemate.

Falkenhayn had had to redeploy troops from Ypres to the Eastern Front — that was another reason he had lost the battle. He now proposed closing down the Eastern Front entirely, by coming to a ‘Bismarckian’ accommodation with Russia. The influx to the Western Front of the forces thus freed would, he was convinced, crack the Allied defence. But the Chancellor in 1914, Bethmann Hollweg, would have none of it. Worse, Ludendorff and Hindenburg fervently believed that Germany should, and could, win the war in the East quickly, and only then turn to win it in the West. Against his better judgement, Falkenhayn allowed himself to be drawn into this fantasy.

By contrast, in London on 5 December 1914 the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, was writing to the Platonic love of his life, Venetia Stanley, that the ‘volatile mind’ of his First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was ‘at present set on Turkey and Bulgaria, and he wants to organise a heroic adventure against Gallipoli and the Dardanelles’. This was the most lateral proposal made for breaking the stalemate in which the war was locked. Asquith told Miss Stanley that he was ‘altogether opposed’ to it…

Next entry: The military situation (2)

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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