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 198th installment in the series.
August 21, 1915: A Defeat Foretold
“He looked at me sideways with a very odd expression on his face,” Winston Churchill later wrote of his encounter with Secretary of War Lord Kitchener on August 21, 1915, shortly before a momentous cabinet meeting. Churchill continued:
I saw that he had some disclosure of importance to make, and waited. After appreciable hesitation he told me that he had agreed with the French to a great offensive in France. I said at once that there was no chance of success. He said that the scale would restore everything, including of course the Dardanelles. He had an air of suppressed excitement like a man who has taken a great decision of terrible uncertainty, and is about to put it into execution.
Later Churchill repeated his objections, warning the cabinet that the attack “could only lead to useless slaughter on a gigantic scale. I pointed out that we had neither the ammunition nor the superiority in men necessary to warrant such an assault on the enemy’s fortified line…” His forebodings proved all too accurate. Going into the Battle of Loos on September 25, 1915, everyone seemed to know that – as Kitchener himself admitted to the cabinet – “the odds were against a great success.” In short, it was a defeat foretold.
The Shell Crisis
By mid-1915, a series of defeats and Pyrrhic victories at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Festubert left little doubt that the British Expeditionary Force lacked sufficient heavy artillery and ammunition to batter through German defenses on the Western Front, at least in the near term. The small prewar British Army simply didn’t have the firepower required for modern warfare, and it would take time to catch up.
The ammunition shortage became public knowledge in the spring of 1915 with the “Shell Crisis,” which forced Prime Minister Herbert Asquith to form a new coalition government, including the Welsh Radical David Lloyd George in the newly created cabinet position of Minister of Munitions. But there was no way the shortfall could possibly be remedied in just a few months, requiring as it did a sweeping overhaul of British manufacturing including construction of new factories, streamlined procurement processes, and the passage of new labor laws and trade union agreements (principally to allow women to work in war factories).
This situation was known to all, but especially to top officials. On August 21, when the Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden asked when the British Army would have enough ammunition to resume the offensive, the Conservative politician Bonar Law estimated it would take at least five months, while Churchill said they wouldn’t be ready until the middle of the following year. But the attack would proceed in late September regardless.
Pleas for Help
The British were moved to action, against their better judgment, by pleas for help from their Russian allies – or more precisely, their French allies pleading on behalf of their Russian allies.
Actually France’s civilian leaders, stung by defeats at Champagne, St. Mihiel, and Artois, weren’t exactly eager to launch a new offensive either; in fact on August 6, 1915, President Raymond Poincare delivered a speech to the Chamber of Deputies calling for a defensive strategy on the Western Front. However chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre, asserting his authority as France’s top general, dismissed this idea and insisted on a new offensive.
Joffre drew on a number of arguments: liberating the industrial areas of northern France would greatly increase French war-making capability, and he also feared that a long period of inactivity would undermine Allied morale, sapping the famous French élan. He also noted that the current balance of forces on the Western Front was more favorable than ever, pitting 132 Allied divisions (98 French, 28 British, and 6 Belgian) against 102 German divisions – but this window of opportunity probably wouldn’t last.
Above all, however, he pointed to the need to help the Russians, currently making enormous sacrifices in the Great Retreat, by forcing the Germans to withdraw some of their forces from the Eastern Front. Privately he warned that in the absence of a new effort on the Western Front, the Russians might feel compelled to make a separate peace with the Central Powers – leaving its Western Allies France and Britain to face Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire alone.
On August 16 to 19, 1915, Kitchener traveled to France to meet with Joffre and other top Allied commanders, and it was apparently during these meetings that Joffre persuaded Kitchener (who like Churchill and Poincare had previously favored a defensive strategy) that France and Britain had to go on the offensive again (top, Kitchener is in the center, Joffre to his right). Citing the prewar Franco-Russian Alliance, Joffre made it clear that France would attack alone if need be, leaving Kitchener little choice but to commit Britain to join the attack, or risk a grave diplomatic rupture with France.
Douglas Haig, commander of the British First Army chosen to attack at Loos, recorded Kitchener’s statements at a meeting on August 19, 1915:
The Russians, he said, had been severely handled and it was doubtful how much longer their Army could withstand the German blows. Up to the present, he had favoured a policy of active defence in France until such time as all our forces were ready to strike. The situation which had arisen in Russia caused him to modify these views. He now felt the Allies must act vigorously in order to take some of the pressure off Russia, if possible.
After Kitchener informed the British cabinet of his plans on August 21, overriding Churchill’s concerns, the following day British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French met with Joffre and Ferdinand Foch, the commander of the French armies in the north, to plan the attack.
Joffre’s grand strategy called for two simultaneous attacks at opposite ends of the German salient in northern France – smashing through the enemy lines and advancing in a giant pincer movement, thereby threatening the German armies with encirclement and so forcing them to withdraw.
To the east, in Champagne, the French Second and Fourth Armies would attack the German Third Army (with an assist from the French Third Army) with a total of 27 divisions, in what became known as the Second Battle of Champagne. Meanwhile on the northwestern side of the salient, the British First Army and French Tenth Army would attack the German Sixth Army along a 20-mile front stretching from Arras to La Bassée, centered on the village of Loos. The French were committing 17 French divisions to this attack, also called the Third Battle of Artois, while the British contribution would include six British divisions containing 75,000 infantry, as well as two cavalry corps, for a total of eleven divisions. At the same time the British Second Army would make a secondary attack to tie down German forces near Ypres.
The plan was doomed from the start. To make up for the shortfall in artillery, the attack at Loos would be preceded by the first British use of poison gas in the war, with 5,500 cylinders releasing 150 tons of chlorine gas against the German lines – but the British, inexperienced in gas warfare, discovered this wasn’t enough to achieve decisive results, and in some cases shifting wind blew the gas back on to British troops.
Even worse, the plan didn’t allow the British generals to choose the ground for the attack, meaning British troops would find themselves advancing across a broad, flat plain in front of German guns – terrain already dismissed by Haig as totally unsuitable for an infantry attack earlier in August. Finally, the attack completely lacked the element of surprise, as the Germans couldn’t fail to notice the huge preparations behind the Allied lines; in fact some British troops recorded Germans putting up mocking notes above their trenches in August and September, asking when the attack would take place.
The Sinking of the Arabic
After Secretary of State Robert Lansing’s stern note to Berlin in late July, the argument between the U.S. and Germany over the latter’s campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare remained unresolved, as the Germans stalled, hoping American indignation over the sinking of the Lusitania would slowly subside. But the controversy took center stage against in late August, following the sinking of a British passenger liner, the Arabic, resulting in 44 deaths including three Americans.
On August 19, 1915, the German submarine U-24, under Kapitanleutenant Rudolf Schneider, sank the Arabic (below) in the Celtic Sea about 50 miles south of the Irish coast, not far from where the Lusitania was sunk by U-20 in May. Schneider later claimed that he believed the Arabic was trying to ram the sub (a common tactic), prompting him to fire a torpedo without warning. However many in the U.S. believed the attack was deliberate.
The deaths of three more Americans in a submarine attack, coming just a month after the U.S. note warning that further attacks of this kind would be regarded as “deliberately unfriendly,” finally brought the diplomatic crisis to a head. On August 22, a statement from the White House seemed to imply that President Wilson was considering war against Germany if the sinking proved to be deliberate. The response in Berlin was panic.