End of the year | 31 Dec 1915

Last day of the year. Let’s do something unusual and start with Flora Sandes.

Flora Sandes

Private Flora Sandes has reached the Adriatic Sea coast. Her part of the retreat is just about over.

At last we were nearing our journey’s end; it was the last day’s march, and an unusually long one, too. We passed a company of Italian soldiers, and some of the officers came up early in the morning and visited our camp. Durazzo was being bombarded from the sea, and we could hear the boom of the big naval guns in the distance, but it was all over before we arrived. We marched that day from 5 a.m., which meant, of course, being up at least an hour before, to 8 p.m., with only very short and infrequent halts.

About dusk we reached Kavaia, and all the inhabitants turned out and lined the streets to watch us go past. There, again, they put up everything to famine prices. I never saw anything like the mud in Kavaia ; in the town it was a liquid black mass, through which men waded far above their knees, and on the long road between Kavaia and our camping ground it was like treacle. It came right above the tops of my top boots, and one could hardly drag one’s feet out of it. The road was full of rocks and pits, and every two or three yards there were dead and dying horses which had floundered down to rise no more; and it was pitch dark and very cold.

At last we turned on to the hillside by the sea, which was to be our resting-place for the next month. I was lying on the grass talking to a soldier, while my orderly put up my tent. He said he was very tired, and I said we all were, but would soon be able to turn in. ” Yes,” he said thoughtfully, not complaining at all, but merely stating a fact, ” but you have ridden most of the way and I have walked, and presently you will have something to eat, and I shan’t.” There was no supper waiting for the tired man. In the Austrian Army I hear the officers live in luxury while their men starve, but that could most certainly not be said of our officers—beans and bread, and not too much of either, and we had bought the bread ourselves.

He was stoking up the fire a little later on, and I called him over and gave him my piece of bread. He shook his head and refused to take it at first, saying, “No, you’ll need that yourself,” and not till I had quite convinced him that I had enough without it would he take it. We all turned in dead to the world that night, but very glad to have at last reached the coast, and I completely forgot that it was New Year’s Eve, though certainly even had I remembered I should not have sat up to see the New Year in.

Somewhere in here, something happens that Sandes considerably underplays; she mentions it only some weeks later in the narrative, entirely in passing. Today she’s been given a promotion to corporal, and she never expands on why this was. There are a hundred potential explanations, all of them complete and total speculation. We’ll be staying with her into 1916, and watching as she demonstrates that the promotion was entirely deserved on pure soldiering merit.

Montenegro

We haven’t talked much about Montenegro so far in the war. They’ve been in it since August 1914, but the small mountain kingdom has until now been too small, too mountainous, and too awkwardly-placed to make it worth Austria-Hungary’s while invading them. Now Conrad von Hotzendorf has a lot of men in Serbia, not a lot to do with them, and an army-group commander (von Mackensen) who apparently has better things to think about. I don’t think I need to draw a map to show anyone where Conrad’s thoughts are going now.

Greece

The Entente powers finish a year of flagrant disregard for Greek neutrality (although it must be said that the measures King Constantine I has been taking to preserve it have been growing steadily more anti-democratic through the year) with a surpassing effort in Salonika. General Sarrail has had the staff of the German, Bulgarian, and Austro-Hungarian consulates in Salonika arrested, although they will be magnanimously permitted to leave the country. As a military decision, it’s sound and practical. As a diplomatic exercise, it’s thoroughly tin-eared. 1916 doesn’t promise to be any better for Greece than 1915.

End of the year

Which leads us neatly into a quick year-end review. It’s a tricky job, this. There’s few places where we can explicitly say that the war has got better for anyone involved. But then, by the same token, it’s also surprisingly hard to describe anything as having got definitely worse either. As a general principle, all I can say about the war in 1915 is that it’s got more.

The Balkans is one of the areas where we can talk of winners and losers, though. Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria have occupied the whole of Serbia (obvious losers, with no country and half an army left), with excellent prospects for sweeping up Montenegro, Albania, and possibly even Greece in 1916. Romania also comes out of 1915 in a good place, entirely due to having had the sense to not get involved yet. However, with their Balkan rivals Bulgaria seizing territory everywhere (they’ve probably got the best claim to a “good” year), the bribes being offered by the Entente powers to join on their side will surely only get larger and more tempting. Greece’s 1915, meanwhile, has been absolutely terrible, with the King acting in a barely constitutional manner to keep the pro-Entente Eleftherios Venizelos out of power and his country out of the war, while Britain and France treat the country as an undeclared ally. And, if things carry on as they are, Greece might soon have a war all to itself.

Another obvious loser is Italy, having joined the war in 1915 with clear and obvious war aims, and achieving absolutely diddly-squat. They’re still parked firmly on the western edge of the Carso, outside Gorizia, and with footholds in the lower Dolomites. With General Cadorna still firmly in charge of the Army, 1916 surely can’t mean anything other than more of the same. But, turning to their opponents, Austria-Hungary is also not in a particularly good way. On the Italian Front they’ve succeeded only in not losing. On the Eastern Front they pissed away what was left of their pre-war army by freezing it to death in the Carpathians. Since then they’ve been second-class citizens in the alliance with Germany, and that’s not going to get any better unless Conrad von Hotzendorf can prove that he can actually be good at war.

For the British Empire it seems to have been a poor year. Every major offensive they’lve launched this year has gone off the rails. They’ve kept control over the North Sea and enforced the Blockade of Germany (the importance of which should never be underestimated) in the face of a passive High Seas Fleet, but that’s about it. The situation in Africa remains mostly unchanged, although with good prospects for next year. Gallipoli turned into a horrible car crash. If they can’t relieve the Siege of Kut, Mesopotamia may go the same way. The less said about Salonika the better; and their experiences on the Western Front are not only deeply painful, they’ve led the Brains Trust down a number of strategic cul-de-sacs that will take a long time to get out of. But they’re still in the war, and they’re still fighting; the line holds, and a million men will be ready to take the field in six months.

The French Army has held the line on the Western Front. Again, you have to set all the negatives against the simple fact that they’ve held the majority of the Western Front. But, simply put, General Joffre has masterminded three major offensives, all of which have caused major casualties and achieved very little. The Belgian Army, by the way, is still holding that small chunk of line between Nieuport and Dixmude, watching over the flooded basin of the River Yser.

The situation for Russia and the Ottoman Empire both is extremely hard to apply a judgement to. The Russians have been pushed back on the Eastern Front, but there’s still hundreds more miles for Germany to go to reach Petrograd or Moscow. Every mile the Germans advance from now on widens the front that they’ll have to hold. Meanwhile, General Yudenich has done an excellent job fending the Ottomans off in the Caucasus and Armenia. Speaking of whom; they’ve been fended off in the Caucasus and Armenia, but they’ve completely stymied the Gallipoli campaign and are taking the upper hand in Mesopotamia.

Which leaves Germany, and their experience sums 1915 up in a nutshell. The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive drove hundreds of miles into Russia; but they’re hundreds of miles still from the Russian capital, and their major cities. That front is only going to get wider as they advance. Austria-Hungary is proving more and more unreliable as an ally; they’re fighting on three fronts, good for providing warm bodies, artisanal heavy artillery, and not much else. Meanwhile, on the Western Front the German Army blew a major chance to inflict serious damage on the BEF and entirely dislocate the north of the Western Front at Second Ypres. For the rest of the year, they’ve provided the brick wall for the French to beat their heads against, but that’s not going to win the war any time soon. They’re still blockaded.

1915 wasn’t unequivocally good for anyone, and for most of the belligerents it’s not been unequivocally bad, either. It’s just been more. More countries, more fronts, more munitions, more weapons, more guns, more civilian casualties, more refugees, more men frozen to death up a mountain.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut

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