The tales of Gallipoli and Second Ypres continue, but for the first time in far too long, the main focus of a daily post puts us back on the Eastern Front. Today the Germans launch the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive.
The men at the apex of the salient, the last who can expect to be pulled out, are almost too tired to keep going. Their relief is imminent, but in the meantime, they’re approaching the limits of their endurance. Private Bill Hay of the 9th Royal Scots is one of them.
I was sent out on a covering party. So many men went out to lie and watch for the Jerries in case they made a sudden counter-attack. If you heard them coming, you were supposed to fire a few shots and warn the blokes behind. We were all dead beat. I fell asleep when I was supposed to be wide awake. Sergeant McGill, my platoon sergeant, woke me up. He said, ‘You could be shot for falling asleep at your post! Get back in, back where you were. Send another chap out.’
He was a great chap, a good friend of mine really. Of course he wouldn’t put me on a charge. But if he had I would have been court-martialled for sleeping at my post and endangering the whole company. Which I was doing, really. But I was exhausted, like everybody else. We’d had no sleep, no hot drinks, practically nothing to eat, for four days.
Still the enemy doesn’t come on. The men behind Hay continue getting out of it. They’re all in a jumble, but they’re still alive, and they can be sorted out later.
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The guns open up again on the Russian positions, heavy pieces from Krupp and Skoda firing in harmony between Tarnow and Grybow. The Russian defensive positions are poor even by the standards of the Eastern Front, where comprehensive entrenchments are far less practical than on the Western Front. General Dimitrev has preferred to let the line of the Vistula, Dunajec and Biala rivers form his front line, with a desultory line of shallow trenches behind them and nothing else.
The force of the well-targeted bombardment has completely shattered both the Russian defensive positions and the spirits of many of the men. When the advance comes, the men are arranged in a fashion that’s since become known as the phalanx (although from what I can make out, it doesn’t look particularly like a classical phalanx, even with the most charitable eyes). In this context, it refers to a heavy concentration of Germans in a relatively narrow space, punching hard through the enemy line. The German army is flanked by two Austro-Hungarian armies, who will follow it through the gap and start rolling up the enemy flanks.
The first day of the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive is an unequivocal Russian defeat. Even those men who are inclined to continue fighting find it extremely hard going with their defensive positions now turned into a wasteland. Needless to say, communications are extremely difficult. Higher Russian command is able to convince itself that in fact this is only a diversion, and in fact the full weight of the German offensive will fall further south. They are of course completely and tragically wrong.
Action of the Nek
First things first, this is not to be confused with the far more famous Battle of the Nek in August. General Birdwood still has some strength to spare after the Ottomans have fought themselves to a standstill at ANZAC Cove. The key to getting out of their current pickle is high ground where they can see what the hell’s going on. The closest high ground is Baby 700, so clearly the thing to do is to take Baby 700. This will also help straighten their line and make the situation at Quinn’s Post easier. (It’s so precarious that the Ottomans opposite are now extremely familiar with the eponymous Captain Quinn, and are beginning to shout false orders across No Man’s Land in a passable imitation of his voice.) The map!
In order to get to Baby 700, the ANZACs need to clear out a particularly nasty trench network which they’re calling the Chessboard, and then seize the Nek, one of many extremely narrow uphill chokepoints where men can only move forward in single file. Birdwood is under no impressions as to how easy this won’t be, and so gives orders for a night attack.
It’s a good idea, but it’s hopelessly ambitious. The colonels who’ll be leading the advance only get word of the attack when their orders arrive a few hours before the battle. The orders have been given in haste, with little appreciation for the men’s problems with fatigue and supply. When the supporting hurricane bombardment finishes, not everyone is in position to attack, and the men go over the top piecemeal. The Ottomans send up plentiful quantities of Very lights, catching many of the attackers out in the open and lit up like a Christmas tree.
For some reason, General Godley then asssumes (without having received any message) that things are going well. He sends reinforcements to hold the Chessboard, and orders an immediate push on the Nek. These orders are sadly out of accord with the reality. The consequences are severe. Morning reveals a complete clusterfuck. Men are hanging onto trenches among the dead and the dying, with no officers and little idea of where they are. A few of them have reached the Chessboard. Many more are lying in shell-holes out in front, waiting for darkness to fall again so they can come back.
As for the Nek, the push went towards it in single file, and then went down in single file. The attack is a complete failure.
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