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First Battle Of The Aisne

Thanks to the Great War channel on youtube, I discovered that I missed a battle in my attempt to chronologically cover WWI. Apparently, WWI timelines and don’t cover every single battle. Too bad. And on that note, don’t be surprised if I find others that I missed, I still have a month to go before I’m caught up.

Anyways, better late than never.

The first battle of Aisne took place from September 13 to September 28. It was a follow up offensive after the first battle of the Marne. It was also the beginning of trench warfare.

After being defeated at the first battle of the Marne on September 11th, German Chief of General Staff, Hermuth von Moltke, “issued orders to retreat to the line of the Aisne and to fortify the high ground north of the river” (Source). The battle of the Aisne began the next evening.

The two battles came so close together because the Allies did not properly exploit their win at the Marne by continuing to attack the German First and Second armies as they retreated. Additionally, the Allied retreat was extremely slow due mostly to fatigue and caution.

At this stage, the British were still heavily dependent on the Royal Flying Corps for reconnaissance. However, throughout September 10 & 11, the low clouds and mist “severely hindered aerial reconnaissance” (Source). This made it extraordinarily difficult for the Allies to know exactly where the Germans were or what they were up to.

[Below: British BE2 Biplane]

The Germans, for their own part, intended “to halt their retreat at the Aisne” (Source). Thus, the 1st and 2nd German armies, joined by the 7th army, entrenched themselves along the north bank of the Aisne. This bank, known as the Chemin des Dames Ridge, provided them with the perfect defensive position. Reconnaissance also showed German troops moving east from Soissons. It was apparent that these troops were intending to join the German troops currently opposing BEF crossing of the Aisne.

By the evening of the 12th, the 1st and 2nd German armies and completely finished their retreat and were now getting into formation to defend the Aisne against the Allies. The Germans, fully practiced at “entrenching maneuvers,” were quick at digging themselves in – Alexander von Kluck’s 1st Army to the west and Karl von Bülow’s second to the east (Source).

With help from the French Fifth and Sixth Armies (under General d’Esperey and General Maunoury, respectively), the British launched a frontal infanty attack on September 13th. Their assault continued on into the 14th, after establishing a bridgehead to the north of the river. This point allowed them to shoot the Germans from above.

Until, that is, the German counter-attacked forced them back. Well, initially, “General Allenby’s Cavalry Division began an attack on the BEF’s right against the German positions along the Aisne in the area of Villers and Bourg, but found that all the bridges across the Aisne, as opposed to the canal, were destroyed” (Source).

The Germans accomplished this through the use of machine gun fire, just one of the many areas of warfare that Germany could claim superiority. “Small advances were achieved by the Allies, but these could not be consolidated” (Source). Their positions were held . . . until help came to the Allies in the from of the 1st Division of the BEF’s I Corps. They assisted in the crossing of the Aisne at Bourg, where the Allies took up positions along the north edge of the river.

What resulted was, essentially, each side trying to outflank the other, while making sure that their opponents stayed in place. Of course, it probably helped that, thanks to the battle, any number of the bridges were destroyed. Remember, that both sides were already partaking in the Race for the Sea and the longer the armies stayed put, well, the longer it would take them to bring help to those further along.  However, this would not be the last battle at the Aisne.

[Below: Demolished bridge at Bourg]

The demolished bridge at Bourg (photo by Captain Harry Baird, ADC to General Haig): Battle of the Aisne, 10th to 13th September 1914 in the First World War

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The First Battle of Marne


Thus far in the war, the Germans had been making great progress in their advancement. They had already successfully invaded Belgium and north-eastern France, beating back the Allied forces of France, Belgium, and England with relative ease. Their next mark was Paris.

Meanwhile, the Allied forces had been busy rapidly retreating under the command of French Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre. But, it was time for the Allies to stop retreating and take the offensive. They were, after all, now in a fortified barrier.

The German 1st Army, under Gen. von Kluck, had changed plans and, instead of swinging southwest towards Paris, had instead decided to swing north, creating a 30-mile gap between him and Gen. von Bülow’s 2nd Army. This took them straight through the valley of the River Marne. General von Kluck was forced to halt.

Gen. Joffre already expected this maneuver, thanks to “air reconnaissance and radio intercepts, the first time either had been used in major conflict” (Source). With this information, he “decisively ordered his whole left wing to turn about from their retreat and to begin a general offensive against the Germans’ exposed right flank” (Source). The offensive was due to begin on September 6th.

But, on the fifth, the French 5th Army, under the direction of M.J. Maunoury, began attacking the Germany 1st Army’s right flank. They were joined by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French 6th Army, and even more members of the 5th.

[Below: The BEF attacked between the German 1st & 2nd Armies]

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But this wasn’t nearly the manpower they needed to defeat the German 1st Army. It seemed that the Germans would out-power them, when they were saved by more of Maunoury’s men. Actually, Maunoury’s troops, racing to the front in “requisitioned Paris taxis and buses – the first extensive use of motorized transport in wartime and forever celebrated as the ‘taxis of the Marne,’” actually ran into a surprised von Kluck. (Source).

The next day (Sep 8), news began to arrive of another source of help. Here, the BEF “was advancing into the gap between [Karl von Bülow’s] 2nd Army and von Kluck” (Source). Gen. von Bülow ordered a halt, allowing von Kluck to do the same.

That night, French commander Gen. Franchet d’Esperey’s 5th Army landed a surprise attack against von Bülow’s 2nd army, widening the gap between the two German armies even more. (D’Espery had recently replaced the overly cautious General Lanrezac as commander of the 5th). On top of this, the Ferdinand Foch’s 9th Army, located in the St.-Gond marshes, played a strategic role in frustrating the Germans with their “tenacious defense” against numerous attempts by the Germans to “dislocate the French thrust by collapsing Joffre’s right wing” (Source).

Finally, on September 9th, German Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, ordered the German armies to begin retreating.

Although it was slow, the Allies pursued the retreating Germans through the 13th, forcing them to give up 45 miles. The Germans ceased near the north point of the River Aisne. Here, the exhausted Germans dug new trenches, awaiting further orders.

The First Battle of the Marne was a “strategic triumph,” (Source). The Allies had successfully driven back the Germans and recaptured lost ground. They had also successfully driven away any of the German’s false hopes of an easy and early victory on the Western Front. The Allies were definitely a force to be reckoned with.

But, that price was high. French losses totaled some 250,000, and it is estimated that the Germans suffered a similar number of losses. The BEF suffered a loss of a recorded 12,733 lives.

[Below: British soldiers in the trenches of Merne]

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Up Next:

Battle of Tannenberg

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The Battle of Mons (1914)

On August 23, 1914, Europe saw its first battle of WWI. This was the “first confrontation on European soil since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815” (Source).

Four divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under the command of Sir John French – as confusing as that is – battled against the German 1st Army “over the 60-foot-wide Mons Canal in Belgium” (Source). This was the last in a series of four battles known as the “Battles of the Frontiers” that took place in the opening days of WWI. Under the command of Gen. Joseph Jeffre, the French fought the first three of these battles in Lorraine, Ardennes, and Charleroi. Initially, the BEF and the French 5th Army were meant to fight together at Charleroi, all under the command of Charles Lanrezac. However, thanks to a delayed start – not to mention poor “relations” between the French and Lanrezac – it ended up as two separate battles at Charleroi and Mons (Source).

The day before the battle, the BEF encountered the German First Army at Soignies. French made immediate plans to attack. His plan was to have his five divisions take defensive positions at Mons Canal.

Even more surprised than French, was German Gen von Kluck. Von Kluck and his 1st Army had just finished battle at Sambre against Lanrezac.

Now remember, The BEF at Soignies comprised of only two corps (each with two infantry divisions) and one cavalry. This totaled some 70,000 troops with a mere 300 guns.

But the Germans? They had four corps and 3 cavalry divisions, comprising of 160,000 men and some 550 guns. It’s quite clear the superiority the Germans held. However, they didn’t make use of this superiority.

Van Kluck had previously been warned not to outflank the BEF because they were meant to meet up with a second Army.

So what did he do?

“On Sunday August 23, as church bells called the faithful to mass, a German cavalry patrol approached the canal: The British opened fire at dim shadows in the dawn mist. The battle of Mons had begun” (Source). German guns returned fire, focusing their aim on the “northernmost point of a salient formed by a loop in a canal,” realizing that the British position by the loop left the vulnerable (Source).

French responded to this artillery attack by deploying his two infantry troops – I Corps commanded by Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien and II Corps commanded by Sir Douglas Haig – “east and west of Mons across a forty kilometer front” (Source). They almost reached reserve French Fifth Army, who were eight miles away. 

[Below: Royal Fusiliers]

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The British underwent six hours of this bombing. But, their precise machine gun fire did do much to, at least, annoy the Germans. The British had one thing on their side, these men were experts.

Then the German infantry began to advance, “as though on parade for the Kaiser in Berlin” (Source). Led by Captain Walter Bloem, the 12th Brandenburg Grenadiers marched out of the woods, only to encounter a set-up of little British fortresses. It was here that they discovered the distinctive sound of machine guns. They had just happened upon the 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Royal West Kents. Turns out, they were the ones responsible for the damage!

At noon, the Germans were joined by more units. On top of more manpower, they’d since learned how to smartly fight the British: they rained “shells from cannons and howitzers” on the heads of their enemies (Source).

Between this change of tactics and their added men, it became clear that the British did not have a fighting chance. They were clearly outnumbered. The Royal Fusiliers at Nimy Bridge had the worst of it. “For two hours Private Sidney Godley single-handedly manned the machine-gun, despite shrapnel in his back and a bullet wound to his head. Both Dease and Godley were awarded the Victoria Cross, the supreme award for valor: the first VCs of the war” (Source).

Eventually, though, the Germans forced their way across the canal. The British were pushed further and further back, digging shallow trenches or firing through “loopholes” in walls; they stared up their fire again.

Then, to their great surprise, at 8 pm, the Germans called for a cease-fire.

Meanwhile, French received news of General Lanrezac and the Fifth Army’s retreat at Charleroi. This left the British in complete danger of German envelopment. Thus, French had no choice but to call for the retreat of his own men.

But, that evening von Kluck resumed the offensive. Realizing the true strength of the German First Army, French called for further retreat of Smith-Dorrien and Haig.

Moral plummeted with their retreat. Food, water, and rest were all in short supply. Many soldiers slept as they marched. “More field guns were abandoned than at any time since the War of Independence in America” (Source). Worse yet, some units even lost all sense of  unity and reason. “One officer was so spooked, he started firing his revolver at imaginary Germans in the street” (Source). All of this, and more, was the fault of their commander, Sir John French, and man wholly unfit to command.

While the British may have retreated, they still managed to hold back the Germans for an entire day. Back home, the battle reached mythic proportions, painting the lost lives as heroes. Over time, their loss became more of a victory. The truth, though, was that the battle only gave the Germans more confidence as they carried on their advance through Belgium. Before long, they would hold control over the industrial control of both nations: coal, iron ore, factories, railroads, and rivers.

Losses: British 1,600 casualties

German anywhere from 2,000-5,000 casualties (depending on who is estimating).

[Below: British in trenches]

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Up Next: First Battle of the Marne

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