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Major land, sea, air offensives during the first half of 1915

During the period from January to June 1915, offensives on the western and the eastern fronts were launched by both the Allies and the Central Powers. At the same time the Gallipoli Campaign was being fought in the eastern Mediterranean. Naval warfare was being fought in the Mediterranean, North Sea and the North Atlantic. By mid-May, Italy joined the Allies and a new front was opened between northern Italy and Austro-Hungarian frontiers.

Although Malta was not being attacked, about 20,000 Maltese service personnel volunteered to serve with the British Empire forces overseas. In his book Malta during the First World War 1914-1918 Anthony Zarb-Dimech says that on January 14, 1915, one such Maltese unit, the King’s Own Malta Regiment of Militia (KOMRM), had volunteered for foreign service and the First Battalion and a detachment of the Second Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Sciortino, sailed for Cyprus on garrison duties. A number of officers and men even volunteered for service in Gallipoli and Salonika, while several officers served at the western front and other theatres with British regiments.

Apart from these Maltese troops, two Royal Malta Artillery (RMA) subalterns together with 12 Maltese officers of the KOMRM and 1,000 men of the Maltese Labour Corps under the command of Major Aspinal, were sent to the Dardanelles. In the same year a number of other ranks responded to a call for volunteers by the Royal Navy Ordnance Depot at HM Dockyard.

During the Second Battle of Ypres from April 22 to May 25, 1915, the Germans used poison gas for the first time on the western front

In the meantime, in continental Europe, in December 1914 the French launched the First Champagne Offensive, their first offensive against the entrenched defences of the German front in the Champagne region, which lasted from December 10, 1914, to March 17, 1915. Allied attacks were also carried out against the German front from the Yser sector in the Belgian coastal region to the Woeuvre heights, south of Verdun.

Another offensive launched by the Allies, called the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, which lasted from March 10 to 13, 1915, was aimed at capturing the high ground of the Aubers Ridge, to create a threat to the German army occupying the city of Lille. Although the British broke through the German front line and captured the village of Neuve Chapelle, the German Sixth Army carried out counter-attacks and the British attack was halted from advancing any further.

During the Second Battle of Ypres, which lasted from April 22 to May 25, 1915, the Germans used poison gas for the first time on the western front. As the German Fourth Army attacked French positions around Ypres in northern Belgium, the former released chlorine gas from over 5,000 cylinders, forming poisonous green clouds which drifted towards two French African divisions. Lacking any protection, the French quickly retreated. Although this created a five-mile-wide gap in the Allied lines, the Germans failed to capitalise due to a lack of reserve troops and cautious frontline troops hesitant to venture too close to the gas clouds.

A strong German trench with reinforcements on the western front.A strong German trench with reinforcements on the western front.

British and Canadians then plugged the gap but were unable to regain any ground taken by the Germans. The British then withdrew to a second line of defence, leaving Ypres in Allied hands but virtually surrounded. The Second Battle of Ypres actually consisted of four battles starting with the Germans’ surprise gas attack, which were the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge, the Battle of St Julien, the Battle of Frezenburg Ridge and the Battle of Bellewarde Ridge. During the Second Battle of Ypres, about 58,000 Allies and 38,000 Germans were killed.

Roland Garros became the world’s first pilot to destroy an enemy plane using a fixed, forward-firing machine-gun in his Morane Type L parasol monoplane. With steel deflector wedges bolted to the propeller blades to deflect bullets that would otherwise damage them, Garros shot down an Aviatik over the western front on April 1, 1915. Two more victories over German aircraft were achieved on April 15 and 18.

On January 19, 1915, the Germans carried out their first Zeppelin raid against Britain, killing two and injuring 16 people. These air raids continued at a rate of about two per month. The German Admiralty then asked for permission to bomb London, which the Kaiser only granted after a series of raids by French bombers on German cities. On May 31, the first air raid was carried out against London, killing seven and injuring 35 people.

Examples of protection against poison gas used by British troops in May 1915.Examples of protection against poison gas used by British troops in May 1915.

In May the Allies carried out an offensive north of Arras towards Lille. This was the Second Battle of Artois, which was fought from May 9 to June 18 with the aim of pushing the Germans off the dominating high ground of the Loretto and Vimy ridges north of Arras. British attacks on the German line took place a little further north on the flat Flanders plain at Aubers Ridge and Festubert.

Meanwhile, on February 4, Germany declared the waters around Britain to be a war zone in which ships could be sunk without warning. In March, the Royal Navy imposed a sea blockade on Germany, prohibiting all shipping imports, including food.

One particularly heavy Allied loss was the sinking of RMS Lusitania. On April 30, the British Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania was at New York, being loaded with meat, medical supplies, copper, cheese, oil and machinery, but she was also being secretly loaded with munitions for Britain.

On May 1, the RMS Lusitania embarked 1,257 passengers, plus a crew of 702. At 2.10pm a torpedo fired by U-20 slammed into her side. A mysterious second explosion ripped the liner apart. The ship listed so badly and quickly that lifeboats crashed into passengers crowded on deck, or dumped their loads into the water. Within 18 minutes the ocean liner slipped beneath the sea.

Different sources did not agree on how many people lost their life or survived. One source said 1,119 out of the 1,924 aboard died. The dead included 114 Americans. Another source said 1,201 people, including 128 Americans, lost their life, leaving 761 survivors, who were picked up by boats from Queenstown, Ireland.

One particularly heavy Allied loss was the sinking of RMS Lusitania. On May 1, a torpedo fired by U-20 slammed into her side. One source said 1,119 out of the 1,924 aboard died

In the Mediterranean, German and Austro-Hungarian U-boats, operating from their Adriatic base at Pola and later from Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire, sank a substantial number of Allied ships. Enemy submarines were even sighted and sank Allied ships off the Maltese coast.

In his book Guns and Gunners of Malta, Denis Rollo says that due to sighting of suspected enemy submarines off Malta, in March 1915 the Admiralty ordered that any submarine sighted within four miles of the coast, except between Grand Harbour and Marsaxlokk, was to be regarded as hostile.

On May 11, a submarine was sighted off Żonqor Point but the target was out of the range of the guns at Fort Leonardo. Four days later a submarine was seen in Mellieħa Bay but not within sight of guns. At the beginning of the war the island’s northern bays were undefended, so a new battery was hastily constructed at Wardija, overlooking St Paul’s Bay, and armed with two six-inch guns, which were dismantled from Wolseley Battery at Delimara.

In the meantime, on May 23, Italy entered the war on the Allied side, and declared war on Austria-Hungary. The Italians launched offensives along the 400-mile common border between Austria-Hungary and Italy. But the Austro- Hungarians were better equipped, where they took advantage of the mountainous terrain and established strong defensive positions all along the border. The Italians then focused their attacks on the mountain passes at Trentino and the valley of the Isonzo River. The First Battle of Isonzo started on June 23 when Italian troops started attacking Austro-Hungarian defences. Although initially the Italians made some gains, they were soon repulsed by the Austro-Hungarians with heavy casualties for both sides. Three additional battles are fought through the end of 1915 with similar results.

Poison gas was used for the first time on the eastern front. On January 31, the Germans fired 18,000 gas shells on the Russian positions west of Warsaw, Poland. However, they had little effect on the Russians as frigid temperatures prevented the gas from vaporising. Between February 7 and 22, the German Eighth and 10th armies waged a successful offensive against the Russian 10th Army in the Masurian Lakes, east Prussia, pushing the Russians eastward into the Augustow Forest where they were decimated. On March 22, the Russians captured 120,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers at Przemysl in Galicia.

On May 2, a combined Austro-Hungarian/German offensive began against the Russian Third Army at Tarnow and Gorlice in Galicia. The attack was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment with over 700,000 shells. This broke down the defences of the weakened Russians who suffered from shortages of artillery shells and rifles. Within two days, the Austro-Hungarian and German armies broke through the lines and the Russians began a disorganised retreat. After pausing to regroup, on June 12, 1915, Austro-Hungarian and German troops resumed their offensive in Galicia. Within five days, they broke through the Russian lines and pushed the Russian Third and Eighth armies further eastward.

The beginning of July 1915 would see more action on both the eastern and western fronts.

Charles Debono is curator, National War Museum.

(Concluded)

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