11 August 1914 – The Last Charge

Today, the Goeben and Breslau enter the Dardanelles after a dramatic chase across the Eastern Mediterranean. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz has directed Admiral William Souchon to avoid action with the British and find safe harbor with the Ottomans. He wants to pressure the Empire into joining the war on the side of the Central Powers.

Both ships are later re-flagged for the Caliph in a direct riposte to William Churchill’s decision to seize two dreadnoughts that were under construction for the Ottomans. As reported by Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August, Churchill later said that by bringing Turkey into the war, these two vessels brought “more slaughter, more misery, and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.”

The SMS Goeben

The SMS Goeben

Meanwhile, today also features the last successful cavalry charge of the European war when German Ulhans run down French infantry at the Battle of Lagarde. In the last two days, the French gains in Alsace-Lorraine have been rolled back at great loss, and it is only when the German horsemen run up on French machine guns and flanking fire from infantry that their victorious assault, which has claimed hundreds of prisoners and many guns, comes to a halt.

In anticipation of this war, Germany has assembled the largest cavalry force the world has ever seen. But the Kaiser’s horse divisions are about to become utterly inconsequential to the course of the conflict, whereas another weapon being used today will prove far more important.

German Ulhan

German Ulhan (lancer)

This month marks the beginning of a terrible new phenomenon: more people will die of indirect fire in the 20th Century than any other combat-related cause. German field artillery proves longer-ranged and more accurate than the French 75 millimeter guns in the Battle of the Frontiers, giving them an important advantage in the war of attrition.

August 1914 is remembered for its guns because they spur men to dig in for cover. Right now, these armies are still maneuvering to meet in the open, but when the Western front settles into its bloody stalemate, the technology that allows a gun crew to send high explosives after a target out of their sight, over and over again, becomes the primary reason that men dig the trenches which define the Great War forever in our imaginations.

A German 5.9 inch howitzer. German artillery outranged French 75 guns during the Battle of the Frontiers

A German 5.9 inch howitzer. German artillery outranged French 75 guns during the Battle of the Frontiers

The Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet has been a major source of prewar tension, but naval surface ships will swiftly prove marginal to this conflict, for the grand battle of armadas never comes to a decision. One of the great ironies of 1914 is that the weapons which can be said to have most caused the war are not those which will actually shape its character, much less its outcome.

French 75 millimeter gun crews

French 75 millimeter gun crews. Note the artillery spotter on the raised tripod

All combatants maintain cavalry forces throughout the war in hopes of exploiting a breakthrough that never happens. Indeed, the best use their armies make of horses is as draft animals, pulling kitchens and ambulances as well as guns and limbers. Though motor transport technology will become an important part of military doctrine in the years to come, this is very much a horse-powered war.