First Battle of the Aisne
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The First Battle of the Aisne (French: 1re Bataille de l'Aisne) was the Allied follow-up offensive against the right wing of the German First Army (led by Alexander von Kluck) and the Second Army (led by Karl von Bülow) as they retreated after the First Battle of the Marne earlier in September 1914. The offensive began on the evening of 13 September, after a hasty pursuit of the Germans.
When the Germans turned to face the pursuing Allies on 13 September, they held one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front. Between Compiègne and Berry-au-Bac, the Aisne River winds westward and is about one hundred feet wide, ranging from twelve to fifteen feet deep. Low-lying ground extends a mile on each side, rising abruptly to a line of steep cliffs three to four hundred feet high, then gently leveling to a plateau. The Germans settled on the higher northern side two miles (3 km) beyond the crest, behind a dense thicket that covered the front and slope.
Low crops in the unfenced countryside offered no natural concealment to the Allies. Deep, narrow paths cut into the escarpment at right angles, exposing any infiltrators to extreme hazard. The forces on the northern plateau commanded a wide field of fire.
In dense fog on the night of 13 September, most of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed the Aisne on pontoons or partially demolished bridges, landing at Bourg-et-Comin on the right and at Venizel on the left. At Chivres east of Venizel, there was an escarpment the Germans had selected as their strongest position. The French Fifth Army crossed the Aisne at Berry-au-Bac and captured the eastern tip of Chemin des Dames, a steep ridge named after the royal coach road Louis XV had built for his daughters. Contact was established along the entire front. East of Chemin des Dames, the French Fourth, Fifth and Ninth armies made only negligible progress beyond the positions they had reached on 13 September.
Under the thick cover of the foggy night, the BEF advanced up the narrow paths to the plateau. When the mist evaporated under a bright morning sun, they were mercilessly raked by fire from the flank. Those caught in the valley without the fog's protective shroud fared no better.
Trench warfare begins
It soon became clear that neither side could budge the other and since neither chose to retreat, the impasse hardened into stalemate that would lock the antagonists into a relatively narrow strip for the next four years. On 14 September, Sir John French ordered the entire BEF to entrench, but few entrenching tools were available. Soldiers scouted nearby farms and villages for pickaxes, spades and other implements. Without training for stationary warfare, the troops merely dug shallow pits in the soil. These were at first intended only to afford cover against enemy observation and shell fire. Soon the trenches were deepened to about seven feet. Other protective measures included camouflage and holes cut into trench walls then braced with timber.
Trench warfare was also new for the Germans, whose training and equipment were designed for a mobile war to be won in six weeks, but they quickly adapted their weapons to the new situation. Siege howitzers now lobbed massive shells into the Allied trenches. Skillful use of trench mortars and hand and rifle grenades (first used against British troops on 27 September), enabled the Germans to inflict great losses upon Allied troops, who had neither been trained nor equipped with these weapons. Searchlights, flares and periscopes were also part of the German equipment intended for other purposes, but put to use in the trenches.
A shortage of heavy weapons handicapped the British. Only their 60-pounders (four guns to a division) were powerful enough to shell enemy gun emplacements from the Aisne's south shore, and these guns were inferior to German artillery in calibre, range and numbers. Four batteries of 6-inch (150 mm) guns (a total of sixteen), were rushed from England. Although a poor match against the German 8-inch (200 mm) howitzers, they helped somewhat. Defensive firepower was limited to rifles and two machine guns alloted to each battalion. The British regulars were excellent marksmen but even their combined accuracy was no match for the German machine guns and grenades.
The British had equipped very few of their airplanes with wireless and they were used to report troop movements. It was only natural for aviators to recognize the advantage of observing artillery fire. On 24 September, Lieutenants B.T. James and D.S. Lewis detected three well-concealed enemy gun batteries that were inflicting considerable damage on British positions. They radioed back the location of the batteries, then droned in a wide circle, waiting to spot their own gunners' exploding shells. Anti-aircraft fire was desultory and inaccurate. The German Army used only percussion shells, which, according to Canadian sources, "not one in several hundred ever hit its aerial target, and fell to earth frequently at some point in the British lines and there burst."
Race to the Sea
For a three-week period following the unexpected development of trench warfare, both sides gave up frontal assaults and began trying to envelop each other's northern flank. The period is called "Race to the Sea." As the Germans aimed for the Allied left flank, the Allies sought the German right wing.
The western front thus became a continuous trench system of more than 400 miles (640 km). From the Belgian channel town of Nieuport, the trench lines ran southward for many miles, turning southeast at Noyon, continuing past Reims, Verdun, Saint-Mihiel and Nancy; then cutting south again to the northern Swiss border twenty miles (32 km) east of Belfort.
Meanwhile, the Belgian Army became a growing threat to German communications as the battle shifted northward. The Germans made plans on 28 September to capture the port of Antwerp and crush the Belgian forces. This important maritime city was encircled by an obsolete fortress system that could not withstand even 6-inch shells. An outer ring of eighteen forts ranged from seven to nine miles from the city, an inner ring from one to two miles. Each fort had two machine guns, but lacked telephone communications and means for observing gunfire. One 6-inch gun poked out at each mile; none of these forts had high explosive projectiles or smokeless gunpowder and several thousand surrounding acres had been cleared to provide unobstructed fields of fire.
At daybreak on 29 September, General Hans von Beseler, called out of retirement at the age of sixty-five, arrayed six divisions in an arc facing the outer ring of forts. The heavy siege howitzers that had destroyed the defences of Namur and Liège had been placed well beyond the range of Belgian artillery. Aided by aircraft spotting, German gunners quickly found their targets. Belgian guns belched dense, black smoke, revealing their exact location and the fields cleared by the defenders deprived the forts of any concealment. Two of the forts were quickly reduced to rubble; the others fell in methodical succession. Without waiting for the outcome, the Belgian government and 65,000 troops departed from Ostend that night, leaving an army of 80,000 to hold off the enemy. Next day the entire outer ring collapsed, prompting a mass evacuation of civilians to the neutral Netherlands. A British Royal Marine Division joined the defending troops during the attack, but even this combined force was unable to stem the German drive. After six days of stubborn fighting, the remaining garrison retired across the Scheldt River to the southern border of the Netherlands, while the rest of the Belgian army retreated to the South, subsequently attaching itself to General Ferdinand Foch's Ninth Army.
- La Ferté-sous-Jouarre memorial
- Ronald Simson, Scotland rugby player - the first rugby internationalist to die during the war, killed in this battle.
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