The day begins with French orders to renew the assault on Poelcappelle, sure that the Germans are about to crack. The day ends with the BEF falling back all along the salient from Zonnebeke to Hollebeke. First Ypres is about to reach its fever pitch. Something is going to have to give.
The Germans are not satisfied with watching the French obligingly feed themselves into the meat-grinder at Poelcappelle. Today they attack the BEF again, and this time for sure Bullwinkle, they’ll give them what for. The first attack of First Ypres is launched at dawn at Zonnebeke, aided and abetted by a morning mist. It’s intended only to be a feint, a diversion to cause the British to pull their reserves north and the French to leave Poelcappelle alone. This is fortunate, because the mist lifts at exactly the wrong moment, and the attack is easily repulsed with heavy German losses.
However, in the south, the picture of First Ypres is entirely different. The section of line held by dismounted cavalry is shrinking daily as French reinforcements and the Indian Corps take over more line. But they’re still holding a thin line north from Messines, along Messines Ridge, and then east to Hollebeke and Zandvoorde. The Germans have finally realised how weak this section of line is. Messines holds today. Zandvoorde and Hollebeke are unsaveable. Even though the cavalry is on advantageous terrain, there’s just too many men and too many guns on the other side to hold it. It’s either fall back or be destroyed. They fall back. The lower corner of the Ypres salient is now under threat.
And then there’s the positions in front of Gheluvelt, now the critical area of First Ypres. The units here are already battered, at skeleton strength. A battalion with 500 men is an untold asset. Many are down to the strength of less than a single company of 250. Then the German bombardments start, carefully timetabled to suppress the British trenches long enough for the Germans to get in among them and suppress them permanently. The generals at Hooge Chateau are close enough to hear the bombardment, and they send up the reserves.
The German guns lengthen their range. The Menin Road has been chosen for the main assault in part because the road is lined beautifully by poplar trees at precise intervals. Tragically, the trees now offer perfect range-markers for artillery fire. But the bombardment has lifted too early. Battered, exhausted and filthy though the defenders may be, the fresh German troops are completely unprepared for the psychological effect of facing down rapid fire at short range. Some semblance of order is maintained just long enough for General Haig to order a general retirement to Gheluvelt village, and beyond if necessary.
Many British battalions don’t get away. Some of them don’t get the order to leave. More are entirely destroyed before the order can reach them. Over this short section of front between Hollebeke and the Ypres-Roulers railway, the situation has become fluid once again. If the Germans can push their advantage, the entire Ypres salient could disintegrate before them.
Also of note today is our other old friend SMS Konigsberg, last seen coming up with a truly ridiculous plan to repair her dodgy engine. Said engine has been disassembled, and loaded onto a large number of oxcarts. It’s then been hauled from Salale to Dar-es-Salaam, repaired, and hauled all the way back again. Captain Looff is now preparing to put to sea once more.
Unfortunately, the Royal Navy has closed in on him. Ships have been captured with documents indicating that they’ve sent small supply-boats up the River Rufiji. British landing-parties have spoken with locals; camouflaged though she may be, a large cruiser is not an easy secret to keep. Today, HMS Chatham sights masts inland. Konigsberg has been found, and not a moment too soon.
Not only that, but unlike some of the other ships in East Africa, Chatham is six years younger than Konigsberg, and her guns are rather larger than the Germans’. However, Captain Looff has chosen his hideout well; the Rufiji delta is so shallow that it’s only navigable by cruisers during a spring tide. Chatham radios for reinforcements, but otherwise can do nothing but sit and wait.
And, if all that wasn’t enough, the Germans resume operations just north of Armentieres, pushing hard towards Plugstreet. It’s the same story we’ve heard quite a few times before; isolated local retirements, but the line continues to exist, and it holds.
On the Yser, the Germans are finally realising that something very odd is going on. Their southern units are only ankle deep in water, and have launched an attack north of Dixmude, looking to cut the stubborn town off from resupply and reinforcement. But, to the north, the water is knee deep, or waist deep. All operations in this area are suspended, and the troops gratefully begin an advance to the rear before they end up swimming.
Actions in Progress
The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: The professional head of the Royal Navy, Prince Louis of Battenberg, is forced to resign (page 9). He was born in Austria to a German father, and although he’s served the Navy since 1869, he’s politically unacceptable. Page 12 is particularly comical today; it carries reports from certain leaky generals via the Paris newspapers that the German army is thought to be on the point of collapse. Underneath that, there’s a spectacularly hypocritical piece bemoaning the totally unreasonable anti-British spirit in Germany at the moment. If the Irony-O-Meter hadn’t already been requisitioned and melted down for scrap, it would surely have exploded today.
The excellent tumblr Today in World War I is on the resignation of Prince Louis and his replacement by Jackie Fisher.