A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the optimism with which most European belligerents anticipated their spring offensives in 1915. It didn’t last long. On the Western Front in particular, where the Entente powers were doing almost all the attacking while German offensive efforts were focused on the east, optimism was already degenerating into a public, political and military search for scapegoats by the middle of May.
To recap, French c-in-c Joffre had launched repeated offensives against the bulge (or salient) in the German front line, focused primarily on its southern edge in the Champagne region, from December until March. They took the form of massed infantry assaults preceded by heavy artillery bombardment, and they failed. Hindsight makes their failure unsurprising, given the advantage contemporary technology bestowed on defenders of fortified positions, but Anglo-French commanders didn’t see it that way.
Massive expansion of the BEF’s volunteer forces, the sheer scale of French conscription and further progress towards industrial mobilisation for war (particularly in Britain) combined to give the Entente an advantage in men and materiel that Joffre believed must, if properly concentrated, crush the enemy. With the support of BEF commanders, he planned a bigger but essentially similar assault on the northern sector of the front between Arras and Lille for May.
Before the Entente was ready for what became known as the Artois Offensive, the Germans launched their one major offensive of the year on the Western Front, making first use of poison gas during an attack on British positions around Ypres. This, the second Battle of Ypres, achieved only carnage, but heavy fighting continued until 25 May and was still in progress when Joffre launched his own grand offensive.
After a massive five-day artillery bombardment, French infantry attacked along a ten-kilometre front between Arras and Loos on 9 May. Pétain’s central corps broke through and advanced five kilometres in ninety minutes, but in line with previous experiences the gains couldn’t be supported or sustained, and both sides were about back where they’d started when the first wave of fighting died down on 15 May. A second assault, lasting from 15–19 June, didn’t break the deadlock, by which time the offensive had cost the French Army 100,000 men.
The BEF also attacked on 9 May, at northeastern end of the sector, on a front either side of Neuve Chapelle, but a shortage of shells meant the advance by General Haig’s First Army was preceded by a mere forty-minute bombardment, trivial by Western Front standards. Poorly supported the attack was called off later the same day, having achieved only the loss of 11,000 men. A second attack further south, around Festubert, was launched on 15 May after a four-day bombardment. It made initial gains but soon became bogged down in the usual ways, and had pushed the German Sixth Army back less than a kilometre when it was called off twelve days later.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, the blame game was heating up fast. Popular and press demands for a coalition government had been gathering strength all year, founded on the perception that Asquith’s Liberal regime had mismanaged national mobilisation. There was something to said for the argument. The first months of war had exposed glaring inefficiencies in some government departments, and the British economy had been relatively slow to produce weapons and equipment for mass armies. On the other hand Britain hadn’t been planning a major land war before 1914, and so had a lot more adjustments to make than, for instance, Germany or France, but as the promised victory failed to materialise this logic cut little ice with a shocked public. When The Times of 14 May 1915 published a report claiming that initial failures at Neuve Chapelle were caused by a serious shortage of high explosive shells, pressure on Asquith’s regime hit new peaks.
The report was written by one of the country’s most influential war correspondents, Colonel Repington, and The Times was then considered a semi-official newspaper. The article had also been passed by the government censor, and therefore carried considerable authority. As intended by the paper’s owner, press baron and serial meddler Lord Northcliffe, along with his political allies and many senior Western Front commanders, the ‘Shell Scandal’ fatally damaged the government, which would be replaced by a coalition on 25 May.
Northcliffe failed, however, to achieve his ultimate aim of discrediting War Minister Lord Kitchener, who lost control of munitions production to a new ministry under Lloyd George but remained in his post. Another Northcliffe newspaper, the scandal-friendly Daily Mail, followed up with a series of direct attacks on Kitchener, but his iconic status and mass popularity were unbreakable. Say what you like about Northcliffe (and I agree with most of the many bad things said about him), but getting rid of Kitchener was a good idea. For all that the august hero of colonial warfare made an excellent poster, as a government minister in a vital position he was an almost unmitigated disaster.
Enigmatic and uncommunicative, with a touch of the mystic about him, Kitchener was responsible for the breakneck recruitment of volunteers for a mass army in 1914, and for failure to anticipate either its needs or the economic effects of its creation. As a strategist he was arbitrary, contradictory and prone to certainty without the benefit of information. He backed concentration on the Western Front, and provided mass reinforcements for the BEF in 1915, but also gave support to the Gallipoli adventure without ever providing it with the organisation or reinforcement it needed to succeed.
A major obstacle to efficient relations between the government and the Army, Kitchener remained untouchable until his death in June 1916, when he drowned off the Orkneys after a mine sank the cruiser taking him on an official visit to the Russia. Undoubtedly a significant boon to Britain’s war effort, his demise has of course been feeding conspiracy theorists ever since… but much as I’d like to believe it, I don’t think he was assassinated by the Daily Mail.