The Spring Campaign in France
By Frank H. Simonds
[The New Republic, March 27, 1915]
While Lord Kitchener fixed May Day for the real beginning of the war, signs are multiplying that long before that time the Allies will have begun their operations in France. The recent desperate fighting about Neuve Chapelle, where the British won their first considerable offensive battle since the expeditionary army landed, is fairly to be taken as an evidence of the opening of a new phase.
What then is likely to be the character of this new offensive of the Allies? Where are they likely to strike and why? These are questions which will puzzle the world for many weeks to come, and all attempts to answer them in advance must be hazardous and purely speculative. There are nevertheless certain indications, certain disclosures of the winter fighting, which may prove useful in making any such forecast.
First it is necessary to examine the geographical conditions and the railroad circumstances of the German position in France. Roughly speaking, this position may be described as two sides of a triangle, which has for its base the Franco-Belgian frontier from a point north and west of Lille to another due north of Verdun. The apex of the triangle is at Noyon, less than seventy miles from Paris. Oddly enough, the strongest part of the long German line is precisely that which is nearest to the French capital. Thus from Noyon north to the Somme and again from that town east to Rheims, the German line runs along the crest of the Champagne hills. East of the Oise it is solidly based upon the French forts of the La Fere-Laon-Rheims system, from Noyon to Péronne it is equally strongly protected by the forts and trenches which the Germans have erected on the hills west of the Oise.
All attempts to force the portion of the German lines from Noyon to Rheims terminated in January, when the French were driven down the first slopes north of the Aisne and across that stream. West of the Oise and south of the Somme the French have made no progress since October first, when they were swept out of St. Quentin and Péronne by a German counter-offensive. But north of Péronne, between Arras and Lille, and east of Rheims between that city and the Argonne, the Allied troops have recently been engaged in very serious operations, which must be considered in any discussion of the probable character of the spring campaign.
The explanation of these operations is found in the examination of the railway lines on which the Germans depend for their existence in northern France. The larger number of these railroads are found fairly close to the sides of the triangle described. Thus an advance by the Anglo-French forces on a front from Arras to Lille would very shortly begin to cut and cross railroads of utmost importance to the Germans. East from Arras a thirty mile advance would take the Allies to Valenciennes, destroying all the main German railway lines save the Maubeuge-St. Quentin road, and would drive a wedge between the Germans in France and in Belgium.
Such a success would almost inevitably turn the Germans out of the Champagne hills and throw their front back almost to the frontier. For the Allies such an advance has an appeal, because in the main it would be made over level plains, while to the south the country is rough and gives the defenders far greater advantages, and to the north the forts of Lille bar the way. At the present moment the extreme German advance post is at La Bassée, a hill rising out of the plain for less than fifty feet, but commanding the country for miles about. It was at this point that the British campaign in Flanders broke down in late October. The Neuve Chapelle fight was an effort to turn the Germans out of La Bassée by outflanking them.
As to the country between Rheims and the Argonne, it will be seen that the situation is very similar. Here the French are seeking to advance on a broad front along the highway and railroads connecting Chalons with Rethel. They have long been halted just north of Souain. Could they push forward some twenty-five miles they would then be on the Rheims-Rethel-Mézières railway, the trunk line on which depend all the German forces in France east of Laon and west of the Argonne. Such an advance would put the French on the flank and at the rear of the Germans before Rheims and compel their retreat. It would interpose between the German army in Champagne and that before Verdun. Could it be pushed north again from Rethel to Mézières it would cut the Strassburg-Metz-Calais line, by which the Germans have been accustomed to move corps from Alsace to Artois and Flanders whenever occasion arose. Such a transfer defeated the great French flanking movement at St. Quentin in October.
A glance at a map will show that these two Allied operations, that from Flanders and that from Champagne, if pushed ahead far enough, would actually meet at Namur. Such an operation may be likened to the closing of a pair of pincers. Each step, too, would be accompanied by the elimination of a railway line necessary to some part of the German front. Briefly, then this is the plan of campaign to which the Allied efforts during the winter point. It is also the plan of campaign which satisfies the questions of geography and railroads, most completely.
As to Franco-Belgian operations about the Yser and the French campaign in Alsace, both have a value, the former as it imperils the hold of the Germans on the coast about Ostend, the latter as it carries the French toward the Rhine; but neither seems to be comparable in actual possibilities to the Champagne and Flanders operations.
Assuming that the Allied attacks will come in these two provinces, what are their chances of success? Any answer to this question must be based, upon an estimate of the forces engaged, and such an estimate is necessarily inexact. Yet French and British reports continue to insist that the Germans have in the West not less than forty-seven army corps, or about 2,000,000 of all arms. To meet this host the French have perhaps an equal number. That the Anglo-Belgian force may presently amount to twenty corps, or some 800,000, seems a fair estimate. Perhaps it may be a reasonable forecast to estimate that the Germans will be outnumbered in the proportion of three to two on the Western front.
But is such an advantage sufficient to permit the Allies to carry out their plans? The success of the British the other day in carrying a strong position would seem to hold out promise. Yet there is general agreement that for four miles gained they paid as high as 10,000 in casualties, while the Germans declare their own losses were but 6,000 as compared with the 19,700 estimate of the Allied "eyewitness." The affair was confessedly brilliant, but there is not the smallest sign that it had 'anything but incidental meaning. If one German line was pierced, the advance was promptly checked by other lines in the rear.
From the Champagne operation it is even clearer how desperate is the undertaking. German estimates of the French losses here are as high as 45,000. These may be exaggerated, but what is certain is that at heavy cost the French have so far failed to make any considerable progress, have in fact gained less in two months of strife than the British by a single lucky attack. The British advance was preceded by a terrific artillery duel, in which the British, artillery seems to have been far superior in weight to the German, so much so that the German fire was smothered. This is an evident adaptation of German tactics. Given a continuing superiority of this soft, and British advance actually came to a stop soon after he first successful onslaught. Meantime to the north of Lille the Germans were making marked progress about St. Eloi on the road to Ypres.
What prospect or hope the Allies have of freeing France this spring it is of course impossible to say. The forecasts of non-military men are worthless, and military men are averse to making forecasts. Yet it is a fact that practically every artillery officer in the American army is firmly convinced that the Allies have not yet either numbers or guns to turn the Germans out of France— much less Belgium, and that the campaign will continue in the trenches after the first desperate attacks of the French and British have brought casualties which are beyond the resources of the Allies.
The entrance of Italy into the war, the collapse of Austria-Hungary, new Russian successes of a sort that Russia has not yet won— these may easily modify the situation by compelling the withdrawal of sufficient numbers of Germans to produce a more favorable ratio between the attack and the defense. Short of this, however, it is necessary to say that there is little support to be found in American military circles, where the question is studied without any but professional arguments having influence, for the belief that the Allies can drive the Germans out of France this spring or this summer.
On the other hand there is equal conviction that Germany cannot hope to make further considerable advance, and that an effort to resume the offensive either in Belgium or northern France would be certain to bring new losses such as made the battle of the Yser and Ypres another Borodino. Prophecy is idle, but most informed prophets expect a prolongation of the deadlock through the present season.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald