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.

No comments:

Post a Comment