Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

The Campaign of 1915

The first months of the war had absolutely upset all the German calculations. Their original plans were useless. Those same months had given the Allies courage and confidence. Indeed both Germans and Allies were now positive that they held the upper hand, could take the offensive with decisive effect whenever they might choose. This belief on the part of both that they could now proceed to lay their plans for the final campaign is the key to this year of the war. First we must describe the German plan because they fought the war throughout as an aggressive war.

They had failed in their design of overwhelming France before Russia should move. They were now face to face with a problem which they had always felt most difficult—a war in the west and east at the same time. Their desire was, as always in the past, to fight on one front at a time. But which should it be? Their real enemy they felt was Russia. There on the east were one hundred and eighty millions of people who would always be hostile to Germany. France was already only half of Germany's size and could never be in the future dangerous. At the outset it had been desirable to crush France before meeting Russia, because the Germans had thought that France could be crushed quickly and they knew that the Russians could not. They would now therefore leave France alone, fight a defensive war in the west, and throw their strength in eastern Europe. If they could beat Russia they felt that even defeat in the west would be of no consequence. They would have gained so much that, even if they lost territory to France eventually, the war would have been worth while.

As for England, they had been developing during the long years of preparation two instruments which they believed might of themselves win the war. The one was the Zeppelin; with it they would terrify the English. For hundreds of years no hostile shots had been fired on London; for hundreds of years no enemy had crossed the English Channel, and the English had begun to believe themselves so absolutely secure that the Germans believed they would be terrified, and perhaps give up the fight, when the bombs began to fall in the London streets. On what other basis the Germans supposed the Zeppelin raids would influence the result of the war it is hard to see. They certainly could not expect to transport an army on the Zeppelins and thus invade England. Perhaps they might have hoped to destroy the fleet, but at any rate they meant the English to learn that they were no longer safe in their "snug little isle," as they loved to call it.

The other weapon was the submarine. With it English battleships should be sunk; English harbors raided; merchant ships captured; food and supplies sunk. The enthusiastic Germans saw the English starving and in a few weeks ready to surrender. They therefore proclaimed a war zone around the British islands which should be blockaded by German submarines and should be traversed by ships only at their peril. They saw now that the war must go on for a while at least. The submarine and the Zeppelin would subdue England while they held France at bay with one hand and destroyed Russia with the other.

The Allied plan of operations for 1915 assumed that the German bolt had been shot, that the German strength had been exhausted, that the German military strategy had been defeated, and that the initiative in the war had passed to the Allies. This proved not to be true and was in part responsible for the Allied failures in this year. What, they asked themselves, was the thing the Germans feared most? A simultaneous attack in Poland and in France. The Germans had always said that they would not be able to meet such an assault. Very well, said the Allied generals, let us deliver one. Let us begin it early and keep it up late. We shall not at first make much progress, but a steady pressure, compelling them to fight everywhere at once, must in the end succeed. They therefore proposed a great attack in France, a great assault by the Russians in East Prussia, and a great assault by the Italians upon the Austrian rear near Trieste, along a little river called the Isonzo, which formed the boundary between Austria and Italy. This involved inducing Italy to join the Allies, and in May, 1915, Italy did enter the war.

None of these campaigns, however, on account of the weather could be begun early in the year. There was another thing most essential to accomplish if the war was to continue. The Allies knew that, although Russia had plenty of men, she had few factories for making cannon, ammunition, and clothes, and it was clear that without adequate supplies, she could not continue the war indefinitely. There would come relatively soon a time when there would be nothing more for the Russian army to wear or to shoot with. Indeed at that moment not all the troops had rifles. But the Germans had blockaded Russia. Their fleet at Kiel bottled up the Baltic, which was the only way to reach Russia on the north unless one went as far as Archangel in the Arctic Ocean. This was tremendously far off, was frozen solid the greater part of the year, and its use compelled the Russians to haul the goods by rail for hundreds of miles before they could get them into Poland. But it was not possible to open the Baltic while the German navy existed and refused to fight.

On the south the waterways to Russia lead from the ocean into the Mediterranean and thence into the Black Sea. This was, however, blockaded by the Turks, whom the Germans had brought into the war for this purpose. Constantinople controls the mouth of the Black Sea, and is itself approached by two narrow straits, the one called the Bosphorus and the other called the Dardanelles. A ship trying to get to the Black Sea had to pass first through the Dardanelles, a very narrow rocky strait, some miles long, where swift currents made navigation difficult. It was protected on both sides by forts, mounting very large modern German guns. A ship then passed into a small sea, the Sea of Marmora, and must then go through the Bosphorus, another narrow strait, only a few miles wide, protected by the great forts at Constantinople. The British thought that the Dardanelles might probably be forced by the fleet, which carried guns fully as large as those in the Turkish batteries. They might thus open a waterway to Russia and be able to supply Russia with the guns, ammunition, and clothes that she needed so badly, and would be able themselves to get from Russia what they also needed, wheat and petroleum.

Night Bombardment at Senuc


There was another purpose. Austria was the most vulnerable of the Central Powers and on the south could be easily attacked. Her southern boundary was occupied by the Balkan States, as they are called, and at this particular time, the three important states, Bulgaria, Greece, and Rumania, were still neutral and were very obviously waiting to see whether the Central Empires or the Allies were more likely to win. Nobody doubted that they proposed to join the victor, if they could only find out which side would win. If now the Allies could defeat Turkey and open the Dardanelles, they thought the Balkan nations would all join them. A French and British army would then be able to attack Austria from the mountains with complete success and so end the war. There were a great many in London and in Paris who felt this was the only way the war could be won.

If the Balkans should join Germany and the Allies should have to fight their way through the mountains, the majority felt such a campaign was impossible. It would cost too much and take too long. The Germans would probably win in France while the Allies were getting through the mountains. A great deal therefore depended upon the attack upon the Dardanelles. If it succeeded, the Allies might win the war in 1915. If it failed, the war might go on indefinitely. But if the Dardanelles were opened, if the Russians and the French should attack simultaneously, and if Italy entered the war, the Allies thought it possible that they might reach Berlin during the summer, but certainly would celebrate Christmas there.

It is possible to tell much more briefly what the results of the year's fighting were and it is essential to see them in this brief way, if they are to be understood. The Germans opened the year with Zeppelin raids on England, which failed absolutely to do anything except stimulate British recruiting. By this time the British had undertaken to create an army of several million men. The submarine also began its operations, and with some effect. The great attack delivered by the British and French fleets in February and March on the Dardanelles failed. Then, in that same month, the British and French delivered great assaults in France, which the Germans, in accordance with their plans, merely tried to defeat and in which they were successful. The Germans themselves in April began a tremendous campaign in Poland, and another in Galicia in May and June, all of which were so successful that on August 4, the Kaiser entered Warsaw in triumph. Poland was conquered, the Russians crushed.

Meanwhile, Italy had entered the war at the end of May and had delivered an assault upon the Austrians at Trieste; but this, too, failed. Bulgaria now, in the autumn, joined the Germans. Having succeeded so well, the Germans and Austrians felt that they could take a little time to complete the conquest of Serbia and occupy territory so essential to the control of the great railroad from Berlin to Bagdad. They attempted to exterminate the Serbian nation. Their object was to leave behind a body of people too small to hope in the future ever to oppose their designs. Greece was kept from joining the Germans only by the landing of an Anglo-French army at Saloniki. So ended the campaign of 1915. The cause of the Allies looked more hopeless than before and victory farther away on the horizon.