Author: Schwink, Otto
1st Battle of
1914-1918 — Belgium — Ypres
Ypres 1914: An Official Account Published by Order of the German General Staff
Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as possible.
On page 92, in “the 25th Reserve Division to be taken from the Sixth Army,” “from” is a correction of “fron”.
MONS, AND THE RETREAT
By Captain G. S. Gordon
With an Introduction by Field-Marshal Lord French
The Evening News.—‘… The true history of those amazing and heroic days, briefly and clearly told by a soldier and an expert.’
THE MARNE CAMPAIGN
By Lieut. Col. F. E. Whitton, C.M.G.
Saturday Review.—‘… Clear and concise … gives a much better general impression of the Battle of the Marne than any other we know.’
By Field-Marshal Viscount French of Ypres, K.P., O.M., etc.
With a Preface by Maréchal Foch
CONSTABLE AND CO. LTD., LONDON.
AN OFFICIAL ACCOUNT PUBLISHED BY
ORDER OF THE GERMAN GENERAL STAFF
TRANSLATION BY G. C. W.
WITH INTRODUCTION AND NOTES BY THE
HISTORICAL SECTION (MILITARY BRANCH)
COMMITTEE OF IMPERIAL DEFENCE
CONSTABLE AND COMPANY LTD
Printed in Great Britain
|The Theatre of Operations||13|
|The Advance of the Fourth Army||19|
|The Operations of the Fourth Army, 20th-31st October 1914||26|
|The Attempt to break through south of Ypres||59|
|The Operations of the Fourth Army from the end of October to the 9th November 1914||98|
|The Last Phase||103|
|Order of Battle of the Fourth Army||131|
|Order of Battle of the Army Group Fabeck||132|
|Order of Battle of the Group Gerok||133|
|Order of Battle of the Army Group Linsingen||133|
SKETCH MAPS IN TEXT
|Dispositions on 20th October 1914||20|
|The Attack of the Army Group Fabeck on 30th October 1914||67|
|The Attack of the Army Group Fabeck on 31st October 1914||73|
|The Capture of Messines on 31st October 1914||81|
|The Capture of Dixmude on 10th November 1914||108|
|The Attack of the Sixth Army on 11th November 1914||112|
|The Attack of the 2nd Guard Division on 11th November 1914||115|
The German book of which a translation is here given was written in the autumn of 1917 by Captain Otto Schwink, a General Staff Officer, by order of the Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army, and is stated to be founded on official documents. It forms one of a series of monographs, partly projected, partly published, on the various phases of the war, but is the only one that is available dealing with operations in which the British Army was engaged. Several concerned with the Eastern theatre of war have already appeared, and one other entitled ‘Liège-Namur,’ relating to the Western.
Field-Marshal Viscount French, in his book ‘1914,’ has said that the period 27th to 31st October during the first battle of Ypres was ‘more momentous and fateful than any other which I directed during my period of service as Commander-in-Chief in the field. 31st October and 1st November will remain for ever memorable in the history of our country, for during those two days no more than a thin and straggling line of tired-out British soldiers stood between the Empire and its practical ruin as an independent first-class Power.’ The German account accentuates the truth of Lord French’s appreciation of the great peril in which the Army and the Nation stood. It tells us of the enemy’s plans, and of the large forces that he brought up with great skill and secrecy to carry them out, and, generally, to use Marshal Foch’s expression, lets us ‘know what was going on in the other fellow’s house.’ But it does more than that: unconsciously perhaps, it bears convincing testimony to the fighting powers of the British Army, the determination of its leaders, the extraordinary effectiveness of the fire of its artillery and of its cavalry and infantry, and the skill of its engineers; for it repeatedly credits Field-Marshal Sir John French with ‘reinforcements in abundance,’ insists that our troops ‘fought desperately for every heap of stones and every pile of bricks before abandoning them,’ and definitely records that ‘the fact that neither the enemy’s commanders nor their troops gave way under the strong pressure we put on them … gives us the opportunity to acknowledge that there were men of real worth opposed to us who did their duty thoroughly.’ We are further told that the effect of our artillery was such that ‘it was not possible to push up reserves owing to heavy artillery fire’; that ‘all roads leading to the rear were continuously shelled for a long way back’; that the German ‘advancing columns were under accurate artillery fire at long range’; that our shells ‘blocked streets and bridges and devastated villages so far back that any regular transport of supplies became impossible.’ As regards rifle and machine-gun fire, we are credited with ‘quantities of machine-guns,’ ‘large numbers of machine-guns,’ etc.; with the result that ‘the roads were swept by machine-guns’; and that ‘over every bush, hedge and fragment of wall floated a thin film of smoke betraying a machine-gun rattling out bullets.’ At that date we had no machine-gun units, and there were only two machine-guns on the establishment of a battalion, and of these many had been damaged, and had not yet been replaced; actually machine-guns were few and far between. The only inference to be drawn is that the rapid fire of the British rifleman, were he infantryman, cavalryman or sapper, was mistaken for machine-gun fire both as regards volume and effect. Our simple defences, to complete which both time and labour had been lacking, became in German eyes ‘a well-planned maze of trenches,’ ‘a maze of obstacles and entrenchments’; and we had ‘turned every house, every wood and every wall into a strong point’; ‘the villages of Wytschaete and Messines … had been converted into fortresses’ (Festungen); as also the edge of a wood near Gheluvelt and Langemarck. As at the last-named place there was only a small redoubt with a garrison of two platoons, and the ‘broad wire entanglements’ described by the German General Staff were in reality but trifling obstacles of the kind that the Germans ‘took in their stride,’ the lavish praise, were it not for the result of the battle, might be deemed exaggerated. Part of it undoubtedly is. It is fair, however, to deduce that the German nation had to be given some explanation why the ‘contemptible little Army’ had not been pushed straightway into the sea.
The monograph is frankly intended to present the views that the German General Staff wish should be held as regards the battles, and prevent, as their Preface says, the currency of ‘the legends and rumours which take such an easy hold on the popular imagination and are so difficult, if not impossible, to correct afterwards.’ One cannot naturally expect the whole truth to be revealed yet; that it is not will be seen from the notes. The elder von Moltke said, when pressed by his nephews to write a true account of 1870-1—to their future financial advantage—‘It can’t be done yet. Too many highly placed personages (hohe Herrschaften) would suffer in their reputations.’ It was not until twenty-five years after the Franco-Prussian War that Fritz Hönig, Kunz and other German military historians who had been given access to the records, were allowed to draw back the veil a little. The publication of the French General Staff account began even later. What is now given to us is, however, amply sufficient to follow the main German plans and movements; but the difficulties that prevented the enemy from making successful use of the enormous number of troops at his disposal and his superior equipment in heavy artillery, machine-guns, aeroplanes, hand-grenades and other trench warfare material, are untold. Until we learn more we may fairly attribute our victory to the military qualities of the British, French and Belgian troops, and the obstinate refusal of all ranks to admit defeat.
The German General Staff specially claim that the first battle of Ypres was a German victory, ‘for it marked the failure of the enemy’s intention to fall on the rear of our Western Armies, to free the rich districts of Northern France and the whole of Belgium,’ etc. etc. Granted that we did so fail, the battle can, on that General Staff’s own evidence, be regarded as a drawn one. For it is definitely stated in the monograph that the object of the operations was ‘successfully closing with the enemy … and gaining Calais, the aim and object of the 1914 campaign’—this the German Army notoriously did not do. The intention to break through is repeatedly stated: ‘although fresh reinforcements had been sent up by the German General Staff … a break-through had not been possible.’ ‘Another effort to break through should be made as soon as possible.’ We are told that Fabeck’s Army Group (eventually nine infantry and five cavalry divisions) was formed ‘as a strong new army of attack … for breaking through on the front Werwicq-Warneton.’ Linsingen’s Army Group (five divisions) after the failure of von Fabeck was formed ‘to drive back and crush the enemy lying north of the (Comines-Ypres) canal … and to break through there.’ Finally, however, it is admitted that ‘no break-through of the enemy’s lines had been accomplished…. We had not succeeded in making the decisive break-through, and the dream of ending the campaign in the west in our favour had to be consigned to its grave.’ In fact, the book is largely an apologia and a confession of failure which mere protestations of victory cannot alter.
The effects of a German victory on the course of the war, with the Channel ports in German hands, as compared with those of an Allied victory in Flanders, which at that period of the war and at that season of the year could have resulted in little more than pushing the enemy back into Belgium a few miles, may be easily imagined. If the battle was a tactical draw, at least we had a strategic balance in our favour.
The principal reasons advanced for the German ill-success are ‘the enemy’s numerical superiority, and the strength of his positions,’ and of course the drastic course taken by the Belgians of ‘calling in the sea to their aid.’
There is constant repetition of these pleas throughout the book. To those who were there and saw our ‘thin and straggling line’ and the hastily constructed and lightly wired defences: mere isolated posts and broken lengths of shallow holes with occasional thin belts of wire, and none of the communication trenches of a later date, they provoke only amazement. Even German myopia cannot be the cause of such statements.
As regards the superiority of numbers, the following appears to be the approximate state of the case as regards the infantry on the battle front from Armentières (inclusive) to the sea dealt with in the monograph. It is necessary to count in battalions, as the Germans had two or three with each cavalry division, and the British Commander-in-Chief enumerates the reinforcements sent up to Ypres from the II and Indian Corps by battalions, and two Territorial battalions, London Scottish and Hertfordshires, also took part. The total figures are:—
|British, French, Belgian||263 battalions.|
That is roughly a proportion of Allies to Germans of 13 to 21. Viscount French in his ‘1914’ says 7 to 12 Corps, which is much the same: 52 to 84 as against 49 to 84, and very different from the German claim of ‘40 divisions to 25.’ Actually in infantry divisions the Allies had only 22, even counting as complete the Belgian six, which had only the strength of German brigades. Any future correction of the figures, when actual bayonets present can be counted, will probably emphasise the German superiority in numbers still more, and the enemy indisputably had the advantage of united command, homogeneous formations and uniform material which were lacking in the Allied force.
As regards the cavalry the Western Allies had six divisions, including one of three brigades. The enemy had at least nine, possibly more (one, the Guard Cavalry Division, of three brigades), as it is not clear from the German account how much cavalry was transferred from the Sixth Army to the Fourth Army. It may be noted that a German cavalry division included, with its two or three cavalry brigades, horse artillery batteries and the two or three Jäger battalions, three or more machine-gun batteries and two or more companies of cyclists; and was thus, unlike ours, a force of all arms.
The German General Staff reveal nothing about the exact strength of the artillery. In a footnote it is mentioned that in addition to infantry divisions the III Reserve Corps contained siege artillery, Pionier formations and other technical troops; and in the text that ‘all the available heavy artillery of the Sixth Army to be brought up (to assist the Fourth Army) for the break-through.’ The Germans had trench-mortars (Minenwerfer) which are several times mentioned, whilst our first ones were still in the process of improvisation by the Engineers of the Indian Corps at Bethune.
The statement that ‘the enemy’s’ (i.e. British, French and Belgian) ‘superiority in material, in guns, trench-mortars, machine-guns and aeroplanes, etc., was two, three, even fourfold’ is palpably nonsense when said of 1914, though true perhaps in 1917 when the monograph was written.
The fact seems to be that the Germans cannot understand defeat in war except on the premise that the victor had superiority of numbers. To show to what extent this creed obtains: in the late Dr. Wylie’s Henry V., vol. II. page 216, will be found an account of a German theory, accepted by the well-known historian Delbrück, that the English won at Agincourt on account of superior numbers, although contemporary history is practically unanimous that the French were ten to one. Dr. Wylie sums it up thus:
‘Starting with the belief that the defeat of the French is inexplicable on the assumption that they greatly outnumbered the English, and finding that all contemporary authorities, both French and English, are agreed that they did, the writer builds up a theory that all the known facts can be explained on the supposition that the French were really much inferior to us in numbers … and concludes that he cannot be far wrong if he puts the total number of French (the English being 6000) at something between 4000 and 7000.’
It may not be out of place to add that a German Staff Officer captured during the Ypres fighting said to his escort as he was being taken away: ‘Now I am out of it, do tell me where your reserves are concealed; in what woods are they?’ and he refused to believe that we had none. Apparently it was inconceivable to the German General Staff that we should stand to fight unless we had superior numbers; and these not being visible in the field, they must be hidden away somewhere.
Further light on what the Germans imagined is thrown by prisoners, who definitely stated that their main attack was made south of Ypres, because it was thought that our main reserves were near St. Jean, north-east of that town. From others it was gathered that what could be seen of our army in that quarter was in such small and scattered parties that it was taken to be an outpost line covering important concentrations, and the Germans did not press on, fearing a trap.
It is, however, possible that the German miscalculation of the number of formations engaged may not be altogether due to imaginary reserves, as regards the British Army. Before the war the Great General Staff knew very little about us. The collection of ‘intelligence’ with regard to the British Empire was dealt with by a Section known in the Moltkestrasse as the ‘Demi-monde Section,’ because it was responsible for so many countries; and this Section admittedly had little time to devote to us. Our organisation was different from that of any of the great European armies. Their field artillery brigades contained seventy-two guns, whereas ours had only eighteen guns or howitzers; their infantry brigades consisted of two regiments, each of three battalions, that is six battalions, not four as in the original British Expeditionary Force. To a German, therefore, an infantry brigade meant six battalions, not four, and if a prisoner said that he belonged to the Blankshire Regiment, the German might possibly believe he had identified three battalions, whereas only one would be present. This is actually brought out on page 118, when the author speaks of the 1st Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment as the Königsregiment Liverpool, and indicates his ignorance of the British Army, when this single battalion engages the German Garde Regiment zu Fuss, by describing the fight not only as one of regiment against regiment, but as Garde gegen Garde (Guard against Guards). Such is the fighting value of an English Line battalion. A victory over it is certainly claimed, but the significant sentence immediately follows: ‘any further advance on the 11th November by our Guard troops north of the road was now out of the question.’
It may be as well to point out that the ‘volunteers’ who it is said flocked to the barracks to form the Reserve Corps XXII to XXVII were not all volunteers in our sense of the word. The General Staff only c