The new year is a natural time to re-evaluate strategic possibilities; there’ll be plenty of that in the coming days. First, to the Channel, and the sad story of HMS Formidable.
The 5th Battle Squadron is not having a very good time of things. It’s seen very little action, and they’ve already lost Bulwark to that inexplicable magazine explosion. Yesterday they were out in the Channel on a gunnery exercise, and then they’ve continued on patrol through the night without any destroyer support.
The squadron believes itself to be safe from submarine attack due to the foul weather and rough sea. This is a tragic misapprehension, which U-24 wastes very little time in rectifying, at about half past two in the morning off Start Point. Two torpoedoes hit Formidable, and by 5am she’s sinking in earnest. Despite the time available for evacuation, 35 officers and 512 men go down with the ship, including Captain Foxley and his dog Bruce, who will later wash up on the beaches and be given a burial in Abbotsbury Gardens. He’s got a headstone there.
Formidable’s fate is a further demonstration of the extreme vulnerability of capital ships to submarines.
Meanwhile, the brass hats on all sides are insistent that some demonstration be performed to signal once and for all that any lingering friendliness after the Christmas truce must be be snuffed out. The solution that they’ve arrived on is to order a major fusillade at midnight, which is a nice excuse to quickly point out that in 1914, the German trenches operated on what we’d today call CET, then “Berlin time”. Meanwhile, both Britain and France operated on GMT. (France didn’t adopt Berlin time, and I use that name for it advisedly, until 1940.)
So the Germans get to go first, and reports all along the front indicate that the vast majority of them fire high and handsome. Just about the only person who does not appreciate this is the Adjutant of the London Rifle Brigade, currently in reserve at Plugstreet. He’s strolling casually to his billet when a spent German bullet sails through the air and smacks him smartly on the head.
That funny story aside, the gesture is widely appreciated and the favour is returned when Allied clocks hit midnight. The following evening, our old friend Corporal Alex Letyford of the Engineers is heading out at nightfall to go to work, as he will every day of the next nine. His terse diary provides an excellent snapshot of conditions at the front.
1.1.15 At 6pm (in the dark), we go to the trenches making culverts and dams. Trenches knee-deep in water. We work until 3 am.
Water control was the primary concern for engineers during the winter of 1914-15. Almost as soon as a hole was dug, it filled up, either from the sky or the ground. There’s no point digging more holes if they’re just going to flood straight away.
With their options running out, the Turks try to advance on Sarikamis again, it offering the best chance of them finding some sort of shelter from the winter. They’re too weak to make any headway. Historically, it was always said that the majority of casualties always occur after the battle was won and lost. They’re about to start piling up now.
Meanwhile, in Paris, President Poincare holds a working breakfast to consider various proposals for 1915. General Joffre hasn’t even finished with First Artois and First Champagne, and he’s already started planning for another pair of battles in a few months’ time. Three seperate generals (d’Esperey, Castelnau, and Gallieni) have suggested to Poincare that France should send troops by sea to Salonika. From there they could aid Serbia, cut the Ottomans off from Austria-Hungary and Germany, and force A-H to concentrate forces in the Balkans instead of against Russia.
This also plays into another major Allied concern; the neutrality of the Balkan countries. All are convinced that the entry into the war of Greece, Bulgaria and Romania could prove to be a major coup for the side that they join. (Whether this is actually so is a Matter of Some Debate.) The reasoning goes that an advance in strength to aid Serbia could well be the vital action that tips the Balkans to the Allied cause.
Strategy (Central Powers)
Meanwhile, in Berlin, there’s a similar meeting between Generals von Falkenhayn, Ludendorff, and the Austrian commander Conrad von Hotzendorf. It soon devolves into squabbling about where reinforcements should go. Everyone argues that they should be sent to his particular area of responsbility, and then and attack in a manner that most benefits him. By the end of the meeting, they’ve mostly gone around in circles. A final decision on where the men should go is kicked down the road for a few weeks. Ludendorff does agree to send a few of his divisions as reinforcements for the Austro-Hungarian front.
The diplomatic efforts that will bring Italy firmly into the war are now well underway. Italy is about to issue a comprehensive list of terms to Germany and Austria-Hungary to join them. The River Isonzo should become the new border between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Trieste, that vital seaport, is to be made neutral and demilitarised. And, after the conclusion of the war, they should be able to expect further territorial gains to compensate for those that Austria-Hungary will surely make against Russia.
This all mostly goes down in Vienna like a cup of cold sick. There’s no rush, yet. There’s plenty of time for haggling. Besides, the Italian parliament is deeply split, and the army is clearly not yet ready to go to war. It appears to Germany and A-H that even if some in the government are ready to join in, it will take a considerable effort on their part to mobilise both the army and the necessary public opinion.