The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 149th installment in the series.
October 16, 1914: Prelude to Apocalypse
Following the fall of Antwerp it was clear that German and Allied armies, still trying to outflank each other in the “Race to the Sea,” were headed for a showdown in Flanders in western Belgium. As the Belgian Army dug in along the Yser River on the coast near Nieuport, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre hurried the new French Tenth Army north and moved the British Expeditionary Force behind French lines towards Lille, while German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn created a new Fourth Army and moved up the Sixth Army. The arriving forces immediately clashed in a series of near-simultaneous battles at La Bassée, Messines, Armentières and the River Yser – but these were just the prelude to the apocalyptic struggle of Ypres.
After the Battle of Albert saw the French Second Army under Édouard de Castelnau fight to a draw with the German Sixth Army under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, Falkenhayn once again tried to outflank the French from the north at Arras, but found his way blocked by the new French Tenth Army under General Louis de Maud’huy, formed by Joffre with troops drawn from Second Army and elsewhere on the Western Front.
Repeating the now familiar pattern, both sides hurried reinforcements to the far end of the front, extending the line of battle north past Vimy and Lens to reach La Bassée by October 8. With French troops already stretched thin, Joffre pulled the British Expeditionary Force out of the line at the Aisne and sent it north via trains, trucks and buses. The first British troops arrived near Béthune, less than ten miles west of La Bassée, on October 10-11, and on October 12 they began moving east across open farmland towards La Bassée, supported by French units to the south.
But the Allies soon encountered fierce resistance from the German I and II Cavalry Corps, ordered to hold the German flank until reinforcements could arrive. Over the next week the British and French succeeded in taking the village of Givenchy on October 16, but suffered heavy losses for very modest gains, due in part to the German advantage in heavy artillery. After fresh German troops arrived on October 18, the Allied attacks ground to a halt and the British and French were forced to fortify their positions (using sandbags because the ground was so marshy). Here they would face the huge German offensive being prepared for October 20.
Meanwhile to the northeast the key city of Lille fell to the Germans on October 12, 1914, and the following day the 4th and 6th Divisions of the British Expeditionary Force attacked entrenched German Sixth Army units around Bailleul, with assistance from the French II Cavalry Corps under de Mitry. By October 14 the outnumbered German cavalry had fallen back east towards Armentières on the Belgian border, eventually taking up defensive positions behind the River Lys, where they awaited reinforcements (see map below).
Over several days of hard fighting the Allies managed to slowly force the Germans from their well-hidden defensive positions, capturing the crossings over the Lys on October 16 and pushing the Germans east of Armentières, to a line running north-south from Pont Rouge on the Belgian border to Radinghem a few miles west of Lille. As at La Bassée the Allied offensive was halted by the arrival of German infantry reinforcements on October 18-19, who took over the line from the German cavalry corps, freeing up the latter to move north to the Belgian border near Comines.
Once again both sides had endured very heavy casualties for meager results. Not longer afterwards a German soldier, Richard Sulzbach, described the bloody aftermath of the battle near the village Prémesques, midway between Armentières and Lille, where he saw “… corpses, corpses, and more corpses, rubble, and the remains of villages… The bodies of friend and foe lie tumbled together… We are now in an area of meadowland, covered with dead cattle and a few surviving, ownerless cows. The ruins of the village taken by assault are still smoking. Trenches hastily dug by the British are full of bodies…”
Shocked by these scenes of destruction, like many other young idealistic European men Sulzbach tried to come to grips with the horror of war by reminding himself of the cause he was fighting for:
We have seen too many terrible things all at once, and the smell of the smoking ruins, the lowing of the deserted cattle and the rattle of machine-gun fire make a very strong impression on us, barely twenty years old as we are, but these things also harden us up for what is going to come. We certainly did not want this war! We are only defending ourselves and our Germany against a world of enemies who have banded together against us.
Just a few miles further north, on October 12-19, 1914 British and French cavalry clashed with German cavalry (both sides usually fighting dismounted, and frequently entrenched) in a battle that rolled from the French town of Hazebrouck about ten miles east across the Belgian border to Messines. General Allenby’s British Cavalry Corps first managed to push the German IV Cavalry Corps out of hilltop positions northeast of Hazberouck on October 12, then pursued them past Bailleul into Belgium, reaching the town of Wytschaete by October 14.
However German reinforcements began arriving on October 15, and the Allied advance ran into serious resistance near the town of Comines from the German cavalry corps, now reinforced by infantry from the XIX and XIII Corps. A renewed push brought the British as far as the Ypres-Comines canal to the north and the River Lys to the south, but the marshy banks were not suitable for cavalry operations, and the British failed to capture the river crossings. By October 19 the Allied push near Messines had run out of steam.
The River Yser would be the scene of the Belgian Army’s most heroic stand – the place where King Albert’s vastly outnumbered forces held off the German onslaught long enough for Allied forces to take up defensive positions near Ypres. Over the next few weeks six under-strength Belgian infantry divisions and two small cavalry divisions, assisted by a beleaguered brigade of French marines, managed to hold off six German army corps containing twelve full-strength divisions – pitting 65,000 Belgians and 6,000 French troops against 150,000 Germans in the Fourth Army under Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg.
Following their hasty retreat from Antwerp the Belgian troops were already at the end of their tether, according to Wilson McNair, a special correspondent for The London Times (below, Belgian troops resting near the Yser). McNair quoted a Belgian officer’s description of the soldiers arriving near Nieuport on the Belgian coast:
They were smothered in mud, their faces, their eyes, their hair. Many of them were wounded, and their wounds had scarcely been dressed, so that you could see the blood dried upon them… All of them held such a gaze of wonder in their eyes as made a man cold to look upon. These were the eyes of the dead, of those who have passed beyond the reach of care or pain or anxiety.
The Belgians and French, dug in behind the Yser and Yperless Canal, faced the new German Fourth Army, made up of the XXII, XXIII, XXVI, and XXVII Reserve Corps, plus the 4th Ersatz (substitute) Division. The Belgians and French were vastly outnumbered, but the swampy banks of the Yser provided excellent defensive positions, which they improved with embankments (it was difficult to dig trenches in the low-lying, water-logged terrain), machine gun nests, wire entrapments (below), and camouflaged artillery posts.
On October 16 the first wave of the assault hit Dixmude, a small canal town of about 4,000 inhabitants, where the German 43rd and 44th Reserve Divisions attacked the French marine brigade (fusiliers marins) under Admiral Pierre Ronarc’h, pitting around 36,000 Germans against 6,000 French and 5,000 Belgians. The Germans opened the battle with a heavy bombardment by 10-centimeter and 15-centimeter guns, followed by a series of infantry charges continuing into October 17, all of which failed, as the close ranks of the advancing Germans were devastated by machine gun and rifle fire.
After pausing to regroup, on October 19 the Germans switched their focus, attacking the Belgians further north near the villages of Beerst, Keyem, and Leke, east of the Yser. The forward detachments of the Belgian divisions, guarding the far bank of the river, were forced to withdraw to the west bank, where they dug in and prepared to make a last stand.
The Allies had held back the enemy tide, for now. But the Germans were bringing up their heavy artillery, and the fight along the Yser – and at La Bassée, Armentières, and Messines – was just beginning. On October 20, 1914, they would all become part of the great Battle of Ypres.
U-9 Sinks HMS Hawke
On October 15, 1914, Britain’s vaunted Royal Navy sustained another humiliating loss with the sinking of HMS Hawke, an old cruiser on blockade duty in the North Sea, by the German U-9 – the same German submarine, under Lieutenant Otto Weddigen, which sank the HMS Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue on September 22, 1914, with the loss of 1,459 lives.
While the Hawke was obsolete (before the war it was on training duty) after hostilities broke out the Admiralty scraped together every ship First Lord Winston Churchill and First Sea Lord Prince Louis of Battenberg could lay their hands on for active duty. The ship went to sea with a more than full complement of 594 sailors, of whom 524 perished when U-9 torpedoed the ship off Aberdeen, Scotland.
The sinking of the Hawke was another tragic example of fatal incompetence on the part of the Royal Navy’s officers: it turned out the ship’s commander had failed to order a zigzag course to make the ship a more difficult target for submarines, as required by navy rules. Coming on top of the needless loss of the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue, this negligence and complacency further undermined the British public’s faith in the Royal Navy, as did the continuing exploits of German commerce raiders around the world (including the Emden in the Indian Ocean, the Karlsruhe in the Atlantic, and the Far East Fleet in the Pacific under Admiral von Spee).
Meanwhile the admiralty discovered that another German submarine, U-19, had managed to penetrate the naval defenses at Scapa Flow (although without sinking any ships), rendering the Royal Navy’s home base unsafe; the commander of the Grand Fleet, Admiral John Jellicoe, ordered the fleet to relocate to Loch Ewe in northwest Scotland. Quite unexpectedly the Royal Navy – long the “senior service” and a central pillar of British national identity and self-esteem – found itself facing a crisis of confidence.
Japanese Occupy Marianas and Marshall Islands
On the other side of the world, Japan was taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the Great War to scoop up Germany’s colonial possessions in Asia and the Pacific Ocean. On the Chinese mainland, Japanese troops and ships were laying siege to the German territory of Kiautschou (Jiazhou) on the Shandong peninsula, which also included the city of Tsingtao (Qingdao, home of the famous beer).
In the Pacific, in mid-October the Japanese occupied the German insular territories of Palau, the Marianas Islands, the Marshall Islands, and the Caroline Islands; previously Australian forces had occupied German New Guinea, and troops from New Zealand occupied German Samoa, all without a fight. The Australians and New Zealanders moved swiftly at the request of the British, who plainly distrusted their Japanese allies and the possible effect Japanese expansion would have on opinion in the United States, the other big Pacific power.
Indeed, the U.S. was already expressing concerns about Japanese moves in China, and the situation would reach crisis levels when Japan presented 21 demands to the Chinese government in January 1915, which clearly impinged on Chinese sovereignty. Bizarre as it seems in retrospect, at the time many peopled feared Japan’s moves would provoke the U.S. to enter the war – on the side of the Central Powers.