A HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU ALL
The Times correspondent reported on December 26th 1915 that the guns had continued to fire on Christmas Day and that he had witnessed no fraternization. He had seen dugouts which behind the sacking had been decorated with holly and pictures from home and with cake and puddings on the table.
The same correspondent was given the opportunity to visit a crater captured from the Germans. As he and the officer made their way towards it, he saw men fast asleep covered in mud while others jammed themselves against the mud of the trench wall to allow them to pass as cleanly as possible. As they reached the rim of the crater he reported that ‘Beside me stood a silent figure who might have been your son, muffled, intent, gripping a rifle with a fixed bayonet. His thoughts heaven knows where, were watching the few yards of earth between us and the foe with a box of bombs close at hand and around him a wreckage of clay and barbed wire’ .
At their home in Lapworth, the Walker family would have been grieving for the loss of their son Second Lieutenant Eric Walker 6th Batt. K.S.L.I. killed in the trenches at la Boutillerie south of Armentieres. On December 30th the Warrior Class armoured cruiser H.M.S. Natal exploded in The Firth of Cromarty with the loss of over 400 lives. There were suspicions about submarine activity and mines but an Admiralty Enquiry concluded, from investigation of the wreck, that the loss was due to an internal explosion probably due to faulty cordite. Cordite is notoriously unstable and was subsequently responsible for two similar devastating explosions which destroyed battle cruisers at The Battle of Jutland.
There were survivors from H.M.S. Natal but the total number is unclear. Communications between other ships at the time indicate that H.M.S. Achilles took on board 126 survivors, and 45 were taken on board the Hospital Ship Drina. Nurses from the Drina were, however, among the casualties. The Captain had been holding a party on board at the time of the explosion and among the casualties were seven women, one male civilian, and three children. One of the survivors was the ships’ cat saved by Leading Stoker Thomas Robinson.
The withdrawal of troops from Gallipoli had begun in early December with the evacuation from Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove being completed by 18th December 1915. General Sir William Birdwood’s plan had been a complete success with over 83,000 men, 186 artillery pieces, and 4,500 transport animals withdrawn. The future Prime Minister, Clement Attlee of 6th South Lancashire Fusiliers, was one of the last to leave Suvla Beach.
The Campaign in the Dardenelles had been deeply flawed but the submarine activity in the region had been a success. Having penetrated minefields around the Dardanelles, British, French, and Australian submarines went on to sink Turkish warships off Constantinople, and some 50% of Turkish shipping by January 1916.
Winston Churchill was to prove the major political casualty. Having lost his position at the Admiralty he resigned his Cabinet post and joined his regiment, The Oxfordshire Hussars in France.
At the second Inter-allied conference at Chantilly, decisions were made which would have serious consequences in 1916. The first was for a joint British/French attack on the Somme and the second was to mount diversionary attacks whenever one ally came under threat.
The New Year also saw a new man in charge in France with Sir Douglas Haig taking over from Sir John French. They apparently had a very frosty handover meeting on December 18th. French became the Commander in Chief Home Forces.
THE TOP GERMAN GENERALS
We hear a lot about how bad the British generals were and how good the German ones were so perhaps it’s time to have a closer look at the German chiefs of staff, the actual professional heads of the army and its commander in chief.
Von SCHLIEFFEN: Famous for his brilliant but deeply flawed plan. It meant that only in Germany did mobilisation mean war, making it the aggressor. By invading Belgium (which Germany, France and Britain were pledged to protect) it made absolutely certain that Britain would enter the war and Britain could only be defeated at sea which would be likely to draw America in. Moreover the British economic stranglehold sucked the guts out of Germany. Many believe that the infantry-based German army was simply not capable of moving fast enough to complete the great encircling movement demanded by his plan.
Von MOLTKE: Chief of Staff (C in C) on the outbreak of war. He panicked when Russians started to invade East Prussia and transferred two corps from the vital Flanders flank to the East but the situation there had be cleared up before they got there. They were missed on the Western Front at a crucial time. He failed to exercise control of his seven armies in the west, allowing each army commander to practically fight his own war—the Marne resulted and Germany had lost the war.
Von FALKENHAYNE: He took over from von Moltke and authorised the first use of gas without making provision for exploiting the opening it caused. Surprise could no longer be achieved. He attempted to ‘Bleed the French Army White’ at Verdun but failed to allocate sufficient resources. The battle deteriorated into one of attrition in which Germany suffered as much as the French. He increased German losses on the Somme by demanding that every yard had to be tenaciously defended and if lost, regained by counter attack even to using the last man in France.
LUDDENDORFF (was not a ’von’ and official title was Quartermaster General but he was the power behind the Hindenburg/Luddendorff team): He recognised the dangerous situation in which the Somme had left the German Army and wisely retired to the Hindenburg Line but leaving a desert behind, which ranked as a war crime. He became virtual war lord and made extravagant demands on German industry thereby ruining the German economy. He demanded the resumption of unrestricted U Boat warfare, knowing that it would bring the US into the war. He gambled on defeating the French Army before that country could make its weight felt. When Russia dropped out of war he insisted on incorporating certain Eastern lands into the German Empire that tied down a number of divisions which would have been better employed in the West.
Some believe that instead of gambling his last resources for his Spring Offensive (which failed) he should have used them to make his defences so strong that the Allies might have offered fairly reasonable terms, rather than face the prospect of overcoming them. Instead his offensive was fought to a standstill and he was left with a difficult to defend salient pointing in the wrong direction, a strategic dead end. It collapsed after the German Army’s Black Day and realising the mess the generals had got themselves into, he demanded politicians, over whom he had walked, to seek immediate terms. When they did so, he tried to save his reputation by urging continued resistance and called the politicians cowards.