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1915: the story so far

I haven’t been blogging as much as I would have liked to from 1915. It’s not as if nothing has been happening so I thought I’d outline the main events of the year so far.

The big story of 1915 is that it has been a disaster for the Russians. They have been continually pushed back and have lost Warsaw and most of their forts. The Tsar has made the fateful decision to assume direct command of the Russian Army. It is a fateful decision – at least, people say it’s fateful – for two reasons. Firstly it means that any Russian military failures are his personal failures. Secondly, it means he is not in Petrograd to keep an eye on the domestic situation. At least, that’s the theory. There’s every chance he would have been every bit as useless in Petrograd as at the front.

In the west, the French have launched numerous offensives, none of which have been particularly successful. The Germans are inflicting two casualties on the French for every one the French inflict on them.

Their allies, the British have one problem: lack of everything. For instance there was recently a spate of correspondence in The Times on the subject of the manufacture of sandbags. If something as basic as sandbags are in short supply what isn’t? Not much. They don’t have enough men, shells, rifles, grenades, binoculars, periscopes, huts or gas masks. That’s just the things that are in short supply. Lots of other things they don’t have at all. For instance, they don’t have any tanks, gas shells, 106 fuzes, rifle grenades, Livens projectors or Sopwith Camels. And they lack knowledge and experience. Make that two problems.

In September, at Loos, the British used their 1914-recruited “New Army” formations in an offensive for the first time. They were able to employ a much larger barrage than before but it was still not big enough and they had to use gas to make up the difference. As it turned out they didn’t have enough gas either so they had to use smoke to make up that gap. Gas did, however, have an interesting side-effect: it corroded the enemy’s rifles and stopped them working. Still, the results were disappointing and the British lost twice as many men as the Germans. In other words they were no better – and to be fair, no worse – than the French. Most importantly, Loos was the moment the British Expeditionary Force (to give it its official, if rather odd title) lost confidence in the command of John French. Douglas Haig would succeed him in December. If you are looking for a detailed account of the battle have a look here.

On the home front gold is disappearing from circulation although there are still one or two banks that continue to issue it. I am not quite sure why this is but if there is anyone out there who can explain why – it’s disappearance is officially encouraged – I’d love to know. My guess is that it has something to do with fractional reserve banking but I am far from sure.

The round has been banned. In many parts of the country it is a criminal offence to go into a pub and buy someone a drink. There is a blackout in London due to Zeppelin raids. Well, more of a greyout in fact. Some street lighting remains. Ireland seems quiet. Too quiet perhaps.

Elsewhere, after getting crushed by the Russians – yes, the Russians – in the Caucasus, the Turks have started massacring the Armenians and are making little attempt to keep it a secret. Germany has put out some peace feelers. They involve the loss of French and Belgian colonies and – implausible as it may sound – freedom for the Jews. I presume this is a way of humiliating the Russians. The Germans, Austrians and their new ally Bulgaria have just invaded Serbia. Gallipoli continues to rumble on.

The Times 4 September 1915

The Times 4 September 1915

17 comments to 1915: the story so far

  • Paul Marks

    I have learned not to click on links that Patrick kindly provides.

    However, if the link to an account of the Battle of Loos (in 1915 – rather than 1914) includes the facts that on the first day Douglas Haig gassed his men (although not intentionally) by firing off of gas shells and then having the men attack into the cloud of gas (which hung about in the middle of the battlefield) then I was mistaken not to click on the link.

    More importantly, on the second day of the Battle of Loos in 1915 Douglas Haig sent two reserve divisions (these reserves were exactly where he had asked for them to be – although he claimed afterwards that they were further back than he had requested) at prepared German defences.

    Douglas Haig told everyone that the reserve divisions were being sent in to chase a defeated enemy – the enemy were actually (as he knew) waiting in their prepared defences.

    Of the ten thousand men who were sent on this suicide attack (officers at the front – on horseback) some eight thousand were killed or wounded.

    As for the Germans – in their prepared defences and behind barbed wire that was many feet high and thick.

    None (none) appear to have been killed.

    As opposed to eight thousand brave British soldiers (out of ten thousand) who were killed or wounded.

    How did Douglas Haig react to this event?

    Did he kill himself?

    No he did not.

    Did he at least resign?

    No he did not.

    Douglas Haig used his political wire pulling skills (he had been writing letters to the Crown for some time – thus violating the chain-of-command) to stab his commanding officer in the back and take his job.

    Douglas Haig was a pig.

  • Paul Marks

    As for the Russian Emperor.

    He had indeed no military skills.

    However had he been prepared to personally lead his men into battle he would have been killed – and thus regarded by most Russians as a hero (Russians are like that).

    Sadly the Emperor did not personally lead his men into battle – and (as Patrick correctly states) got the blame for their defeats as he put himself, at least nominally, in command.

    The next year (1916) the Imperial Guard were sent into battle at Kovel in July.

    This was worse perhaps, than even Haig’s obscene attack on the Somme on July 1st of that year (which got 20 thousand British soldiers killed and 30 thousand wounded).

    At Kovel some 55 thousand men of the Guards Army were killed or wounded.

    Many had been sent up a narrow causeway – with the Germans not only front of them, but also on both sides.

    Such an action was only forgivable had the Emperor led the attack personally – and had died doing it.

    But he did not.

    “Why did the Imperial Guard not save the Tsar in 1917?”

    Because most of them were dead, and some of those who were still alive did not care any more.

  • Patrick Crozier

    The British did not use gas shells as Loos for the simple reason they didn’t have any. I believe the number of British troops killed by their own gas is in single figures.

    No more than 8,000 Britons were killed in the entire battle so it is unlikely they were all killed in one action on the second day.

    The King asked Haig to send him extracts of his diary. I am not aware of any evidence that the King had any great say in the hiring and firing of field commanders.

    Haig was pessimistic about the prospects for the battle. Given that it was at a time and a place not of his choosing this is hardly surprising.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Wrong, Crozier, wrong. No one is making the claim that 8,000 died.

  • “Such an action was only forgivable had the Emperor led the attack personally – and had died doing it.”

    I don’t think that is forgivable. Suicide is one thing. Suicide killing others is murder.

  • anon

    While wikipedia has its shortcomings as a reference, the article there on the Battle of Loos appears to be supported by numerous sources and supports Paul Marks’s postings in regard to casualties and use of gas by the British. Any comment, Patrick? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Loos

  • Patrick Crozier

    I suppose it depends on your definition of “some”. This article suggests only 7 died.

  • Ellen

    I have some primary sources available, ones you’re unlikely to have met. In 1917, the US government decided the best way to get supplies to the Russians at the front was by way of Vladivostok and the Trans-Siberian Railway. That railway was in terrible condition, so the Army gathered up hundreds of American railroad men to go there and help whip the railroad into shape. One of them was my grandfather, who arrived at Vladivostok harbor on Dec. 14, 1917. Things got complicated after that, but he ended up (among other things) hobnobbing with the dread General Semenoff.

    My brother has transcribed our grandfather’s diary of this adventure, including who was shooting at who in Siberia. I realize you still have a couple years to go before you reach late 1917, but what the hey — it’s a primary source. If you want it, let me know where to send it.

  • pete

    Medical evidence showed that the second boy was dead when he reached the hospital. He had a very severe scalp wound, his right foot was torn half away and he had a large wound on his left foot. The eldest boy was suffering from many wounds on the back and left hip, and on the right thigh were two large wounds. A piece of blanket or mattress had been driven through one wound and a piece of shrapnel was found in the body. He had wounds on both arms and his chest and was suffering from shock and collapse. The youngest boy, who was dead when the rescuers reached him, had the back of his head smashed , the bones being in small pieces. On the right side of the body was a wound over a foot long through which the ribs protruded. Another large wound was on the right thigh which was fractured. The right leg below the knee was smashed and the left foot was fractured. There were numerous wounds and cuts all over the body and face.”



  • JohnK

    It is probably fair to say that the most useful thing the Tsar could have done would have been to die heroically leading his troops.

  • Paul Marks

    Oh dear we are back to “it was not strong points – it was redoubts” (your attack on my critical examination of the Haig-Rawlinson reliance on strong points to defend the line of the Forth Army in early 1918).

    YES (YES INDEED) I should not have used the word “shells”. However, you counter attack is just dodging the issue Patrick – as you always do.

    The facts of the case are simple – on the first day Haig’s gas attack failed.

    And on the second day he sent two reserve divisions (ten thousand men) on a suicide attack.

    An attack in which eight thousand of these ten thousand men were either killed or wounded – and the German dead were indeed in “single figures” from this attack (the figure seems to have been ZERO).

    Douglas Haig then proceeded to blame everyone else for his actions – as was his standard practice.

    Any examination of the British Army in the First World War that does not include a condemnation (condemnation) of Douglas Haig is not just historically mistaken.

    It is also morally worthless.

    July 1st 1916 is sometimes describes as the day British honour died – as Douglas Haig was not punished for getting almost 60 thousand British soldiers killed or wounded (some 20 thousand died), but was left in place to carry out his Passchendaele obscenity the following year.

    However, British honour actually died (or least was not present) when Douglas Haig was not punished for what he did at the Battle of Loos in 1915 (the date your post is about Patrick).

    Rather than being punished for sending ten thousand men on a suicide attack, telling people that these reserve troops were being used to chase a defeated enemy – when they were actually being sent into prepared (and manned) enemy defences…..

    Instead of being punished was this – Douglas Haig was rewarded, he was given the command of all British forces in France.

    An honourable man would have not waited for dismissal.

    An honourable man would have had an “accident cleaning his revolver”.

    Has Douglas Haig acted in such an honourable way I can assure you that I would not attack him or his defenders.

  • Paul Marks

    I should also add that I am not wildly happy with some opponents of Haig either.

    Take the example of Denis Winter “Haig’s Command”.

    Denis Winter spends more time examining whether Haig really made a confidence ride afternoon ride on 31 October 1914 – than examining Haig’s treatment of the two reserve divisions at Loos in 1915.

    Yes Haig was (PERHAPS) a bullshitter – who invented a ride in the afternoon (after the Germans attacked) rather than just admitting that he actually made a ride in the morning (before the Germans attacked).

    And, yes, Haig showed his office-politics skills (the only skills he had) to put this myth (and lots of other myths) in the official histories.

    However, Haig could have been a liar of Harry Flashman proportions – if he had a been a good battle commander as well.

    The fact is that Haig was not a good battle commander – he would have done no real harm had he remained an inspector of cavalry in peacetime (denouncing people for not shining their boots correctly or having the wrong colour notepaper), but he should not have been anywhere command on the Western front. Even if he had been the bravest man alive.

    That is the point – and Denis Winter and co do NOT stick to it (they go off after rabbits – such as doing long refutations of Haig’s claims of personal courage).

    Although I would like to know the truth of the dispute over whether Haig or General Broadwood was responsible for those orders in the Sudan.

    Perhaps Haig was the author of the successful orders (in that battle in the Sudan) – or perhaps he was not, perhaps Broadwood was.

    As General Broadwood appears to have had poor office-politics skills (I do not mean to sneer at Broadwood – I have no such skills at all) and was killed in the First World War, his side of the matter is hard to know.

    What is not hard to know is that Haig either wrote a book containing the incident – or had a book written for him (published in 1910 – but not under the name Douglas Haig).

    Haig knew how to push himself (how to make himself known) in order to aid his promotion prospects.

    This is NOT a bad thing – the bad thing is there was no great commander behind the carefully constructed image.

    The image that Haig-defenders are still, obscenely, pushing a century later.

  • waltj


    Love the blog, and I’ll posit that the Tsar would have been useless no matter where he was. Talk about a guy in over his head. Regarding aircraft, the Sopwith Camel did even exist until mid-1916 and wasn’t introduced operationally until 1917. SE2s, SE4s, Bristol Scouts, and DH2s were the main British fighter planes in 1915. But you’re right, the British didn’t have enough of these, either.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Just in case there should be any doubt, I am not a Haig defender as such. I defend him when he was right and condemn him when he was wrong.

    Haig displayed two great faults during the First World War.

    The first was that he was constantly on the look out for a breakthrough. At the First Battle of Ypres the British line had been shattered and the Germans could have walked through. That convinced Haig that breakthroughs were possible and he should be on the lookout for them. He was wrong. For fundamental logistical reasons breakthroughs were not possible and to give him his credit he ceased to look for them after August 1917. Having said that it is not difficult to imagine what his critics would have said if he had not tried: “dull, unimaginative etc”

    His second great fault was having Chateris as his Intelligence Officer. Charteris had a tendency to tell his boss what he wanted to hear and his boss wanted to hear that the Germans were on the verge of cracking. Charteris’s replacement in late 1917 or early 1918 seems to have led to a significant improvement in the quality of intelligence available to GHQ.

    Having said that his call of August 1918 was genius. While everyone else was looking to 1919, Haig saw that the war could be won before Christmas. In doing so he must have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

    There is no great tradition of British officers shooting themselves when attacks go wrong. This is especially true when they are forced to attack at a time and place not of their choosing with inexperienced troops, inexperienced staff officers and inadequate supplies of the materiel of war.

    I am not aware of any evidence that Haig knew that the attack by the 21st and 24th Divisions would fail.

    I am not aware of any evidence that Haig blamed everyone for the failure. He certainly blamed French but French blamed Haig. Ultimately, it came down to who had the confidence of the British Army. That man was Haig.

    I am not sure what Haig is supposed to have done or not done on 31 October 1914.

    The idea that Haig either wrote a book or had a book written for him in 1910 seems fanciful.

  • Al_in_Ottawa

    The British could not have been short of Sopwith Camels in 1915, they were not built until 1917. The planes available to the RFC were the DH2 pusher single-seater, the Vickers Gunbus pusher two-seater, Farman Longhorn, RE8 etc. It wasn’t until 1916 that planes designed to be fighters such as the Nieuport 17, Sopwith Pup and Albatross D.III reached the front.

    Similarly, the tank wasn’t invented until 1917.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Actually, tanks first went into action in September 1916. And the prototype was being tested as we speak – er, so to speak.

  • Mr Ed

    I took the reference to a shortage of Sopwith Camels and tanks to be a pointer to how undeveloped the war effort was, not an anachronism, in the sense that they were short of Spitfires and Hurricanes too, as we are short of working aircraft carriers, but we have gone backwards, rather than not having yet gone forwards.

    Sir Thomas Sopwith lived until 1989. He lived to see and marvel at the Hawker Siddley Harrier.