The Battle of San River – Winston Churchill Gets Fired I THE GREAT WAR Week 43


We’ve seen disastrous decisions by political
and military leaders throughout the war, but rarely have they been called to account. At
least so far, but that changes this week. This week, Winston Churchill gets fired. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. When we left off, South African forces had
captured the German colonial capital Windhoek, the British and French had jointly tried to
break the German lines in Artois, the Germans were still attacking at Ypres, and at Gallipoli
the Allied landings and anticipated victory had now descended into siege warfare, but
the big news was on the Eastern Front, where the Austro-German Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive
had driven the Russians back from the Carpathians and erased eight months of Russian gains. Let’s look first to the west, where the
Allies were yet again starting something new. Now, the second battle of Artois was in full
swing. Indeed, the Germans were actually slowly calling a halt to their own offensive, the
Second Battle of Ypres, to deal with the situation in Artois. This week in Artois, the Battle of Festubert,
which lasted for ten days, began May 15th. This was an attack by British forces and was
really the first time they tried to win by attrition instead of the quick “bite and
hold” tactics they had been pursuing the past couple of months. So the attack began
with a three-day artillery barrage of over 100,000 shells, which still failed to do any
serious damage to the German defensive lines. The initial infantry attacks afterward were
fairly successful initially, but as the weather turned bad, the British troops dug in as the
Germans reinforced their new positions. So while the British gained some ground, around
3 kilometers, their losses for the battle were over three times that of the Germans,
around 16,000 to around 5,000 casualties. Historian Peter Hart put it simply, “it
was a disaster.” The British, it seemed, still had a great deal to learn about artillery
support and multi-layered command and control structures. I think we all know, though, that the forces
that had used artillery most effectively so far were the Germans and they were bringing
it on in full force over in the east. The battle for Mid-Galicia was over when the
Austro-German forces reached the San River, with the Russians the big losers, and this
week saw the beginning of the battle of the San, which also began a new chapter of the
war. German General August von Mackensen was slowly advancing toward the fortress of Przemysl,
near where the Russian center under General Nikolai Ivanov held east of the river. I say
slowly because Mackensen was leading 2,000 pieces of artillery with seemingly limitless
ammunition. The Russians had been in full retreat for two weeks and at this point Ivanov’s
main objective was to hold off the enemy long enough to clear the fortress of supplies and
ammunition and withdraw the troops holding it. On May 14th, German troops occupied Jaroslav,
some 40 kilometers from the Fortress, and that same day the Austro-Hungarian 4th army
under Archduke Josef Ferdinand reached the western banks of the San. By the 16th, the
attackers held the left of the river from Jaroslav to Rudnik, over 60 kilometers. That
day they began to take the right bank as well. A German division further north reached Lubaczovka
and half of a circle around Przemysl was complete. The German goal now was to cut the Przemysl-Lemberg
railway and sabotage the Russian retreat from the fortress. But while the Germans were planning to take
Przemysl from the north, the actual battle opened to the south on the 15th, when Austro-German
forces attacked the Russian lines between Novemiasto and Sambor. Much like on the western
front, this was an area of trenches and barbed wire and the trenches changed hands back and
forth over the next few days. By May 21st, though, the attackers had broken through the
Russian defenses east of Przemysl, threatening the garrison’s retreat and further closing
a circle around the Russians as the Germans advanced from the north. Actually, by the
20th Mackensen’s forces were bombarding the fortress itself. However, on the 21st, Ivanov’s forces counter
attacked along the entire line in an attempt to save, not the fortress itself, but the
garrison within. The Russians were actually trying an enveloping movement of their own,
and though they did capture quite a few guns, a bunch of prisoners and a couple of towns,
it was a lost cause. By the 24th, though the Russians continued to offer effective resistance
as their counter offensive petered out, the eventual fall of Przemysl was a foregone conclusion
and that day Mackensen resumed the offensive, taking Drojohow, Ostrov, Vysocko, Makovisko,
and Vietlin in the same day. When the Austro-Hungarian Imperial army was
having its lunch eaten by the Russians in the Carpathian Mountains some six weeks ago,
the Austrian powers that be were considering some sort of deal with Russia, but Germany
now had pretty fair control over Austrian war policy, and war policy is what we’re
going to look at next, though not German, British. The British Liberal Party had so far had exclusive
control of war policy, but the severe shell shortage over the past weeks caused Prime
Minister Herbert Asquith to be pressed to establish a Ministry of Munitions and to give
some senior places to his conservative opponents. Both parties now believed the war was above
politics- hooray- and it needed long term planning and production. I mentioned last
week that of 6 million artillery shells that the army should have received by May, they
got only around 2 million. This, together with the British naval failure at the Dardanelles,
caused Asquith to finally form a coalition government May 19th. The Conservatives demanded
that First Lord of the Admiralty Winton Churchill be removed from his post for the failures
in the eastern Mediterranean, and so he was; Arthur Balfour, a former Conservative Prime
Minister, because the new first Lord. That same day, the 19th, at Gallipoli, an
assault by 40,000 Turks was repulsed by fewer than half that number of Australians and New
Zealanders, but here’s the thing; last month when Gallipoli started, it was supposed to
be a continuous forward assault, right? But now it had become a defensive struggle to
hang on to a couple of footholds. The Turks may have been holding their own
at Gallipoli, but they were losing ground further to the east. This week, the Russian army occupied villages
throughout the Van district of Eastern Anatolia and on May 19th, advance Russian troops reach
the city of Van itself. The Armenian population of the city, 30,000 strong, had been under
siege by Ottoman forces for a month, but as the Russians arrived, the siege was lifted.
The Russian troops actually brought congratulations from the Tsar himself for the city’s defenders,
and in the days that followed, as the Russians began to cremate the dead in the province,
55,000 were identified as Armenians. This war was no picnic for civilians pretty
much anywhere, and in a dark note from the British Isles, on May 14th; the internment
of enemy aliens in Great Britain began. And that was the week; a pretty busy one everywhere
now that spring had really arrived. The Russians still being pushed back by the Germans, trading
positions with the Austrians, and beating back the Ottomans. The British losing thousands
of men in the west for a gain of a few thousands meters, and losing one more man at home. Winston Churchill would have a brilliant career,
and as Prime Minister of the U.K. during World War Two is rightly remembered as one of the
great wartime leaders of the century and was an inspiration to millions both during and
after the war. Before and during the First World War he wisely urged modernization of
Britain’s forces, insisting that all new ships be powered by oil and not by coal. He
also foresaw the importance of airplanes in combat and was instrumental in establishing
the Landships committee in February 1915 whose work eventually created the tank, but Churchill
had a darker side. Future Prime Minister Lloyd George would write to Churchill during the
war, “You will one day discover that (your) state of mind revealed… is the reason why
you do not win trust even where you command admiration… national interests are completely
overshadowed by your personal concern.” And Churchill certainly had an ego. In 1904,
First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher had determined that attacking the Dardanelles would be foolhardy,
in 1906 War Minister Richard Haldane warned of the potential for disaster there, and in
1911 Churchill himself said it wasn’t possible to force the Dardanelles, and yet, four years
later, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he let his thirst for naval glory and involvement
in the war to match that of the army lead him to Gallipoli and the loss of tens of thousands
of men in a bloody waste of life. And that is unforgivable. One of the people that Churchill was trying
help out by forcing the Dardanelles was Czar Nicholas II and you can find out more about him in our bio of him right here. Our patreon supporter of the week is Davide
Sabbadin – if you want to find out more about supporting our show and get cool perks on
top of it, check out Patreon page. and for more historical pictures, you can follow
us on Instagram. See you next time!

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