Tuesday, 30 December 2014

The Battle of the Aisne 2

It wasn't clear at this stage to Joffre and the Allies as to whether the Germans were just holding positions on the high ground north of the Aisne, or whether they were digging in for the longer term. He ordered a general advance along the whole western end of the front to test them out. On the 13th and 14th September, the allies made slow but steady progress; on the 15th, fierce German counter attacks repelled them - in some cases back across the Aisne - and then on 16th reinforcements arrived for the BEF in the shape of the 6th Division. On 17th Maunoury attacked again and regained all of his lost ground, and started to move his left to the north to outflank Kluck. By 18th, German reinforcements were in place along most of this part of the front, and the entrenchments began in earnest. However, the Battle of the Aisne, and the second phase of war on the Western front, ended more formally on 
16 October, when (as we shall see) the BEF relinquished its positions to the French 8th army, and set off for the coast and Ypres. 

On the 14th Maunoury carried the line along the river between Compiegne and Soisssons. By evening he was on the plateau and became the first allied commander to appreciate the strength of the German defence awaiting. To the east, the British also ran into strong defence on the Bucy uplands between Vregny and Chivres. Haig’s 1st Corps had the main thrust of the attack. It was ordered to push  four miles to the north to attack the Chemin des Dames, which provided a perfect vantage point, with views north to Laon, and west as far as Verdun.They reached the hamlet of Troyon by around noon, and heavy fighting continued to dusk, by which time the 1st Corps held a line entrenched on the plateau itself, but still short of the Chemin des Dames.

Looking north from the allied trench positions
toward the Chemin des Dames
Further east, the 5th army still made no progress towards the Craonne plateau, and Foch’s 9th army had fallen back on the Suippe until just outside Rheims. The Germans were now on the hills north of the city on the heights of Brimont, and were able to shell the city. The battle resolved itself into an artillery duel that was to last for months, and all but destroyed the Cathedral, but was eventually pushed back out of range of Rheims.
Bombardment of Reims Cathedral
18th September 1914

The focus of attention gradually developed from a complete stalemate across Champagne, to the unfolding siege of Verdun, where Sarrail’s army prepared for an expected major offensive by the Germans. In the event the Germans captured only St. Mihiel to the south of Verdun and north of Toul, but they held it right to the end of the war.
18th September may be taken as the last day of the battle in its strict sense. It marked the end of the allies' attempt to break down the German line by full frontal assault. For the next 3 weeks the forces were too evenly matched to produce anything other than stalemate. Trench warfare began. Sporadic attacks had to be faced, especially at Troyon, and there were many counter-attacks, but trench warfare and endless artillery barrages became established.

Strategically, the allied situation was poor, despite their great victory of the Marne. It had needed the counter offensive to produce more speedy results than the full frontal bludgeon of the Aisne plateau attempts. Accordingly, Joffre changed his strategy, as early as 16 September and resolved to push out Maunoury’s left to envelop if possible Kluck’s right wing, hence the significance of Maunoury’s progress up the Oise towards Noyon. Success here would threaten the whole supply and communications line of the German I and II armies, and would require a retreat of the German right. The German response to this was vigorous, and the outflanking manoeuvres rapidly turned into the race for the sea.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Battle of the Aisne 1

The allies sought to convert success on the Marne into strategic triumph twenty-five miles further north, in a month-long series of clashes which became known as the Battle of the Aisne. The slow-flowing river Aisne lies in a valley, behind which a wooded hill rises steeply for three hundred feet. The largest town is Soissons, famous for its 12th Century cathedral. The north bank has steep hills standing like a wall. Northwards beyond the ridge crest is open farmland, climbing gently, along which runs a road, some twenty-one miles long, famous in French history as Le Chemin des Dames, named for Louis XV’s daughters Adélaïde and Victoire, who drove along it to visit a favourite Countess. The height of the scarp varies from 200 feet, where the the uplands begin in the west above Compiegne, to more than 450 feet thirty miles east in the high bluffs of Craonne. Seven miles east of Soissons, the river Vesle enters the Aisne on the south bank. It flows from the city of Rheims to the WSW, with a valley very similar to the Aisne valley.

The River Aisne runs more or less due west from Soissons, and its tributary
the Vesle runs west-north-west from Rheims to join it near Conde

On 13th September, a month of bloody fighting began, in which the allies strove for a breakthrough on the Chemin des Dames on the plain to the north of the Aisne and its steep banks. However the movement and main tactical encounters occurred principally through the first six days, following which three weeks of entrenchment and stalemate set the tone for much of the next four years. 
On the preceding days the allies followed up their advances from the victory of the Marne, with the armies of Maunoury, the BEF, Foch and Franchet d’Esperay.   The German armies had chosen for their stand, not the line of the Aisne or Vesle, but the crest of the hills beyond it, at an average of two miles north of the stream. It was well chosen – the blindness of the crests made it almost impossible for German trenches to be detected. The heights gave good surveillance to south and west; and eastwards almost to Troyon and Verdun.
Initially however, the German right was vulnerable in its withdrawal, and a large gap remained between Kluck's left and Bulow's right wing. It was due to be filled by reinforcements, the new German VII reserve army, but it had not arrived. If the allies' own reinforcements arrived earlier on 12th rather than 16th September, the allies might have broken through with enormous consequences, but again, an opportunity was lost, and it did not happen. Ironically this is where Joffre had planned his full offensive, believing the Germans to be in full retreat rather than digging in, but the allied advance was just too slow, and they ran into a formidably defended German line. It marked a delaying action that enabled Germany to implement her second plan of campaign following the failure of the Schlieffen plan.

Pontoon bridges were built in order
to cross the Aisne

8th Brigade crossing the Aisne
at Vailly

For the allies, crossing the Aisne in pursuit was a difficult task. Practically all the bridges were down, and since the Aisne is fully 15ft deep, the only means of crossing was to construct pontoons. It took Maunoury some time to capture a German post on the Mont de Paris, south of Soissons, and the British 3rd Corps was at the same task just east of Soissons. Allenby’s cavalry found the Germans occupying Braisne, further east, and drove them north across the river Vesle. By the evening of 12th September the 1st Corp lay between Vauxcerd and Vauxtin, and the 2nd Corps was astride the Vesle between Brenelle to Missy. The (new) 3rd corps was more hard pressed assisting Maunoury south of Soissons and around Buzancy.

The 13th September saw the beginning of the crossing of the Aisne. At Veizel, there was a road bridge, not completely destroyed which allowed the passage of field guns. A pontoon bridge was built alongside and by afternoon the whole of the 6th Division 2nd Corps was able to join other elements of 2nd Corps in attacking German positions at Chivres. Further crossings were made at Missy, enabling occupation of St Marguerite on the north side. At Vailly, scores of French’s men were hit while running the gauntlet of enemy fire as they crossed a plank bridge. At Missy, engineers struggled in darkness into the early hours of 14th September to ferry horses over the river on rafts. At Conde the Germans still occupied the remaining bridge but the 1st and 2nd corps were across, and the cavalry was advancing between Chavonne and Bourg. At Pont d’Arcy, thousands of infantry reached the east bank across another half-demolished bridge, but German shelling continued relentlessly, as did heavy rain, and losses were high.
The Connaught Rangers also crossed at Pont d’Arcy during the night of 13 September and found themselves in the village of Soupir.
In summary, at the end of the 13th,  the BEF had crossed the river at most points allotted to them on a 15 mile front, and had entrenched on the northern slopes.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Christmas Truce 1914

German and British Troops pictured
on Boxing Day 1914 (IWM)
The truce during the War's first Christmas in one of the enduring stories of the war, and has spawned many images. It really happened in parts of the front in Belgium and the extreme north of France. Mostly it was a British German truce - the French were less inclined to fraternise with an army occupying their land. A couple of years ago on a visit to Ypres I came across the unofficial memorial shown below. When I went back this August it was no longer there.

While visiting CWGC cemeteries in March 2013 around Messines ridge and the Ploegsteert Wood, I came upon this by chance on my way back to Ypres. It was on Vaartstraat off the N336 and approx. 5k south of the Menin Gate, between Ypres and Wytschaete.                                                                           

This, allegedly, was the turnip field of No-Man's Land
where the legendary football match occurred

The text reads:

This field had the opposing lines running west to east through it, although the major part of it was No-Man’s Land. At Christmas 1914, men of both armies in this part of the line met here to talk, swap souvenirs and cigarettes and were said to have played a game of football. This impromptu Christmas Truce, frowned upon by British High Command, lasted for a week before the troops returned to the serious business of war. The truce was never recorded north of this area but was enjoyed east of the wood and right down the line into northern France.

Both sides took the opportunity during the cessation of hostilities to recover and bury the dead scattered around No-Man’s Land.

It looks semi-official, and had been there since 1999 apparently.
Strange it had gone by the time of the centenary

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Marne - Part 6.Impact of the battle.

While the Eastern front continued to experience considerable movements through the war, the Marne signalled the start of entrenchment and stalemate for the Western Front. It restored the pride and morale of the Allies, but did not prevent them from making dreadful errors in the coming months and years. It reinforced the authority of Joffre, and created new French military heroes in Foch, Maunoury and Franchet d'Esperey. The German decision to withdraw to the Aisne, effectively made by Hentsch, a junior officer, remains intensely controversial. Many still believe that Moltke’s collapse of nerve denied the Germans a victory that was within their reach. Some of their formations were performing much more effectively than their French opponents; both Foch and Maunoury stood perilously close to defeat. In the end, the French fought the Germans to a standstill. It finished Moltke and prompted a new strategic imperative for Germany.

On 10th September, Moltke informed the Kaiser that Germany had ‘lost the war’, so grievously did he view events at the Marne. Moltke was a broken man, and was relieved of his position by Wilhelm, to be replaced by Erich Falkenhayn. Falkenhayn, who now combined the role of War Minister with that of Commander in Chief, showed no mercy in apportioning blame to Moltke for the Marne, as described by Max Hastings:

He (Moltke) received little sympathy from his peers, and deserves none from history. No man had done more to precipitate the calamity of European war; yet, having got his way, Moltke proved incapable of effectively conducting his nation’s armies. He died in 1916, aged sixty-eight. Falkenhayn was his successor, and noted laconically on taking over command: ‘Schlieffen’s notes are at an end and therewith also Moltke’s wits.’ At this critical moment, it seemed to the leaders of Germany preferable to apportion to individuals responsibility for detailed failures, rather than to acknowledge that the nation’s entire programme for waging war, so confidently set in motion less than two months earlier, had proved a catastrophe for their country and for the world.

Erich von Falkenhayn

The term ‘the miracle of the Marne’ was first coined in December by Maurice Barrès. He described the battle as the ‘eternal French miracle, the miracle of Joan of Arc, the saint and patron of France’. It is hard to overstate the significance of Joffre’s triumph of the will over Moltke in determining the fate of Europe. Moreover, Joffre’s personal contribution was matched by that of the men of his armies, who revealed fortitude at a moment when they might have been forgiven for succumbing to despair. Churchill suggests reports were coming in to German HQ in Luxembourg, ‘as if by a Wall Street ticker during the crash of the Market. The booming hopes of the 3rd were followed by the paper collapse of the 8th'. Hentsch’s reports from every general on the whole 200 miles front, were as bad as feared, prompting orders for  a wholesale retreat to the line of the River Aisne.

Hence the Battle of the Marne finished with the German retreat to the line of the Aisne, where they dug in for the long term, but feared that they had lost the chance to win the war.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Marne - Part 5. The Allies advance

The tide was turning, but the fighting remained ferocious. Foch’s comment, possibly apocryphal, “Hard pressed on my right, my centre is falling back, impossible to move, situation excellent. I attack” is yet another legend of the Battle of the Marne that reflects French courage and heroism in many parts of the front, as they fought to save their country. The inexorable advance of the German military machine had been stopped, and with the gap created between German 1st and 2nd armies, there was a real opportunity for a decisive allied breakthrough, However, by now all parties were exhausted and low on supplies, and the imminent victory of the Marne would not, sadly, prove decisive.

Responding to the changing circumstances, and abandoning his plan to envelop the German right wing via the north west, Joffre now ordered the French armies and the BEF to pursue the retreating Germans in echelon on a northeasterly course, exploiting the gap between Kluck and Bulow's armies. Specifically, Maunoury's Sixth Army was to advance on Soissons, French's BEF on Fismes, Franchet d'Esperey's Fifth Army on Reims, and Foch's Ninth Army on Sommesous and Châlons, making an approximate 50 mile dent in the German's previous line

French Infantry attack
On the morning of 10th September, one of Foch’s divisions spearheaded an attack across the Saint-Gond marshes at La Fère-Champenoise, and encountered no resistance. The Germans had gone. Mondement was reoccupied after gunners manhandled forward two artillery pieces which blasted breaches in the park walls from a range of three hundred yards. When sufficient masonry crumbled to allow the attackers to swarm in, they were amazed to find only dead Germans; there too, the living ones had decamped.  

BEF Cavalry advancing to the Marne

Further to the south east Castelnau counter-attacked, pushing back the Germans several miles and capturing huge supply dumps in Lunéville. The line of the Meurthe was secured, and the city of Nancy saved.
The final desperate German foray was a night bayonet assault on the 10th by almost 100,000 reservists of the Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Fifth Army north of Sainte-Menehould (about 50k to the east of Rheims). Moltke initially approved the operation, then – becoming alarmed about casualties among the besiegers of Nancy – withdrew approval. Wilhelm threatened Moltke with an appeal to his father the Kaiser, and Moltke grudgingly agreed to continue.       
The consequence was a disaster. The attackers failed to achieve a breakthrough, and French artillery, the ‘black butchers’, punished the packed ranks of infantry mercilessly. At 7.45 a.m. the French counter-attacked, driving back the Germans to the north towards the next major topographical barrier, the River Aisne..

Many of Germany’s soldiers were as bewildered and angered by their retreat from the Marne as had been their British counterparts retiring from Mons, less than three weeks earlier. However, the Germans quickly selected the positions at which they would halt and fight again – on high ground behind the Aisne, and troops were dispatched to start digging. By the evening of 13th September, the crisis threatening the armies of Kluck and Bülow had passed: they were safely back across the river, occupying the ridge of the Chemin des Dames.

The pursuit by the allies, and especially by the BEF, was painfully slow. French ammunition stocks were almost exhausted. The troops were too tired, and had suffered too much, to move with the speed that would have been necessary to seize any chance of transforming a French triumph into a German catastrophe. But the high-water-mark of Moltke’s assault in the west had passed. ‘La bataille de la Marne s’achève une victoire incontestable,’ declared Joffre.

As we now know. the 'victoire', miraculous and uncontestable as it was, merely created the circumstances for the following four years of stalemate, attrition and human tragedy.