General von Falkenhayn’s determination to somehow take the initiative on the Western Front with a really, really big battle continues apace. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, he’s already picked the French Army as his target. Now he needs to find somewhere on the Western Front to launch his offensive, and it’s now that we must start to consider the question of what he’s actually trying to do.
On the Eastern Front during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive, the German Eleventh Army under Field Marshal von Mackensen had played a crucial part in the series of victories won in that theatre over the summer. (von Mackensen has in the meantime brought his successful tactics to the third invasion of Serbia.) His strategy involved heavy artillery bombardments on small, concentrated areas. The infantry would then conduct a limited advance, dig in, and successfully invite their Russian opponents to slaughter themselves while bashing their heads against the new German defences.
Since the Eastern Front is many times larger than the Western, and therefore has much less scope for building impenetrable trench systems, this had soon led to major breakthroughs and advances on a scale that Western Front generals could only dream of (and, had they happened on the Western Front, could have moved the front line west of Paris or east of the Rhine at a single bound). von Falkenhayn has also spent the last couple of months carefully studying the French summer and autumn offensives in Artois and Champagne. These battles have clearly shown that a defender in well-prepared positions can inflict brutal and disproportionate casualties on an attacker while having to give up only minimal amounts of ground.
This might be sounding rather familiar. And so it should; this is the German incarnation of the bite-and-hold tactics now being favoured by generals such as Petain, Foch, and Rawlinson over on the other side of the hill. We’ve now arrived at the Matter of Some Debate. The question at hand is this. In von Falkenhayn’s 1916 offensive, was he actually trying to achieve a traditional breakthrough via bite-and-hold, in the style of the Eastern Front? Or did he genuinely intend from the beginning, as he later claimed in his memoirs, to fight an attritional battle with casualties, not territory, as his primary aim?
The situation is extremely complicated, for reasons which I’ll discuss in more detail later. For now, we have a more pressing concern. von Falkenhayn is looking for a location for his battle, one which will favour a bite-and-hold offensive of some sort. He has very quickly arrived at the idea of attacking one of the chain of great French fortresses, which if captured quickly would be obvious defensive locations to invite the French Army to bash its brains out upon.
He’s spent quite a lot of time recently looking at Belfort, the southernmost fortress in the chain. It’s located in a small lowland gap between the Swiss border and the southern end of the Vosges mountains. It does have quite a lot to recommend it as the location for an offensive. Most practically, it would almost certainly achieve surprise. With the notable exception of some bitterly-contested peaks in the Vosges (such as the Hartmannswillerkopf), practically the entire front south of and including Verdun has been one enormous quiet sector, where men are mostly content to live and let live. And, not only is it a vital strategic location at the southern end of the fortress chain, it also has great symbolic value for France. It was the location of a long siege during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 where the French garrison held out for months and was not defeated in battle, instead being ordered to surrender.
On the other hand, there are some significant disadvantages. Most of them involve the Swiss border, which would interfere with German operations and transport far more than French efforts. Being at the very southern end of the front would also make it that much more difficult and time-consuming to send troops to and from the region. There’s enough there to keep von Falkenhayn thinking, and he’s now coming around to Verdun instead.
Verdun seems to have all the advantages of Belfort, and more besides. Since the attacks to capture St Mihiel and the heights of Aubreville earlier in 1915, it’s been isolated from proper road and rail links, and occupies a large re-entrant in the German line that, much like the Ypres salient, can be attacked from three sides at once. It’s been such a quiet sector that the French have recently begun a major programme to entirely redesign the defences, preparations for which have been obvious to German aerial observers. It has a similar symbolic value to Belfort, and its loss would dislocate the French defensive line both north-west and south-east.
And so we find that von Falkenhayn is in the middle of a series of detailed discussions with his Fifth Army’s chief of staff, General von Knobelsdorf (don’t snigger). The Battle of Verdun is fast becoming the key focus of German war strategy for 1916. And, as its limited aims mean that there’s no pressing need to wait for good weather, there’s no reason it can’t be launched by, say, mid-February 1916…
Retreat from Ctesiphon
The retreat ends today. General Townshend has made it back to Kut-al-Amara with his force bruised but intact, and now has a few days to consider what he might want to do next. He’s met by the local commander, General Rimington, who wastes no time at all in trying to persuade him to continue the retreat on to Es Sinn, not much further to the south. Rimington is completely convinced, having been there for rather a while, that Kut is a terrible defensive position and there’s no reason to stay. More to follow.
The intrepid Lieutenant Rosenthal comes to grief today at Lukuga. Having been trapped in the waters of Lake Tanganyika all night, at first light he desperately makes for his ship, only to find her fleeing yet more Belgian artillery fire. His limbs are no match for the ship’s engines, and he’s left with no option but to swim to shore and surrender. For you, Rosie, der var iss over!
This is an absolutely critical blow for Captain Zimmer. Had Rosenthal returned safely, he would have brought with him not only an update on Baron Dhanis, but also news of two hitherto-unknown smaller gunboats. Those boats are, of course, Mimi and Toutou. As it is, through a major stroke of luck, secrecy has been preserved and Spicer-Simson’s preparations can continue unabated. More soon.
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(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)