May 14 Revolt
But we’re starting today in Portugal, where there’s an attempt to overthrow the Government of a quite different kind. Portugal has been run since 1911 as a military dictatorship, but the military is far from being united behind the head of government, General Pimenta de Castro. A revolutionary junta led by the former Finance Minister Alvaro de Castro and the former Governor of Funchal, Lieutenant-Colonel Sa Cardoso, attempts a coup to remove Pimenta and restore parliamentary democracy.
Today sees fighting in the streets of Lisbon, and rebel Navy ships bombarding loyal Army units. Portugal might not be in the war yet, but the country still administers colonies in Africa. (You may remember how the British Empire bought all the coal in Mozambique to stop Konigsberg getting it.) Any change in government could easily affect Portugal’s position in relation to the war, so let’s keep an eye on developments.
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Hopefully we’ll recall that in the immediate aftermath of the failure of the Battle of Aubers Ridge, Sir John French vented his feelings somewhat by sounding off to his friend Charles a Court Repington about all kinds of things, but most notably the lack of artillery shells. Today, after careful consideration, the Times publishes Repington’s article. It’s clear and comprehensive and sends a very clear message; that the Battle of Aubers Ridge failed primarily because of a lack of shells.
The shockwaves reverberate resoundingly through the British government. For one thing, they know that Repington’s source can only have been Sir John French. This kind of leaking is by no means an invention of modern politicians. However, it is rather hypocritical, considering the strict censorship that French has insisted on during the war so far. It also directly contradicts recent public statements made by both the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, and by Lord Kitchener.
And Sir John French’s efforts don’t begin and end with talking to Repington. He’s also sent two of his staff to London carrying a secret memo precisely outlining the situation as he sees it. They also carry a volume of the recent correspondence between GHQ in France and the War Office in London. And they’ve taken the documents to David Lloyd-George, a senior member of the government and a bitter political rival of Asquith’s. Not just to him, either! The Conservatives are also beneficiaries of Sir John French’s munificence, with party leader Andrew Bonar Law (no sniggering at the back please) and grandee Arthur Balfour receiving copies.
Which makes today an excellent day to hold a meeting of the War Council! This is actually a happy coincidence. It’s been called to consider the situation at Gallipoli. The mood is, unsurprisingly, exceptionally tempestuous, with Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill scrapping like cats in a sack. It unsurprisingly turns into a pitched battle between Western Front-first and Gallipoli camps. They even discuss, horror of horrors, evacuating their men and calling the whole thing off!
Of course, Important Reasons of National Prestige intervene and the option is quickly dismissed. (The Balkans! The Muslims!) The final result of all the deliberations and fulminating is basically an attempt to kick the can down the road. The War Council instead instructs Sir Ian Hamilton (via Lord Kitchener, who’s rapidly going off the whole idea) to estimate how many men he thinks he needs to achieve his objectives. It’s left to their secretary, Colonel Maurice Hankey (of Hankey’s points fame) to sadly observe that perhaps someone should have asked this question a couple of months before they decided to invade, rather than a month after men were landed.
Right, back to the front. You’ll be shocked to hear that this is a bad day for the Russians. Austro-Hungarian forces have already begun to cross the River Vistula. Worse, General Mackensen is now planning to cross the River San in force and his scouts are within sight of the bridges. Such planning as the Russians have been able to do relies entirely on setting up a strong defence and holding the Germans at the San, as had happened to them last September. Now they’re still retreating in disorder and the Germans are almost on top of them. Their only hope is that the enemy will succumb to fatigue and be too tired to continue advancing…
The French are forced to pause again for a moment to refocus and issue new orders. They’ve captured Carency and the Lorette, but Souchez and Neuville still remain firmly in German hands. Hopes for a breakthrough are slowly draining away. However, General Joffre is still keeping his spirits up. The stabilisation of Second Ypres (where the Germans are keeping the reduced Ypres salient under pressure while they bring up gas for another major push) has allowed him to remove General Foch from that area and put him to work in Artois. Foch is even now on his way to his new headquarters.
Battle of Festubert
The Battle of Festubert is probably the most neglected BEF battle of the war. Joffre has been peppering Sir John French with requests to keep up the pressure north of Artois to prevent the Germans moving men south. With Aubers Ridge grinding to a halt, the best he can do is order General Haig to launch a diversionary attack, and so happens the Battle of Festubert. Once again it’s spearheaded by the Indians of the Meerut Division.
It’s also an important milestone in the development of bite-and-hold tactics. The Battle of Aubers Ridge made it obvious that simple hurricane bombardments just won’t do. For the past three days the BEF’s guns have kept up a steady barrage on the enemy lines, trying to smash the trenches in entirely. (They’re also trialling some original bombardment methods, of which more very soon.) This time they’re not looking for a breakthrough; just to fix German troops in place and to capture Festubert.
Actions in Progress
I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things.
The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.
(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)