May 1915 dawned with mud still prevalent in the Alps and Italy entering the war on the side of the Entente while economies on both sides chugged along. Both the Entente and Central Powers economies produced equipment and munitions at historical rates, despite the considerably less than historical German advance into France in this war. The equipment stockpiles of both sides are inadequate, but the Entente enjoys a much more dramatic deficit between reality and potential – especially given Italy’s pathetic state – and unlike the Central Powers the Entente is seriously short of munitions too. Coal mines at Leige and Namur began producing coal in useful quantities in May, which will buff the Central Powers economic strength during upcoming production cycles. The Entente also cannot match the tremendous flow of German manpower to the front and has only managed to survive so far by expending field artillery units and suffering casualties preferentially in French elite units, the on-map availability of both of which is suffering noticeably and loss rates of which cannot be sustained for long.
Concrete measures on both sides revitalized the field armies for an active beginning to a long, bloody summer. German forces refilled two Prussian cadres, a Bavarian cadre, and a Prussian remnant to full strength. French forces refilled two cadres, increased an artillery battalion to regimental size, and replaced two artillery regiments, consuming almost the entire limit for monthly artillery and light troops. The Italian Army drew upon Entente equipment stockpiles for numerous upgrades to rifle divisions as well as a scattering of rifle brigades and Bersagliari regiments and the lone rail engineer regiment.
Early May in Flanders brought another abortive British offensive, as the British Expeditionary Force felt its growing power. Various unsupported divisions moved to backstop another thirty miles of the French front line, leaving the British in charge of fifty miles of front and easily double that of rear. London directed a reversal of its previous reversal of the plan to form an army in Italy, moving a headquarters, three rifle divisions, and a couple of regiments almost to Venice by rail and sending all three British cavalry divisions that way by hoof. This would not be enough for a British offensive out of Italy, but it would certainly free Italian forces from second-line duties. More immediately, the British once again poised for an attack in Belgium; this time they cancelled it after both recon aircraft failed their missions: munitions and replacements are too scarce to commit to a mere 2.9:1 without the verifiable benefit of aerial observation.
Italian forces, in early May, acted as if frozen in place by the immensity of their mobilization, but plans grew swiftly back in Rome for a sweeping offensive through the Alps. The Austro-Hungarian Army is grossly insufficient to even screen the long frontier, though it is as good unit-for-unit as the French and thus considerably better than the Italians. Starting A-H forces are barely noticeable, regular reinforcements are thin, and conditional reinforcement for when Italy goes to war do not begin to make up the difference. It is difficult to imagine how the A-H’s can avoid a calamitous defeat, albeit one delivered in slow motion, as the Italians ooze through the mountains and eventually go around the flank of the Isonzo River line without ever having to bother attacking across the river the hard way. It may be fortunate for the Central Powers that the vast bulk of Austro-Hungary is off-map and invulnerable and that any Italian army debauching into Bavaria through the Alps would be easy prey for the unimaginably superior German military.
Of course, the Germans can hold back the Italians another way – and they exercise their option to immediately declare war as a prelude to the arrival of German forces in Austria. The Italians will be able to ooze into the mountains, but they will never ooze out the other end of the passes if the Germans commit even a couple of corps against them. If the Germans forgo some offensive potential against the French, they might clear the north bank of the Po River by autumn.
The French Army continued in early May its manful effort to exhaust the Germans in a series of pounding matches in the Ardennes Forest. This time the blow fell in the previously “safe” sector of the forest line, where hills made the woodlands even less attractive to an attacker. The French actually botched a good bit of the attack, immolating a pair of engineer regiments and having another pair, flame reinforced, fail in their attacks. Observation planes contributed well, however, as did the brand-new gas engineers, so that the morale advantage carried through the 4.7:1 attack as a defender loss result. German forces completely eliminated 12-14-5 rifle divisions to cover the retreat of specialist units, including the so far useless gas engineers, who failed their craft yet again. French forces eliminated 5*-7-6 African cadre and 2x 1-5 eng regiments A variety of French units then advanced into the hex, almost all to become disorganized in the still contested hex.
German reaction to this unexpected breach in their line was disappointing, to Berlin. Both armies nearest Switzerland activated, shifting a few forces toward Austria and more forces toward the Ardennes. An army in northern Belgium also activated, doing the same. Armies aimed toward Paris failed to activate and, most disappointingly, so did a pair of armies that attempted to coordinate a counterattack against the new French salient.
Entente exploitation came and went with little fanfare, except around the new French salient into German lines in the Ardennes. There, almost all of the French units pulled back out of the position, leaving only a mountain division, a disorganized rifle division, and a field artillery regiment to defend the very solid position. The Germans, with four hexes around the salient, could mass 6:1 against any possible French force, so the French opted to attempt to hold the hex through finesse rather than mass.
Central Powers Turn
The Central Powers’ half of early May began with a huge effort to prepare for imminent carnage. German depots dispatched replacements to rebuild six cadres into divisions and to replace three jaeger regiments, an engineer regiment, a Saxon cadre, and two field artillery regiments. This colossal effort accomplished three things, each of them potentially more important than it might appear at first glance. First, this quantity of rejuvenation greatly strengthened the German armies on the front, enabling a counterattack in the Ardennes that could easily result in an attacker quartered result without consequently opening the way for an actual, clean French break through the resulting German weakness. Second, in refilling so many cadres with riflemen the Germans both decreased their own striking power by removing a great deal of divisional artillery from the non-divisional unit lists and increased their own defensive power by placing many of their best remaining divisions – which had made the best cadres – back onto divisional duty alongside the many lesser-quality formations that sprang from the April reorganization of many divisions to a four regiment structure. Third, perhaps most important but certainly most nebulous, seeing the Germans plump 80 percent of their Prussian infantry replacements in one phase gave the Entente dramatic evidence that their offensives actually were making a difference. If the Prussians burned through a hundred infantry in one phase, their savings plus two-thirds of new production, and the other states and the general equipment pool both made large proportional expenditures at the same time, and if the effort could not be afforded again – which it could not before July – then the Entente might really be able to exhaust the German armies at the front through a continuous series of attritional attacks over the course of the summer.
The idea that Entente offensives might bleed the Germans to death without winning a geographic victory seems obvious from a historical viewpoint, but is by no means so clear when immersed in the game experience for the first time. Given relatively anemic Entente replacement rates, it is hard to see how the Entente can actually accomplish that goal, especially when most battles result in larger Entente than German losses. Looking ahead, the French Army is going to get offensively weaker without much regard to events at the front, though its defensive strength per regiment should get better. The British still cannot form even half a corps of elite troops and have even worse replacement rates than the French, though at least the trickle of reinforcing divisions are, on a one-to-one bases, almost as good as German second-line units; the long-term prospect for the British seems dim. The Italians are a pathetic joke, stacking up evenly only against the absolute worst German formations. It seems most likely that if the Entente is going to win the war, it will be through hunger; the Germans did not secure the Gent granary and should thus go into starvation sooner than was historical. To that end, the Entente can probably best directly contribute by continuing to pound in well-chosen, advantageous attacks rather than on broader-front, less advantageous attacks that would bleed the Entente dramatically more severely than they would the Germans. The problem with that plan is that it might easily not inflict enough damage on the Germans by early 1918 to prevent a last-gasp German maneuver victory when infantry enter the battlefield. Without whole campaign experience to draw upon, we cannot predict how this will end – and that might be a good thing if we could not also look ahead and see mandatory evolutions in the strategic situation and battlefield tactics.
Be that as it may, the men in Berlin took the decision that the French salient in the Ardennes Forest had to be counterattacked immediately. If the French were allowed to hold the region uncontested, the German line would be made thirty miles longer and have the vulnerability of thirty more miles dramatically amplified. With the requirement for a German army in Austria, a failed counterattack would be cheaper than a permanent extension of the line. French weakness in the salient allowed the Germans to bring against it a force composed solely of divisions and of precisely the strength to achieve 6:1 odds, further minimizing the downside risk of the move.
The German attack succeeded almost as well as possible despite formidable difficulties. Wooded rough terrain, the disputed nature of the hex, French morale superiority, and French elite troops began the competition with a negative five modifier to the German chance for success. Falkenhayn, from his headquarters facing Verdun, could not influence all sixty miles of frontage around the salient and was thus impotent. German gas engineers maintained their perfect record of failing to usefully impact battles. Engineer attacks were impossible, as the local entrenchments were not broadly controlled by either side. Only observation aircraft assisted the attack in useful fashion. The Germans having spent munitions to ensure good odds, the French did not, saving the stockpile at no measurable penalty in combat. The German roll of 4 resulted in a retreat result, which converted to a full exchange after which two French cadres were destroyed by zones of control. French losses: 10-13-5 rifle XX, 13-16-7 mtn lt XX, 4-5-5 fld art III German losses: 18-20-6 BAV XX and 16-18-5 PR XX reduced to cadres German forces advanced into the still disputed hex in great quantity, and most duly became disorganized in so doing, but their overall strength was so great that the Entente could not plausibly attack again into the region – the disputed hex and lack of ability to use engineers, or during reaction phase any aircraft ensured the absence of immediate French response.
In counterpoise to this affront against probability, the Entente was willing to attack in several locations during reaction phase, but only one of twelve armies activated successfully. Oddly, the lone activation among Entente armies was B8L, one of two armies poking busily at the German lines in the Ardennes. With the previous battlefield too unfavorable, and with German forces having been sucked toward the center, B8L directed an attack against the southernmost tip of Belgium as a way to further batter German defenses. French forces, including most of the higher quality formations sliding inland along the line, struck against a slight bulge in the German line along a forty mile front. Both sides spent munitions prolifically and Falkenhayn was active and effective, besides woodlands and entrenchments both hindering the attack and preventing reserve commitment. The French counter to all of this, ground support bombing, contributed little after the bombers went fleeing accurate German machinegun fire. French engineers, one brigade with flamethrowers, continued their dismal recent record with another failure. The odds, 5.8:1, rolled up to 6:1 – a truly fantastic Entente attack – but the muddled and hurried nature of the attack demonstrated itself again in the result of both exchange. French losses: 2x 10-13-5 rfl XX’s to cadre German losses: 7-10-4 and 9-11-5 rfl XX’s to cadre.
During exploitation, only Germans moved of the Central Powers in the West. Three more formations entered the contested zone of the Ardennes Forest, all becoming disrupted and making the hex even more formidable: fifty defense strength on wooded rough terrain. Otherwise, the Germans merely fixed a few soft spots in their line and continued marching a small corps toward the Austrian Alps.