German Defence of the Western Front, September-October 1915


For most in Britain, September 1915 is best remembered for the battle of Loos, which saw the first British use of poison gas and the first extensive use of Kitchener’s ‘new army divisions’ in battle. It is also remembered as a great ‘what-if’ of history, as British successes at Loos offered a tantalizing possibility of effective breakthrough for the first time since trench warfare had set in on the Western Front in late 1914. The battle might also be remembered for its high casualties, with the twelve British battalions suffering 8,000 casualties in just four hours of fighting on 25 September. As my colleague, Nick Lloyd has written in his book Loos 1915, the casualty rate for British divisions engaged on this day was equal, if not greater, than that of the better-remembered first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916.

For the German defenders of the Western Front, however, the battle at Loos is remembered differently. For them, Loos was only part of a much larger-scale Anglo-French offensive in late September and early October 1915. Planned by the French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, this offensive was comprised of two main components. First, in Artois, the German 6th Army defended against the British 1st Army’s attack on Loos and the French 10th Army’s assault on Souchez and Vimy Ridge to the south. Second, in the Champagne, the German 3rd Army defended against an offensive by the French 4th and 2nd Armies. In Artois, eight German divisions of the 6th Army faced nineteen French and nine British divisions, with the Germans deploying 475 guns against more than 1,500 French and British. In the Champagne, seven divisions from the 3rd Army faced nineteen French divisions attacking in the first line. Again, the German defenders were heavily outnumbered in guns with 700 guns of all calibers against almost 2,000 French guns. Thus, the German defenders were heavily outnumbered – fifteen divisions from two armies faced forty-seven French and British divisions from four armies or a more than 3 to 1 disadvantage in numbers of units – on two geographically separate fronts.

Unsurprisingly, the Anglo-French forces made some substantial initial gains when they attacked on 25 September. At Loos, five British divisions attacked a single German division. The British 1st Army succeeded in penetrating the first German defensive position, and with little reserves to close the gap, the 6th Army feared a breakthrough here. The German official history wrote laconically, ‘the situation at Loos was extremely serious.’ A pause in the fighting in the afternoon of 25 September allowed the defenders of the 117th Infantry Division to catch their breath and consolidate in their second defensive position. The French 10th Army attacked in the afternoon of 25 September and also achieved considerable initial success, taking the village of Souchez and penetrating the German defensive line north of Vimy Ridge.

In the Champagne, new infantry tactics and massive superiority in men and munitions helped the French 4th and 2nd Armies penetrate the German 3rd Army’s first line along a 13-kilometer front around Souain and Perthes. There, eight French divisions, supported by gas, attacked three German divisions and all but annihilated the defenders. In the sector of the 24th Reserve Division, its commander was forced to deploy the half-trained troops from its recruit depot in its second position to stop the French advance. All told, the German 3rd Army lost more than 15,000 men and 50 guns by the end of the 25 September, and the French offensive showed little signs of slowing down.

Of the two offensives, the German High Command saw the French attack in the Champagne as being the most threatening. The German position in Belgium and France was largely a product of where fighting had stopped towards the end of 1914. Consequently, the German defensive line on the Western Front extended farther east the further north it went to the English Channel. From Verdun to Soissons, the German defensive line ran almost east-west rather than north-south. A French breakthrough in the Champagne would potentially cut off the German forces further north and east. At the very least, a breakthrough in the Champagne could cause a withdrawal of the German armies in Artois and in Flanders. Moreover, in the confused reports arriving from the front over the course of 25 September, the situation in the Champagne appeared to be slipping out of the 3rd Army’s control. Therefore, Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the General Staff, sent the bulk of available reinforcements to the 3rd Army, rather than the 6th Army.

The Anglo-French offensives hit the German army of the Western Front when it was at its weakest point. Having withdrawn many units for the German offensive on the Eastern Front in the summer of 1915, the Germans had only seven divisions and three brigades left in reserve across the entire Western Front. Four additional divisions had just returned from combat in the east, but were in the process of resting and refitting. Moreover, most of the German modern heavy artillery was still deployed on the Eastern Front. These meager reserves, as well as individual regiments and battalions from quieter sectors of the Western Front, were thrown into the battles as quickly as they could be moved. In essence, the defenders would have to do with what few reserves were on hand.

Somewhat surprisingly, these were enough. When the British and French renewed their offensives on 26 September, they achieved little more ground. Major pushes on 6 October in the Champagne and on 11 and 13 October in Artois were largely beaten back. Indeed, German counterattacks succeeded in regaining some of the ground that had been lost on 25 September. After the initial successes, neither offensive came close to its objective of breaking through the German defensive positions, let alone allowing the waiting cavalry to be able to range deep behind German lines or causing the collapse of the German army on the Western Front. From mid-October, reinforcements arrived from the Eastern Front and allowed the battered units of the 6th and 3rd Armies some relief; they also ensured that the Anglo-French offensives were well and truly contained.

The successful defense during the Herbstschlachten (Autumn Battles), as they were named by the Germans, came at considerable cost, however. The German 6th Army lost around 1,100 officers and 50,000 men in the course of the offensive, while the 3rd Army lost about 1,700 officers and 80,000 men.

The German army generally and Falkenhayn more specifically drew conclusions from the battles that would have important implications for the conduct of the war in 1916. First, they demonstrated just how difficult it was to achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front. The British and the French had at least a 3 to 1 superiority in men throughout most of the battles, probably much more at certain points. They also had a superiority of around 3 to 1 in guns. The Anglo-French forces put this artillery superiority to good use, with the French alone firing some 4,369,900 field artillery rounds and some 832,100 heavy artillery rounds in the battles. The outnumbered and outgunned German defenders gave ground in the face of this onslaught, but they did not break and were even able to retake some of their lost positions.

As I examine in my book, German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, the experience convinced Falkenhayn that the German army would never be able to achieve a large-scale breakthrough on the Western Front. The battles did show, however, that small-scale advances were possible at relatively low cost, if enough artillery was concentrated. Indeed, Falkenhayn focused on the role of artillery in defense. Considerably overestimating French casualties (Falkenhayn assumed they had suffered some 250,000, though real figures were closer to 150,000), Falkenhayn put this down to the effects of artillery on troops attacking in the open. Reaching very similar conclusions to the British general, Sir Henry Rawlinson, and the French general Philippe Pétain, the experience of the Herbstschlachten convinced Falkenhayn that it was possible for German troops to seize terrain important to defenders in a rapid initial advance, after which German artillery would be able to inflict heavy casualties on counter-attacking enemy troops. These lessons would play an important role in the attritional tactics Falkenhayn hoped to employ in the battle of Verdun in early 1916.

The battles also convinced most German soldiers that their defensive tactics worked well. Most German observers believed that holding the forward line at all costs and retaking lost positions through counter-attacks had prevented an Anglo-French breakthrough in September and October 1915. However, though this might have served the German army well under the conditions of late 1915, against enemies better provided with artillery and munitions it would cost German defenders dearly on the Somme battlefield in 1916.

This post is based on a podcast done as part of the First World War Research Group‘s support to the Institute of Education’s First World War Centenary Battlefield Tours Programme. This podcast can be downloaded from their website, along with a collection of podcasts on other First World War topic. Additionally, the podcast of this post can be listened to online or downloaded here.

Image: French troops attacking German positions at Somme-Py during the Herbstschlacht. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Royal Flying Corps and Preparing for the Battle of Loos, 1915: Developing an Air Force


In the introduction to his excellent book on the battle, my colleague Nick Lloyd observed that the battle of Loos remained forgotten, ‘lost in the myths of rumour, hearsay and myth’, even though it was the largest land battle that Britain had fought up until that point, and was marked by a number of innovations. He thus places the battle within the context of the debates upon the ‘learning curve’ of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and wider contentions regarding conceptualisation of revolutions in military affairs. What is also overlooked in much of the historiography is that Loos was the biggest air battle fought to that date, and represented the point at which the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) might be said to have moved from making a small but useful contribution to operations on the Western Front to becoming an integral part of the BEF’s activities.

This owed much to minor but significant changes in the RFC between the battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 and the opening of the Loos offensive later in September. These encompassed developments within organisation of the service, its command and control, and the technology available to fulfil the key role of observation, as well as the evolution of new roles in the form of a more formalised approach to bombing and air fighting.

In terms of organisation, it is important to recall that the RFC in 1915 was still a small organisation. At the start of the year, there were just seven squadrons spread between three wings (one per Army) and the wireless flight of 9 Squadron based at RFC Headquarters at St Omer from where the aircraft would be despatched to provide additional artillery observation support as required. The squadrons had a mixed bag of aircraft – 16 Squadron was in perhaps the worst position, as it possessed a total of just eight aircraft of four different types. The lack of standardisation across the force meant that pilots had to adjust to the foibles of the different designs, while the logistics chain was made more complicated.

Despite the rather ad hoc air to the RFC’s structure and its limited size, it managed to provide useful air support from the outset. At the battle of Neuve Chapelle, the RFC photographed the German lines extensively, allowing the creation of trench maps. The importance of artillery spotting was recognised in Douglas Haig’s admonishment of some of his senior gunners in First Army for failing to ensure that their gun batteries followed the fire corrections which the RFC provided, although this high-handed attitude to the information provided from the air was unusual. A greater problem lay in the lack of a standardised approach to liaison between the air and ground elements of the BEF.

Over the course of the first six months or so of the war, RFC squadrons had developed methods of cooperation with the formations that they were supporting – only to discover when they were reassigned to work with other units that their new partners had developed similar but different methods of cooperation with ‘their’ squadron, leading to considerable confusion as the airmen attempted to cooperate with the infantry and artillery units they now supported.

While it was clear even before the war started that artillery spotting was best conducted using wireless (one-way transmission from the aircraft to the artillery), a lack of funding and – more importantly – a lack of suitable wireless equipment delayed progress. Wireless sets were heavy and it was beyond the capability of the RFC’s aircraft to carry both a wireless set and an observer to operate it. While it was possible for pilots to both fly and observe for the fall of shot, this was not ideal. The arrival of the Sterling Spark wireless in 1915 solved the problem of weight, but availability was a different matter; it took quite some time for the new wireless set to be installed across the RFC.

To add to the challenges faced by the airmen, much of their reconnaissance information was collected using a mixture of the human eye – often deceived by a combination of altitude and visibility, particularly in sunlight, haze or the smoky conditions of a battlefield – and rudimentary cameras which had a tendency to freeze at altitude. Add to this a lack of training in the interpretation of photographs and insufficient personnel to attempt to work out what the images captured by the pilots showed, and it is something of a testament to the RFC that so much of the information they brought back was regarded as being of great utility. Here again, though, 1915 marked the point at which the question of photography began to be addressed properly, with the development of a camera designed for aerial use (the uninspiringly-named ‘Type A’ ) and training in the art of photographic interpretation.

It is easy to criticise the RFC for a lack of training in this regard, but it must be remembered that those involved were working from first principles, deriving their knowledge of what certain objects looked like from above by flying over their own lines, taking photographs of known installations and the objects therein before developing their photographic plates and seeing what the objects photographed looked like when seen from the air.

There was little that the RFC could do to address these technical issues, but by September 1915, the bid to standardise on a single aircraft type had moved on, particularly as more squadrons arrived in France. In First Wing, three of the four squadrons were equipped with either the BE2 or Morane Parasol. These were capable machines which could be used for bombing as well as their main role of observation. Second Wing was not in such a happy position, but Third Wing’s three squadrons had standardised. Two used the BE2 (plus one single-seat ‘scout’ on charge), while the third unit – 11 Squadron – was the first RAF fighter squadron, employing the Vickers FB5 ‘Gunbus’.

The importance of gaining control of the air to enable operations was recognised long before the war, but sporadic efforts at air fighting finally blossomed into significant combat during the summer and autumn of 1915. The use of a fixed forward firing gun with interrupter gear pioneered by the Fokker Eindekker gave the Germans the upper hand, causing the RFC considerable angst as reconnaissance and artillery observation sorties were attacked on a regular basis, and losses increased. Again, there was little that the RFC could do but wait for the arrival of more fighter squadrons.

In addition to the growing air combat role, the use of aircraft for the purpose of bombardment had been adopted. Accurate bombing was exceptionally difficult, requiring pilots to fly low – and in the teeth of ground fire – if they were to stand any chance of getting their bombs near to the target. Yet even though such attacks were largely ineffective, they had at least a nuisance value, and sometimes – through a combination of pilot skill and luck – fairly significant damage was caused to German targets, particularly rail links.

The growth of air fighting and bombing gathered pace throughout the summer of 1915, but mainly served as an illustration of what would come, particularly as the RFC’s new commander in France, Brigadier-General Hugh Trenchard held an aggressive view as to the ways in which aircraft should be employed to support the BEF.

Thus, by early September 1915, the RFC was still developing into an effective force. There were deficiencies in equipment and training; the flying corps was still relatively small and faced a serious challenge from German fighters. Conversely, there was a growing awareness throughout the BEF – with Haig at the forefront – of how aircraft could make a meaningful contribution to operations through reconnaissance, artillery spotting, and bombing. The battle of Loos was to provide the first test, as will be discussed in a subsequent post.

Image: A Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2, which had been captured by the German army in 1915, via Wikimedia Commons.

Defeating the Senussi (December 1915-March 1916): The appliance of science?

by Ewan Lawson

The campaigns in the Western Desert in the Second World War are well known with locations like Sollum and Bir El Hakim having secured their place in history. What is less well known is that this area had previously been fought over some 25 years before during the Great War. Part of the effort by Germany and Turkey to raise Islamic communities against the Entente powers, it was ultimately unsuccessful and demonstrated the sort of imaginative approach coupled with the importance of logistics that were to become features of the later campaign.

From the signing of its secret treaty with the Sublime Porte, the German government had encouraged the Ottomans to, in the words of the Kaiser, ‘inflame the whole Mohammedan world’. At the heart of this so called Jihad strategy announced in November 1914 was a desire to distract France and Britain with uprisings in their colonial territories which could also have the effect of decreasing the number of troops available to fight on the Western front. In Egypt, there was also a belief that it could lead to the cutting of the Suez Canal, critical to Britain’s support from its Asian and Australasian territories. However, many of those Islamic communities approached by missions from Istanbul, initially at least attempted to play a long game and to see where the war was heading before they committed. The Senussi of Cyrenaica were no different in this.

The Senussi were a religious order dating from the beginning of the 19th century formed to reform and purify the faith. Under their leader the Grand Senussi Sayed Ahmed they had been fighting the Italians since 1911 as they had attempted to occupy Cyrenaica. The Senussi had assumed the leadership of the tribes in the region in this campaign and whilst Sayed was an effective leader, his forces were poorly equipped and he himself was in an insecure position as he was only a nephew of his predecessor.

After a failed attempt to influence Sayed Ahmed by a German delegation in 1914, the Ottomans dispatched Nuri Bey, the half-brother of Enver Pasha, to encourage the Senussi to attack British Egypt. Through the summer of 1915, training and augmentation by the Ottomans increased the confidence of the Senussi at the same time as reverses at Gallipoli began to undermine their perceptions of British strength. However, even as late as September of that year despite a series of incidents in the vicinity of Sollum, the senior British officer who was engaged with the Senussi, a Lt Col Snow of the Egyptian Coastguard, was confident that hostilities could be avoided. Actions by German submarines off of the coast were to change that.

In November 1915, German U-boats sank two British merchant ships and handed over their crews to the Senussi who could not be persuaded even with an offer of money to return them. U-boats then attacked Egyptian Coastguard vessels in Sollum Bay, sinking one and damaging another after which the Senussi began to attack and occupy outposts around Sollum and barracks in the town itself. Particularly disturbing for the British was that a number of Egyptian troops switched sides and defected to the Senussi.

The British command recognised the danger of Senussi success for internal security in Egypt but also that Sollum was in an exposed position and there was a need to avoid an early reverse. Thus the decision was made to withdraw to Mersa Matruh some 120 miles to the East in order to concentrate forces and build up the logistic stocks needed for a campaign. The terrain along the coast was semi-desert with reasonable access to water. Inland, the terrain was harder going desert but with a number of oases, some of considerable size and supporting significant populations. On the 20 November 1915, the order was issued to establish the Western Frontier Force (WFF) under Major General Wallace at Mersa Matruh comprising of composite infantry and yeomanry brigades, as well as Australian, Indian and New Zealand troops and detachments of the Bikanir Camel Corps. By early December, this force had grown to 1400 strong and now included artillery as well as aircraft of the RFC. Wallace decided that he needed to inflict an early defeat on the Senussi in order to undermine their confidence and prestige, and so, on 11 December, sent a small expedition along the coast towards a Senussi concentration at Wadi Senab. A series of engagements followed over the next couple of days with infantry and cavalry supported by armoured cars and aircraft inflicting tactical defeats on the Senussi before the force returned to Matruh.

Having cleared a force of some 5000 Senussi with artillery and machine-guns occupying a ridge 6 miles south-west of Matruh with a dawn attack supported by naval gunfire from HMS Clematis, Wallace determined on a plan to retake Sollum. A seaborne assault on the port simultaneous with an advance on Sidi Barrani was considered unfeasible due to the easily defended position at Sollum and so it was determined instead to drive through Barrani first. The WFF had been reinforced with troops returning from Gallipoli and a large number of camels although HQ in Cairo had deliberately spread disinformation about a British withdrawal in order to fix the Senussi. At the end of February 1916, the force advanced towards Barrani attacking an entrenched enemy force to the south east of the town. Infantry advanced supported by cavalry and armoured cars and after a fierce battle the Sennusi broke and fled. Ottoman General Jaffar Pasha was captured and as in part he had been a steadying influence on the Senussi, they never again stood and awaited a British attack. Sollum was then recaptured in mid March with the Duke of Westminster and force of armoured cars pursuing the retreating enemy and eventually recovering the sailors who had been captured by German U-boats the previous year. This marked the end of the campaign on the coastal plain.

The Senussi had for some time also had a presence in the large oases of the Western desert and Siwa in particular had long been a centre of their influence. From Siwa it was possible to threaten the Nile valley through two routes; a northern through Bahariya and a southern through Dhakla and Kharga. Initially, the British adopted a defensive strategy with a combination of forts and observation from the air. However, once the campaign on the coast had been completed successfully the Senussi seemed to lose any aggression and indeed evacuated Kharga in April 1916. The British-led forces had by then established the Imperial Camel Corps from elements of the Australian divisions and the Light Horse, along with New Zealanders and British Yeomanry and Territorial infantry. The Corps, supported by armoured car patrols and air power were now responsible for securing Egypt from threats from the west as the British moved to entirely remove the Senussi challenge. A railway that had previously run to Kharga was pushed further towards Dhakla and in October 1916, near simultaneous attacks were made on both Dhakla and Bahariya using a combination of the Corps and armoured car patrols to maximise speed and mobility. Both fell with few casualties and although the bulk of the Senussi forces along with Sayed Ahmed fled to Siwa oasis, a number were captured and permanent garrisons were established.

The series of defeats suffered by the Senussi had fatally undermined confidence in Sayed Ahmed and the British began negotiations with his nephew Sayed Idris who was his rival for the leadership and who had consistently spoken against the conflict. The British, supported latterly by the Italians, attempted to capture Sayed Ahmed at Siwa oasis in January 1917. Sayed Ahmed withdrew and despite a rapid mobile operation by a mixed force of armoured cars and the Camel Corps, he managed to escape with a small number of troops to Jaghub. With British prestige in the Western Desert at an all-time high, Sayed Idris took the opportunity to accept their conditions for a peace agreement having been recognised as Grand Sheikh and Emir of Cyrenaica and Tripoli. He also reached an understanding with the Italians which lasted until 1923. Sayed Ahmed was finally smuggled out of North Africa by an Austrian submarine to Constantinople where he became a propaganda figure in the Turkish governments’ pan-Islamic movement.

This relatively unknown campaign against a relatively well-equipped and, initially at least, motivated enemy, demonstrated how technology in the form of armoured cars and aircraft, could bring a decisive edge. This lesson was to be well learned not least by Churchill who was to make it the basis for imperial policing in the Middle East in the inter-war years. It is also highlighted how it is essential to understand the nature of the logistics challenge and to be prepared where possible to give ground to allow time to build up forces to ensure later success, lessons that would characterise successes in the region in the next war.

About the author: Ewan Lawson is the Senior Research Fellow for Military Influence at the Royal United Services Institute and a former RAF officer. During his career, he worked closely with the Defence Studies Department on his research interests. He is now a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies where he is researching the development of international regimes to deal with sexual violence in conflict. (www.unwcc.org)

Image: Western Desert Theatre of Operations Against the Senussi with thanks to http://www.1914-1918.net

Lessons Learned from Gallipoli



Both at the time and since, the natural reaction to the Allied failure to capture the Gallipoli Peninsular has been to interrogate the records in search of lessons to be learned. The numerous shortcomings in planning and execution evident in the operation have provided ample opportunity for those searching for ways to improve future amphibious assaults. Comments made by US observers present during the campaign, which my colleague Dr. Robert T. Foley’s discussed in this recent post, were representative of the consensus that ‘the Dardanelles Campaign as a whole…stands out as one of the most disastrous failures with which British forces have ever been involved.’ The shortcomings witnessed by the US representatives went on to inform the writing of Marine Corps’ doctrine in the 1930s as that service adopted a more maritime role. The British, too, sought to use the lessons of Gallipoli to improve future operations. In the wake of the successful Allied landings in Normandy in 1945, Admiral Sir T.H. Binney, who had taken part in the bombardment of the Dardanelles forts on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, questioned with a sense of evident satisfaction, ‘is it too much to claim that the sees of this successful effort were planted on our failure on 25th April, 1915?’

Yet, whilst lauding the planners of Operation Overlord for having ‘thoroughly learnt the lessons of history and our own failures in 1915’, Binney was critical of the authorities at the time for their failure to apply the lessons of the Dardanelles to the remainder of the War. In particular, he condemned the government for having withheld troops to repel a German invasion in 1917-18, reasoning that the ineffectiveness of naval gunfire at Gallipoli would have militated against the success of any assault upon Britain. However, the records reveal that the retired Admiral’s accusations were misplaced. Senior military and naval officials were quick to modify their opinions based upon events at the Dardanelles. In doing so they reached the opposite conclusion to that which Binney alluded to; namely that the Allied landings demonstrated that a German invasion was more realistic proposition than had hitherto been acknowledged.

The feasibility of a hostile invasion had been an issue of considerable controversy in Britain before the War. One of they key issues at stake was that of the practicalities of landing a force sufficient to subdue to the country. Whilst the military authorities tended to consider that troops might be landed across an open beach, the Admiralty was quick to highlight the practical obstacles to the rapid disembarkation of men, horses, guns and supplies without first seizing port facilities. Writing in early 1904, Vice-Admiral Sir John Fisher stated definitively that ‘no rational commander would rely on landing on an open beach. Hence, some sort of harbour must be used.’ Given the highly politicized debate as to the feasibility of invasion and its implications for army reform and the division of funding between the services, Fisher’s views must be treated with a degree of caution. In private, he was prepared to concede that lightly equipped troops might disembark rapidly onto an open beach. Yet, they remain broadly representative of the consensus of naval opinion at the time.

Where the two services did agree was that such an operation would be extremely problematic in the face of determined opposition. In the wake of the 1904 Clacton Sands manoeuvres, during which a force of 12,000 men, 42 guns and 2,700 horses was landed on the Essex coastline, a joint conference was convened to discuss future combined operations. The report of this body concluded that ‘modern weapons had greatly added to the difficulties of a force attempting an opposed landing.’ On these grounds, the assembled military and naval experts were satisfied that ‘enough has been said, I think, to demonstrate the impracticality of landing troops now-a-days in the face of opposition.’ The representatives of the press who had witnessed the landings concurred in this assessment, The Times noting that the exercises had taught the observing foreign military attachés ‘how difficult a task the invasion of England really would be.’ These conclusions were to inform the War Office’s Manual of Combined Operations (1913), which embodied the inadvisability of attempting opposed landings into British doctrine.

Unfortunately, the Clacton manoeuvres did not prove to be a catalyst for reconciling the opposing views of the two services regarding the feasibility of conducting a major landing on an open beach. For the remainder of the pre-war period the Admiralty remained wedded to the idea that such an operation was extremely problematic and that no enemy seeking to invade Britain was likely to attempt it. Instead, the naval authorities tended to focus on the vulnerability of the numerous small, relatively undefended ports on the east coast at which troops might be disembarked. The naval views received official sanction in April 1914, when the Committee of Imperial Defence concluded that:

The uncertainty of securing favourable weather conditions, the delay which might be caused by the cyclist patrols allotted to watch the coast line, and the probability of being attacked by the naval patrols before a landing can be completed, combine to provide a very strong deterrent to any attempt to land an invading army on an open beach.

That this consensus of opinion did not form an insuperable barrier to the decision to land troops on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula some twelve-months later was a measure of the over-confidence with which the British approached the operation. Nevertheless, whilst adequate operational analysis before the decision to order the landings was lacking, a greater degree of critical thought appears to have been devoted to assessing what lessons might be drawn from their conduct.

In January 1916, less than a month after the evacuation of Allied troops from their positions on the Peninsular, a conference was held in London to discuss the possibility of a German attack on the United Kingdom. This body departed from the Admiralty’s pre-war position regarding the feasibility of landing troops on an open beach, specifically on the basis of operations at Gallipoli. The representatives pointed out that ‘a force of 29,000 men with seven days’ supplies, but without artillery and transport, was disembarked on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 13½ hours’ and that ‘the force had to land in the face of most determined opposition from an equal, if not larger force, fighting behind defences erected with the sole object of denying the beaches to a landing party.’ The conference therefore concluded that since a German expedition was unlikely to encounter any opposition across large swathes of the relatively undefended British east coast, it was likely that ‘the enemy, by disembarking at a number of landing places, could land the maximum force he is able to embark for such an enterprise’. Combined with the prevailing naval situation in the North Sea, this necessitated a significant revision to the pre-war estimate of the number of troops that the Germans might successfully land in Britain, which was increased to 150,000 men.

By the time the Admiralty and War Office reached this assessment, Fisher had been out of official planning circles for over six months. The combustion of his relationship with Churchill had seen the old Admiral resign his post as First Sea Lord in what many regarded as a failed attempt to exert his authority over naval affairs. However, his retirement had been short lived. In July 1915 Fisher took up the chairmanship of the Board of Invention and Research, tasked with ‘organizing and encouraging scientific effort in relation to the requirements of the naval service.’ Referring to Fisher’s on-going politicking, the Admiral’s critics uncharitably re-christened this body the ‘Board of Intrigue and Revenge’. Yet, it is interesting to note that during one of his attempts to influence the course of government policy in the spring of 1917, Fisher chose to invoke the experience of Gallipoli to support his arguments. In a letter to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, Fisher confided that:

The Gallipoli landing (and its shores never free from hostile gunfire till its evacuation) has tumbled down the Walls of Jericho of the Blue Water School, of which I was formerly Chief! I’ve been to Damascus like St. Paul, and [am] converted.

These words may have been penned in support of political objectives, yet they serve to demonstrate that Britain’s military and naval authorities drew a counter-intuitive lesson from the experience at Gallipoli; namely that opposed landings on an open beach were possible under modern conditions. This goes some way to explaining why the Admiralty gave support to plans for landings against the Belgian coastline during 1917-18, whilst condemning as futile the isolated bombardment of coastal installations from the sea. Failure at Gallipoli provided numerous lessons for the British. The impracticality of amphibious operations under modern conditions was not one of them.

Image: The SS RIVER CLYDE which, loaded with troops, was run ashore on ‘V’ beach at Sedd el Bahr on Cape Helles during the Gallipoli landing, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, IWM (Q 13236): http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205248472.

Forgotten Battles: Gorlice-Tarnow, May-June 1915


Undoubtedly, the year 1915 has been largely ignored, if not forgotten, by British historians of the First World War. In part, this is because the year was one of success for Central Powers and failure for the Entente. In the West, the ‘Iron Wall’ of the German army repelled numerous major Franco-British offensives with minimal losses. In the Dardanelles, Turkish forces had warded off all attacks by British and French naval and land forces and were poised to inflict a stinging defeat on the Entente. In Mesopotamia, the Turks had stopped a British advance and laid siege to this force at Kut-al-Amara. It was on the Eastern Front in 1915, however, that the Central Powers had their greatest successes. With the exception of a recent book by Richard DiNardo and one of my earlier books, these victories by the Central Powers in the east have been almost completely overlooked by Anglophone historians.

The great Austro-Hungarian-German victories began in early May 1915. Responding to increasingly desperate cries for assistance from the Austro-Hungarian High Command, which was facing an imminent collapse of its defensive front in the Carpathians, the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, transferred eight divisions to the Eastern Front. These divisions were formed into a new army – the 11th – which was initially formed to carry out a breakthrough on the Western Front. This new army had been given Hans von Seeckt as its chief of staff. Seeckt had been chosen for this role, in part, because of his success in the limited battles of Vailly and Soissons in January 1915; Falkenhayn had hoped that Seeckt would use this experience to conduct a larger, war-winning breakthrough with the reserves the German army had now collected. Seeckt would oversee a large and successful breakthrough battle in 1915, but on the Eastern, not the Western Front.

In late April, the Central Powers collected some sixteen divisions and considerable heavy artillery southeast of Krakow. The German 11th Army was to join the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army in an attack on the Russian 3rd Army near Gorlice-Tarnow. The Austro-German force would be commanded tactically by General August von Mackensen, the 11th Army’s commander, with the Austro-Hungarian High Command directing the overall operation. The goal of what would become ‘Army Group Mackensen’ was to punch a hole through the Russian lines and threaten the flank and rear of the Russian forces advancing through the Carpathian Mountains further south.

The offensive began on 2 May and was successful beyond expectations. By 3 May, the 11th Army had captured 17,000 Russian prisoners. By 10 May, the Russian 3rd Army had retreated to the River San and had been ‘bled white’ in the words of its commander, General Radko Dmitriev; only 40,000 of its 250,000 men made it to the new defensive position. The Austro-German offensive did not stop on the San, however, but continued to punish the Russians. When the offensive was brought to a halt on 22 June, the Central Powers had advanced some 300 kilometers, had retaken Lvov, the capital of Austrian Galicia, and had inflicted enormous casualties on the Russian army; the 11th Army alone captured more than 250,000 Russian prisoners and 225 guns. The costs had been relatively light; the 11th Army suffered some 87,000 casualties in the offensive.

The Gorlice-Tarnow offensive was important to the Central Powers for a range of reasons. Strategically, the offensive relieved the pressure on the threatened Austro-Hungarian defensive positions in the Carpathians. Had the Russians broken through this line, they would have been on the Hungarian Plains with little between them and the Hungarian capital Budapest. The heavy casualties suffered by the Russians also did serious damage to the Russian army as a fighting force. In a report on 6 June Capt. J.F. Nielson, a British liaison officer, described the Russian army as a ‘harmless mob’ as a result of the offensive. The weakened Russian army would suffer even more later in the summer.

The battle also had important tactical implications for the Central Powers. The German army believed several factors were crucial for its successes. The first of these was surprise. The offensive was agreed by Falkenhayn and executed by the 11th Army in the space of only 20 days. German troops only began arriving on 17 April, with their deployment finished on 29 April. German troops did not move into attack positions until 1 May, and any German officer who went into the frontline before this time had to wear Austrian uniform. With such short timeframes, the Russian defenders had little time to identify German units opposing them. This alone helped ensure that when the attack came, the Russian would be surprised.

Second, the attacking force of the Central Powers collected over 1,000 guns, which overwhelmed the Russian artillery. The attackers also eschewed a long preparatory bombardment. The Central Powers began ‘harassing fire’ on the evening of 1 May, but only delivered a four-hour bombardment as a prelude to the infantry assault on 2 May. This bombardment was intensive, however, and designed to stun the Russian defenders rather than destroy their defenses. Drawing on the experiences of Vailly and Soissons, the artillery was assigned targets most appropriate to gun types; howitzers and mortars concentrated their fire on Russian trenches and wire, while flat trajectory cannon destroyed Russian bunkers and hit concentration areas. The 11th Army also made use of Feuerwelle, or fire periods, which saw different intensities of fire followed up by observation.

Third, the 11th Army’s attack orders stipulated that momentum of advance was to be kept at all times until the final objectives were reached. The Austro-German attacking units were deployed in depth, rather than breadth. Each unit was to draw upon its own reserves keep the momentum of the attack and was to drive forward regardless of progress by its neighbors. Mackensen and Seeckt expected these deep penetrations would be mutually supporting, as they would keep the Russians off balance.

The Central Powers would return to these tactical concepts and put them to good use later in 1915. They also reinforced the lessons of the German limited offensives on the Western Front in late 1914 and early 1915. While German soldiers recognized clearly that the Russians were a far less competent enemy than the French or the British and that the operations situation was far different on the Western Front, the success of the offensive at Gorlice-Tarnow stood in stark contrast to the Entente failures on the Western Front and on Gallipoli. It helped convince German soldiers that their tactical methods were superior to their enemies, even on the Western Front. The tactics employed by the Germans at Gorlice-Tarnow and elsewhere on the Eastern Front in 1915 would influence Falkenhayn heavily in his concept for the offensive at Verdun in early 1916.

Image: Kaiser Wilhelm II photographed with Hans von Seeckt and August von Mackensen outside the 11th Army headquarters sometime in spring 1915. Photo courtesy of the Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R11105.

Towards Systematic Bombing: The Royal Flying Corps and Experience on the Western Front, 1915

In a recent post, Dr Nick Lloyd described 1915 as the ‘forgotten year‘ of the First World War. To correct this, in occasional posts throughout 2015 members of the First World War Research Group based in the Defence Studies Department will examine unknown or forgotten aspects of the war during 1915.


‘Considerable experience has now been gained in the methods of carrying out bombing attacks’ noted a report produced by Headquarters, Royal Flying Corps (RFC), in December 1915, but it also acknowledged that the experience was ‘insufficient to lay down any hard and fast rules as to the system to be adopted, and probably it is undesirable to do so.’ The purpose of the report was twofold; to disseminate the experience of bombing so far gained, but also to obtain from the wings and squadrons ‘suggestions which may be of assistance in shaping future policy.’ The report is significant in its indication of how the year 1915 had been one of development in the form and method of air attack upon ground targets, with the RFC transitioning from amateur to something approaching professionalism in its approach to bombing from the air. Much had been learned, and the report is particularly interesting in indicating how closely the bombing experience and methods of the French had been studied, but much still remained to be learned.

The year had begun with spasmodic attempts by the pilots or observers of individual aircraft, who were not on ground attack missions, to throw overboard bombs in the hope of doing some damage to the enemy below; bombs were few and rudimentary, aircraft had no bomb racks, there were no effective bomb sights. During the course of 1915 this began to change. By the end of the year the RFC report could state definitely that such ‘go-as-you-please’ methods, as it termed them, had been abandoned by both the RFC and the French. Instead, it had become an ‘accepted principle’ that bombing attacks on ‘all important objectives’ be carried out by as many aircraft as possible, with ‘all the aeroplanes flying together and reaching the objective together.’ Here was an acknowledgement of an increasing sophistication in the understanding of what targets were important to bomb, the report mentions enemy aerodromes and communications targets such as railways, and that to be effective bombing needed to be concentrated. It also observed that the method of aircraft flying together and reaching the target together ‘is calculated to give A.A. guns the least possible chance of effect, and to render attack by hostile aircraft most difficult.’ For air defence too, 1915 had been a year of transition, the increasing rate and scale of bombing attack driving more and better defences both in the air and in anti-aircraft firepower from the ground. By the end of the year, as the RFC report indicates, air defence had become sufficiently effective, at least in potential, to determine bombing methods: ‘All machines flying in line ahead at the same height is a formation above all to be avoided’, it noted, ‘as being the most vulnerable against attack by A.A. guns.’ The French, it was pointed out, bombed from varying heights of 6,000 feet and over to increase the difficulties of A.A. gunners, with the risk of one aeroplane bombing another being ‘so small as to be negligible.’

The organising and command and control of bombing attacks had also become more systematic by the end of 1915, with sufficient experience to indicate alternative methods, though not enough to be dogmatic as to which was best. Concentrated bombing attacks required methods whereby the squadrons taking part could be sure to arrive over the target simultaneously. One method, favoured by the French, was for all the aircraft of the squadrons to rendezvous over a preselected spot at a given time before proceeding to the target. Another method was for the aircraft of each squadron to have a separate rendezvous equidistant from the target with orders to start at a given time. By the end of the year the III Wing of the RFC had tried both methods but found, when attempting the second for an attack on the German airfield at Hervilly on 14 December 1915, that the aircraft arrived in rapid succession over the target rather than ‘absolutely together’ as intended; it was a method demanding ‘careful planning and synchronization of watches.’ Whatever method, it was pointed out that the rendezvous ‘must invariably be selected well behind the lines, out of view from the enemy’.

In describing the methods of leading bombing missions, and in the tactics of bombing, the RFC report emphasised the importance of visual recognition and drew mainly on the French experience. ‘The Group Commander is the first to leave the ground’, it noted, ‘and he leads throughout the raid. His aeroplane is distinguished by the tricolour rosette on the sides and front of the nacelle and by metal pennants on the rear centre struts.’ Escadrille commanders usually followed the Group Commander who, once all aircraft had rendezvoused, fired a succession of Very lights and led off towards the target, the rest of the aircraft closing in and maintaining as close a formation as possible throughout the raid and the return, ‘They must not disperse.’

The French made their bombing attacks down wind, it being ‘probably considered that any errors in estimating the direction of the wind have less effect when an aeroplane is flying down wind than when running into it.’ By the time of the report, the RFC’s III Wing had tried only one down- wind bombing attack, the one against Hervilly on 14 December, but most bombs had fallen short, attributed to a change in the wind during the two hour interval between the setting of sights and the carrying out of the attack. The provision of sights and their pre-setting reflected the increasing efforts seen during 1915 to develop the skills of bombing, and the RFC report advocated both constant practice and frequent use of the ‘camera obscura’. Bomb loads were as yet small, the alternatives being for an aircraft to carry two 112lb bombs or one 112lb bomb with six or eight 20lb bombs, though as the report noted, ‘Against every description of target the former appears to be the most effective’ indicating that by the end of 1915 the imperative for an increasing weight of bomb tonnage was already underway.

As bombing increased in significance during 1915 it became apparent that to carry it out required a discipline, and courage, of its own. It also began to influence the evolving pattern of air warfare. ‘The bombing machines must be adequately protected’ noted the RFC report, also pointing out how the knowledge that friendly fighter aircraft were patrolling between the bombing aircraft and known enemy airfields gave confidence to their pilots. With sufficient friendly fighters patrolling near the front line it was felt that bombing aircraft could attack targets up to 30 miles beyond without escort, but for more distant raids ‘two out of every ten aeroplanes should carry no bombs and be entrusted with escort duties only.’ The French, it noted, sent their fighters out to meet returning bombers, and to protect possible stragglers that had fallen out of formation and were particularly vulnerable to German fighter attack.

The year 1915 was surely not the most significant of the First World War in demonstrating the effectiveness and potential of aerial bombing, but it may be seen as the year in which bombing, and the gathering and interpretation of its experience, started to become systematic. Yet, bombing was not, it seems, universally popular among pilots whose experience thus far had mainly been reconnaissance or fighting in the air. ‘The growing importance of bombing operations cannot be too fully impressed upon pilots’ noted the RFC report, ‘There are still pilots who belittle the importance and utility of these operations. The results, both material and moral, of recent raids should be sufficient to convince all that well-conceived and thoroughly carried out bomb attacks may have far-reaching effects.’ Skepticism was already being overborne by an article of faith.

Image: A Royal Aircraft Factory R.E.7, which were used in 1915 by the Royal Flying Corps on bombing missions. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

From the Archives: A Disastrous Campaign: The US View of Gallipoli


On 25 April 1915, units of General Sir Ian Hamilton’s Mediterranean Expeditionary Force landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The goal of this force was to clear the peninsula of Turkish defenders, and in particular their heavy artillery, in order to allow an Anglo-French naval force to sweep the Dardanelles Straits and converge on Constantinople. Attempts since mid-February to force the Straits by ships alone had floundered on the defensive combination of sea mines protected by heavy artillery based on the peninsula to the west and on the Asiatic shore to the east. Indeed, this attempt had been extremely costly – HMS Irresistible and Ocean, in addition to the French pre-Dreadnought Bouvet, were sunk, and the French pre-Dreadnoughts Suffren and Gaulois, and the battlecruiser HMS Inflexible were badly damaged by Turkish mines. British and French planners now expected that a landing by the four divisions of Hamilton’s force, supported by a diversionary landing by a French division at Kum Kale on the eastern side of the Straits, would quickly deal with the land-based Turkish defenders allowing the Straits to be swept clear of mines, which would permit the Anglo-French fleet to advance on Constantinople.

The land-based operation was to be anything but smooth. The Turkish defenders held the high ground, and although the initial landings were successful, they became largely stalled on the beaches. All attempts to break out of the beachheads were defeated by a stout Turkish defence, and a further landing on 6 August at Sulva Bay was similarly boxed in by the defenders. Losses throughout the operation had been high and the gains negligible. In December and early January, the Allied forces withdrew successfully from their beachheads with the last Allied troops departing on 8 January 1916.

Operations at Gallipoli attracted considerable attention from the rest of the world. From the start, US military and naval attaches in London, Paris, and Constantinople sent reports back to Washington on the operation. Many of these can still be found in the US Army War College Division papers held in the US National Archives (Record Group 165, Microfilm Publication M1024). Two sets stand out and provide an interesting view on how these observers assessed the Anglo-French offensive and the Turkish defensive campaign through most of 1915. The first is a series of reports by LtCol T.C. Treadwell, USMC, who served as the US naval attaché in London. Treadwell’s reports begin in May 1915 and run to February 1916. The second is a 165-page report written by Capt. H.L. Landers of the Coastal Artillery Corps, for the US Army War College Division. In the absence of a formal military intelligence agency, the War College Division served as a rudimentary intelligence section, and Landers made use of a wide range of sources, including other attaché and observer reports of the campaign. Only four copies of Landers’ report were made, suggesting it was a sensitive document. These contemporary reports offer us an interesting insight into how the campaign was perceived at the time by neutral observers, before myths about the operation had been fully formed and obviously before the outcome of the First World War was known.

One of the first observations that strikes a reader of these reports is how impressive the scale of the operation was to contemporary observers. Although amphibious operations were not new to warfare, opposed landings involving an initial landing force of four divisions supported by a major naval force was unique. All of the observer reports noted the large numbers of land and sea forces involved throughout the campaign and spoke about the skill in which the opposed landing was carried out and supported from the sea. Treadwell’s reports in particular emphasized the joint nature of the campaign. He noted the way in which the land and naval forces were dependent upon each other and that, for the most part, these worked well together through most of the campaign. Indeed, Treadwell and Landers both particularly praised the cooperation between the army and the navy during the tricky withdrawal from the Peninsula in December 1915 and January 1916. Cooperation between the army and the navy was about the only redeeming feature Treadwell and Landers could find from the Allied campaign, which Treadwell characterized as ‘ill advised, ill conducted, and disastrous.’

The two observers were keenly aware of the wider strategic context of the Gallipoli operation. Today, we tend to remember the Gallipoli campaign in isolation. To the US observers, though, its success and failure was firmly linked to operations on the Western Front and in the Balkans. Both Treadwell and Landers believed that the Allied forces engaged on Gallipoli would have increased considerably the chances of the Allied on the Western Front in 1915. Treadwell noted ‘The Dardenelles campaign simply served to squander important resources on a subsidiary operation with disastrous results.’ It was, however, the more local strategic context that ultimately was the most significant factor in the campaign. In his report of 7 January, Treadwell noted: ‘…any success [in the campaign] was dependent either on the failure of the Turkish supply of munitions or on a successful landing in force at some new position. Both of these chances were, however, lost by the turn of events in the Balkans in September and the entry of Bulgaria into the war on the side of Germany. From that time, not only was all present hope of forcing the Dardenelles lost, but the force on Gallipoli was placed in a very dangerous position.’ Indeed, both Treadwell and Landers criticized the British and French governments for not doing more to bring Bulgaria on to the side of the Entente before launching the ill-fated operation. Landers wrote: ‘there is much in the diplomatic efforts and failures of the [foreign] ministry deserving of severe censure.’

The reports also emphasized that the failures at Gallipoli represented a serious strategic setback for the Entente and for Britain more specifically. The failure to win Bulgaria or Greece to the Entente side was both a consequence of and a contributing factor to the failures of the Gallipoli operation. Treadwell and Landers both noted that as it became clear that both the sea and land campaign had failed, the attitudes of the neutral Balkan countries hardened. Indeed, the failures in the campaign clearly damaged the military reputation of the Entente, and hence belief in their ability to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Treadwell wrote: ‘The Dardenelles Campaign as a whole…stands out as one of the most disastrous failures with which the British forces have ever been involved.’ Additionally, the observers also noted that the Turkish success at Gallipoli had done an enormous amount to restore the confidence in the Turkish army and state that had been lost by military failures in the Balkan war and the early stages of the First World War. As a result, they foresaw the Turkish forces being able to play a more prominent role in the war.

For Treadwell and Landers, the reasons for the failure of the entire campaign were clear. Landers’ report speaks for the conclusions reached by both observers:

[The Gallipoli campaign] suffered because of the requisite element of secrecy was quickly lost, and because the first attack was not made in overwhelming combined military and naval force, which alone would have rendered rapid success possible. It revealed in its earliest stages insufficient thought about the best methods to be pursued. It was begun before Great Britain had taken stock of her supplies of men and munitions, in that careful and comprehensive manner which should have been an imperative prelude to a definite decision. The naval operations were marred by preconceived beliefs about the utility of warships in such an attack, which proved to be erroneous. The land operations were marred by attacking in insufficient strength and at wrong points.

Ultimately, Landers put these failures down to poor strategy formulation in the British government, which was seen as the progenitor of the campaign. Not only had the British government failed to lay the required diplomatic groundwork in gaining the Balkan neutrals for the Entente, it had failed to recognize the efforts that would be required to conduct a campaign like the Gallipoli operation. Landers ascribed this failing, in no small part, to the lack of an effective strategic staff in London. He wrote: ‘There had been an excellent General Staff in operation prior to the outbreak of the war, but when the crisis came it vanished. Its most distinguished members, with but few exceptions, were taken for commands in the field…the first emergency was met by sending abroad the very men who should have been kept at the center.’

Of course, the reports by Treadwell and Landers represent only two views of the Gallipoli campaign. However, with access to contemporary observations and some key decisionmakers, these reports provide the closest thing to an ‘official’ view of the US military on the Gallipoli operation as it unfolded and immediately after its conclusion. They show clearly that the failure at Gallipoli had a major impact on how neutrals saw the strategic chances and the military abilities of the Entente in 1915 and early 1916.

Image: Australian troops being towed ashore in lighters to land at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli. In the background is the transport ship. Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

The Turning Point of the First World War, 1915

In a recent post, Dr Nick Lloyd described 1915 as the ‘forgotten year‘ of the First World War. To correct this, in occasional posts throughout 2015 members of the First World War Research Group based in the Defence Studies Department will examine unknown or forgotten aspects of the war during 1915.


In December 1914, British government was faced with difficult choice. The bloody battles of the summer and autumn of 1914 had all but consumed the original establishment of the British Expeditionary Force. These losses had more than been compensated for by the ‘rush to the colors’, which provided the manpower for a much expanded army, but the question of how best to deploy this new force remained unanswered. Despite growing pressure from her French ally, Britain had yet to adopt a ‘continental’ strategy. Rather, the government of Herbert Asquith attempted to adhere to a policy of ‘business as usual’; extending credit to Britain’s alliance partners, providing a limited military commitment and relying primarily upon maritime economic warfare as Britain’s primary weapon. Such an approach was intended to insulate the British economy as far as possible from the dislocation the war threatened, allowing Britain to prosecute the conflict at an affordable cost. Thus, as the first of Lord Kitchener’s new armies began to approach combat readiness in the winter of 1914, the Cabinet considered how Britain should employ her new-found military strength to best effect in the year ahead. As Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, noted on December 28th, ‘the remarkable deadlock which has occurred in the western theatre of war invites consideration of the question of whether some other outlet can be found for the effective employment of the great forces of which we shall be able to dispose in a few months time.’

In the subsequent debate, the Cabinet settled upon an initial naval demonstration against the Dardanelles, intended to knock the weakest of the Central Powers; the Ottoman Empire, out of the war. In doing so they sought to exploit Britain’s maritime strength to project power against the enemy’s weakest point, adopting what Basil Liddell Hart would later term an ‘indirect approach’. However, it is important to appreciate that what would become the Gallipoli campaign was but one of the alternatives to the Western Front under consideration during the winter of 1914/5. This post will discuss one of the other schemes mooted at this point and attempt to underline the importance of adopting contemporary viewpoints in assessing the actions of decision-makers at the time.

Whereas military and naval planners had consistently questioned the feasibility of forcing the Dardanelles since the mid-1880s, plans for amphibious operations in northern waters had received more detailed consideration. Inter service co-operation remained limited, but the Admiralty devoted considerable attention to potential assaults against French and Russian port installations during the 1880s and 1890s. Since the early 1900s, similar schemes had been projected against the German North Sea and Baltic littorals. In their earliest iterations, these plans had been intended to provide advanced bases to support British destroyer patrols off the enemy coastline. Suggestions to limit German egress to the North Sea by means of sinking blockships in the estuaries of major ports were also considered. It is generally agreed that all such plans were shelved in mid-1911, after the Navy presented a supposedly incoherent and unrealistic plan of campaign to the government during a major war-scare over German activities in the Moroccan port of Agadir. The consensus has been that, in the absence of a formal naval staff to conduct systematic strategic planning the First Sea Lord, Sir Arthur Wilson, betrayed a failure to comprehend the realities of modern naval warfare by forwarding proposals for a series of anachronistic inshore operations in the Heligoland Bight. Hankey himself later recalled that the navy’s plan smelt of having been ‘cooked up in the dinner hour’ and Prime Minister Asquith described the admiral’s presentation as ‘puerile’.

What these authorities failed to appreciate, however, is that Wilson’s presentation actually embodied the navy’s most recent experiments in anti-submarine warfare. The First Sea Lord had justified his plans on the grounds that they would facilitate the ‘sealing in’ of German submarines and torpedo craft. On first inspection, such reasoning appeared questionable at best. Yet, contemporary submarine boats were so slow and vulnerable whilst surfaced that British practice was to escort the craft out of port with armoured cruisers and destroyers. Exercises conducted just weeks before the crucial meeting at which Wilson laid out his plans confirmed that the navy’s best chance to intercept German submarines was when they were in the shallow coastal waters of the Heliogland Bight, before they reached the open sea. Obscured by the Admiral’s brusque style, this important fact appears to have eluded the politicians assembled at the meeting. In itself, this is not definitive evidence of fundamental shortcomings in the rationale behind the plans, however.

One man upon whom Wilson’s logic was not lost was Winston Churchill, who was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in the aftermath of the August 1911 crisis. Soon after arriving in his post, the new First Lord became a confirmed advocate of amphibious operations against the German coastline. His natural inclination towards offensive and dramatic operations doubtless played a key role in determining this stance, which was opposed by many of his more conservative advisors. Yet, it is significant to note that Churchill developed plans for operations against the German North Sea littoral as an alternative to a bombardment of the Dardanelles in the winter of 1914/5.

For the first six months of the war, German submarines had exercised an even greater impact on the war in the North Sea than the Admiralty had anticipated. Finding a solution to this problem therefore became an urgent requirement for the naval leadership. Ever eager for a proactive response, Churchill threw his full weight behind a modified version of the plans Wilson had outlined in 1911, much to the amusement of the former First Sea Lord, Sir Francis Bridgeman, whom Churchill had unceremoniously forced into retirement the 1912. Writing to a friend, Bridgeman remarked how in 1911 ‘Churchill [had] laughed at the idea & in consequence the scheme went by the board!’ but that ‘It is therefore interesting to hear of a revival of the old projects!’

Whatever his doubts had been in 1911, after six months of war the First Lord’s mind had clearly been made up. On January 3rd he minuted that ‘all preparations should be made for the capture of Sylt’. (‘Sylt’, an island in the Frisian chain, was the codename adopted to mask the true target of the planned attack; the island of Borkum.) Circumstances conspired to ensure that the operation was put into temporary stasis several weeks later, however it continued to command the Admiralty’s interest. In the wake of the commencement of Germany’s first unrestricted submarine warfare campaign in March, Churchill was quick to return to the plans, in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the attack on British shipping. He explained to his colleagues that:

The object is to close up the mouth of the Jade and Weser & the Elbe, first by lines of mines & secondly by lines of anti-S/M [submarine] nets, & so protect these minefields from disturbance by monitors & destroyers wh[ich] are themselves not afraid of S/Ms.

On this occasion the competing resource demands of the Dardanelles campaign and the implosion of the Churchill-Fisher regime at the Admiralty in May combined to ensure that the plans again receded into the background. Professional naval opinion was divided as to their efficacy and it would have taken decisive political leadership to force their approval. Yet, it is worthwhile to appreciate just how close the ‘Sylt’ scheme came to being implemented and that the rationale behind it was more coherent than is commonly considered. Developments in technology had not invalidated the fundamental principles of naval warfare, or removed the scope for assuming the offensive in the North Sea. They merely required adaptation and initiative to circumvent. As Churchill argued when attempting to revive his scheme in the context of a renewed unrestricted submarine warfare campaign in mid-1917, the plans represented a ‘return to the old and definitely recognised policy of close and aggressive blockade’.

In examining the course of the war in 1915, it is crucial to do so unburdened by our knowledge of the events of 1916-18. At this point, the strategic options facing the Cabinet were broader than is often remembered. Our appreciation of the year 1915 must, therefore, be approached from the perspective of a fluid and dynamic strategic situation in which British policy makers sought to adopt creative solutions to the slaughter of the Western Front. That they ultimately failed in this endeavour was the product of the realities of industrialised total war, rather than a lack of imagination or humanity.

Image: ” German Submarine U-14 (LOC) (6358166395).” This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.17779. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.



2015 is the hundredth anniversary of one of the most important, yet little remembered, years in the history of Britain and her armed forces. Often overshadowed by the rush to war in 1914 and the momentous offensive on the Somme in 1916, the battles that the British Expeditionary Force fought on the Western Front in 1915 (as well as the tragic Gallipoli campaign in the Mediterranean), were a key stage in the development of modern warfare.

In France and Belgium, the British fought in a variety of offensive and defensive actions throughout the year, most notably at Neuve Chapelle (10-12 March), Aubers Ridge (9 May), Second Ypres (22 April – 25 May), Festubert (15-27 May) and Loos (25 September – 13 October). Of these, the battle of Loos was the biggest. When it was fought it was the largest land battle in British military history, witnessing the first British use of poison chlorine gas (in bulky cylinders placed in the front line), and the debut of elements of Lord Kitchener’s New Army (composed of citizen volunteers), which had been raised after the outbreak of war. It was also the first time the British experienced the huge cost of major continental campaigns, suffering over 60,000 casualties in little over three weeks – with, on average, British divisions suffering a higher number of men killed in action than would be seen on the infamous 1 July 1916, ‘the first day on the Somme’. Yet this remains largely unknown.

1915 has frequently been lamented as a ‘forgotten’ year of the Great War, and apart from the much-mythologised campaign to secure Constantinople through the Dardanelles, it remains largely overlooked and neglected in writing about the war. Yet if any year seems to epitomise the popular perception of the Western Front in Britain – poison gas clouds, struggling commanders and whole battalions being strung up on barbed wire in no-man’s-land – it is 1915. It was the subject of Alan Clark’s popular account, The Donkeys (1961), which did much to sully the reputation of British commanders. For him 1915 was the year in which the old professional army of the United Kingdom was destroyed. ‘Again and again they were called upon to attempt the impossible,’ he wrote, ‘and in the end they were all killed. It was as simple as that.’

Yet there is undoubtedly more to 1915 than endless, futile slaughter. Indeed, in terms of tactical and technical innovations, it was an incredibly productive year. It witnessed (among others things) the first use of poison gas and smoke; the introduction of short-range wireless sets; the continued development of air power and air-land integration (for example the use of aerial photography at Neuve Chapelle); the beginning of ‘creeping’ artillery barrages; the growing reliance on trench mortars and grenades; the development of the Mark I tank; as well as the birth of so-called ‘infiltration tactics’ (with the publication of Captain André Laffargue’s influential pamphlet in August). 1915 was also the year that the Great War became a total war, as the belligerents harnessed their industrial and financial strength to produce the guns and shells; ships and aircraft that would be required to fight this new kind of war. It thus set the scene for what the Germans would call the Materialschlacht – the ‘material battle’ – that would emerge in the great battles of 1916.

In Britain the official commemorations of the Great War are likely to leave the war on the Western Front in 1915 largely untouched (although Gallipoli will be commemorated), with most of the focus instead being on preparing for the centenary of the Battles of Jutland and the Somme in 2016. Nevertheless 1915 deserves its place in our reappraisal of the war. It was the year when the pre-war armies of 1913 and 1914 began their process of adaptation and innovation that would culminate in the great, industrial battles of the middle years of the war. 1915 was the crucial link between the grand battles of manoeuvre of 1914 and the trench-bound ‘semi-modern’ warfare of the middle years of the war.

Image: Attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt by the 46th (North Midland) Division (Territorial Force) during the battle of Loos. Smoke and gas can be seen in the centre and on the left of the photograph. Image reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. © IWM (Q 29001)