by Tom B
BEF II Army Corps HQ Abbeville 0105 hrs Friday October 9, 1914
"General French, I must ask you one more time to reconsider your orders. I feel it is my obligation as a British officer to make clear my reservations."
"F’r Chrisake, Horace, what in blazes is bloody wrong with you, man ? Didn’t we beat this topic to death just a few hours ago. Oh, go ahead and say what you feel you have to—just keep it brief and respectful."
General Horace Smith-Dorrien had not wanted to make this phone call. He knew it would do no good. Probably just further intensify the already deep mutual hatred between his commander and himself. However his damn conscience would not let it be and so he was now trying one last time to do the right thing.
"General French, I’ve just returned from visiting my men in the battalions that are scheduled to make the morning assault—"
"—how noble and chivalrous, you are, Horace," remarked French with utter sarcasm, "Damn you! The night before a major battle a general has more important things to do than play nanny and tuck his enlisted men into bed. What the hell is wrong with you??!!"
"Sir, with all due respect" Which in your case is no to speak of "I needed to see for myself what state the men are in. What I found is men too exhausted to make an effective attack. In the last week they were force marched at an incredible pace from Dieppe and then immediately thrown into five days of continuous combat. They have withstood fierce German attacks for the last two days. They have fought with the utmost bravery but there is only so much that the human body can do. The men I see who are too tired to attack and if we send them out in the morning the only thing we’ll accomplish is to waste their precious lives."
"If they are so tired, then you should’ve let them sleep, general. Listen there is no gainsaying that your men have been through a lot. But the Germans must be exhausted as well right now and this is the time to regain the initiative and hit them hard."
This is no use. Might as well hang up the damn phone now. "General French, my division has suffered grievous losses starting with Mons. Yes we’ve received a few replacement levies but the division is still badly understrength. Furthermore the allotment of artillery shells we have is inadequate—"
"—yes, yes, we’re been oover this topic before and I will once again admit it’s not as much as I had requested But it seems we’re not the only ones in this war who don’t have enough shells. Foch has told me that the French situation is worse than our own and yet he still their Tenth Army launched a series of attacks today to pin the Germans around Amiens in anticipation of our own assault. I don’t think the Germans are blessed with an inexhaustible supply of artillery shells either. My hunch is that they shot off nearly all of their shells in the last two days—which is yet another reason for us to attack at sunrise.
Now listen well, Horace. Since we’ve last talked I’ve received a wireless message from Rawlinson. He’s identified the German units at Dixmude. We had hoped they were just some Landwehr brigade. Now it turns out that it’s the bloody Prussian Guards! At least a whole division of them. It’s fairly obvious now that Moltke aims to resolve the Belgian situation as quickly as possible. But in doing so he’s not been able to reinforce Sixth Army as much. So if we just sit on our arses here we’ll be doing exactly what Moltke wants us to. I am not going to do him that favor. Today and tomorrow we are going to smash the German Sixth Army. After that Allenby will gallop off with the cavalry and rescue the Belgians.
So my orders stand. Horace. Your Corps along III Army Corps will attack at dawn tomorrow. My only amendment to them is to now order you get some sleep. You’ll see things better in the morning. This discussion is over. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir. It’s understood," replied Smith-Dorrien, but he doubted that he would be able to get to sleep. To compound his problems he now sensed hints of panic creeping into French’s wild optimism. Smith-Dorrien looked at his staff. He noticed a certain familiar look on their faces. They’re wondering if Our ‘orace is going to go off on another rant. Not tonight fellahs. Sorry to disappoint you if you’re expecting a show. Got to be more careful about badmouthing Frenchie. Criticism of a superior officer is quite dangerous in the British Army. So Rawlinson up in Belgium was facing the famed Prussian Guards? Can’t help but to wonder what’s going through his mind right now?
HQ British 7th Division Thourout (south of Ostend) Belgium 0110 hrs
"General Rawlinson, sir, a message has just come through from the Belgian High Command."
General Sir Henry Rawlinson took the message. His facial expression failed to provide neither General Thompson Capper, who was the commander of 7th Division, General Julian Byng, who was the commander of the 3rd Cavalry Division, nor his staff any clue as to its contents.
Rawlinson read it twice before announcing, "King Albert has reached his decision. He is sending the Belgian 1st and 3rd Divisions to join us. They are expected to arrive Sunday morning. The rest of the Belgian Army along with the French Marines will form a defensive line along the west bank of Schipdonck Canal."
"Will the Belgians be able to hold the Germans in the east?" Byng asked in a dubious voice.
"Indefinitely? I don’t think so. But they should be able to fend them off for about a week. That should be all the time we need. French believes he can achieve a decisive victory in the next two days. If that’s the case, Cavalry Corps could be arriving early Tuesday to attack the Germans near Ypres."
"That’s reassuring. Any more intelligence from the Belgians about those German forces near Ypres?"
"Nothing. God almighty, how I wish we had some of our own airplanes or even a single observation balloon ready! Feel nearly blind in a situation like this without any air assets."
Rawlinson then turned to Capper, "Well, Thompson, are we ready to dance with the Prussian Guards?"
"Yes, sir! Most definitely looking forward to it!"
"That’s the spirit, man! Yet we must not let our enthusiasm for battle blind us to potential danger. There could be the entire Guard Corps waiting for us out there not just one division. Make sure you keep the entire yeomanry regiment on patrol to the south."
Rawlinson now turned back to General Julian Byng, the commander of 3rd Cavalry Division, "Julian, I must reiterate that while your primary mission will be to establish a bridgehead across the Yser, nonetheless your division must be ready to come rapidly to the aid of 7th Division should things go awry."
"I understand, sir. Might I ask if you’re reached an opinion about how best to use the Royal Naval Division?"
"What’s left of the them will get deployed somewhere on 7th Division’s left flank. They won’t be arriving for another two days though, so we can work out the details later. For the time being they’ve been given Roulers as their destination."
Rawlinson then looked at the only man in the room wearing a naval uniform, "Which reminds me of another matter. Commander Fairwood, I’ve been thinking over that assistance you said the navy would be able to provide. Can something be arranged for Sunday morning."
"I’ll will have to contact the Admiralty, general but I was led to believe that two full days prior notification would be sufficient."
"Excellent--you are to contact your superiors immediately. Let me know when you are certain whether or not the ships will be available. Mind you, this may not be necessary depending on what General Byng is able to accomplish today but I always think it wise to be fully prepared."
Just north of Lyon 0950 hrs
The train wound its way north through the delightful French countryside in the foothills of the Alps. It was one of the troop trains carrying the Ferozepore Brigade to join the rest of the BEF. In one of its cars the front was occupied by soldiers of the 1st battalion Connaught Rangers while in the rear of the car were soldiers of the 129th battalion Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis. There was a small no man’s land of unoccupied seats between the two units.
The soldiers were talking. The Irishmen were particularly verbose. It was one of those group conversations where speakers jumped in and out and they pleased.
"I still say this war is going to be over before Christmas."
"Aye, this big victory they call the Battle of the Somme clinches it."
"They finally let the British Army do what’s it’s supposed to. Those darn Frenchies just kept getting in the way before."
"Oh, let’s not be too hard on the French. They’re fighting for their country after all, so we should be charitable towards them. Just as long as they admit we were the ones to win the war for them."
"I wouldn’t be all that certain about the war being over so soon. Yesterday’s papers said the Germans were making a big counterattack at Abbeville."
"Which failed miserably. Just goes t’a prove how desperate they’ve become now that they realize that the BEF has their number."
"Not sure that’s completely true. I dunna think this Battle of the Somme is going to be ending so soon."
"Is that because you want to see some fighting? In that case, I must agree with Liam that it would be a bloody shame if the fightin’ is all over before we get there."
"Well, Liam is that what you be sayin’? For the life of me I durn’t understan’ ya meeself sometimes."
"Well, not exactly Kevin. What I’m saying is that when I look at a map of France and I see this long ugly line running all the way from Germany to the sea, I get this here intuition that this war could last a year, maybe even longer"
"Bollocks, Liam! Your problem is that you think too much, t’is sure enough why ya don’t see things straight. No fecking way this war is going to last a whole year!"
"Aye, Brendan, this war will be over in time for Christmas so we then can start the next war."
"Next war, well aint’t you the one f’r cherry thoughts, and where pray tell is this next war goin’ to be?"
"Why Ireland, of course, sheesh, have ye forgotten all the fuss about that Home Rule already?"
"Nah, we ain’t forgetting all the political crap that was goin’ on before the war, but it seems to me that this war makes that war much less likely."
"Just as long as that war waits for this war to end, it’s alright by me. Wars are easier if you fight them one at a time."
"Aye, you got something of a pern’t there--but if Liam here be right about this war lastin’ more than a year, do you think the next war will be kind enough to wait?"
"Precisely--the two wars are connected and not just for us but for them too."
"Them? Just who the hell do you mean by them, Liam?"
"Why the dusky warriors we share this car with."
"Dusky wa--the wogs, you mean the damn heathen wogs! You’re out of your infernal mind that you are"
"Shhhh!!! If you’re going to be saying stuff like that, Jerome, you would best not do it so loud."
"Ah, who gives a fig if they hear!"
"No, Jimmy boy, Ireland and India have a lot in common."
"Yeah. They both start with the same letter, and that’s about all."
"Don’t be such a moron. Liam means they both have a history of causing His Majesty grief, but now have a sterling opportunity to prove their loyalty to the Crown."
"Or disprove it as the case may be."
Nouvon France 1330 hrs
In heavy fighting starting at dawn the British 6th Division belonging to General Pulteney’s III Army Corps had clawed and scratched its way forward at a heavy cost in casualties, capturing the important large town of Nouvon in the last hour. When it had tried to press on ahead to the northeast into Crecy Forest its leading battalion was badly mauled by a sudden heavy artillery bombardment. The division waited now for the accursed barrage to lift. It’s commander, General Keir sifted through the latest news about was happening on his flanks. To the east 4th Division was having a tough time keeping its advance in line with his own in line with the 6th Bavarian Division putting up a fierce defense. To the west Allenby’s Cavalry Corps had discovered to its chagrin that there were now four instead of the expected two German cavalry divisions covering the German flank near the coast.
Belgium 1610 hrs
During the morning the 2nd battalion Yorkshire Regiment charged into this small town north of Dixmude. The Prussian Guards in this vicinity had neglected to entrench and the Tommies were able to close with the defenders. Close behind them came the 2nd battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers and together the two battalions ejected the Germans from the town in a little more than an hour.
The attack by 20th Brigade had gone less smoothly. It came under deadly artillery fire before it could neutralize the German outposts. While the Germans here had neither dug up trenches nor laid wire there were strong points with machine guns and the attack soon faltered.
Along the Yser Canal meanwhile the 3rd Cavalry Division unsuccessfully looked for an intact bridge or an unguarded section of the canal where they could erect a pontoon bridge but their German opponents of the IV Cavalry were well prepared.
To the southwest of the Dixmude was the Houthulst Forest. The Northumberland Hussars patrolled the area during the morning. One squadron had approached the ridge near Passchendaele and come under artillery fire. It beat a hasty retreat and suffered only modest casualties. One squadron decided to get closer to the forest itself. At this point a German cavalry squadron erupted from the forest. It was part of the 24th Cavalry Brigade, which had been but under the command of the Guard Corps.
The yeomanry had insufficient time to meet the attack dismounted. They were forced to fight their attackers on horseback with saber and pistol. Other German squadrons emerged from the forest and joined in the melee. Unlike British regular cavalry the training of the yeomanry skimped on the saber preferring to view yeomanry as merely mounted infantry. Their lack of training in mounted close combat put them at a disadvantage, which was compounded as more and more German cavalry joined the fray. They wisely retired as best they could to the north, with the Germans pursuing.
The Northumberland Hussars reached the position of the 2nd battalion Queen’s Regiment which was guarding the left flank of 7th Division. A field artillery battery was also guarding the flank but was irrelevant due to the proximity of the pursuers to the pursued. For a similar reason the two British machineguns were forced to maintain a frustrated silence. The riflemen tried to fire as best they could where they could get a clean shot at the German cavalrymen.
The German squadron leaders saw themselves confronted by too many dug in infantry and they suddenly retreated at a gallop, suffering casualties from first the machineguns and then the 18 pounders which were finally able to be used safely.
BEF II Army HQ Thourout 2105 hrs
General Smith-Dorrien looked again at the slip of paper. Why did it effect him so? It was only three numbers. He forced himself to look at them again.
"Killed 685 Wounded 1,721 Missing 209"
These were merely preliminary numbers. He knew full well that they would go up steadily during the night. This was for multiple reasons. First the fighting was still continuing—the Little Field Marshal had ordered night attacks. But even if there was no night fighting it would go up. It took time for some units’ casualty numbers to accurately work its way up the chain of command. And some of those listed now as wounded will be in another column come sunrise.
Why did it make him so angry and yet so sad at the same time? It was actually slightly better than expected. On the whole his men had exceeded his expectations. 5th Division had been able to advance over a mile reaching the outskirts of St. Riquier but then it came under a sharp artillery bombardment followed by fierce counterattacks. It was eventually forced to give up about half of the ground gained. 3rd Division had suffered still worse trying to advance towards Amiens along the bank of the Somme. It managed to take a few German outposts and strong points but by nightfall it had been forced back to the same wretched trenches from which it had emerged.
Horace continued to gaze at the numbers. Casualty lists seemed to effect most of the other generals a lot less. Sometimes it even seemed that some of them thought they could prove their own masculinity with the blood of their own soldiers. Horace Smith-Dorrien was not afraid to fight—that had been proved at Le Cateau—but what had happened today was negligent and inhuman.
Sir John French had ordered that the attacks continue tomorrow. Horace expected this would be another night without much sleep.
Sunday October 11, 1914
The BEF had doggedly continued its attacks the prior day. Pulteney’s III Army Corps had some limited success in the morning advancing into Crecy Forest, only to lose most of its gains to determined Bavarian counterattacks in the afternoon. Meanwhile the attacks of Smith-Dorrien’s II Army Corps had been thoroughly frustrated. In the afternoon Smith-Dorrien had cancelled the infantry assaults on his own authority. Both corps had paid a heavy price in casualties.
During the night there were further attacks—which were usually stymied by the increasingly thick barriers of barbed wire but at least proved less costly in casualties. The next morning things were remarkably quiet in Picardy. Both Sir John French and Crown Prince Rupprecht had reluctantly abandoned any major attacks. There was an occasional brief exchange of artillery fire as well as a skirmish here and there. In fact the entire front in France was very quiet. The French Tenth Army had dissipated its strength over the last three days so even Foch realized the futility of continuing them. The Germans, French and British all thought this was a good day to conserve artillery shells, treat the wounded and do some more digging. It was a good day to rest. It was a good day to pray.
Things in Belgium were not so tranquil.
HMS Nubian Belgian coast off the mouth of the Yser 0900
"It’s time, Admiral."
The mist was listing and visibility was improving very slowly. From the bridge of the destroyer Admiral Horace Hood took one more look through his binoculars. He pursed his lips and frowned, seriously considering a postponement but then he reluctantly decided that the visibility was good enough—but only just barely-- to initiate the bombardment at the scheduled time, which was now. "Order the monitors to commence firing," he ordered.
The signal was promptly transmitted both by flag and searchlight. The 6" guns on the Humber, Mersey and Severn fired almost simultaneously. Their 4.7" howitzers soon joined in as well. Vickers had built these 1,200 ton shallow draught ships for the Brazilian Navy before the war but the Brazilians could not afford to pay for them. Fearing they might be sold overseas and eventually fall into German hands, the Admiralty had purchased them at the start of the war. Designed so they could be employed on rivers, they had now become invaluable in the role of coastal bombardment.
The gun layers lacked a clear view of what they were shooting at. The German cavalrymen who had dug themselves as best they could amidst the sand dunes were startled by the bombardment, which was heavier than anything they had previously experienced. The horses panicked and a few escaped from their handlers. Casualties proved remarkably small but considerable confusion and disruption was caused.
The shelling paused temporarily when smoke obscured the target area too much, but resumed once the visibility improved. The 4" guns on the Nubian eventually joined in but Hood’s other destroyers belonged to older classes with lighter guns useless for this role. The admiral gazed repeatedly through his binoculars. He knew the lack of effective observation was hampering the effectiveness of the bombardment. Eventually there was some smoke indicating something was burning but otherwise he didn’t have the foggiest notion if it was doing any good.
Are we just wasting shells?
HQ BEF II Army Corps Abbeville 1035 hrs
General Sir John French was conferring with General Douglas Haig and General Horace Smith-Dorrien.
"Attacks are more successful when they are thoroughly planned," remarked Haig.
French was sure there was a mountain of criticism of his leadership embedded in that comment. Clearly General Haig was implying the marginal success of the British attacks over the last two days was because the attacks were hastily organized and not properly planned. Oh, the insufferable gall of that man. French could only bear to look at Haig because it was better than looking at Smith-Dorrien.
"The basic plan for tomorrow has been worked out," replied French, "Beginning at first light there is to be very active reconnaissance by all units of the BEF. There is also going to be a series of attacks by the French Tenth Army. Then beginning at 1100 the 3rd Division will once again initiate an attack in the direction of Amiens."
"Sir, I take it this attack is intended merely as a diversion?" interrupted Smith-Dorrien.
"Is it meant as a diversion, Horace? Yes, it is a diversion. Is it meant merely as a diversion? No, general it is definitely not. I expect your assaults to make genuine progress towards Amiens. Is that understood? I don’t want to hear that this is attack was executed like some damn burlesque, just because some general decided that a diversionary feint needed less zeal than a ‘real’ attack."
Smith-Dorrien’s face colored. His jaw quivered. After a few seconds he managed to mumble through clenched teeth, "Understood very well, sir."
Smith-Dorrien’s agitation brought a smile to French’s face. Too bad it isn’t this easy to fluster Haig. He continued, "Once darkness falls 5th Division and then all of Pulteney’s III Corps will also attack. The 5th Division is to make a maximum effort to capture St. Riquier. III Army Corps will advance northeast into Crecy Forest."
French now turned back to Haig, "During the night 1st Division will march through the positions of Allenby’s cavalry. At first light on Tuesday they will launch their attack against the German cavalry near the coast. Once the enemy positions are penetrated 2nd Division will follow behind in echelon. By mid-afternoon the German cavalry will be sufficiently neutralized for you to envelop the right flank of the Bavarians."
"Come Wednesday I Corps will continue to roll up the enemy line. Cavalry Corps will assist for a while but then they must be off to rescue Rawlinson and the Belgians."
OHL Luxembourg 1105 hrs
General Helmuth strode resolutely forward to engage the foe. General Erich von Falkenhayn was waiting for him in the conference room. Falkenhayn’s intense gaze bored into Moltke’s eyes. Moltke tried to avoid feeling like a mere leutnant about to be inspected. I won’t let this bastard intimidate me!
Falkenhayn perfunctorily greeted Moltke with a cold mechanical, "Good morning, Herr General."
"Good morning, General" replied Moltke almost as coldly, "how was your trip?" As if I cared.
"It was uneventful, which I prefer—and punctual which I demand. And how, might I ask, is your health?"
In truth, I’ve not been feeling all that well including shortness of breath for several days, but I won’t admit it as he’ll tell the Kaiser to prove I’m not in fit condition. "Good enough, Herr General. Thank you so much for asking. Shall we get down to business?"
"Yes, that would be for the best. To start, I want to know if you’ve further reinforced Sixth or Seventh Army since Friday."
"Yes, I have, yesterday evening I moved IV Army Corps from First Army and ordered them to force march to join Sixth Army. I felt that with the British having moved to the west the risk to First Army would be extremely small."
"I concur with that assessment but must ask if that was that the only reinforcement? Was there nothing for Seventh Army?"
"Another 3 batteries of foot artillery and a medium minenwerfer company are being transferred to Seventh Army."
"These reinforcements are inadequate given the importance of our right flank."
"On the contrary, General, they are sufficient in that the mission of the right flank is primarily defensive."
Falkenhayn scowled. "The Kaiser concurs with your rather sudden decision to elevate Army Group Beseler to become the Tenth Army. What progress has there been on getting General von Beseler the additional staff officers he will require?"
Moltke had expected that question. With ten infantry and four cavalry divisions now under Beseler’s command as of yesterday, raising it to the status of a numbered army seemed sensible. Yet Falkenhayn probably sensed a political motive as well—many generals still had considerable respect for Beseler and this development might make him more favorable to Moltke’s cause.
Moltke produced a sheet of paper from folder, "I have here a list of officers my staff and I have selected for the most important open positions." Moltke noticed he had inadvertently left in the folder something he most definitely did not want Falkenhayn to see—a letter from Admiral von Hipper.
Falkenhayn took the list and carefully reviewed it. At one point he looked like he was about to say something, but ultimately his only comment was, "I will give this list further review later today but on a first look everything appears acceptable. So this brings us to our next topic. A decision needs to be finalized about the deployment of the 13 new divisions, which will become ready for combat this week. The effective scheduling of the troop trains requires it. In fact this decision should’ve been reached earlier"
"My decision concerning the ‘August volunteers’ was reached two days ago! It’s your endless objections and pointless counterproposals that had delayed these vital orders being passed on."
Falkenhayn stared icily, "We did at least agree that the Bavarian division should go to Lorraine—or have you changed your mind?"
"My position on that deployment is unchanged."
"Have you considered reducing the number of divisions going to Hindenburg from four to two as I suggested?
Moltke hesitated before replying, "I have made only one change since we last spoke. Hindenburg is only going to get two divisions—but Conrad will also be getting two divisions so there is still four divisions going to the Eastern Front."
"It goes from bad to worse! Conrad! Haven’t I heard you say that we are shackled to a corpse—"
Moltke sighed and avoided meeting his enemy’s intense gaze, "-and that’s precisely the reason we need to reinforce the Austrians. If they collapse completely it is only a matter of time before Germany goes down as well"
While Moltke sincerely believed what we had just said there was another consideration to this situation as well. He hoped that both Hindenburg and Conrad would now become more favorable to his cause.
"While it is plainly obvious that the Austrians have made many mistakes they were advancing last I heard," remarked Falkenhayn "so this talk about their imminent collapse is unfounded. The biggest problem with Conrad is he gets carried away when he encounters success, which is precisely why he should not be reinforced. The Eastern Front can wait. Why can’t you see that the way to turn the enemy flank in France is to form a new Second Army under von Bulow using at least eight of these new divisions, concentrate them to the right of Rupprecht and completely overwhelm the British! This is our last opportunity for complete victory in France! Have you completely forgotten the principle of concentration at the decisive point?"
"No. Erich I have not forgotten. We’d be throwing troops with the bare minimum of training against the world’s most professional infantrymen. Joffre will shift his forces west as we prepare for this attack. Our supply trains can barely support the 16 infantry and four cavalry divisions we currently deploy on our right flank and would not be able to support the 26 infantry divisions you envision even if we remove the cavalry, which would weaken our ability to follow and pursue."
"Bah, the very limited forces Joffre can afford to move west—mostly the pathetic Territorial Divisions-- he will shift anyway. He is stubborn in several ways but even he can see that his left flank is crucial. As far as logistics go the railway situation improves each day."
"It does but slowly. We can hold on defense. We would flounder and hemorrhage on offense. The superiority of entrenched defenses over frontal assaults we’ve repeatedly seen demonstrated in the last month has apparently made little impression on you."
"No, Helmuth! It has made a proper impression on me—apparently it has made an excessive impression on you, which you use it to justify your defeatist attitude. We can overcome the British trenches if we have a reasonable superiority in numbers. We are not the French who swarm madly across open fields in red pants begging to be shot. Your uncle would’ve understood the difference."
The discussion degenerated into bickering. Through it the two generals did share one thought though. This situation cannot go on.
Yser Canal near Nieport 1120
The British 7th Cavalry Brigade was watching the canal. Yesterday morning General Byng had galloped off with the rest of the division to cover the flank of the 7th Division. This morning these cavalrymen had witnessed the naval bombardment. At first the cavalrymen had found it interesting and impressive. But human nature being what it is they had had lost interest before it was over. Their thoughts increasingly focused instead on a simple basic question.
"Where in bloody hell are the Belgies?"
The Belgian 3rd Division was supposed to relieve them along the banks of the canal by 0730. The idea was that the Belgians would attempt to force a crossing while the RN shelled the German forces on the other side. Once the Belgians had relieved them the cavalrymen would mount up and hurry off to rejoin the rest of their division.
Shouting suddenly erupted amongst the Royal Horse Guards. More than one voice soon muttered, "would you look at that."
What they were looking at was a pair of Belgian armored cars. which rattled their way to their positions. The cars showed signs they had been in many battles.
When the vehicles came to a stop, a chorus of British voices muttered, "Finally".
Passchendaele Belgium 1325 hrs
The German 25th Infantry Division had started to take up positions on Passchendaele Ridge the night before. In the morning they had consolidated their position, the infantry and machine gunners digging in while the field artillery was positioned and observation posts set up after carefully choosing the best location. One of these posts now reported a mass of infantry marching towards them from east.
It was the 2nd Naval Brigade in the vanguard the Royal Naval Division. They had belonged to the naval reserves at the beginning of the war. Due to a shortage of slots to fill aboard ship they had been hastily converted into infantry with little training. They wore navy uniforms instead of khaki. They were armed with obsolete rifles. They had no artillery.
What they have was spirit. They had fought bravely in Antwerp. The First Lord himself had inspired them. Their current orders was to seize the ridge that arced southwest from Passchendaele and thereby threaten the line of communications of the Guard Corps.
Onward they came. Some of the German artillery was already positioned. Soon shells were bursting in the sailor’s midst. Bits of metal shredded the frail human flesh. Sinews were cut, veins and arteries cut. Bowels were exposed and faces erased. Though the flesh was weak, the spirit was willing. Not realizing the strength of the enemy they faced, the columns marched on to experience Maxims and Mausers. The bullets hollowed out their columns, turn them into mounds of bodies, some still, some convulsing in varying degrees of torment. Yet still they marched on.
Future historians would refer to this sorrowful as the Massacre of the Innocents. It had been said before. It was magnificent but it was not war.
BEF IV Army Corps HQ 2010 hrs
General Rawlinson grimly looked over the report from the Royal Naval Division. Up until now the last two days had not been that bad, despite having the entire Guard Corps reinforced with a cavalry brigade to deal with. With the 3rd Cavalry Division covering the flank the 7th Division had repulsed every infantry attack of the last two days. It seemed that the Prussian Guards were not up to their reputation. Well at least as infantry, their artillery on the other hand warranted some grudging respect. In the late afternoon the Prussian Guards abandoned infantry assaults and steadily bombarded his positions with a mixture of shrapnel and high explosive shells.
Rawlinson’s plan had been to merely hold on until the Royal Naval Division and the Belgians arrived. The 3rd Belgian Division had been ordered by King Albert to force a crossing of the Yser supported by the RN’s shelling. The Belgian 1st Division was to take to over the front line northeast of Dixmude. Rawlinson had hoped to switch over to the offensive starting with the Royal Naval Division taking Passchendaele Ridge.
The Belgians arrived several hours late and many days tired. The 3rd Belgian Division did not try to cross the Yser until well after the RN warships had exhausted their ammunition. Even though opposed by only cavalrymen and a few Jaegers the crossing had failed. The officer liaising with the Belgians there had reported that they looked haggard and lacked enthusiasm. Now had come word of the disaster at Passchendaele. He felt sorry for the poor men of the 2nd Naval Brigade, but the bad news went beyond the losses. The Germans clearly had still more forces in the area. From the brief reports from French, he knew that the earliest he could expect Allenby to show up with Cavalry Corps was now Friday.
General Rawlinson felt a mixture of anxiety and grief. He could not afford to let either disrupt his thinking. He needed to modify his plans. He needed to inform General French. He looked forward to neither.
BATTLE OF SOMME CONTINUES WITH BEF ADVANCING
The BEF continued its steady advance north of the Somme in heavy fighting yesterday. The Germans were forced to commit most of their remaining reserves. This allowed them to slow but not stop the BEF. Lord Kitchener remains confident that the BEF will soon completely turn the German line.
Combat also continues in western Belgium where the BEF and the Belgian Army are bravely fighting alongside to prevent the Germans from overrunning their entire country. Ships of the Royal Navy again provided a vital element in the defense of Belgium by shelling German positions along the coast.
-- London Times Wednesday October 14, 1914
Off Texel Island (in the Frisians) 0320 hrs
Moltke strode resolutely forward to engage the foe. The British light cruiser was already showing small fires from its duel with Strassburg and Kolberg. The moon was out and visible through the broken clouds. It was one day past third quarter so its light was enough to be useful. "Commence firing," ordered Admiral Franz von Hipper.
The forward turrets barked. A few seconds later splashes were seen. The guns fired again. This time the target was straddled. The next salvo scored a hit, which immediately spawned a sizable fire in the mainmast of the British cruiser, which in retaliation shifted the fire of its 6" guns to the Moltke. This did not worry Hipper. Other things did.
Hipper had not expected to encounter the Royal Navy this far out. He had left Jade Bay during the night with Moltke, Von der Tann, Blucher, Second Scouting Group and two torpedo flotillas. He had hoped to take the British bombardment group operating off the Belgian coast by surprise in the morning and destroy them. If no British warships were found there he would briefly shell the enemy positions north of the Yser. In either case it was meant to be a hit and run sortie. But the whole plan was contingent on surprise. The British cruiser he was looking at had gotten off a wireless report too powerful to jam. Clearly the element of surprise had been lost. Once this engagement was over he would return home.
He had so wanted to help the army—to help General von Moltke with his plan. Hipper had heard people saying that it was his influence on Moltke that was the undoing of the Schlieffen Plan. So here he was off the Frisians on a mission to make the Moltke Plan work and thereby vindicate himself. So when he received a message directly from Moltke of the enemy’s warships shelling German positions along the coast, Hipper had conceived of this sortie and approached Admiral von Ingenohl for approval. Initially Ingenohl was very negative, telling Hipper to wait until repairs were completed on Seydlitz. Hipper though had been very insistent and eventually persuaded Ingenohl to approve this mission. Now Hipper fretted that despite his zeal it might have been a rash idea after all.
Border of France and Belgium 0400 hrs
Along the road south of the canal the German 3rd Cavalry Division was riding west. They had left Furnes once the moon had risen. A few minutes ago they had finished a fairly brief firefight with French border guards. Some of the border guards were captured, some were killed and the rest had fled. Since the enemy was now warned the cavalry rode harder. To the south the German 7th Cavalry Division, which had just recently joined Tenth Army, had departed Poperinge (west of Ypres) and was heading northwest, accompanied by a few armored cars.
These two cavalry divisions were expected to converge at Dunkirk in the early morning.
West of Bruges 1020 hrs
The 10cm naval rifles fired. General von Beseler, commander of the newly formed Tenth Army, had motored here to watch the sailors fight. They appeared to be doing a good job—well at least their artillerymen were. Yesterday four of his divisions had made a concerted attempt to cross the Schipdonck Canal much further to the south. While they failed to establish a bridgehead they had proved useful as a diversion. At dusk the Bavarian Cavalry Division had found an unguarded bend in the canal and during the night erected a pontoon. The Marine Division was marched north at the greatest speed to reinforce them.
The Belgian Cavalry Division had arrived soon after dawn to attack the bridgehead. Together with the poorly armed and minimally local militia, they had succeeded in cordoning off the bridgehead. The artillery of the Marine Division was now keeping them at bay. A Landwehr Brigade would be arriving here in less than three hours to assist the Marines. Beseler was optimistic that he would soon take Bruges.
This plan at least seemed to be working. Monday afternoon he had ordered the 1st Guard Division after being relieved by XIII Army Corps to swing around to the west of Dixmude where 2nd Guard Division was located. The cavalry divisions guarding the Yser Canal near the coast were ordered to permit the Belgians to cross the canal. His plan was to crush the Belgians once they had crossed the canal and capture their bridge. He would cross the canal and envelop the Belgian and British forces east of the Yser. It seemed like a brilliant plan. The Belgians did indeed start to erect a pontoon bridge over the Yser, but when it was nearly finished they had apparently had second thoughts and destroyed it.
After that the Prussian Guards had suggested bridging the Yser themselves. Beseler nixed the idea and decided to keep his western infantry divisions on the defensive for the time being while letting his cavalry attempt to seize Dunkirk.
Beseler had expected the Belgians to collapse quickly once Antwerp fell. He now acknowledged that he had been wrong in that assessment. They still showed a will to resist. He admired their fighting spirit, but he also thought they were merely delaying the inevitable.
Old Admiralty Building 1045 hrs
"So much for the theory that they would wait until Seydlitz was repaired," commented Sir Winston Churchill. He was meeting with Prince Louis, Admiral Sturdee and Admiral Oliver in his office.
"That’s assuming that it was First Scouting Group, sir. It was a night battle and things can get confused at night," answered Prince Louis.
Churchill nodded. Between moonrise and dawn a patrol out of Harwich consisting of the newly commissioned light cruiser Undaunted and the destroyers, Lennox, Lance, Legion and Loyal had encountered a strong force of German warships. The Legion had managed to slip away and survive with only very slight damage. The rest of the force was apparently destroyed. The report from the skipper of the Legion was that they had run into First Scouting Group.
"Your point about night battles is quite valid, but in the marrow of my bones I feel it was First Scouting Group," said Churchill. He grimly reminded himself about the men lost aboard the ships. Most were probably killed and the rest were now prisoners. It disturbed him, but not as much as the losses suffered by the 2nd Naval Brigade at Passchendaele was haunting him. An article in yesterday’s Daily Mail had been critical of the while concept of the Royal Division.
"Perhaps they have realized we are not engaging in any form of a close blockade and feel that they must makes sweeps further out in order to trim our margin of superiority," speculated Sturdee.
"And they got lucky on their first attempt?" asked Churchill.
"We’re not sure it was their first attempt."
"Yes, that’s unfortunately yet another good point, Doveton." Churchill paused to cogitate, "But is it merely that Captain Fox was unlucky or is it perhaps that Admiral Hood was lucky."
"What? You think Hipper meant to attack Admiral Hood’s bombardment force? That would be rather bold on their part given the possibility that Channel Fleet might cut across their line of retreat. There are other possibilities—such an raid on the mouth of the Thames or maybe even a raid into the Straits of Dover."
"As a matter of logic I will concede those possibilities. But let’s review the sequence of events. Sunday morning Admiral Hood’s monitors shell the German cavalry on the Belgian coast. Our ships are in the dark about where their shot is falling and for that reason the bombardment proved shall we say, disappointing? So yesterday our monitors plus two gunboats and some destroyers armed with 4" guns return but this time we’ve arranged for them to be in contact with an observation balloon. By all reports this was a more effective bombardment. Last night First Scouting Group sorties. Is this mere coincidence? Perchance, but bloody damn unlikely"
"I must beg to differ sir. This sortie may have been planned well before bombardments. For one thing it’s possible they have learned that Jellicoe has moved the Grand Fleet anchorage to the west coast until Scapa’s defenses against submarines are complete." answered Sturdee.
"And I might add that it is also another disturbing coincidence this raid occurred while New Zealand was detached to escort the Canadian troopships. Do we dare to imagine that the Germans have somehow gotten word of that plan despite all our precautions?" said Prince Louis.
"Yet another good point—and a most distressing one. I’d hate to think our security could be compromised. But that does remind me of one recent development that is most encouraging. Henry, have we been able to determine yet if those code books the Russians dropped off yesterday are going to be of any use." Said Churchill.
Admiral Oliver nodded cautiously, "It is a rather complicated matter, First Lord. An initial inspection leads to the very tentative conclusion that the codes are current, but it also looks like the system the Germans use is deucedly complicated and there is a possibility that the books will prove insufficient barring other information."
"Yes, I see—well, to be honest, no really I don’t-- but I’m sure our brainy boys will figure it out. I must say, we do have some wonderfully bright chaps—"
Churchill was interrupted by the telephone. He picked it. After identifying himself he said little, but after a few minutes asked, "Well what about the port—who controls the docks? What the hell do you mean we don’t know? How can we not know? You will inform me immediately when the situation has been ascertained. Needless to say this is most troubling news, though to be honest it doesn’t surprise me."
"What is it, sir?" asked Prince Louis with mounting concern once Churchill hung up the telephone.
"It’s about Dunkirk."
HQ German Sixth Army 1105 hrs
Crown Prince Rupprecht stared again at the map. British infantry had broken through his cavalry in the coastal area on his right flank yesterday. He had withdrawn two of the cavalry divisions north of the Authie River to forestall any British attempt to cross that barrier. What Rupprecht thought was more likely was that the British would attempt to roll up his line. In the afternoon III Bavarian Corps had come up with a plan, which Rupprecht had approved. On its right flank 5th Bavarian Infantry Division would slowly withdraw through Crecy Forest. On its left flank the Sixth Bavarian detached one regiment and a pair of 7.7cm batteries to cover the line then the rest of the division swung to the northwest to counter the new British threat. Moving through the forest there was a good chance they would be unobserved by the British airplanes.
The plan seemed to be working. The enemy units, which had been engaging the Bavarians—believed to be the BEF III Army Corps--were proving cautious bordering on hesitant in their pursuit. The BEF II Army Corps appeared to be spent and had discontinued all attempts to advance. Likewise the French Tenth Army had only made a single weak attack this morning. This meant he could slowly shift his strength to the threatened right flank. Furthermore IV Army Corps would be arriving as reinforcement the middle of tomorrow. If the planned Bavarian counterattack neutralized the immediate danger on the right flank this afternoon, Rupprecht was confident he could stop the current British offensive tomorrow.
HQ 4th Army Group BEF Thourout Belgium 1350 hrs
So far it had been a surprisingly quiet day for BEF IV Army Corps in Belgium. The reports so far today had been of skirmishes and brief artillery exchanges. That made General Sir Henry Rawlinson uneasy.
Monday morning the Germans had made a series of intense attacks with the both the Guards Corps and their new arrivals, now identified as XIII Army Corps. The British had defeated all of these assaults. That day there had also been also heavy fighting east of Dixmude between the Prussian Guards and the Belgian 1st Division, which had relieved the British in that sector. The Germans had attacked there with some initial success but the Belgians had eventually recovered. Meanwhile ships from England arrived at Ostend bringing as reinforcements a small aviation section, an observation balloon unit, a half dozen armored cars and a Territorial Forces battalion, the Artists Rifles belonging to the London Regiment. Yesterday there were some heavy artillery fire but infantry action was limited to a few skirmishes between patrols. The Belgians had started to bridge the Yser but after consulting with Rawlinson had decided that was no longer a prudent move. Rawlinson’s airplanes provided him with several puzzling reports of the Germans doing a great deal of marching.
Another development, which was disturbing to Rawlinson had been a message he received from the Admiralty a few hours ago that no supplies would not arrive at Ostend today due to "enemy naval activity". He found that vague phrasing particularly worrisome. There would be no bombardment of the coast this day for the same reason. He was promised a shipment of supplies would arrive tomorrow.
"Urgent telegram from the Belgian High Command, General."
Rawlinson had a hunch that this was not going to be good news. He took the message.
GERMANS HAVE ESTABLISHED BRIDGEHEAD OVER SCHIPDONCK CANAL NEAR BRUGES. IMPERATIVE THAT OUR FIRST DIVISION LEAVE FOR BRUGES IMMEDIATELY
His hunch was correct.
HMS Lion North Sea heading SSE 1530 hrs
Beatty glumly looked at the irksome wireless message from Jellicoe.
REFRAIN FROM ANY ATTEMPT TO INTERCEPT FIRST SCOUTING GROUP UNTIL YOU LINK WITH TYRWHITT’S FORCES. REMIND YOU THAT YOUR STRENGTH IS NOT SUFFICIENTLY GREATER THAN HIPPER TO JUSTIFY CUTTING HIS LINE OF RETREAT. BE PREPARED TO FALL BACK ON CHANNEL FLEET. AVOID NIGHT BATTLE EVEN AFTER MOONRISE. EXERCISE CAUTION IN ANY ENGAGEMENT. ENEMY MAY SEEK TO LURE YOU INTO A MINEFIELD OR SUBMARINE AMBUSH. GRAND FLEET TO ARRIVE OFF HUMBER TOMORROW AFTERNOON.
Following closely behind Lion were Invincible and Inflexible. Queen Mary’s repairs would not be complete for another week and New Zealand had been detached on a top secret mission to meet the Canadian troopship convoy in the middle of the Atlantic and then escort them all the way to Liverpool. Intelligence that Seydlitz’s repairs would take at least another month to complete had lulled the Admiralty into complacency.
Beatty was sure he could easily destroy Moltke, Von der Tann and Blucher with just his three battle cruisers. While part of him could understand Jellicoe’s cautious mode of thinking, another less rational part of Beatty hungered for revenge. The awful image of Princess Royal falling behind as he ran for home at Heligoland Bight burned deep in his soul as a fiendish torment.
Hipper would pay!
Berlin 1740 hrs
"and a submarine as well!"
It had been a difficult week for Kaiser Wilhelm. Monday morning Falkenhayn had met with him and fervently requested a different deployment of the 13 new divisions from what Molkte had ordered. Initially Wilhelm had been delighted to have this decision to make and for a few minutes favored Falkenhayn’s alternative plan. But when Wilhelm stated that he would render a decision in 24 hours, Falkenhayn had insisted it must be made immediately—making some point about scheduling of trains, which the Kaiser did not fully accept. With that the Kaiser had become irritated. Falkenhayn left the meeting with only a promise of a delayed decision.
Monday afternoon a telegram from Hindenburg had arrived, complaining that Moltke was not reinforcing the Eastern Front enough, while Falkenhayn had criticized Moltke for excessively reinforcing the East. That was all Kaiser Wilhlem needed. The next day he informed Falkenhayn that he decided not to override Moltke’s planned deployment of the new divisions. That this matter had been brought before him was most gratifying though.
To make matters worse the "contemptible little army" was causing Germany a lot of grief of late. But today he was provided some badly needed satisfaction. Admiral Georg von Muller had just informed him of wonderful news.
"Yes, Your Majesty. In the early morning hours on the way home from their victory the cruisers of Second Scouting Group encountered a surfaced British submarine. In the poor visibility the submarine did not see them until they were close. There is some possibility that since we were coming from the west they may have mistaken our ships for those of the Royal Navy. The submarine was rammed and sunk by the Kolberg.
"A cruiser, three destroyers and a submarine! And you say none of our ships were badly damaged?"
"Strassburg took several hits from the British cruiser and lost two of its guns. Moltke also took a few hits with only very minor damage. Four of our torpedo boats suffered some damage—and on one of them the ship’s captain was regrettably killed. Kolberg’s hull leaked considerably after ramming the submarine. All ships are expected to be fully repaired in less than three weeks."
"Fantastic! The qualitative superiority of our navy is clearly demonstrated by this victory. This is clear vindication of the policies I have so precisely enumerated."
Admiral Muller knew better than to do anything to rain on the Kaiser’s parade. He would not try to make the Kaiser understand that they had destroyed merely a tiny sliver of the Royal Navy’s fighting strength. He also kept to himself what he had learned about Hipper’s intentions. He could see another controversy brewing. German admirals seemed to prefer battling with each other to battling the British. Tomorrow morning the head of the Admiralstab, Admiral von Pohl was going to have a long talk with both Ingenohl and Hipper.