The Aisne, 12th to 15th September 1914 Part 2


External Circumstances

Political tension had been building up within Europe over the four decades since the stunning victory over France by the Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, a revenge for the famous Napoleonic victories at Jena and Auerstadt in 1806. The seizure of Alsace and Lorraine by the now Greater German Empire preyed on French minds and set the good reason for France to seek to recover these provinces. The growing economic strength of Germany as the result of successful industrialisation coupled to their now large poulation (by European nations’ standards) meant that Germany wished to gain a position of authority not only in continental Europe but globally. The acquisition of overseas colonies (taking what was left after British and French colonisation in particular) and the building of a large battle fleet were symbols of their determination to have their power internationally recognised.

After the creation of Belgium and the British guarantee of its independence in 1839, should Belgium appear to be threatened, treaty obligations were likely to draw Great Britain into any conflict between Germany and France which involved fighting on Belgian territory. Thus in August 1914, the small British Expeditionary Force was permitted by France to position itself to the west of the northern French armies so should an invasion of Belgium occur, the BEF could come to the aid of the Belgian Army.

On August the 4th, German troops invaded Belgium and the BEF moved forward to meet them at Mons. The battle on the Aisne a month later was a direct consequence of the German assault upon Belgium and France as set out in the German war plan known as the Schlieffen Plan. The failure of the French Plan XVII meant defeat at the Battle of the Frontiers followed by a fighting retreat of the French Army and the BEF to south of the river Marne. Following their unexpected defeat at the Battle of the Marne, the German forces were disorganised and had to conduct a strategic withdrawal to geographical positions of potential military strength and settled on the Chemin des Dames heights north of the river Aisne.


Selection of the Assault Units

The battle was fought by the professional Regular soldiers of the BEF. They were highly trained in rifle markmanship (fifteen aimed bullets a minute). Leadership was outstanding. Their offensive tactics had been developed under the conditions of colonial warfare; charging with the bayonet at the enemy whilst aimed rifle fire forced them to shelter. Meanwhile 18-pounder field guns brought into action by teams of horses covered the sheltering enemy with shrapnel fire which rained down bullets on them from above.

Heavy cannon in the form of a few old pattern 6-inch howitzers only became available towards the end of the battle in time to help consolidate the positions gained by the advancing troops.


Methods of Assault Adopted

The assaults during the battle were based on the above traditional methods as last used in the Second Boer War. The vulnerability of troops to machine-gun fire charging across open ground was largely ignored because native and irregular forces rarely had machine-guns. The lessons of the Russo-Japanese War and Boer sharp-shooters were deliberately ignored by the British military tacticians until after the casualty rates at Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, and Loos caused by the German Maxim machine-guns were experienced.


The Rival’s Reaction

Unfortunately the Germans had manufactured modern heavy cannons with shells of size far in excess of the Royal Field Artillery’s 18-pounders. These shells were high explosive capable of destroying field fortifications which had become common in the American Civil War and in sieges such as Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War. German artillery fire was thus able to pulverise the British troops as they lay in their flimsy shelters. Meanwhile because the German soldiers were skilful in using their entrenching tools, they soon created shelters to protect themselves from shrapnel fire yet from which they were able to fire upon the advancing British soldiers.

With three times the ratio of machine-guns to rifles, the Germans were also able to lay down an intensive curtain of fire far greater than could be sustained by the British machine-gunners. One machine-gun’s fire was equivalent to that of 40 rifles being fired by trained musketeers.


The Lessons of the Aisne

The Aisne showed that technological advances in equipment and processes by competitive rivals must be continually monitored to avoid becoming uncompetitive. Leadership without the support of the appropriate resources is heroic but wasteful, such as charging machine-guns without adequate supporting fire to distract or destroy the machine-gunners. Once a disadvantageous situation is recognised, it is far better to consolidate the gains made, or withdraw to safer ground if not possible, than lose resources which may never be so abundant again. Furthermore, before committing all resources to an operation, especially of technical expertise, it is sensible to retain some to rebuild the operating capabilities of the organization in the event of disaster. By 1916 some 10% of the troops were kept behind when a battalion went into action to serve as its nucleus when it was rebuilt later.

The significance of this is seen in the consequences of the casualties sustained during the battle and the rest of 1914. The loss of so many outstanding officers had a significant lasting effect on the human resourcing of the British war effort, especially in 1916. During the Great War, 27% of officers were killed on the Western Front compared to 12% of men. The quantity of knowledge of how to become a military professional soldier was so reduced that when the soldiers of the New Armies were trained, the training was often poor because the training officers had to be brought out of retirement and their knowledge was obsolete. Hence the tactics of marching in line at a steady pace towards the enemy, so disastrous for the 21st and 24th Divisions at Loos and on the 1st of July 1916, was dictated by the limited training (in terms of transfering professional expertise) the Derby volunteer civilians received.


Rating the Quality of the Operation

Rating the performance on the analysis of 34 questions utilising the Likert Scale, the deviation from the neutral level of performance was found to be favourable by 3.9%. The performance was close to be a normal distribution but with a pronounced peak. This demonstrates that the BEF performed at the standard expected of them although the circumstances they faced were beyond their professional experiences in colonial policing and maintaining the security of the colonies. Nevertheless the survivors knew that they had done marvellously well to halt the German Field Army and for the rest of their lives were proud to be known as the Old Contemptibles.


Views of the Battlefield

The Aisne valley seen from Passy village

The Aisne valley from the village of Paissy towards the slopes up which British soldiers fought in the September of 1914. 35mm photograph taken July 1994.

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The region is riddled with underground caves, here is one at Paissy which is still used for storage by the farmers. 35mm photograph taken July 1994.

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The Chemin des Dames road running along the ridge above the Aisne valley; the view towards Cerny-en-Laonnois from the Caverne du Dragon. 35mm photograph taken July 1994.

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A German 105mm light field howitzer model 1916 cannon, probably manufactured by Krupp, by the entrance to the Caverne du Dragon showing the Aisne valley in the background, the scene of bitter fighting from 1914 to 1918. 35mm photograph taken July 1994.