After a month of retreating across Northern France, the French Armies and the British Expeditionary Force halted beyond the River Marne. In a succession of titanic battles at the frontiers with Germany and Belgium, the French Armies suffered horrendous casualty rates, higher even than at Verdun in 1916. On the 29th of August the last ‘Napoleonic’ attack was made at Guise led by Franchet d’Esperey. The red pantaloons and the shiny officers’ swords had become too easy targets for the German machine-gunners. The French proved it was not ‘chic’ to die wearing white gloves. Even today, at the St. Cyr Military Academy’s museum can be seen on display a pair of these gloves, a memory of the entire Class of 1914 who were commemorated en masse because there were too many individual names to record of the St. Cyr officer cadets of 1914 who died for France.
The BEF also took heavy casualties at Mons, Landracies and Le Cateau. But they also shot down many German infantry and cavalry men with their steady fiften rounds per minute of rifle fire. Thereafter the Germans believed they had been the victims of machine-guns not rifles. After these battles, the BEF retreated in a south-easterly direction across the Somme region and to the east of Paris, periodically facing the following Germans in short, but bloody, engagements such as at Nery. Meanwhile on their right flank, the French had been painfully retreating, continuing to suffer heavy casualties such as at Peronne.
To the amazement of the Germans once over the River Marne, they found themselves facing an advancing enemy both in front and on their right flank, the result of the famous drive of the Paris taxis laden with the French troops of the Garrison of Paris. The French adopted the tactics of attack that the Germans had used so successfully the previous month (which were set out in the French Army’s Field Service Regulations of 1904 but ignored in 1914). Soon the Germans were driven across the treacherous Marshes of St. Girond and retreated northwards to the River Aisne. Once on its northern bank, they began to dig trenches, proving to be very good at using entrenching tools to protect themslves. The advancing BEF then came up against them and so began the First Battle of the Aisne.
Although this battle is little known, it is important as being the first serious attempt by British troops to attack the Germans in defences that the Germans had had time to prepare. However the French had already faced this situation in the August’s Battle of the Frontiers when they had advanced across Lorraine towards Morhange and
their regiments had been shattered. For the British advancing between Soissons and Bourg-et-Comin, they found themselves facing an entrenched enemy sheltering behind the wide river, swollen with rain, whose bridges had been demolished.
The First Battle of the Aisne
The cavalry commander, Douglas Haig, was later criticised for the tardiness of the advance. So by the time the BEF troops reached the Aisne, they faced their foe in trenches which could only be taken by frontal assault because their continuity left no flanks to turn. Although the trench system had not yet the sophistication and depth later prepared on the Somme, around Ypres, and in the Hindenburg Line, nevertheless the new trenches were formidable defences. Furthermore, after crossing the swollen river, the BEF units had to attack up the slopes of the escarpments.
The 12th of September began the three days of attacks to establish footholds beyond the Aisne and to drive the Germans northwards. By means of brilliant bridge building by the engineers under enemy fire and the fortuitous finding that not all bridges had been successfully blown, footholds were established. But only in certain places was
it possible to reach the German trenches and overwhelm their occupants. Machine-gun and artillery fire, coupled with the newly erected barbed wire, meant that too many attacks were repulsed with heavy British casualties. The BEF had a far lower ratio of machine-guns to rifles in their fighting units so were unable to put down enough fire to silence the German machine-guns and keep the German infantry’s heads down below the parapets of their skilfully-built trenches which gave them much protection.
Linked to the paucity of machine-gun fire was the problem of firing the 18-pounder field guns through the thickly-growing trees to hit targets on the Chemin des Dames heights above the Aisne. Furthermore the gun barrels could not be elevated enough for the shells in flight to clear the ridges of the escarpments, hence the rear of the carraiges had to be lowered into specially dug gun pits, difficult to do when the gun crews were under heavy bombardment from the 5.9-inch and 8-inch German cannons brought south after the subjugation of the Belgium and French frontier forts. However the few available old pattern British 6-inch howitzers had not been with the BEF earlier but reached the Aisne in time to help stabilise the front-lines.
On the 15th the BEF Commander, Sir John French, recognising the futility of further attacks, ordered his units to stop attacking. In this he was conforming to the secret directive to minimise the losses of men and equipment. Soon afterwards the surviving troops handed over their positions to French units and entrained for northern France.
Eventually the BEF marched into the Belgium town of Ypres to halt the thrusts of the German army at Gheluvelt to the east of Ypres during what has become known as the Race to the Sea. By the end of First Ypres, the BEF of August 1914 had ‘wasted away’, but the German army was too exhausted to mount new attacks until the next spring.
Strangely German troops did occupy Ypres a week before the BEF arrived but did not stay! Over the next four years, Ypres became a symbol of defiance for the British and her Empire’s troops (particularly Canadian, Australian and New Zealand units) in the same way that Verdun became that symbol for the French. In neither case did the Germans capture these cities despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands of fighting men.
Undoubtedly Sir John French’s decision on the Aisne to act on the directive and conserve troops was correct. By preventing further attacks there, just sufficient numbers of troops were left to halt the increasingly desperate waves of assaults at Ypres. Despite suffering colossal casualties, the still-numerically large German army could not break through to the strategically important French North Sea ports which supplied the BEF from across the English Channel.
The most famous battle on the Aisne took place in April 1917 in what is now known as the Nivelle Offensive, named after the French Commander. The French units suffered appalling losses, partly because of the driving snow. Serious mutinies were triggered leaving France having to take a back-seat for the rest of 1917. German attention had to be diverted to the north so the BEF launched attacks at Messines and later began the battle of Third Ypres, the infamous Passchendaele. During the Kaiser’s Offensive in the spring of 1918, the Third Battle of the Aisne was fought as the Germans again advanced south from the Chemin des Dames to the Vesle river beyond.
These questions can be answered more fully by scanning the many books written about the Great War, some of which are listed in the Readings division.
1. Why did the BEF butt up against the German army at the River Aisne?
2. What limited the effectiveness of the British assaults?
3. What competences were shown by the British troops even though the battle and previous engagements were of limited success?
4. What were the long-term implications of the German army’s defensive system?
5. Explain the strategic significance of Sir John French’s decision.
Visiting the Aisne
Soissons lies midway but to the north of the line between Paris and Rheims. The famous Chemin des Dames meets the road to Laon and driving along it gives superb views over the Aisne valley far below. The steep slopes show clearly why they were such formidable obstacles to the British in 1914 and the French in 1917. Fort de la Malmaison (now
ruined but beside a beautifully maintained German military cemetery) is on the left flank of the British assaults, Caverne du Dragon (where German units sheltered before emerging to crush the French assaults) beyond the right flank. South from Cerny-en-Laonnois is the British cemetery at Vendresse. From there the Aisne at Bourg-en-Comin is soon reached. But it is worth diverting to Paissy where the caves which sheltered Germans now store the French farmers’ tractors. Some of the farmers are proud to show the interiors of these caves. Driving westwards along the D925 passes military cemeteries of France, Germany and Italy before Chavonne and Vailly-sur-Aisne are reached. Looking at the modern bridges needed to cross the river shows why the destruction of the original bridges made it so difficult for the British to support their troops fighting on the slopes beyond the Aisne.