8th Division has arrived in strength; the horrific weather in Flanders continues, and the Germans are showing less and less willing to keep attacking with every day. With that in mind, the Allies undertake a significant rearrangement of forces around Ypres. Meanwhile, the Russians receive reinforcement in the Caucasus; and beat a hasty retreat in Poland. And the march on Basra continues.
The Russian reinforcements in Anatolia take the form of the Turkistan Rifles, Russian colonial troops from the area now known as Kazakhstan. They’re holding a line from the towns of Sanamer (in the foothills of the Cakir Baba) and Horsan (on the River Aras). Winter weather is beginning to bite; the Ottomans consider the situation and retire. Around Horsan, the Russians take the opportunity to counter-attack, to dubious effect; they can occupy more territory, but the retirement is orderly enough for the Ottomans to avoid taking many casualties.
The Anglo-British force marching on Basra encounters some Ottomans occupying advance defensive positions at Saihan. They attack and drive the Turks back with not too much effort. Meanwhile, the Ottomans have been attempting to sink some large liners in the Shatt al-Arab as blockships to impede the enemy’s progress up the river. However, this is rather like a beaver trying to dam a stream with bog roll. The Ottomans are digging in at an old mud fort just outside Basra called Sahil.
It suddenly dawns on the Russian commanders just what an exposed position they’ve allowed their men to get into. They order a hasty advance to the rear, falling back on Lodz itself, which is far more easily defensible than the open country around it. The city was also the local administrative centre, and the home of the armies’ supplies, making a defence of the city even more practical a prospect.
There was a soldier there, wounded, resting on his way back. He was a Staffordshire [a Regular Army battalion], and when he saw me he was amazed. He aid “Good God, a Territorial?” I said “Yes, that’s right.” He said, “Well, I don’t care who you are. I’ve been seventeen days up the front there. I don’t care who comes out as long as they give us a hand.”
Now, here’s a little-known fact for you. Ypres remains in the collective memory as a uniquely British place. However, at this time, there’s going to be a relief. The entire Ypres salient is, over the course of the next week, handed over to the French Army. The new British line will run, for the time being, from Wytschaete to Givenchy, so that the BEF can operate as a single unit without any French troops in the middle.
In time, once the BEF can rest and return to strength, they can return and take over more line; but for now, even the French can see how badly the BEF needs time to sort its shit out and come to terms with the losses it’s sustained.
And the casualties are truly grievous. 90,000 men landed in France in August. 15,000 of them were casualties by the end of the Great Retreat. Another 13,000 joined them at the Battle of the Aisne. And then, over the entire front from Ypres to La Bassee, 56,000 more men were killed, wounded or captured. I’ve recited the litany of “battalions the size of companies, companies the size of platoons” enough times, I won’t do it again.
What I would like to point out is that “85,000 casualties” doesn’t mean that there are only about (including reinforcements) 10,000 British troops in the line at the moment. Many of the men were only lightly wounded and returned to the line (and some were then wounded again). The BEF has also received significant reinforcement since they dug in on the Aisne. It’s not the complete destruction that it might appear at first. There are still enough men to provide the nucleus of a new force, what’s sometimes referred to as the “second British Army”, that being the remnants of the Old Contemptibles plus the men of the Territorial Force and increasing numbers of colonial troops.
They are still casualties unlike anything Britain has known for centuries. And of course, French and German losses run even higher. General Mangin of the French Army summed up the scale of the losses as well as anyone ever has. “Whatever you do, you lose a lot of men.”
Actions in Progress
No Daily Telegraph on Sundays. In its place, yesterday’s “News of the Week” editorial from The Spectator. It continues to be a (relative!) voice of reason, noting “We are not nearly out of the wood yet. We are not even half way through it, and we shall have many dark hours.” It also successfully predicts that the Germans will soon turn most of their efforts against the Eastern Front.
Interestingly, it’s also being extremely pro-Russian, making reference to an apparent long-standing belief that Russia should be given Constantinople and the Dardanelles after the war, and making lots of noises about how enlightened and nice they are. It also appears to be swallowing Russian communiques without even a grain of salt, spending an awful lot of time rattling on about “the brilliance of Russian strategy” and the many excellent qualities of the Russian soldier-peasant. It remains a fascinating view of the war (and British society in general – there’s a despairing plea to domestic servants to know their place and for God’s sake be proud to be domestic servants!) and I continue to recommend it.
The excellent tumblr Today in World War I discusses the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire declaring Jihad against the Allies. Now, where have I heard that word before…?