54: Fall Offensives: Aftermath


The attacks are over, but what happens now? And what happened throughout the entire year on the war’s premiere front?



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 54. This week I would like to thank the people who have left iTunes reviews for the show over the last month Andrew from Australia and 3812GWGate, Dash12xse, pjpahira, and Enrico_palazzo from the United States. Thank you all for taking the time to write a review. This week is going to be sort of a review episode and an episode to try and tie the bow on the Western Front for 1915. Even though it is only the second week of October this will be our last episode chronicling the events of the Western front in 1915. After the battles that ended in October both sides would just be too exhausted to resume any offensive operations for the rest of the year and so that gives us to time to catch up with events elsewhere for the remainder of our 1915 episodes. In this episode we will start by talking about the consequences of the failures of the British and French in the fall offensives first by looking at the casualty figures and then by looking at how it changed both countries. For the British that means a command change at the very top of the army, for the French that means a new government, and for Kitchener it means less power in London. We will close out this episode by taking a step back to examine the Western Front as a whole in 1915 and why it is, in some ways a forgotten year.

So let’s start with some numbers, the casualty numbers from the attacks in Artois, Champagne, and Loos. In the action at Champagne the French had 143,000, at Artois another 48,000, and at Loos the British lost 61,000. 250,000 all told. And for all of these losses they had gained, at most, a mile on a few areas of the front. The Germans had lost 141,000 total men, and this isn’t nothing. Their defense had been costly even if it was, in the end, successful. They had been able to hold onto the most important positions along the front after all of the fighting. Most importantly for the Germans, their gamble of sending so much strength to the east had not been punished by the British and French. The Germans had bet along on their ability to hold the front against British and French attacks with fewer troops and focusing most of their efforts in the east and they had been proven correct by the end of October 1915. So why had they been able to do this? What made their defense so superior to the Entente offense? Well, for one reason I will turn it over to Peter Hart in his book The Great War “Relatively speaking, the German tactical rollercoaster was in the ascendant: multiple lines of well-constructed trenches; the introduction of deep dugouts; the depth and complexity of barbed wire entangelements; the deployment of more machine guns with deady interlocking fields of fire; the use of villages and farms to form strongpoints; the massed artillery batteries waiting to destroy anything and everything that shows itself above ground.” Looking at the war as a whole, even in the next few years when the casualty numbers escalate to unbelievable levels, it may be this time in 1915 when the difference between the ability to attack and the German ability to defend was at its greatest. The British and French hadn’t built up the tactics and tools that they would have later but all of the really important pieces of the defensive strategy of the war were in evidence for the Germans. The wire, the machine guns, the dugouts, and most importantly the idea of defenses in depth where the first line would be held only lightly and the second line would be used to truly stop the attack. Both the British and French had different reactions to the fall offensives and there were different types of aftermath for all of the parties involved. On the French side, Joffre, realizing his army’s situation ordered only local offensives for the rest of the year that had a chance of helping to facilitate attacks in the future. Joffre also ordered the front line be reduced to the absolute minimum of troops necessary to hold the line. The lightly held front line would be in place for the French throughout the winter and was a definitive admission by Joffre and the French commanders that the French army was done for the year. Even though Joffre realized that the attacks were overall a failure in terms of the ground captured he still held onto the belief that there were small victories that had been achieved, here is Robert Doughty in Pyrrhic Victory discussing Joffre’s feelings “The failure of the autumn offensive forced Joffre to reconsider French strategy and operations and to reconstitute his forces. As part of this reconsideration, he sent a memorandum to his army-group commanders in early October asking them to assess the operation. After receiving their responses, he sent them a memorandum on October 22 in which he said the Franco-British forces had achieved “important tactical results,” inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, and gained and “undeniable moral superiority: over the enemy.” The idea that the enemy was losing far more men than the British and French is a mindset that would be present for most of the war. Neither side had solid casualty figures for their enemies and could only make some estimates based on information found at the front or from army intelligence. This uncertainty often caused both sides to overestimate how many casualties the other side was experiencing during the battles. While the falsehood of these believes were problematic in 1915, causing tactics and attacks to continue far longer than they should, in later years it would also cause the belief that the British and French were winning the battles of attrition that they were not, and when the Germans attacked the opposite would be true as well, something we will talk about in excruciating detail next year when the action moves to a tiny French town that you may have heard of called Verdun.

On the French side, the failure of the attacks was not without some ramifications. At the top of the army Joffre was safe, unlike his British counterpart, in the public eye he was still seen as the savior of France since the beginning of the war and during the first year he had built up an arsenal of political capital and connections that ensured, at least for now, his position in command of the French army. Other parts of the French government were not as lucky. On October 29th the Viviani government fell in Paris, the first French political casualty of 1915. Before October 29th there had been two different votes in the Chamber of Deputies that would have toppled the government, the first was held on August 21st and it failed spectacularly with a 535 to 1 vote, extremely solid support in the chamber for Viviani. The Second vote on October 12th failed again, but this time with a vote of 372 to 9, good support except for the fact that there were just 381 deputies that cast a vote in October, which amounts to roughly 155 deputies abstaining from voting. It is easy to make the assumption that most of the deputies who chose not to vote were at least wavering in their support of the current French leadership. The support evaporating at the end of October the French government had a new leader, Astride Briand. Briand had been Prime Minister before, and would be several more times in his life. During this trying period he was brought in to head a government that saw many new faces elevated to positions. One of these men was none other than the new minister of war Joseph Gallieni, the man who we met way back in the first month of the war as the Germans marched on Paris. Gallieni commanded the French 6th Army which played the crucial role in the battle of the Marne. Joffre saw the change in government as a good time to bring up a topic that he had been pushing for since the beginning of the war. His idea was that he should be put in command of all of the French armies. You may be thinking that he already was, and that is an understandable misunderstanding. Up to this point Joffre had been in command of the French troops on the Western Front only, the troops that were sent elsewhere like say Salonika or Gallipoli were outside of his sphere of influence. Under Joffre’s new plan he would be put in command of all of them, which would give him the ability to make sure that all troops were focused on the Western Front, where he believed the war would be won. Joffre had Viviani’s and Poincare’s support before the change of government, and Briand proved to be a bit harder to win to his side. Joffre brought up the topic off and on for a month until, on November 24th, he threatened to resign if he was not, in his words, given the liberty to fulfill his responsibilities fully. This was a very thinly veiled complaint against Gallieni, who Joffre felt was trying to run the war. With this threat on the table Joffre got his wish on December 1st and would put in overall command of all of the French military. While Joffre was probably as good of a candidate as anybody for the post, and I am sure that his threatened resignation moved things along, there was another reason that the French politicians finally gave into Joffre’s demands. There were growing concerns within the French government that a politician like the Minister of War should not be in overall command of the army because the Minister was, technically, accountable to parliament and could be replaced if he did not comply with their wishes for answers and specific actions. This hadn’t been a problem when the war started and there was so much support within the government for the war but as the war drug on and there began to be concerns within the parliament the fact that the Minister of War had to answer their questions could become a problem and it was best to take care of it sooner rather than later. As the calendar year ended, the French government found itself with a new leadership team, while Joffre found himself with even more power, even though all of his plans for the year had been a set of complete failures, weird things happen in war I guess.

On the British side Loos marked the end of an era as it was the first large battle of the men of the New Army and overall they had performed as well as could be expected. They were volunteers that had came into the army after the war had started and after less than a year of training they had performed their jobs on the battlefield, even if they were doomed to fail. The British had entered the war with a small professional army, and now they were finally beginning to field the large conscript armies like the rest of the Europe. The failure at Loos also marked the end of another era. Sir John French had been slowly losing support back in London for several months and the failures of the summer and fall had taken their toll. After the battle ended Kitchener wanted an explanation from French on why the attack had failed so spectacularly and French would be relieved of his command shortly afterwards. He would be put in command of the Home Forces back in London, and his position would be taken up by the commander of the First Army General Haig. In To End All Wars Adam Hochschild explains what happened after French was relieved quote “[French] Would be ennobled with Viscount of Ypres and of High Lake, County Roscommon. He remained popular with British troops, thousands of whom lined the road, cheering wildy, when he left his headquarters for the last time in December.” This is probably as good a time as any to take a look back at French’s command. He had been put in command of an army that was miniscule by continential standards, and army that had seen very little but colonial wars for the last 50 years, a small professional army that was entirely unprepared for the realities of modern war with tiny numbers of artillery and machine guns. The battles of Mons and the long retreat should be considered a great success if only because the small British force still existed as a fighting force. The British, entirely outnumbered, had retreated in good order and French had played an important role in leading the army during this time period, he was cautious, maybe too cautious in many cases, and he has been criticized for his pessimism but part of that pessimism saved the British army by constantly resisting the idea that they should turn and fight. Unfortunately, while my comments about French have, up to this point, been very positive after the front became more static my compliments for French become fewer and further between. French and the British army were completely unprepared for the situation in which they found themselves in and French persisted in his desire to attack during 1915 when the British army had very little chance of making a real difference and when the British government was looking elsewhere. Overall, just as a general statement, French did not adapt to the war very well, if at all. Late in 1915, after everything that all of the armies had went through, French’s headquarters would write a memo that would state “The introduction of the Machine Gun, has not, in the option of the General Staff, altered the universally accepted principle that superior numbers of bayonets closing with the enemy is what finally turns the scale.” This statement obviously ignores everything that the armies of 1915 had been learning for over a year. In the end though, it is important to judge people against their contemporaries and not against some ideal of a mastermind of warfare, so when you compare French to the other commanders from 1914 he really stacks up pretty good. On the Western front it is difficult to say he did worse than Joffre, I would argue that if their roles were reversed Joffre’s seeming constant need to attack would have caused him to do worse than French did with the British forces. The British commander would probably rank higher than any other Entente commander on the Eastern or Italian fronts, and higher than Conrad in Austria. I realize I am rambling a bit here, so let me just get down to my final thoughts on Sir John French as commander of the British Forces on the Western Front. He was a commander that found himself far out of his depth in a situation that none of his training and experience prepared him for. He was unable to fully adapt his methods to the new realities of warfare, a problem that all of the commanders during the war shared. He was poor at politics, popular with the troops, but at the end of the day he failed in his mission to win the war.

Sir John French was not the only high ranking British officer who was affected by the events of 1915, another was Lord Kitchener. Kitchener had come into the war as a legitimate national hero, probably the closest to a Nelson that Britain had seen since, well, Nelson. But the first year of the war had not been kind to him or his image among the public. Sure, he was in the recruiting posters for which he was remembered, and he was still the Secretary of State of War, but things were changing. Part of this change was simply the fact that the war that Kitchener found himself in, much like Sir John French, was a war that Kitchener wasn’t used to. Everything that I have read makes it almost seem like a man out of time, all of his experiences had been in the British colonial conflicts where the rules of engagement, the types of troops he was fighting, and the British soldiers he was commanding were very different than the situation in 1915. Not all of his career had went perfectly, but even the worst times were a far cry from what was happening on the Western Front on a daily basis. One thing to keep in mind here is that even when I am talking about Kitchener losing some of his power there was never any conversation of removing him from his position, he was far too much of a symbol. I would compare it to replacing Churchill or Roosevelt in 1943, it just wasn’t going to happen. So with the fact that he was staying in office in mind, some members of the government sought to limit his power, and it all started way back in the summer when Kitchener sent 3 more divisions to Gallipoli for the August offensives and the landings at Suvla. This sent Sir John French into a rage and he wrote a very frustrated letter to Kitchener saying that without the men or the material that were being sent to Gallipoli he would be unable to continue any attacks. Then French took his complaints to a new level as summarized by G.J. Meyer in A World Undone “He called in an old friend and former army colleague, the London Times military correspondent Charles à Court Repington, and told him, not for attribution, that the British offensives were failing because of a lack of artillery ammunition and that the fault lay with Kitchener.” This led to a bit of public outcry and it also led to the fall of the Asquith government of 1914 that was replaced by a coalition government in London. We discussed some of these events back in Episode 34 when discussing the critical artillery shell shortages that the army was experiencing. Part of the reason that this shell shortage resulted in a change in government was the actions of one David Lloyd George who threatened to go to the papers if changes weren’t made in the government. With the nudge from French, and the additional nudge from George, and the public outcry as a result of the stories in the papers Parliament passed the Munitions War act. The most important outcome of which was the creation of the Ministry of Munitions which was under the leadership of, who would have guessed it, Mr. Lloyd George. One of his first actions was to drastically reduce the autonomy of the arms industry and its workers, passing regulations that among other things outlawed any strikes or work stoppages in war critical industries. So how does this relate to Kitchener? We were talking about Kitchener after all. Well, up to this point it was his office that had been responsible for the manufacturing of munitions and as such his office that took the bulk of the blame for the shell shortages. This would be one of the first things removed from Kitchener’s purview, but not the last, even during 1915. Toward the end of the year General Haig’s former chief of staff Robertson was appointed to the position of Chief of the Imperial General Staff, this was a big move, because Robertson wasn’t just a person that would take orders from Kitchener. Instead, in a negotiated agreement between Kitchener and Robertson, he would have a great deal of powers that were formerly in the hands of Kitchener. Robertson would be the one communicating with the political leadership on status updates and plans, but he wouldn’t be able to sign strategic orders on his own, that would still require Kitchener’s signature. This change cut down Kitchener’s political influence and his ability to act independently. These changes were the first set of powers to leave Kitchener’s hands, probably for the best, we will move on now from the Hero of Khartoum, but be prepared for a much longer and more detailed discussion of Kitchener’s life and legacy next year.

Now that we have finished with the outcomes of the fall offensives lets take a step back and talk about the Western Front as a whole. As I mentioned at the beginning of this episode this will be the last episode on the Western Front for the rest of the year, and yes, I know that it is only October. After the fall offensives there just wouldn’t be much happening on the front as both sides licked their wounds and regained their strength. Because of this lack of action we will spend the rest of the year elsewhere so this is as good a time as any to do a review of the war from the trenches in 1915. In my mind the Western front in 1915, and 1917, gets the short end of the stick. Nothing that happened this year has the name power of the other years of the war, Marne, Verdun, Somme, Gallipoli, all of these distract from the action on the Western Front in 1915. When you boil down the outcomes of all of the actions the conclusion to be drawn is that everything that happened in the west was a collections of failures on both sides that didn’t accomplish anything other than the begin the cycle of attrition. The important thing to look at though is how all of these actions moved the war forward, if not geographically, the tactically and strategically. The offensives at the end of 1915 looked very different from those at the beginning. Things that would become staples of later battles would find their first usage at places like Ypres, Artois, and Champagne: huge masses of artillery, poison gas, creeping barrage, all were introduced as the natural reaction to the conditions of warfare. Artillery seemed to be the only way to make a dent in the trenches and the wire, and so it was escalated in the war’s second year, and it would continue to escalate right until the end. Poison gas was simply an attempt to break the war open again, it failed like everything else, but not before it left its indelible mark upon history. The reason 1915 gets overshadowed by the events of 1916 isn’t because the battles of 1916 were greatly different than the actions of 1915, just that they were so much bigger. The massive attack at the Somme was the natural evolution of the constant need for bigger bigger biggger attacks in 1915 and the constant belief that one more division of men, a few more heavy howitzers, could have made a difference. Verdun was the other side of the coin, the admission that the great breakthrough was impossible and that grinding the enemy into the dirt was the only way forward. The thought process that led to Verdun was that if the massive attacks of 1915 hadn’t been able to make a difference, no offensive in 1916 would be able to punch through, so it was better to try and trade blood efficiently. 1915 occupies that critical moment in any long war when both sides fully realized the war that they are in and what it might take to win it.

Even with all of these evolutions and changes, when we look back at wars our evaluations often come down to wins and losses, of ground captured and ground lost, it is by these measures that war has always been judged. I will turn it over to Adam Hochshild in To End All Wars with how he puts the massive attacks, and failures, of the British and French on the Western Front into perspective “The year 1915 had begun with the Germans occupying some 19,500 square miles of French and Belgian territory. At its end, the Allied troops had recaptured exactly eight of those square miles.” Thank you for listening, and have a great week.