Raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby

December 18th, 2014

A raid by light elements and battlecruisers of the High Seas Fleet on British coastal communities that caused significant civilian casualities.  The did not create an opportunity for the High Seas Fleet to attack portions of the British Grand Fleet, and although it did not receive serious damage, the raid had no strategic effects.

The Dance of Divisions - The Grand Fleet assembles the Royal Army: August to December 1914

December 13th, 2014

One of the victories rarely discussed by modern historians, and in fact a mostly silent victory when it occurred, was the assembly of the Royal Army and its associated national forces into their wartime locations.  

 The limited peacetime planning made by the Royal Army saw the main forces to be deployed to Europe in case of an emergency (primarily the violation of Belgium neutrality, although many British military thinkers had begun to see Germany as a significant threat since it had decided to build the High Seas Fleet twenty-years before) to come from a professional core of seven divisions kept stationed in the Home Islands.  These divisions included the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth infantry divisions, and the calvary division, had been trained since before the Boer war to fight as a cohesive expeditionary force.  Although this “British Expeditionary Force” was originally intended to have no intermediate command structure - this thinking was seen as faulty due to experience in the Boer War and two corps commands existed, barracked at Aldershot (the first corps) and Salisbury Plain (the second corps) to allow for the British force to act in concert with French Armies.  

 In terms of fighting power though the BEF on paper, while well trained, was hardly on the level of a French Army it was intended to fight next to.  A French Army in 1914 consisted of five corps, each with four divisions, and was designed to control a significant space in the combat line.  At best the BEF was suitable to become a single corps-like structure in a French Army, an arrangement that made the British uncomfortable politically, logistically, and militarily.  While the British political class had been unwilling to address the concept of a land war on the mainland of Europe the Army  and Navy always assumed that this was inevitable.

 The main issue for Britain was not that it could not sustain a large ground force, but that in peace time the ground force it could sustain had to be spread out around the globe protecting British colonial interests.  Another problem was that the British Army was not, as designed, intended to form large maneuver units.  Instead a vast majority of the British Army was organized as single battalions who were supplied by the colonial infrastructure of the empire.  

 So the Royal Navy and the Royal Army had an immediate problem in the first days of the war, and the problem represented one of the most complicate logistical dances ever attempted on short notice and with little planning.  To make matters worse it would see hundreds of thousands of men moving around the world in vulnerable troop ships at a time when the Royal Navy did not have enough escorts even to send a single modern light cruiser to all of its main stations in preparation for commerce warfare.  Although an immense undertaking similar in magnitude to the Torch landings of World War Two, it is an accomplishment that is barely mentioned in many history books, and when mentioned is usually restricted to the problem of delivering the main force of the BEF, five divisions in all, to the shores of France.

 The first step of the process consisted on moving the BEF from its bases in England to the coast of France, where British officers had been scouting the terrain since July in anticipation of a move against Belgium. In early August it was decided that the BEF would abandon the direct command model with the main headquarters (called GHQ) commanding line divisions directly, and instead a three corps model would be adopted, each corps to have two divisions.  This would make the BEF roughly 1/3 the size of a French army, but it would give the head of GHQ the social rank of a Lieutenant General.    Further plans were also made for expansion past this, and the British command, without the knowledge of the government, had already assumed that their structure would have to become a multi-army force if only to give the British commander on the ground equal social standing with Joffre, the commander of the French Army.

 On the 4th of August, with the British declaration of war on Germany, the initial movement of I and II corps of the BEF started.  Consisting of 4 divisions of infantry (the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th) and four brigades of cavalry nominally formed into two adhoc cavalry divisions, the initial British forced moved quickly to British ports and were moved over to the French coast through the 15th of August.  A great deal of ink has been spilled about how the Germans lost a key chance to destroy the British on the water, but  post war backseat judgements on the matter rarely take all of the factors into account.  First, German destroyers - the best units suited to conduct these raids, had barely a two day endurance once out of Hegoiland.  They could dash out, attack, and run back.  In the process they would be struck twice by the much larger concentration of screening forces the British had. Dozens of old light cruisers, old armored cruisers, modern destroyers, and even battlecruiser squadrons were positioned to tackle these destroyers as they ran in for their attack and then retreated to refuel. 

 A sortie by the High Seas Fleet was for similar reasons unlikely.  Through out the war getting between the High Seas Fleet and its main base was the dream of the admiralty.  The appearance of German heavy units leaving their base would have been dangerous for some transports, but the British knew that the transports would not be easy targets for battleships.  Instead they would move their routes south to less convenient coastal ports such as Cherbourg, and the German fleet would face defeat in detail as the Home Fleet forced action by blocking its return to base.  

 The final element, submarines, were also likewise never a threat.  The small number of German submarines were detailed for picket duty on the first day of the war, and were not in wireless contact with command authority, nor would they be operating in ideal conditions since their range (at least in the early days of the war) was limited.  The power, at least with regard to stopping the movement of the BEF to France, of the High Seas Fleet was an illusion.

 The main victory of the reinforcement phase of the British movement of units to Europe was the assembling of forces from around the world and bringing them to England for formation into divisions and then dispatch to the continent.  The first of these divisions, and at the start of the war what would be the British Army’s most powerful division (with no militia or reserves needed to round out numbers) was the 7th.  This division took battalion-sized units from Malta, South Africa, India, and Gibraltar in to form a regular line division.  It arrived in England in late August and was transported to France in October.  Once the 7th division was completed the remaining later arriving battalions formed the 8th division, which was completed in early 1915 but whose first battalions had arrived as early as October, 2014.

 As these units were dispatched for England, partially trained territorial divisions were dispatched to take their place.  Thus the eight brigades of the 7th and 8th divisions represented not one logistical movement of soldiers, but two, the territorial units taking obsolete garrison equipment to the colonies while the line battalions brought modern equipment home to be used in France.  

 In addition to the British colonial forces, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South African units totaling the equivalent of five divisions were formed at the start of hostilities and offered to the war effort.  Moving these units placed a further burden on the Navy - the units were not organized to start with and although each would become in their own way the most valuable units in the British army, in early 1914 they were difficult to move in their disorganized state.

 With nearly a quarter of a million men, a hundred thousand horses, tens of thousands of tons of war material and little pre-war planning, the troop movements of 1914 represent the greatest logistical achievement in wartime until D-Day in 1944. 

Indian Contribution to the Western Front

December 11th, 2014

While the French had a reinforcement strategy that called for nearly 100,000 colonial soldiers to take up second line duties in France, freeing second-line units to serve on the front lines, the British did not have plans in place to bring any colonial units into the main theatres of war.  Instead most of the units they received were "found unit."  Forces that were promised by various colonial and commonwealth leaders for the emergency and forces whose duties nominally required they stay in their garrisons were scooped up, and in the case of India, officers from all units were quickly transferred to the homeland to make good some of the horrendous losses incurred by these ranks in the Western Front.

The main issue of Indian soldiers being used on the western front came down to a confrontatioin between Kitchner, the former head of the British military forces in India, and Beauchamp Duff who had replaced Kitchener in that position when the later had been promoted to his new position in England and was a result of a longstanding distrust of the Indian soldier's qualities.  British commanders in 1914 had a surprising awareness both of the complexities of the Indian indepdendence movemeny, and a belief that Indian soldiers were basically unreliable even in garrison - a lingering effect of the 1857 revolt.  Unlike the French - whose foriegn military establishments were considered loyal enough to perform even military police roles, the British establishment of 1914 saw the Indian soldier with extreme diffidence.  

The second issue, one that consumed a great deal of correspondence between Duff and Kitchner, was the ability of India to survive in British hands if British soldiers were removed from their garrisons and sent to the Western front.  While territorial units were rushing to replace regular army battalions on a 1 for 1 basis, these territorial units tended to have a heavy hand when policing native populations.  They often lacked the language skills, the easy hand, and the cultural understanding of various Indian populations, and they were nervous living in a sea of people from a different culture.  If India revolted en masse during the Great War it might be impossible to bring under control, and could see a fatal disruption in British commerce and lines of communication.

In the end a compromise was struck.  About 3/4 of the British Indian army would be returned to England amounting to 3 divisions of troops.  Of the 9 experienced native Indian divisions only 3 would be sent to the British Army in 1914, the 3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) going to Europe.  Any addition divisions required would be raised in the diferent theatres (primarily Persia and Egypt) and would not affect the ground strength of the Indian Army.

The caution the British showed proved both founded and unfounded.  Indian divisions proved to be reliable and useful in both the western front, and more particularly, in secondary fronts.  At the same time the units left behind in India proved essential not so much to put down revolts, Indian nationalists did not engage in major violence during the Great War, but to defend India from border raids by Muslim combatants in the pay of the German foriegn office.   

HMS Ark Royal, the world's first purpose built aircraft carrier, commissioned by the British

December 10th, 2014

The Ark Royal was the first ship completed as an aircraft carrier, having been purchased by the Royal Navy while still only a frame and being replanned from that early point as a purpose built carrier ship.  As a ship he was a humble design, capable of carrying less than 10 aircraft.  She could fly off and recover seaplanes, but could only fly off wheeled planes, not recover them.  In later years she would be referred to as a seaplane carrier.  The Ark Royal was important because she provided important training for the design of new carriers and conversions to carrier.

Two earlier ships, the British Hermes and the French Foudre, had been converted to seaplane carrier before the war, but their service libes were short.  Experience from the Ark Royal would be integrated into the next major carrier, the HMS Furios, a conversion during construction from a large, light cruiser design.

Battle of the Falkland Islands

December 8th, 2014

Admiral Spee's raiding force, short of supplies and in need of repair, decided to attack the coaling station at the Falklands to pick up fuel and prepare for either a dash to Germany or movement back to the Pacific.  Unfortunately the British has replaced the Navy's former commander in chief Battenburg with the dynamic John Fisher, who immediately ordered strong fleet units to converge on every possible point of succor for the German raiding squadron.  One group lead by Doveton Sturdee was able to catch the Germans at the Falkland Islands, sinking all but two units in the squadron.