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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 Siege of Antwerp 

After the Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne, the “Race to the Sea” had begun. Both sides were racing across France and Belgium, digging trenches and looking for the location of the next battle. During this time, the Belgian army, consisting of some 80,000 garrisoned troops, along with “a ring of 48 outer and inner forts” busied themselves by taking up defensive positions along the Yser River (Source). Their job was to distract the Germans.

The first to arrive were the Germans. On October 7, 1914, they bombarded Antwerp.

Now, initially, the Germans had no plans to even go through Antwerp, but all of the troops were proving to make their march through Belgium into France much more difficult. So, being forced to send four different divisions out to repel attacks from Antwerp, on September 9, the German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, sent his men to capture Antwerp.

On September 28, five German divisions, commanded by General Hans von Bessler, began bombing Antwerp’s southeastern corner. The British War Office was alerted, and, fearful that Germany’s capturing of Antwerp might mean a further conquest to take over the Channel ports, decided to send the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) troops in France to Antwerp.

[Below: Belgian Prisoners being marched away]

By October 2nd, word reached the likes of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, that the Belgian forces under siege were planning to evacuate, leaving the city completely defenseless. Immediately, Churchill planned to get word to the Belgians that backup was on it’s way and then crossed the Channel himself.

In Antwerp, Churchill found the Belgians in terrible conditions. He reported back to Britain that “the Belgian troops were ‘weary and disheartened’ and that the city’s ground was so waterlogged that it was impossible for the Belgians to dig trenches for its protection” (Source).

By October 4th, the British had dispatched 6,000 Royal Navy troops. The following day, they sent another 2,000 and an additional 4,000 on the 6th. This on top of a division 22,000 strong that was already en route for Ostend.

“On October 7, before the British 7th Division had even set off, the Belgians transferred their forces from Antwerp to Ostend to continue the fight in open terrain” (Source). On the same day, the German onslaught began. The British were not able to withstand the bombardment.

The next day, Antwerp was evacuated; General Victor Deguise, Antwerp’s military governor, formally surrended to the German army on October 10. “German forces would occupy Antwerp for the duration of the war; it was finally liberated in late 1918” (Source).

Losses: The Allies suffered 30,000 casualties (most of which were captured). It is unknown how many German lives were lost.

[Below: Bombed Antwerp]

Up Next: 

First Battle of Ypres

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