This episode jumps all around the world as we check back in with the Eastern Front as the German and Russian armies meet at the Battle of the Vistula River. We then begin our world wide tour with a look at how the colonies of Britain, France, and Germany were taking part in the war. We end this week by finding out how exactly a division of British troops from the Royal Navy ended up alongside the Belgians in Antwerp.
Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 14. This week we start in the East as the armies of Germany and Austria-Hungary begin to work together against their mutual enemy the Russians which results in the Battle of the Vistula River. We will then head back to Belgium, where the great German offensive began, to see the situation with the Belgian army currently ensconced in the fortress city of Antwerp. Finally, we will head around the world on our first circumnavigation of the globe as we find out how the war is playing out in the plethora of European colonies stretched around the world, we find out why this was truly a world war.
We left the East after the Germans had been successful at the Battle of Tannenberg which resulted in the destruction of the Russian Second Army. This success was followed by the German attack at the First Battle of the Masurian lakes that ended in a draw with the German army back in Control of Prussia by the Russian army still very much intact and in fighting shape. It is worth a moment to once again reiterate that, as the Generals in 1914 were discovering, it was very hard to defeat armies composed of millions of men with the technology available at the time. These German victories in the east were offset by the Austro-Hungarian defeats in the Battles of Galicia. The result of the German success and the Austrian defeat was a large gap that had been opened between the two armies. This gap was very poorly placed from a German perspective as it left the road to Silesia, a core province for Germany right in the heartland of the country, wide open to a Russian attack.
The German high command, led by Falkenhayn saw that this was a problem that had to be fixed and therefore he moved most of the German 8th army, the same troops from Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes to East Prussia in preparations for an attack towards Warsaw. These troops were renamed the Ninth army and were put under the command of Hindenberg and Ludendorff. The goal of this army was to attack toward Warsaw and to take it from the Russians. By doing this the gap between Germans and the troops of Austria-Hungary would be greatly reduced
The Russian forces facing the Germans were currently suffering from the indecision that would plague them from much of the war. In this instance Russian high command wanted to do one thing while the front commanders in the northwest and southwest wanted to do something different. This was mostly caused by the differing results the generals had experienced up to this point in the war. In the south they had been successful and wanted to continue the attack, in the north they had been defeated and wanted to continue to withdraw in front of the Germans. The idea of retreating further into Russian territory was something of a distinction between the Russian mindset and the other European countries. The Russians were always willing to trade space for time as they displayed so excellently during the Napoleon invasions of 1812 and they would show again during the German invasions in 1941. This set them apart from everybody else who fought tooth and nail for every foot of their territory. The Final plan agreed upon by the Russian commanders was to slowly withdraw in front of the oncoming advance of the German ninth army while at the same time staging an attack in both the north and the south. When the Germans advanced to far, the Russians would then turn around and attack then in the hopes of encircling and defeating them. To do this two armies were brought in from the Southern Front to reinforce the troops on the Vistula.
The Battle of the Vistula River would end up being quite large and for the most part didn’t quickly devolve into trench warfare like we saw last week on the western front. For several days the Germans advanced toward warsaw with only token Russian resistance. At this same times the Austrians, even in their somewhat delicate state attacked from the south, also aiming at Warsaw but they didn’t have nearly the luck that the Germans had. By the 9th of October the Germans had reached the Vistula River just 10 miles from Warsaw but they now had a problem. As the Russians retreated their front became more and more dense as they fell back on more and more troops, some of which were still arriving from the south. At the Vistula River the Russians became too strong for the Germans to continue to advance against. For 7 days the Germans continued their attacks but on the 17th of October, without any real progress since the tenth, the Germans retreated. By the 22nd the Austrians began to retreat back to their starting lines as well.
By the end of October the Germans were back where they started in Prussia and the Austrians were back in Hungary. The Austrians had lost 50,000 men on their advance and retreat and the German ninth army had suffered 20,000 casualties. Their opponents, Russia, had suffered around 150,000 which sounds horrible, it is twice as much as their opponents combined but at the end of the day the Russians still held Warsaw and they had far more men to replace their loses with than the Germans or Austrians. The Battle of the Vistula River would end up being an expensive draw for both sides that just reinforced the difficulty all armies were having of creating meaningful victories on the battlefield in late 1914.
So with the situation in the East settled for a bit we jump again back to Belgium. When we last left Belgium most of the Country was overrun by Germans and the Belgian army had retreated back into the fortress city of Antwerp. Antwerp was considered the national redoubt of Belgium and their last line of defense against an invader. The city was surrounded by a modern band of fortifications around the city that had been built over a span of about 50 years. This lengthy time period of construction did result in a difference between forts on how modern and capable they were. As new forts were being built through the previous five decades their specfications changed mostly in response to advancements in artillery for both offense and defense. There were 21 forts built around the city after 1882 and they were about 15 kilometers away from the city center. There were also 12 older forts closer to the city, but as we will see very soon find out these older forts didn’t hold up very well. The Guns in the forts became bigger as the forts were build with the newest forts having up to 28 cm guns, still far below the giant siege howitzers the Germans would bring to bear against them. Each fort had a variety of guns from the aforementioned 28cm guns all the way down to 7.5cm guns for close to defense in addition to a compliment of machine guns. The newest forts had 2.5 meters of unreinforced concrete for protection with that defense dwindling down to simple masonry defenses in the oldest forms. The theoretical maximum protection for the newest and best of the forts was from 28cm shells, the Germans would be bringing far larger ones. Throughout the siege I will be using positions on a clock to describe where action is taking place with 12 being the north and 6 being the south. You can imagine the city center of Antwerp being right in the center of the clock, hopefully by using this metaphor it will be easier to keep track of the action.
Up to this point the Germans had success in attacking Belgian fortifications, they had taken Liege right at the beginning of the war which had a similar design and construction concept to the fortifications at Antwerp. If you remember the germans had tried a few days of frontal assaults by infantry only to eventually resort to just using their massive 30.5 and 40 cm siege howitzers to batter the forts into submission. After a short bombardment from the guns the forts would generally surrender. The leaders of Belgium hadn’t committed all their troops to Liege so there were a lot more troops in Antwerp to defend against the Germans, which did at least give the Belgians some hope in the defense. The Germans had six divisions around Antwerp, down from the 11 that pre-war planning dictated be used for the siege. These 11 divisions were supposed to be used to almost completely surround Antwerp but with the reduced numbers available this wasn’t possible. Instead the Germans would attack only from the south first to take the fortresses at the six oclock position and then slowly work their way up the clock to 5, 4, 3, etc. All of the available siege guns were to engage these fortifications in turn but at this point the Germans didn’t have their huge siege guns which were currently in France dealing with the city of Mauberge. They would not arrive until well into the siege.
The Belgians were not idle during the German march through belgium and during the time between the start of the war and the beginning of the Siege of antwerp the Belgians had worked hard to improve both the forts and the defensive positions the linked them together. They cleared obstructions in front of the forts so that guns would have clearer fields of fire, that had the unfortunate side effect of making it easier for the Germans to see them, bit of a give and take that the Germans would end up winning quite decisively. The Belgians also inundated pieces of the countryside to delay the German attack in certain areas, they were able to do this due to the extremely high water table in the area, which also mostly prevented the digging of trenches.
After the siege began the Belgians were not just sitting in their forts and waiting for the Germans and they in fact mounted several sorties over the course of the month between the 24th of August and 27th of September. The first of these was mounted between the 24th of August and the 26th in an attempt to help the British and french troops fighting at Mons and Charleroi. The Belgians then proceeded to stop this sortie as soon as they realized the British and French were actually retreating and the Belgian attack was no longer really assisting them. Something of a red letter event happened on August the 25th when a German Zeppelin bombed the city of Antwerp resulting in 10 civilian casualties. This was just the very small seed of the aerial bombardment campaigns of the world wars that would cause so much damage and death. On September the 9th the Belgians launched another attack out of their city. This attack was launched in an attempt to keep the Germans from tranferring troops to France. Mounted by 3 divisions the attack did make some progress in attacking from Antwerp and to the east. It actually achieved its objective when the Germans recalled troops from france to assist, some troops were even transferred from Alsace to stop the attack. The Belgians themselves called off the attack on September the 13th, having accomplished their goal. The final sortie was launched on September 26th after the French city of Mauberge fell and the Belgian’s knew that those big siege howitzers were on their way. This attack ewas an attempt to link up with the Allied armies in Western Belgium but would not be successful with the attack being stopped not too far outside of Antwerp.
The bombardment of Antwerp would begin on September the 28th with the huge siege howitzers arriving on the scene. The bombardment was directed, quite expertly, by observation balloons and in just over a day one fort was deemed untenable and was abandoned. In that same time another was already severely damaged. It was at this point that the Belgian command began looking for ways to evacuate as many non-essential personnel and pieces of equipment as possible. There was still a narrow corridor on the coat that the Germans had not taken that allowed the Belgians to run night trains out the city and to the west. These trains had to run with lights out but were able to move a lot of people and things out of the city before it was forced to surrender. The Belgians began planning to move the field army out of Antwerp as well but they still planned to leave the fortress troops being to hold out as long as possible. The Belgians were realistic in their outlook and knew that if the newer outer forts fell the older interior ring wouldn’t hold off the Germans very long. On the 30th, just two days after the bombardment began the Belgians would officially request help from the French and British.
When the British heard of the impending fall of Antwerp they very worried. Antwerp was a large port that was close to Britain and the Royal Navy really didn’t want it to fall into the hands of the Germans. The Army, being so engaged in France, didn’t have the men to spare but when the appeal for aid came from the Belgian King Albert the Royal Navy decided to send the Royal Naval Division to antwerp. This division was made up of Naval personnel not immediately needed for naval duties that could be spared for action as an infantry unit, as I am sure you can imagine their training as infantry wasn’t top notch. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill went with them, after having been a key voice in lobbying for the troops to be sent. Churchill even went so far as to ask to be made command of the infranty in Antwerp, if this would have actually happened he would have resigned his position as First Lord of the Admiralty. This change in position for Churchill did not end up happening, which was frankly far better for his career. The Royal Naval division would arrive at Dunkirk and would be taken by train to Antwerp.
After the bombardment had been going for a few days the German attack began in earnest on October the 1st and already on the night of the first forts began to fall. Belgian troops were ordered to retreat from the forts in the 6 and 5 oclock positions to prepared defensive positions further to the north. The Germans had the opportunity to prevent these troops from retreating to the north but chose not to. The forts just kept falling as the Germans shifted their focus to each in turn and by October the 6th the Germans had taken all of the outer forts from the 6 to 3 position. On the 6th most of the Belgian field army was moved to the western side of the city so that it was less likely that they would be trapped within the city as the Germans continued their attack. ON the 7th the Germans attacked to the west of the city to try to cutoff that corridor that the Belgians were using to move troops out of the city by train. Their attacks in the area were able to tighten the corridor to just 12 miles wide. On the 7th of October the German artillery began bombarding the city proper from the south, with the predictable affect on the remaining civilian inhabitants of the city. Throughout the 7th and 8th German troops continued to put pressure on the escape route out of Antwerp and the Belgians resisted stubbornly as they began moving most of the field army completely out of Antwerp and into Western Belgium.
With the fall of Antwerp becoming just a matter of time the British troops, so newly arrived on the scene, began to be evacuated. The Belgians also began trying to get some of the fortress troops out of the city as well, contrary to their previous stance of having them hold out as long as possible. By the time the Germans began to advance on the 9th they found a lot of empty forts in front of them. When they realized that most of the Belgian army was gone they stopped their bombardment. It was arrround this time that the Mayor of Antwerp asked for terms of surrender of the city from the Germans. The city would capitulate to the attackers late on the 9th. In all 30,000 men were captured when the city fell and another 30,000 fortress troops were able to make it to the Netherlands were they were interned for the rest of the war. Overall Antwerp had fallen but it did do a very good job of tying up quite a few German divisions that may have turned the tide in northern France and Western Belgium.
So the Belgian army had retreated from Antwerp but the British, French, and Belgian troops were able to hold onto some of Western Belgium. They would slowly be pushed back to the west until they fought the battle of the Yser which we will cover in a few weeks. Throughout the war the plight of the Belgians would become a rallying cry for the Entente nations, particularly for the British. Part of the reason that the fighting around Ypres became so important to the British was that it was part of Belgium. If only for the blow that the British would take to their prestige, they could not retreat from Belgian soil. This desire to hold on to a piece of Belgium, regardless of how small it was, would frame a big part of British strategy over the next 4 years.
Contrary to what we have discussed so far the fighting in the first year of the war was not solely concentrated in Europe. Several of the participants in the fighting had large colonial empires that stretched around the world, most famously the mighty British Empire on which the sun never set. The French also had several colonies in northwest Africa and modern day Vietnam and Germany, which had been a late comer to the colonization race, still had colonies in Africa, Asia, and New Guinea in Indonesia. These empires were of course dwarfed by the British who had colonies in Africa, India, Australia, and Canada. Throughout the war these colonies would be involved in the fighting both with local action and by sending troops off to other areas of the conflict. The British and french troops would play a crucial role in the fighting on the Western front, especially during the opening phases of the war. For the two allies their colonial territories were the only source of trained troops in 1914 before newly recruited soldiers could be trained in their home countries.
One early theater of colonial conflict was in German Southwest Africa which was invaded in September by troops from the British colony of South Africa. The British and South African troops vastly outnumbered the Germans but the Germans hoped that a revolt by the Boer population of South Africa, which was partially incited by the Germans, would distract enough British troops to give them a fighting chance. It would be February 1915 before the Boer revolt would finally be suppressed and during the time the first attack by the South African troops was stopped by the Germans at the Battle of Sandfontein. The Germans would then move over to the attack by invading South Africa until they were beaten at the Battle of Kakamas where their attack on a river crossing was stopped by South African troops. This battle was fought at the beginning of February 1915 and after the supression of the Boer revolt the British were able to easily move in and carve up the German colony, by July 1915 the colony surrendered.
There was also action in China at the German port of Tsing Tao which was located in northern China. The port would be blockaded and put under siege by both British and Japanese troops from August to November 7th. In the years leading up to the war the Germans had prepared the port to resist the expected siege. They had placed mines in the harbor and they had placed more artillery guns in the redoubts around the port. The Germans had also made the decision to concentrate all of their Asian troops in the area, nevertheless they were outnumbered by their opponents. The British and Japanese nval vessels would begin to blockade the area in late august with Japanese forces landing on the mainland on September 2nd. Soon after the Japanese landed the German commander abandoned the outer defenses and concentrated all his men close to the city. On October 31st the Japanese started shelling the city from the sea and the land in preparation for an infantry attack on November 6th. In just one day the garrison surrended, and with it Germany’s primary base in the east.
The forces from Austria and new Zealand would play a huge role in British success during the war, we will be talking about them a lot next year when we start looking at the Gallipoli campaign. They began the war with attacks against German New Guinea and German Somoa. These small German outposts were defended only by token German forces, the forces of German Somoa didn’t even offer any resistance when the New Zealanders showed up on August 29th. The Australians weren’t quite so lucky when they landed on New Guinea on September the 11th and they would suffer their first casualties of the war at the Battle of Bita Paka. The German troops on New Guinea would surrender just ten days later on September 21st.
As you can see the Entente was far more successful during the early stages of the war in the colonies, this was mostly due to the much larger focus on colonization and naval power by the British in the decades and centuries leading up the war. They were just far more prepared to defend and attack in the colonies. It really didn’t end up mattering, with the British blockade of Germany it is doubtful whether the German colonies would have been of any benefit during the war.
We probably won’t be checking back in with the colonies anytime soon, but just remember that all over the world there were people either in conflict or preparing to go somewhere else to fight for their mother countries. One driver for colonial conflict was the naval battle that was happening around the globe, and next week we will have our first episode discussing the naval situation during 1914. I sort of neglected the naval facet at the beginning of the war but don’t worry we will cycle back around to find out how the naval race between Britain and Germany played a role in the start of the war, we will also look at the drastic changes naval ships and warfare underwent in the century since the end of the Napoleonic wars.
I would like to thank everybody who has left a review for the podcast on iTunes, it really helps the show find new listeners and also everybody who has interacted with my via Facebook, Twitter, or email, interactions with listeners go a long way to keeping this show going.
On a personal note on October 25th 2014 I will be doing a fundraiser for the Children’s Miracle Network called Extra-Life. It is a 24 hour video game marathon where kind souls donate to participants and all proceeds to go the Children’s Miracle Network. I think it is a great cause and I enjoy doing it every year. You can find more information at extra-life.org and if you wish to donate you can find my page linked on the History of the Great War Facebook and Twitter page, or in the show notes for this episode. I would just rattle off the URL right now, but there apparently isn’t a great way to get a nice concise URL, so I think I would probably just end up confusing people. I will probably have more information about my marathoning effort in future shows, including information about when you can watch me play some World War 1 themed video games on the 25th.