WORLD WAR ONE - 1915

 

German machinegun on the Eastern Front, protected by trench and dense bands of barbed wire. Attacks on such positions invariably resulted in heavy losses among the attacking force. 

January 1915. World War One is just five months old, and already around one million soldiers have fallen.

A war that began in the Balkans has engulfed much of the world.

The Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, fight the Allies: Britain, France, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Belgium, and Japan.

In Poland and the Baltic, the Russian army has suffered a string of massive defeats, but continues to battle German and Austro-Hungarian forces.

Austro-Hungarian troops have also suffered huge losses, and are humiliated by their failure to defeat Serbia.

In the Caucasus Mountains, Russian and Ottoman forces fight each other in freezing winter conditions.

While on the Western Front, French, British and Belgian troops are dug in facing the Germans, in trenches stretching from the English Channel to Switzerland.

  • 19th January: As part of the world’s first strategic bombing campaign, Germany sends two giant airships, known as Zeppelins, to bomb Britain. They hit the ports of King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth, damaging houses and killing 4 civilians.
  • 24th January: At sea, at the Battle of Dogger Bank, the British navy sinks one German cruiser, but the rest of the German squadron escapes. Command of the seas has allowed Britain to impose a naval blockade of Germany, preventing vital supplies, including food, from reaching the country by sea.
  • 7th February: On the Eastern Front, German Field Marshal von Hindenburg launches a Winter Offensive, and inflicts another massive defeat on the Russian army at the Second Battle of Masurian Lakes. The Russians lose up to 200,000 men, half of them surrendering amid freezing winter conditions.
  • 18th February: Germany retaliates against the British naval blockade with one of its own: it declares the waters around the British Isles to be a war zone, where its U-boats will attack Allied merchant ships without warning. Britain relies on imported food to feed its population. Germany plans to starve her into surrender.
  • 19th February: The British and French send warships to the Dardanelles, to threaten Constantinople, capital of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. They believe a show of force will quickly cause Turkey to surrender. They bombard Turkish shore-forts in the narrow straits, but three battleships are sunk by mines, and three more damaged. The attack is called off.
  • 10th March: On the Western Front, the British attack at Neuve Chapelle, but the advance is soon halted by German barbed wire and machineguns. British and Indian units suffer 11,000 casualties – about a quarter of the attacking force.

Soldiers of the British Indian Army on the Western Front. Indian units played a major role in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, March 1915.

  • 22nd March: Russian forces fare better against Austria-Hungary: the city of Przemyśl falls after a four month siege, netting the Russians 100,000 prisoners. Austria-Hungary's total losses now reach two million.
  • 22nd April: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans attack with poison gas for the first time on the Western Front. A cloud of lethal chlorine gas forces Allied troops to abandon their trenches, but the Germans don't have enough reserves ready to exploit the advantage. Soldiers on both sides are quickly supplied with crude gas-masks, as a chemical weapons arms-race begins.
  • 24th April: The Ottoman Empire begins the systematic deportation and murder of ethnic Armenians living within its borders. The Armenians are a long-persecuted ethnic and religious minority, suspected of supporting Turkey's enemies. Tens of thousands of men, women and children are transported to the Syrian desert and left to die. In all, more than a million Armenians perish. The Allies condemn the events as 'a crime against humanity and civilisation', and promise to hold the perpetrators criminally responsible. To this day, the Turkish government disputes the death toll, and that these events constituted a 'genocide'.

French troops try on early gas masks, pads soaked in neutralising chemicals.

  • 25th April: The Allies land ground troops at Gallipoli, including men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, the ANZACs. Their goal is to take out the shore forts that are preventing Allied warships reaching Constantinople. But they immediately meet fierce Turkish resistance, and are pinned down close to the shore.
  • 2nd May: On the Eastern Front, a joint German / Austro-Hungarian offensive in Galicia breaks through Russian defences, recapturing Przemyśl and taking 100,000 prisoners. It is the beginning of a steady advance against Russian forces.
  • 7th May: At sea, the British passenger-liner Lusitania, sailing from New York to Liverpool, is torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland without warning. 1,198 passengers and crew perish, including 128 Americans. US President Woodrow Wilson and the American public are outraged. But Germany insists the liner was a fair target, as the British used her to carry military supplies.
  • 9th May: The Allies launch the Second Battle of Artois, in another effort to break through the German lines. The French make the main attack at Vimy Ridge, while the British launch supporting attacks at Aubers Ridge and Festubert. The Allies sustain 130,000 casualties, and advance just a few thousand yards. 
  • That summer, above the Western Front, the Fokker Eindecker helps Germany win control of the air. It's one of the first aircraft with a machinegun able to fire forward through its propeller, thanks to a new invention known as interruptor gear. Allied aircraft losses mount rapidly, in what becomes known as the 'Fokker Scourge'.
  • 23rd May: Italy, swayed by British and French promises of territorial gains at Austro-Hungarian expense, joins the Allies, declaring war on Austria-Hungary, and later the Ottoman Empire and Germany. The Italian army makes its first assault against Austro-Hungarian positions along the Isonzo river, but is repulsed with heavy losses.

Tsar Nicholas II (third from left) visits the front, while his cousin, the army's commander-in-chief Grand Duke Nicholas, looks on (far right).

  • 5th August: The Allies face a crisis on the Eastern Front. The Russians have begun a general retreat, abandoning Poland. German troops enter Warsaw on 5th August. Tsar Nicholas II dismisses the army's commander-in-chief, Grand Duke Nicholas, and takes personal command. It will prove disastrous for the Tsar, as he becomes more and more closely tied to Russian military defeat.
  • 6th August: At Gallipoli, the Allies land reinforcements at Suvla Bay, but neither they nor a series of fresh attacks by the ANZACs can break the deadlock. Conditions for both sides are terrible; troops are tormented not only by the enemy, but by heat, flies, and sickness.

ANZACs on their way to Gallipoli, 1915.

  • 1st September: In the Atlantic, a German U-boat sinks the liner SS Arabic: 44 are lost, including three Americans. In response to further US warnings, Germany ends all attacks on passenger ships.
  • 25th September: On the Western Front, the Allies mount their biggest offensive of the war so far, designed to smash through the front, and take pressure off their beleaguered Russian ally. The French attack in the Third Battle of Artois and Second Battle of Champagne; The British, with the help of poison gas, attack at Loos. Despite initial gains, the attacks soon get bogged down, with enormous losses on all sides.
  • 3rd October: Allied troops land at Salonika in Greece, to open a new front against the Central Powers, and bring aid to Serbia. But the Allies are too late. Bulgaria joins the Central Powers, and their joint offensive overruns Serbia in two months. That winter the remnants of the Serbian Army escape through the Albanian mountains. Their losses are horrific – by the end of the war a third of Serbia's army has been killed – the highest proportion of any nation.
  • 18th October: Fierce fighting continues on the Italian front, as Italian troops launch the Third and Fourth Battles of the Isonzo. Austro-Hungarian forces, though outnumbered, are dug in on the high ground, and impossible to dislodge.

 

  • 22nd November: In the Middle East, a British advance on Baghdad is blocked by Turkish forces at the Battle of Ctesiphon, 25 miles south of the city. The British withdraw to Kut, where they are besieged.
  • 20th December: The Allies abandon the Gallipoli campaign. 83,000 troops are secretly evacuated without alerting Turkish forces. Not a man is lost. It's one of the best executed plans of the war. But the campaign has cost both sides quarter of a million casualties.

Austro-Hungarian machinegun team defending a mountain slope on the Italian front.

1915 is a bad year for the Allies – enormous losses, for no tangible gains. But there is no talk of peace – instead all sides prepare for even bigger offensives in 1916, with new tactics developed from earlier failures.All sides still believe a decisive battlefield victory is within grasp.

 

©Toby Groom 2016

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