by Tom B
BEF HQ Thursday 15 October, 1914 0105 hrs
French and Murray were going over it one last time.
"The French Tenth and Second Armies have already begun a series of night attacks on the German Sixth and Seventh Armies. At 0700 we begin with attacks by both divisions of III Army Corps into Crecy Forest and by 5th Division to the north of St. Riquier. I had also wanted 3rd Division to make an attack as well but I let Horace talk me out of that one. I must be getting soft in my old age"
"His divisions have suffered grievous losses," remarked Murray.
"This is war, Archie, men die in war."
"Yes, sir, I am increasingly made aware of that. It’s just that dead men don’t fight very well."
French looked at his chief of staff and sighed. Once again he regretted not having Wilson here. "Listen, Archie, don’t you go high and mighty moral with me! You think I don’t bloody give a damn about our men are going through? Well let me tell you, I do care. But what I see and you apparently don’t is that if we don’t win here and now, their suffering could go on for a long long time? So who’s the humanitarian now, eh?"
Murray’s face reddened and he squirmed silently.
French continued, "And then there’s the deteriorating situation in Flanders. The blasted Germans are trying to take Dunkirk and you saw that disturbing message from Rawlinson we got before midnight. Damn it! We were on the verge on winning it yesterday when those pesky Bavarians somehow managed to pressure 1st Division’s flank. I still think Haig over reacted to that. So now he’s spent the night regrouping."
Murray thought back to a few hours ago when then news of the Bavarian counterattack had come through. Back then Sir John French had thought it a calamity and was in panic mode. In the last hour French though had come to the conclusion that the enemy threat has been grossly overestimated.
"Still I must admit Haig’s plan for today is sound." French reluctantly—very reluctantly-- admitted, "At 0900 he is going to attack with 1st Division while 2nd Division swings around to the north to take the Bavarians in the flank around noon. In the afternoon Cavalry Corps will attempt to seize a bridge over the Authie. If they can’t grab a bridge they’ll erect a pontoon after nightfall."
Murray still looked dubious. Of the four Corps commanders only Haig shared French’s optimism about attaining a decisive victory this day. Well bugger Smith-Dorrien, Allenby, Pulteney and Murray as well. This is my army.
West of St. Riquier 0215 hrs
The men of 1st battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry were trying to get some badly needed sleep in their narrow trenches. The effective strength of the battalion had been reduced to barely 200 men. They had been promised that some replacement troops would arrive over the weekend. They were expected to participate in the morning assault.
Suddenly their lookouts were sounding the alarm. German infantry were visible in the searchlights. The battalion’s only working machine gun commenced firing. The awakened Tommies shouldered their Lee- Enfields and took aim. Many Germans fell but many more were coming and some had gotten close in the moonless darkness.
The British trenches lacked wire. Some of the German infantrymen managed to reach the trenches and the combat then became bayonet versus bayonet.
German Sixth Army HQ 0515 hrs
"My appreciation for the fighting skills of the British infantryman has increased in the last ten days. On the other hand, my opinion of the quality of their generals remains at best mixed. I grant their initial assault was well conceived but since then their tactics have been unimpressive." Crown Prince Rupprecht announced to his staff.
"They have permitted a gap to open up between their II Corps and their III Corps. This gap probably occurred because III Corps was able to make some good progress in Crecy Forest yesterday while the attacks of II Corps had been stopped cold. If we can widen it a little bit more we will have an opportunity to deliver a strong riposte to our enemy, with some possibility of encircling three divisions.
In order to enlarge the gap the 31st Infantry Division is attacking the forces of their Corps west of St. Riquier. Our initial reports about this operation are very sketchy and inconsistent but overall they I regard them as encouraging. At dawn our plan is for III Bavarian Corps to retire to the northeast, leaving Crecy Forest, even abandoning the town of Crecy. In particular the elements of 6th Bavarian Division now covering the left flank are already withdrawing to rejoin the rest of their division. This uncovered flank will lure the British III Corps forward thereby enlarging the gap. Their division to the west will also be lured forward by a withdrawal. If they wish to cross the Authie we will let them.
At 1030 the 28th Reserve Division will attack into that gap. In the afternoon it will be joined by 5th Cavalry Division and IV Army Corps. Their immediate objective will be the communication center of Nouvion in the rear area of their III Corps. It we can achieve that before nightfall our tactical position will be invincible."
Rupprecht beamed at his staff. He eagerly awaited the dawn.
German Tenth Army HQ Ghent, Belgium 0640 hrs
General von Beseler looked over the report. During the night the 25th Reserve Division had marched sharply to the east in order to attack the Belgian divisions defending the west bank of the Schipdonck Canal. When they got there they found the positions had been largely abandoned. Some elements of a weak stop line had been captured.
Beseler was disappointed but not surprised. King Albert had again proven he was a competent commander. The king had realized the threat from the west mad the canal position feasible for a limited time. The Belgians were pulling back their forces toward the coast. This meant the 5 German infantry divisions on the eastern bank of the canal could cross unopposed..
The noose was inexorably closing on the Belgian Army and the British and French forces in their country.
Outside Fort Mardyck Dunkirk 0750 hrs
The shells of the German horse artillery started to land near the positions of the Queen Own Oxford Hussars. They were yeomanry, the cavalry units of the Territorial Force. They had been assigned to Dunkirk in late September as line of communication troops. When they had first landed some of the men were unhappy, feeling this sort of assignment made it unlikely to see any action. When the German cavalry had reached the coast at Nieuport those grumbles had faded.
Yesterday they had disappeared entirely. The initial German cavalry assault on Dunkirk had come along the coast and the French garrison committed most of its troops to countering that threat. So when a second column of German horsemen was spotted approaching from the south by an aviator it fell to the Oxfordshire yeomanry to stop them at Breuges. They had fought bravely at Breuges but it turned out to be an entire division and not a brigade as the air reconnaissance had reported. They were forced back by sheer numbers and lacking explosives had been unable to destroy a key bridge.
After that they had fought a rearguard action in the city itself. A few small groups of poorly armed French militia were encountered. The defense was brave but not well coordinated with the language barrier adding to the problems. On foot the German cavalrymen had continued their assault throughout the night.
As they shells burst around them one of the soldiers asked in a barely audible voice, "How much ammunition do we have left?"
FS Intrepide off Dunkirk 0845 hrs
Admiral Horace Hood realized he was making history this day. He was quite certain that he was now the first British Admiral to fly his flag from a French vessel. The French had been very much alarmed by the attack on Dunkirk. They had reinforced his task force with a half dozen destroyers and a gunboat.
The Royal Navy had sent some reinforcement as well. The most significant addition was the pre-dreadnought battleship, Vengeance, temporarily detached from Channel Fleet. However a seaplane carrier Hood had urgently requested had not yet arrived..
He had only a handful of British officers with him. Hood hoped that being on a French ship would give him a better idea where to bombard. There was no balloon to spot for them this time. The situation in Dunkirk was very unclear. German cavalry had burst into the city from two directions the prior day. A single wireless station near the main docks was reporting continued resistance, but could give little in the way of useful specifics other than the docks was under sporadic bombardment by German horse artillery., which made it too dangerous to attempt to land any reinforcements.
"Shall we commence fire at the designated targets, Admiral?"
On the first bombardment mission Hood had worried about whether the shelling would do any good. Now he was faced with the very real possibility it might do some harm. He had been informed that the garrison included some British yeomanry.
Hood paused. Saving Dunkirk from the Germans was too important. "Vengeance and the monitors will commence firing," he ordered with a heavy heart. He began to pray as he heard the 12" guns aboard Vengeance fire their first salvo.
Wilhelmshaven Thursday 15 October, 1914 0930 hrs
The door was closed. There were three men in the room, Admiral Hugo von Pohl, head of the Admiralstab, Admiral Frederich von Ingenohl, commander of the High Seas Fleet and Admiral Franz von Hipper, commander of First Scouting Group. Yesterday morning First Scouting Group had won a small victory. Admiral Pohl did not look happy.
"Admiral Hipper, my congratulations on your victory yesterday," said Pohl in an icy perfunctory tone.
Hipper sensed the chill. He hesitated slightly then replied tersely, "Thank you, Admiral."
"Yes, yes, we always like a nice victory," said Pohl in a sarcastic tone, "but I’m afraid must ask you and Admiral Ingenohl some questions about what led to this encounter, which so fortunately for Germany ended so well."
Ingenohl spoke up, "We will he happy to answer any questions."
"That is good. Well, as a start I would ask for what purpose did First Scouting Group sortie Tuesday night?’
Hipper paused before responding, "We had received some very good intelligence that the British were using destroyers and monitors to shell German Army positions north along the Belgian coast. It was my plan to take these vessels by surprise and destroy them. If circumstances permitted I would also conduct my own bombardment of the enemy coastal positions and then retire quickly to Wilhelmshaven.’
"I see, and did you discuss your plan with Admiral Ingenohl?"
Ingenohl answered the question for him, "Yes, he did."
"And I take it that you approved this operation?"
"Yes, I did."
"And that is why you made a sortie with the High Seas Fleet yesterday morning?"
"Yes, I brought the fleet to the edge of Bight."
"In case First Scouting Group required assistance?"
"Yes, that is why."
"Admiral Hipper, after you finished your battle with the enemy light forces off Texel Island, why did you abandon your mission? Was it due to damage to First Scouting Group?"
He knows it wasn’t! "No, sir, it was not due to damage. It was because the cruiser we sank had reported us using its wireless."
"And so the raid had become too dangerous once the enemy learned of your presence?"
"So it seems that there was a considerable element of risk in this mission?"
Ingenohl replied, "In war there is always risk."
"Yes, yes, Frederich, that goes without saying. But the question is really one of degree, is it not, Admiral Hipper?"
"Yes, sir, there are different degrees of risk," answered Hipper.
"And so did you feel that the level of risk this mission entailed was acceptable?"
"Yes, sir, in my professional opinion the risk involved was acceptable."
"Let me see, with a force seriously weakened by the absence of Seydlitz, you were heading for the Belgian coast to destroy some monitors and destroyers. Doing so you ran the risk of being intercepted by the stronger and faster British battle cruiser force. Another risk was that the British Channel Fleet could cut across your return path. Still another risk was night torpedo attacks by British destroyers. And another was possible minefields. And yet another was enemy submarines—we know for a fact at least one was along your path."
"These risks may not be as severe as you are suggesting," interrupted Ingenohl, "For instance, as far as minefields the British Admiralty declared their boundary explicitly. First Scouting Group’s planned route would swing around to the east of the declared zone. I have also seen the reports on Helgoland’s torpedo damage and have found it reassuring as to the degree of protection provided by our torpedo bulkheads. Likewise analyses of the torpedo attacks by British destroyers at Heligoland Bight show they were not as effective as we had feared—"
"--or perhaps we were merely lucky as you were with that submarine yesterday. I have seen the report on Heligoland as well, you know. The ability of our battleships to sink destroyers in that action was decidedly disappointing—"
"—and then you must know as well we are taking steps to remedy that deficiency!"
Pohl stopped looking at Ingenohl and focused on Hipper, "I must ask you, Franz, was the objective of this mission commensurate with the risks I just mentioned?"
"Yes, Admiral von Pohl, it was. The enemy monitors were disrupting the army’s very important operations in Belgium. I remain convinced it was justified." Actually I have some sizable doubts now, but I am not going to admit them.
Pohl glared at Hipper. After shaking his head Pohl continued, "You said that the operations were very important. More so than other army operations? How may I ask do you know this? Is it just a wild guess on your part?"
"General von Moltke informed me," answered Hipper. He immediately noticed a worried look in Ingenohl’s eyes.
"General Moltke!" exclaimed Pohl, "do you mean to tell me that you receive direct communication from General Moltke and that provided the seed for this harebrained adventure?"
Hipper paused and glared back, "It is as I said. I received a telegram from General Moltke."
"Admiral Hipper, let me be blunt. As you may well have heard there are some generals who blame the navy for the fact that Germany has not yet attained victory in this war. They say that it was your baneful influence on General Moltke that resulted in the failure of the Schlieffen Plan."
"The Schlieffen Plan was hopelessly flawed! General Moltke had realized that before I showed up. All I did was suggest some things to consider in devising an alternative."
"The general lacked an appreciation for how important the Channel Ports would be in a lengthy war involving Great Britain."
Admiral Pohl’s scowl softened slightly as he gave that last statement some thought before saying, "Hmm. Interesting. Later we should discuss your conversations with the general in more detail. But for now I must note that I am deeply concerned that this strange friendship you have apparently struck up with General von Moltke is clouding your own thinking just as much as his. I believe it is responsible for yesterday’s sortie which directly contravenes the Kaiser’s policies."
"I must strongly protest!" countered Ingenohl, "I was present when the Kaiser spelled out his policy after Heligoland Bight. He granted High Seas Fleet considerable freedom of initiative."
"That freedom of initiative was limited. The fleet is to be preserved as a political instrument. For that reason only missions of acceptable risk are to be undertaken. Heligoland Bight was justified. The events are yesterday were definitely not!"
Hipper merely sighed. He too had heard the Kaiser’s attempt to "clarify" his policy and he regarded it as more obfuscation than clarification. However one could not openly say that in front of a superior officer. There was another thing mystifying Hipper. More than a week ago Admiral Tirpitz had questioned him in great detail about his interaction with General Moltke. Apparently Tirpitz had failed to share what he had learned with the head of the Admiralstab. Curious.
Ingenohl answered, "I continue demur from your judgment. I approved Admiral Hipper’s mission. Its level of risk was within the Kaiser’s policies."
"Enough!" shouted Pohl, "I’ll have no more arguing from either of you. I am in charge of the Admiralstab. It is therefore my responsibility to see that the Kaiser’s policies are carried out. Since both of you have demonstrated a grotesque misunderstanding of those policies, I hereby order than any operation, which involves taking capital ships outside the Bight first receive my personal approval. Is that understood?"
10 Downing Street London 1105 hrs
Prime Minister Asquith was becoming exasperated "Lord Kitchener, are you trying to tell us that you don’t know if the Germans have captured Dunkirk?"
The Great Poster answered with only silence and another of his inscrutable stares.
The Prime Minister decided to stare back. He felt like sticking his tongue out.
Churchill jumped in to break the deadlock, "Prime Minister, it does sound rather preposterous but in war the exact situation is frequently most difficult to determine. Our sole source of information from inside Dunkirk since last evening has been a single weak wireless transmitter, which within the last hour has ceased to transmit. We should hope for the best but must steel ourselves to the possibility that Dunkirk has fallen to the enemy."
This produced some anxious murmuring from the ministers.
"Not very cheery thoughts, Winston I’m afraid."
Kitchener decided it was again time to speak, "I must remind the ministers that Sir John French has high expectations of achieving the decisive victory in the Battle of the Somme today. If we do indeed prevail and thereby turn the flank of the entire German Army then the situation at Dunkirk is clearly of only secondary importance."
More murmuring but with less anxiety.
"Yes, yes, you are quite correct to point that out," replied Asquith in a cold voice that lacked conviction.
"Lord Kitchener, while I would like very much to share your optimism, shouldn’t steps be taken to safeguard Calais—just in case the Germans somehow manage to again delay this victory we continue to expect at the Somme?" piped in Lloyd-George.
Kitchener turned towards the Chancellor, "Joffre has promised this morning to send reinforcements to the garrisons at both Boulogne and Calais."
"Has he by any chance said when he would do this?"
"No, Chancellor he has not. However in the meantime we have decided to ship the 2nd London Brigade and a yeomanry regiment to Calais tomorrow afternoon."
"Is this 2nd London Brigade part of the Territorial Force?" asked Asquith.
"Yes, Prime Minister, it is."
The deployment of the Territorial Force to France had been a sore topic at the Cabinet meeting of late. Trying to avoid resurrecting that debate, Asquith turned to Churchill, "Amidst the other bad news there was some sort of naval battle yesterday, Winston. Apparently the Germans ambushed and sank some of light forces off the Frisian Islands."
"Yes, Prime Minister. One of our patrols out of Harwich had the misfortune to encounter First Scouting Group at close range."
"First Scouting Group?"
"That’s what the Germans call their battle cruiser force."
"Oh, I see, now that’s a deucedly strange name, don’t you think? Well, what losses did our brave sailors inflict on the Germans."
"We don’t think any of the German ships were sunk. One of their cruisers and two of their destroyers were substantially damaged."
"Hmm, this doesn’t sound good at all. You know, I distinctly recall Prince Louis and yourself saying the Germans would not use their battle cruisers until they repaired the one which was heavily damaged—what was its name again?"
"Seydlitz, is the ship’s name, Prime Minister. Yes, I will confess that it was not one of my better prognostications. While this battle was undeniably a distasteful defeat, we still retain an immense margin of superiority over the German Navy."
BEF III Army Corps HQ Nouvion 1210 hrs
"General Wilson and I continue to worry sir about the fact that our right flank having lost contact with II Army Corps." gently admonished Col. Frederick Maude, chief of staff for III Army Corps.
The Corps Commander, General William Pulteney stared absently at Maude, "Well, what do you want of me? I’ve already forwarded your concerns back to BEF HQ twice. Their response so far is that a German night attack preempted Smith Dorien’s morning assault but his attack is now underway and making progress. French insists I press the retreating Germans with resolute vigor. We have already assigned one battalion as a flank guard. Do you suggest we assign another as well?"
"Yes, sir and a battery as well. Wilson is sending a troop of his cavalry squadron to locate II Army Corps flank."
"Oh, well, I reckon it’s better to be safe than sorry. Let’s discuss what battalion and battery should be moved to flank guard while we eat."
Maude inwardly groaned. This was the sort of decision Pulteney should leave to the divisional commander, but as usual insisted on making himself. From past experience he expected the general to take at least a half hour to reach his decision, especially if distracted by a meal.
Neuilly l’Htpital France 1405 hrs
The Germans kept coming along either side of a modest road leading from St. Riquier to Nouvion. Trying desperately to hold off their advance was the 2nd battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and ‘A’ squadron 19th Hussars. The cavalry squadron was part of II Army Corps and had been dispatched by Smith-Dorrien to find the flank of III Army Corps. When they arrived the German attack was already underway. A few messengers were sent galloping off to inform II Army Corps of the crisis. The rest of the cavalrymen dismounted and fought alongside the Ulstermen.
They were not entrenched though a few strongpoints had been set up. They fought from behind whatever cover they could find. Rushing up to reinforce them was a field engineer company and a troop of cavalry. The furious firing of their two machine guns was all that had prevented their position being overrun. Now one of the Maxims suddenly jammed.
They were fighting an entire division.
BEF HQ 1445 hrs
Sir John French was exultant. With the exception of Smith-Dorrien’s II Army Corps the morning news had been wonderful. The plan was going even been than his expectations. The Germans had realized they were beat and falling back—except for the vicinity of St. Riquier where once again II Army Corps was letting him down. Airplanes did report a column of troops heading in that direction, so perhaps these reinforcements were the reason for Smith-Dorrien’s failure. French was not going to let him bother him. The other successes would soon make the situation at St. Riquier irrelevant. French insisted on a determined pursuit of the enemy. Joffre had been lackadaisical in pursuing the Germans at the Marne and that allowed them to regroup at the Aisne. French would not make the same mistake. The battle, which would end the war, was being won this day.
He excused himself to go to the latrine. After he left a call came through from III Army Corps. Murray took the call. After a few seconds he fainted.
Southeast of Nouvion Friday 16 October, 1914 0650 hrs
The 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers Regiment approached the battle. . They found the dismounted men of 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards fighting alongside what was left of the 1st battalion Cheshires Regiment, 1st battalion Norfolks Regiment and an artillery battery. General Smith-Dorrien had detached these units from 5th Division yesterday to fill the gap when he had first learned of its existence. Their arrival had not prevent the Germans from overrunning the 2nd battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and a field engineer company but it did prevent the Germans from marching into Nouvion. A German assault was underway and the cavalrymen entered the fighting after dismounting except for those needed to hold the horses. During the night a few shallow slit trenches had been hurriedly dug. Some of the defenders had been dislodged from these trenches by the current German assault. The artillery battery was not far behind them and in danger of being overrun.
The regimental commander ordered one squadron to counterattack immediately on horseback while the other two dismounted to join the fray on foot. With lances lowered the cavalrymen exploded in a gallop into the midst of the advancing Germans. A few horses crumpled to the ground from rifle and a few riders as well were wounded. Most the squadron though made it to the melee in front of the 18 pounders.. There they drove back the German onslaught first by the point of their lances and then by the blade of their sabers. The combat was savage with heavy losses to both sides but the line held.
To the north elements of the 4th and 6th Divisions had been redeployed during the next as well. These were fighting desperately as well to hold off the German IV Army Corps.
HQ German Sixth Army 0950 hrs
Crown Prince Rupprecht was disappointed. The 28th Reserve Division had failed to capture Nouvion. They had let themselves be stalled by little more than a battalion yesterday afternoon, allowing the enemy to rush elements of both II Army Corps and III Army to fill the gap. The 28th Reserve Division had been the unit ejected from Abbeville at the beginning of what was being called the Battle of the Somme. It was not his favorite unit. Another source of disappointment was the IV Army Corps. After their grueling forced march those units had been too exhausted to assist effectively in the attack yesterday afternoon. With the draught horses dangerously overworked the artillery had lagged behind so that not one of their field guns had been fired before last light.
The battle had continued through the night. The enemy was trying to regroup while his own forces pressed them. Reports from the night engagements had been confused and often contradictory. The morning reports were only beginning to work their way back to his command post. Despite the set backs the Crown Prince remained hopeful.
GQG Chantilly 1105 hrs
Joffre carefully drank his coffee while looking at the latest message from the Sir John French:
SITUATION REMAINS CRITICAL. THREE DIVISIONS IN DANGER OF ENCIRCLEMENT. IMPERATIVE THAT TENTH ARMY LAUNCH NEW ATTACK TO RELIEVE PRESSURE. BEF MAY NEED TO RETIRE BEHIND SOMME. CONTINGENCY PLANS MUST BE READIED FOR BEF TO RETIRE TO DIEPPE TO REGROUP.
Joffre sighed but not too much. He was not going to let Sir John French ruin his coffee. A day ago the messages had all been of the great and decisive victory that was going to be won. Now there was a crisis and the think uppermost in French’s mind was finding a refuge. Joffre had seen Gen. French behave like this before. Earlier in the war French had often suggested making Boulogne his secure bastion. But alas Boulogne had become a part of the problem and was no longer available as a solution.
Which reminded Joffre of Kitchener’s requests for French forces to be dispatched by sea to reinforce endangered Boulogne and Calais. The French Navy as well as the British had been enraged by the sudden fall of Dunkirk. They too demanded that the garrisons at Boulogne and Calais be reinforced by sea. Now that the BEF’s great victory appeared to be foundering it finally seemed clear to Joffre that something should be done. Tomorrow he would send 87th Territorial Division and a cavalry brigade to Le Havre where they would embark for Boulogne. The cavalry would be useful for raiding the German lines of communication. As far as Calais he would send only two battalions. The British would surely complain—something they did all too well in Joffre’s august opinion—that this was inadequate but together with 2nd London Brigade, the existing garrison and naval fire support it should be enough. There was also a British request that additional forces be sent to Belgium.
Foch had also sent messages this morning. The Tenth and Second Armies were in no shape to mount any more attacks. This had been the sober judgment of the man who had done so much to instill the doctrine of the offense a outrance in the French Army before the war. In fact the Second Army was apparently having a difficult time dealing with localized counterattacks by the German Seventh Army. There would be no French attacks today or tomorrow for that matter. The best they would be able to offer the British is to take over some more of the front line in two days.
Along the coast North of Rue 1150 hrs
French cavalry approached.
Much of yesterday the British 2nd Division had advanced steadily against a retreating foe. Its flank had been covered by Allenby’s Cavalry Corps. Then in late afternoon, communications had arrived of a crisis in another sector of the battlefield. The cavalry guarding its flank was abruptly withdrawn. The flank was no covered, making it necessary to turn around and retire to the southwest.
Soon after this retirement had begun the Bavarian infantry they had been pursuing switched over to the attack. Compounding their problems the German cavalry, which had withdrawn to the north back of the Authie River now crossed back over and harried the British retirement. This made the withdrawal difficult but not impossible. The withdrawal was done in small stages with units covering each other. They continued to be pressed by cavalry and Bavarian infantry during the night.
Elements of the 2nd Division were approaching the spot where it would stop and make its stand with its left flank resting on the cliffs overlooking the sea. The selected location was more than a mile north of where Sir John French had originally wanted them. It had taken Haig two phone calls to persuade the frantic French that this position was better.
Yesterday the plan had been for Allenby to seize bridges over the Authie in the afternoon. The French I Cavalry Corps under Conneau was then to follow Allenby and ultimately rescue the Belgians.. The French cavalry, which had been advancing, were now mixing with the retreating British infantry. Though the French presence as reinforcements was much appreciated the senior officers knew well the problems resulting from the overlap.
Fort Mardyck section Dunkirk 1345 hrs
The German pioneer company had arrived less than two hours ago. They had finished their preparations. The commanding Oberleutnant gave the order to fire. All four of the 17cm minenwerfers fired Their targets were the warehouses wherein two squadrons of the Queen’s Own Oxford Hussars and a few dozen French militiamen were all that remained of enemy resistance in the city.
The shells fell short of their targets. The mortars were reloaded as their elevation was readjusted. In the distance there was explosions. The HMS Venerable and two monitors continued to shell the city. This coastal bombardment was virtually blind—the warships lacked real information about enemy concentrations.
The mortars again fired. The resulting detonations were closer to target. From inside the cordoned off buildings a few shots rang out in defiance.
BEF III Army Corps HQ northwest of Nouvion 1915 hrs
"The London Scottish have performed very well in their first action, sir. They repulsed an attack by two German battalions. It looks like we’re holding the line in all places, sir," announced Col. Maude after reviewing the latest batch of reports both from their own units and Cavalry Corps. These reports had arrived by messengers on motorcycles. A heavy early morning shelling had completely disrupted their wires and forced the Corps HQ to evacuate Nouvion.
General William Pulteney had not slept much in the last 24 hours. He nodded and made a feeble attempt at a reassuring smile, "Well now, it seems that the Terriers have some bite. Lord Kitchener will be glad to hear that. It looks like we’re past the immediate crisis. Hopefully General French will calm down when he hears this. Any word from Haig about 1st Division taking over the western portion of Crecy Forest?"
"No, sir. Not a word from I Army Corps"
"Damn it! We’ll need to keep an entire brigade and two batteries there overnight."
"Yes, I’m afraid that will be necessary to prevent infiltration."
"And that Indian division?"
"Lahore Division is expected to arrive before midnight."
"Throw them into our dawn counterattack. Let’s see if they can bite as well as the Terriers."
"I’ll remind the general that they don’t have any artillery."
"Oh, yes, that is a problem. I suppose. Oh hell, let’s just see what they can do. Be a good test for them, don’t you think, Freddie?"
OHL Luxembourg 2040 hrs
General Helmuth von Moltke was meeting with an unexpected guest.
"Good evening, Grand Admiral von Tirpitz. Might I ask what brings you here on such short notice?"
"Good evening, General von Moltke. I will be direct. I think that you and I now have some common interests."
Moltke had not been particularly friendly with Tirpitz before the war. The Army thought that Tirpitz had secured funding for an excessively large navy, neglecting the obvious fact that a major war would be a land war. Beyond the competition for funds there was something about Tirpitz’s personality that Moltke found distasteful.
"But, of course, Grand Admiral, we both serve the Reich in its hour of tribulation—"
"—yes, yes, that goes without saying," interrupted Tirpitz with more than a little irritation in is voice, "but in this endeavor we have our own plans. And some of those who would frustrate those plans wear German uniforms."
Moltke paused before he answered guardedly, "Hmm. Unfortunately I must admit that there is some truth in what you say Admiral. Is there something specific that—"
"—it is said that Admiral von Hipper and yourself have apparently established a remarkable friendship."
Moltke became even more cautious, "The All Highest himself sent Hipper to me after he was wounded at Heligoland. He is obviously a very fine naval officer. I listened to him address topics about which his knowledge was superior to my own--"
"--are you aware that he undertook a dangerous sortie with his ships two days ago because he thought it would facilitate your operations in Belgium?"
"I had heard that the Hipper had just won another victory. I know nothing of what led up to the encounter."
"Yes there was a victory but one of very modest proportions. It has stirred up something of a controversy. There is, you see, considerable difference of interpretation amongst my fellow officers about certain policies enumerated by the Kaiser. This recent naval action has raised this debate to a new level."
Molke nodded warily. This was interesting information but his own role in this situation was far from clear.
Tirpitz leaned forward. His face was now a few inches away from Moltke’s. Staring intensely into the general’s eyes he said, "It is increasingly my belief that that there exist possibilities for the High Seas Fleet to prevail in a fleet action."
BEF HQ St. Valery 0105 hrs Saturday, October 17, 1914
"Damn it all to bloody Hell, Archie!" whined Sir John French, "tomorrow the Huns are going to capture Nouvion. I know it. I just God damn know it. Once they do, they could still encircle as many as four brigades despite our limited withdrawals. Damn, damn and bloody damn, Lord Kitchener doesn’t know shit. I tell you again that we should hold on to Abbeville but otherwise withdraw across the Somme."
Murray had lost count of how many times they had had this discussion. He responded in a gentle barely audible voice, "Most certainly, without a doubt, sir. The situation does indeed remain most grave but, but --well I must say that Pulteney’s reports have remained guardedly optimistic."
"Damn it, Archie, Pulteney was the mindless twit that got us into this God forsaken mess! I’m a complete fool to let Allenby and him talk me out of a complete withdrawal."
"But if we pull back across the Somme there is no chance whatsoever of our being able to rescue Rawlinson and the Belgians," countered Murray.
"Don’t you think I know that? Blast you, Archie! It’s painfully obvious that the Belgian situation is hopeless. We should admit it and evacuate IV Corps with the next ship that docks at Ostend."
OHL Luxembourg, 0610 hrs
General von Moltke slowly drank his coffee. He thought long and hard about his conversations of the last night with Grand Admiral von Tirpitz. Could it have been a dream? Oh, some of it had very predictable—the arguments put forward by Tirpitz that the Navy should receive increased allocation of resources to be able to take proper advantage of the Channel ports once they were captured. Moltke had replied vaguely to those arguments. He saw some merit in them but did not want to commit himself. Falkenhayn would be a hard sell on this topic. It was some of the other suggestions put forward by Tirpitz that made the general wonder if it was merely a very strange and vivid dream.
An aide interrupted his contemplation. "General von Moltke, sir, Admiral Tirpitz needs to leave very soon to catch his train. He wishes to speak to you before he departs."
"I am coming now, Hans," he replied.
The aide brought him to a small conference room, where Admiral Tirpitz was reviewing some papers. He had his overnight bag and a briefcase with him. Just outside the door the Grand Admiral’s own aide was holding the admiral’s greatcoat and waiting expectantly
"Wait outside, Hans," instructed the general.
Moltke entered the room and closed the door, "Good morning, Grand Admiral. I hope you were able to get a good night’s sleep."
"Yes, general, I rested well. Thank you for your concern. I must be going soon. I just wanted to make sure we understand—fully understand-- each other."
Moltke hesitated before answering, "Is this about your most commendable desire for the Kaiserliche Marine to do all in its power to assist the Amy? Yes, admiral I understand you completely and do most appreciate your consideration."
Tirpitz eyed Molte warily, "Yes, General and allow me to repeat one last time what I said last night. If at some point you feel the Navy is not rendering that assistance, you should not hesitate to make the Kaiser aware of the shortcoming. Is this clear?"
It was not a dream! "Yes, that is most clear."
"Very good. Well then I must be going. I thank you for your time. This has been a most fruitful trip." Tirpitz extended his hand.
As Molte shook hands with the Grand Admiral, he tried to cross the Threshold with his consciousness. Schlieffen! Schlieffen! Are you there? You will not believe what has happened!
HQ German XXVI Reserve Corps Lillers 0920 hrs
"General von Hugel, the train carrying the 13cm field guns has just arrived," announced the voice on the telephone.
"Excellent. Did the supplies we need arrive with the same train? I am particularly concerned about the fodder since we are assuming command of a cavalry division."
"Supplies are being unloaded now as well as the artillery. However I will check that all the items on our list have arrived once this conversation is ended"
:"Yes, that is very important. You will inform me immediately if any item is absent. When their unloading is complete, 24th Reserve Jaeger Battalion will escort them along with the 21cm battery. Since both batteries have motorized tractors you should be able to catch up with 52nd Reserve Division midday tomorrow."
"Understood, Herr General."
"Good. This headquarters will be moving before noon. We will not have telephone lines to you once we leave. That is all." General Hugel hung up the telephone and addressed his staff.
"For a reserve corps we are going to be splendidly endowed with foot artillery, yes? First two batteries of 15cm howitzers, then last night a battery of 21cm Morsers and now as promised a battery of 13cm field guns. Our logistics will be complicated but that problem I will accept gladly. Send a messenger by motorcar to XXV Reserve Division telling them to march at greatest speed to St. Omer, where they will link up with the 7th Cavalry Division. Also send a telegram to OHL for the attention of General Moltke that we he have received our planned artillery reinforcement and our mission is on schedule."
Wilhelmshaven 0930 hrs
Admiral von Pohl was having yet another unpleasant meeting with Admiral von Ingenohl and Admiral von Hipper.
"So you have decided to cancel the minelaying mission against the Downs?" asked Pohl.
Ingenohl answered, "We decided it was too risky at this time. As we learned this week the enemy is patrolling vigorously off the Frisians. The old Ems patrol torpedo boats would be slaughtered if they should encounter an enemy patrol as strong as the one First Scouting Group destroyed Wednesday. So unless they are properly escorted the mission is too hazardous."
Pohl’s frown deepened, "The old torpedo boats of Ems Patrol are quite expendable. I had thought this level of risk to be perfectly justified in light of the great benefits that could be gained "
Hipper and Ingenohl glared back at the Pohl. In the last two days all discussions of possible missions had been acrimonious.
"The mission has been postponed rather than cancelled," offered Hipper, "Admiral Maas will be resuming command of Second Scouting Group in the next few days. He has some thoughts on this matter. We should wait until he returns before reaching a decision."
Pohl scowled some more. Maas was a very aggressive officer. His return would only add fuel to the fire. "I take it then that the other offensive minelaying missions are going forward as planned?" he asked.
"Yes, Admiral, they are."
BEF HQ St. Valery 0930 hrs
Sir John French was meeting with Lord Kitchener, Sir Winston Churchill and Col. Hankey. Murray was present as well but was trying desperately to participate as little as possible.
"So you no longer recommend a withdrawal behind the Somme?" asked Kitchener.
"Uh, yes, that is correct, Lord Kitchener. Our defenses have withstood all enemy attacks. The enemy has been denied the critical junction of Nouvion. It is now obvious that the crisis is over."
"In that case, when do you think you can go back on the offensive?" asked Churchill.
French squirmed uneasily and after exchanging worried glances with his chief of staff replied haltingly, "That is rather hard to say, First Lord. With reinforcements and sufficient artillery shells, then perhaps in three or four days."
Churchill looked first at Kitchener and then back at French. He gave the latter a look of encouragement, "We may not have three or four days. The situation grows steadily worse in Belgium. You receive reports from General Rawlinson; you know the situation there. King Albert is leading a heroic struggle worthy of Homer or the Bard but he is sorely beset by greater numbers of a ruthless and relentless foe with his own forces more and more depleted. Unless rescued by land or massively reinforced by sea his fate can be merely delayed."
Churchill suddenly looked deeply saddened. Images of his own expedition to Antwerp and the massacre of 2nd Naval Brigade at Passchendaele tormented his soul. He barely avoided shedding a few tears.
"You need to resume the offensive Monday morning," remarked Kitchener, "Two more battalions from the Territorial Force will arrive at Dieppe midday tomorrow as reinforcements. Also the First Lord and Col. Hankey have some ideas they want to discuss with Haig and yourself."