Throughout the ages, winter has proven one of the most difficult times of the year to launch successful, large-scale military operations; the need for units trained in winter warfare is critical. Yet the first month of the Great War in 1915 was dominated by several major offensives, particularly in eastern Europe.
Here are 4 important events of World War One in January 1915.
1. Austria-Hungary’s Carpathian Offensive
In January the Russians launched an offensive through the Uszok Pass in the Carpathian Mountains. This brought them dangerously close to Austria-Hungary’s eastern border and reports were circulating of people fleeing Hungarian border towns in anticipation of the Russian invasion.
The Austro-Hungarian army was barely in a position to offer resistance. Not only had it suffered huge losses in 1914, but these had involved an unusually high incidence of officers being killed.
Consequently the Austrian army in 1915 lacked stable leadership, was comprised of inexperienced recruits, was untrained in winter warfare and was numerically inferior to the colossal army of the Russian Empire. Any attack in such a position was liable to incur huge casualties for Austria-Hungary.
Defying all of these limitations, chief-of-staff Conrad von Hötzendorf began a counter offensive in the Carpathians. He was driven to this by three factors.
Firstly, the Russians would be within striking distance of Hungary if they were victorious in the Carpathians, which could swiftly lead to the fall of the Empire.
Secondly, the Austrians still had not broken the siege at Przemyśl and needed a victory over Russia somewhere to make that happen.
Lastly, Italy and Romania were then inclined to join the war on Russia’s side – so Austria needed a show of force to discourage them from declaring war.
2. Ottoman army annihilated at Sarıkamış
In the Caucasus, Enver Pasha’s catastrophic attack on the Russian-held town of Sarıkamış – which began in December 1914 – continued with no signs of improvement. Ottoman troops were dying by the tens of thousands, partly from the Russian defenders but mainly due to the inhospitable Caucasian winter.
On 7 January Enver Pasha abandoned the battle to return to Istanbul.
After Enver Pasha’s return on 7 January, the rest of the Ottoman Army began to withdraw to Erzum and had finally vacated the area around Sarıkamış by 17 January. Historians are divided on the exact figure for Ottoman casualties, but it has been suggested that of an initial force of 95,000 only 18,000 remained at the end of the battle.
3. Britain looks to the Dardanelles
At a meeting in Britain, Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener proposed an attack on the Dardanelles. This, he hoped, would bring them closer to knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war.
Furthermore if Britain could establish control there they would have a route to contact their Russians allies and would in the process free up shipping in the Black Sea again.
There was a possibility too that an Allied presence in the region would bring in Greece, Romania and Bulgaria into the war on the British side, and even that the British could advance from the Dardanelles into the Black Sea and up the Danube River – to strike at the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
4. Bolsheviks contact German officials
In the face of continuing uncertainty about their overall goals, Germany began investigating alternative approaches to the war.
In Istanbul Alexander Helphand, a wealthy supporter of the Bolsheviks in Russia, became acquainted with the German Ambassador and made the case that the German Empire and the Bolsheviks had a common goal in the overthrowing the Tsar and dividing up his empire.
These discussions were only in their early stages but in the course of the war the German Empire did engage with Russian Bolshevism – even funding Lenin in his exile in order to undermine the Russians in the war.