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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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