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 178th installment in the series.
April 14, 1915: British Defeat Turks at Shaiba
The Mesopotamian theater assumed an outsized role in British strategy because of its proximity to Persia, which allowed the Turks to threaten the oil supply for Britain’s Royal Navy. To protect the crucial pipeline from attacks by the Turks and their tribal allies, the British government of India mounted an invasion of Mesopotamia using British and Indian troops beginning November 6, 1914, followed by the capture of the southern port of Basra on November 21 and the strategic town of Qurna, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers flow together, on December 19.
As the Anglo-Indians began consolidating their position in southern Mesopotamia, on April 12-14, 1915 the Turks mounted a counterattack at the Battle of Shaiba, where around 4,000 Turks and 14,000 Arab tribesmen attacked 7,000 British and Indian troops entrenched southwest of Basra. Against the odds the British inflicted a decisive defeat, which ended the threat to Basra – but also made them overconfident, setting the stage for a disaster of their own.
The Battle of Shaiba had an odd amphibious preamble, as the great rivers flooded during the spring, covering floodplains for miles around – albeit just a few feet deep in most places. Subsequently controlled by massive dams, these seasonal inundations cut off British land communications between Shaiba and Basra, forcing them to deliver supplies by water. The Turks then attacked the British supply system with native sailboats, forcing the British to respond with improvised war vessels. A British transport officer described the battle in an area that had been dry land just a few months before:
… we had joined boats together with platforms, on which were mounted machine guns and mountain guns covered with straw… a small force issued from Basra, with the intention… of clearing our watery lines of communication of the Turkish bellums met with on the previous day… There was about two feet of water and one foot of mud, and the battle was fought in boats on what is usually the Basra-Zobeir road.
Battle of Shaiba
After failing to cut the Anglo-Indian force off by water, the Turks opened the land battle in the early morning of April 12, 1915 with an artillery bombardment meant to cut the barbed wire in front of the British trenches, followed by an infantry attack that evening (giving them plenty of time to prepare). However the artillery failed to destroy enough barbed wire, and the infantry advance was turned back with bloody losses.
Giving up on the idea of a frontal attack, on April 13 the Turks simply tried to go around the Brits, hoping they wouldn’t sally out from their secure position to risk an open engagement in the desert. But they gambled wrong, as four British and Indian brigades ventured out and eventually forced them to retreat with artillery support (top, Indian artillery in action at Shaiba). After this defeat the Turkish commander, Suleiman Askari, killed himself and the Turks’ tribal allies – sensing which way the wind was blowing – withdrew to a safe distance to await the outcome of the battle.
On the third and final day of the Battle of Shaiba the British commander, Major-General Charles Mellis, took the fight to the Turks with an attack on the main Turkish camp in a nearby palm grove called Barjisiyeh Wood (above, Gurkhas, British colonial troops from Nepal, escort Turkish prisoners of war after Shaiba). Fierce combat ensued, culminating in a dramatic bayonet charge that left the Turkish trenches full of dead. Colonel W.C. Spackman, a medical officer with the British forces in Mesopotamia, described the battle, when he was responsible for treating both British and enemy wounded:
Our troops passed slowly over the horizon and into the sand-dunes, disappearing into the dust, accompanied by a continuous roar of artillery and musket fire as battle was joined. It was not long before the wounded and stragglers began to return… Pause to imagine being brought in, with other wounded with broken limbs or massive injuries, on a mule cart without springs, travelling for miles across the rough desert under a burning sun. Imagine the pain and the thirst. That evening cartloads of dead and wounded Turks were brought in, the dead, dying, and wounded all mixed up, the job of sorting them out being an appalling experience.
Later Spackman toured the battlefield and came across the Turkish trenches:
Most of the Turkish dead were lying where they had fallen, a pitiful sight, and highly unpleasant too. One large trench, which had been taken by a bayonet charge, held about 200 bodies. The ground behind that trench back to the wood was also dotted with bodies. I then found the Turkish field hospital, which was in a shocking mess with dead and wounded still lying there.
Following this debacle the Turks retreated upriver, and the British commander, Sir John Nixon, decided to press his advantage by sending a force under Major General Sir Charles Townshend to follow them, resulting in the short-lived and ill-fated escapade known as “Townshend’s Regatta.” Beginning in May 1915 Townshend gathered a flotilla of steamboats and flat-bottomed river craft and raced up the Tigris in pursuit of the withdrawing Turks, making it a hundred miles upriver to the town of Amara before he finally overreached and went down to defeat.
Meanwhile, after the betrayal at Shaiba the Turks decided they could no longer rely on their Arab tribal allies, long notorious for their treachery, resulting in a rapidly widening breach that strengthened the hand of Arab nationalists who wanted independence from the Ottoman Empire. The seeds of the postwar order in the Middle East, such as it was, had been sown.
Central Powers Plan New Eastern Offensive
Back in Europe the dynamic was about to shift dramatically in May 1915. After the Western Front settled into stalemate in the fall of 1914 and German winter attempts to break through bled into the snow in early 1915, the victors of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, General Paul von Hindenburg and his brilliant chief of staff Erich Ludendorff, finally persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm II and chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn to switch the main focus of the German effort to the Eastern Front, reinforcing the earlier decision made at a meeting on New Year’s Day.
They received support from Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, who had once again failed to liberate Galicia from Russian control in a series of bloody campaigns over the first three months of the year, culminating in the humiliating loss of the key fortress town of Przemyśl along with over 100,000 Habsburg troops. The Germans were also alarmed by the formation of a new Russian force threatening Eastern Prussia, the Twelfth Army, as well as the prospect of intervention by hitherto neutral countries like Italy and Romania, whose governments believed the Allies – despite some setbacks – were about to conquer Constantinople and win the war.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff argued that Germany could preempt these threats, protect its hapless ally Austria-Hungary, and maybe even end the war with a massive combined offensive against Russia. Unlike Germany in the Second World War, no one seriously entertained the ambition of conquering Russia in its entirety; instead they hoped to take enough territory (and threaten enough future losses) to force Russia to abandon Britain and France and make a separate peace. Then Germany could turn back to the Western Front and with all its strength and finish the war.
On April 13, 1915 Kaiser Wilhelm and Falkenhayn agreed to the plan presented by Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Conrad for a major offensive on the Eastern Front. Having identified a weak spot in the enemy defenses between the Russian Third and Fourth Armies, the generals proposed transferring eight German divisions from the Western Front and allotting six of these to a new combined Austro-German Eleventh Army, which would then attack carry out a concerted attack on the Russian lines along with the Habsburg Fourth and Third Armies. They also shifted the Habsburg Second Army south from Central Poland to the Galician front, where it would guard the southern flank along with the German Südarmee (South Army), while the Army Detachment Woyrsch under Remus von Woyrsch extended its lines south to fill the gap this left in Poland.
To win German cooperation, Conrad had to swallow his pride and cede command of the operation (which he had already done most of the planning for) to German General August von Mackensen, whose star was rapidly rising under Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The offensive, scheduled to begin May 2, 1915, would center on a stretch of Russian trenches between the Austrian Polish towns of Gorlice and Tarnów. Initially hoping for a limited breakthrough, the Central Powers commanders would be amazed by their success as Russian defenses unraveled, leading to a major reversal for the Allies known to history as the Great Retreat.
Rumors of Gas Attack at Ypres
At first Falkenhayn agreed to the Eastern offensive only reluctantly, still believing the war would ultimately be settled on the Western Front – and also curious (if skeptical) about the potential of a new weapon developed at the urging of Fritz Haber (below), the brilliant German Jewish chemist who led Germany’s pioneering efforts in nitrogen fixation: poison gas. The result was the first major gas attack of the war at the Second Battle of Ypres, beginning April 22, 1915.
The Germans had already tried to use poison gas in violation of two international Hague treaties on at least two occasions, but without success. On October 27, 1914, the Germans fired tear gas shells at French positions near Neuve Chapelle (later the scene of the first big British offensive of the war) but amid the smoke and shellfire these failed to make much of an impression. Then on January 31, 1915 they fired shells containing benzyl bromide, another eye and skin irritant, against Russian positions at the Battle of Bolimów, but the air was so cold the gas failed to vaporize.
However the situation would be very different at the Second Battle of Ypres: here Fritz Haber developed a system using highly toxic chlorine gas instead of relatively “mild” lachrymatory agents, delivered from portable pressurized tanks instead of shells due to a shell shortage. With luck the gas would be blown over the enemy lines by steady southwesterly wind (of course in this and subsequent gas attacks there was a considerable risk if the winds should change direction).
By mid-April the Germans had assembled 5,730 cylinders filled with 171 tons of chlorine gas along a four-mile-long stretch of the front north of Ypres. The Germans tried their best to keep their plans secret, but the Allies received plenty of warning, principally from a German deserter who told the French on April 14. However when the attack failed to materialize on the night of April 15-16 as predicted (the Germans called it off at the last minute because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction) the Allies disregarded this and other reports as mere rumors or psychological warfare intended to shake their confidence.
In truth there wasn’t much the Allies could do to prepare their troops for this entirely novel form of warfare anyway, and French and British commanders decided that repeating the rumors would only unnerve their men without adding appreciably to their readiness. As a result the French and Canadian divisions in the frontline at Ypres were taken completely by surprise when the new horror swept over them on April 22, 1915.