Race to the Sea
The Race to the Sea took place from about 17 September – 19 October 1914, after the Battle of the Frontiers (7 August–13 September) and the German advance into France, which had been stopped at the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September) and was followed by the First Battle of the Aisne (13 September – 28 September), a Franco-British counter-offensive.[Note 1] The term described reciprocal attempts by the Franco-British and German armies, to envelop the northern flank of the opposing army through Picardy, Artois and Flanders, rather than an attempt to advance northwards to the sea. The "race" ended on the North Sea coast of Belgium around 19 October, when the last open area from Dixmude to the North Sea was occupied by Belgian troops, who had been withdrawn from the Siege of Antwerp (28 September – 10 October). The outflanking attempts had resulted in a number of encounter battles but neither side was able to gain a decisive victory.[Note 2]
After the opposing forces had reached the North Sea, both tried to conduct offensives, which led to the mutually costly and indecisive Battle of the Yser (16 October – 2 November) and the First Battle of Ypres (19 October – 22 November). After mid-November, local operations were carried out by both sides, to improve their tactical position and preparations were made to take the offensive in the spring of 1915. Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff (Oberste Heeresleitung) since 14 September, concluded that a decisive victory could not be achieved on the Western Front and that it was equally unlikely in the east. Falkenhayn abandoned Vernichtunsstrategie (a "strategy of annihilation") and attempted to create the conditions for peace with one of Germany's enemies by Ermattungsstrategie (a "strategy of attrition"), to enable Germany to concentrate its resources and decisively defeat the remaining enemies.
Over the winter lull, the French army established the theoretical basis of offensive trench warfare and originated many of the methods which became standard for the rest of the war. Infiltration tactics in which dispersed formations of infantry were followed by nettoyeurs de tranchée ("trench cleaners"), to capture strong-points which had been by-passed, artillery observation from aircraft and creeping barrages, were first used systematically in the Second Battle of Artois (9 May – 18 June 1915). Falkenhayn issued memoranda on 7 and 25 January 1915, to govern defensive battle on the Western Front, in which the existing front line was to be fortified, so that it could be held indefinitely with small numbers of troops, to enable more divisions to be sent to the Eastern Front. New defences were be built behind the front line to contain a breakthrough, before the position was restored by counter-attacks. The Westheer began the huge task of building fortifications, which were not completed until the autumn of 1915.
- 1 Background
- 1.1 Strategic developments
- 1.2 Tactical developments
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Battle
- 3.1 First phase, 25 September – 4 October
- 3.2 Second phase 4–15 October
- 3.3 Third phase, 15 October–November
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Subsequent operations
- 6 Notes
- 7 Footnotes
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Under Plan XVII the French peacetime army was to form five field armies, with groups of Reserve divisions attached and a group of reserve divisions was to assemble on each flank, c. 2,000,000 men. The armies were to concentrate opposite the German frontier around Épinal, Nancy and Verdun–Mezières, with an army in reserve around Ste. Ménéhould and Commercy. Since 1871 railway building had given the French General staff sixteen lines to the German frontier against thirteen available to the German army and the French could wait until German intentions were clear. The French deployment was intended to be ready for a German offensive in Lorraine or through Belgium. It was anticipated that the Germans would use reserve troops but also expected that a large German army would be mobilised on the border with Russia, leaving the western army with sufficient troops only to advance through Belgium south of the Meuse and the Sambre rivers. French intelligence had obtained a map exercise of the German general staff of 1905, in which German troops had gone no further north than Namur and assumed that plans to besiege Belgian forts were a defensive measure against the Belgian army.
A German attack from south-eastern Belgium towards Mézières and a possible offensive from Lorraine towards Verdun, Nancy and St. Dié was anticipated; the plan was an evolution from Plan XVI and made more provision for the possibility of a German offensive through Belgium. The First, Second and Third armies were to concentrate between Épinal and Verdun opposite Alsace and Lorraine, the Fifth Army was to assemble from Montmédy to Sedan and Mézières and the Fourth Army was to be held back west of Verdun, ready to move east to attack the southern flank of a German invasion through Belgium or southwards against the northern flank of an attack through Lorraine. No formal provision was made for combined operations with the British Expeditionary Force ("BEF") but joint arrangements had been made and in 1911 during the Second Moroccan Crisis the French had been told that six divisions could be expected to operate around Maubeuge.
German strategy had given priority to offensive operations against France and a defensive posture against Russia since 1891. German planning was determined by numerical inferiority, the speed of mobilisation and concentration and the effect of the vast increase of the power of modern weapons. Frontal attacks were expected to be costly and protracted, leading to limited success, particularly after the French and Russians modernised their fortifications on the frontiers with Germany. Alfred von Schlieffen Chief of the Imperial German General Staff (Oberste Heeresleitung "OHL") from 1891–1906, devised plans to evade the French frontier fortifications with an offensive on the flank, which would have a local numerical superiority and obtain rapidly a decisive victory. By 1906 such a manoeuvre was intended to pass through Belgium and threaten Paris from the north. Helmuth von Moltke the Younger succeeded Schlieffen in 1906 and was less certain that the French would conform to German assumptions. Moltke adapted the deployment and concentration plan, to accommodate an attack in the centre or an enveloping attack from both flanks as variants to the plan, by adding divisions to the left flank opposite the French frontier, from the c. 1,700,000 men expected to be mobilised in the Westheer ("western army"). The main German force would still advance through Belgium and attack southwards into France, the French armies would be enveloped on the left and pressed back over the Meuse, Aisne, Somme, Oise, Marne and Seine, unable to withdraw into central France. The French would either be annihilated or the manoeuvre from the north would create conditions for victory in the centre or in Lorraine on the common border.
Battle of the Frontiers, 7 August – 13 September
The Battle of the Frontiers is a general name for all of the operations of the French armies until the Battle of the Marne. A series of encounter battles began between the German, French and Belgian armies, on the the German-French frontier and in southern Belgium on 4 August 1914. The Battle of Mulhouse (Battle of Alsace 7–10 August) was the first French offensive of World War I against Germany. The French captured Mulhouse until forced out by a German counter-attack on 11 August and fell back toward Belfort. The main French offensive, the Battle of Lorraine (14–25 August), began with the Battles of Morhange and Sarrebourg (14–20 August) advances by the First Army on Sarrebourg and the Second Army towards Morhange. Château Salins near Morhange was captured on 17 August and Sarrebourg the next day. The German 6th and 7th armies counter-attacked on 20 August and the Second Army was forced back from Morhange and the First Army was repulsed at Sarrebourg. The German armies crossed the border and advanced on Nancy but were stopped to the east of the city.
To the south the French retook Mulhouse on 19 August and then withdrew. On 24 August at the Battle of the Mortagne (14–25 August), a limited German offensive in the Vosges, the Germans managed a small advance, before a French counter-attack retook the ground. By 20 August a German counter-offensive in Lorraine had begun and the German 4th and 5th Armies advanced through the Ardennes on 19 August towards Neufchâteau. An offensive by French Third and Fourth armies through the Ardennes began on 20 August, in support of the French invasion of Lorraine. The opposing armies met in thick fog and the French mistook the German troops for screening forces. On 22 August the Battle of the Ardennes (21–28 August) began with French attacks, which were costly to both sides and forced the French into a disorderly retreat late on 23 August. The Third Army recoiled towards Verdun, pursued by the 5th Army and the Fourth Army retreated to Sedan and Stenay. Mulhouse was recaptured again by German forces and the Battle of the Meuse 26–28 August), caused a temporarily halt of the German advance.
Liège was occupied by the Germans on 7 August, the first units of the BEF landed in France and French troops crossed the German frontier. On 12 August The Battle of Haelen was fought by German and Belgian cavalry and infantry and was a Belgian defensive success. The BEF completed its move of four divisions and a cavalry division to France on 16 August, as the last Belgian fort of the Position fortifiée de Liège surrendered. The Belgian government withdrew from Brussels on 18 August and the German army attacked the Belgian field army at the Battle of the Gete. Next day the Belgian army began to retire towards Antwerp, which left the route to Namur open; Longwy and Namur were besieged on 20 August. Further west the Fifth Army had concentrated on the Sambre by 20 August, facing north either side of Charleroi and east towards the Belgian fortress of Namur. On the left, the Cavalry Corps of General Sordet linked with the BEF at Mons.
The Fifth Army was confronted by the German 3rd and 2nd armies from the east and the north. Before the Fifth Army could attack over the Sambre the 2nd Army attacked at the Battle of Charleroi and at Namur on 21 August. The 3rd Army crossed the Meuse and attacked the French right flank and on 23 August, the Fifth Army began a retirement southwards to avoid encirclement. After the Battle of St. Quentin, the French withdrawal continued. On 22 August the BEF had advanced and on 23 August fought the Battle of Mons, a delaying action against the German 1st Army, to protect the left flank of the French Fifth Army. The BEF was forced to retreat, when the 1st Army began to overrun the British defences on the right flank and the Fifth Army retired from the area south of the Sambre and exposed the British right flank to envelopment. Namur capitulated on 25 August and a Belgian sortie from Antwerp led to the Battle of Malines (25–27 August).
After the French defeat during the Battle of Lorraine, the French Second Army retreated to the Grand Couronné heights near Nancy and dug in, on an arc from Pont-à-Mousson to Champenoux, Lunéville and Dombasle-sur-Meurthe by 3 September. The Battle of Grand Couronné (4–13 September) began next day, when the German 7th and 6th armies attacked simultaneously at St. Dié and Nancy, as the Second Army sent reinforcements to the Third Army. Costly fighting continued until 12 September but the French were able to withdraw more than four corps to reinforce the armies on the left flank. On the 13 September, Pont-à-Mousson and Lunéville were recaptured by the French and the advance continued close to the Seille river, where the front stabilized. The battles kept a large number of German troops in Lorraine, as the Great Retreat further west culminated on the Marne.
The Great Retreat, 24 August – 5 September
The French Fifth Army fell back about 10 miles (16 km) from the Sambre during the Battle of Charleroi (22 August) and began a greater withdrawal from the area south of the Sambre on 23 August. The BEF fought the Battle of Mons on 24 August by when the French First and Second armies, had been pushed back by attacks of the German 7th and 6th armies between St. Die and Nancy, the Third Army held positions east of Verdun against attacks by the 5th Army, the Fourth Army held positions from the junction with the Third Army south of Montmédy, westwards to Sedan, Mezières and Fumay, facing the 4th Army and the Fifth Army was between Fumay and Maubeuge, with the 3rd Army advancing up the Meuse valley from Dinant and Givet into a gap between the Fourth and Fifth armies and the 2nd Army pressed forward into the angle between the Meuse and Sambre directly against the Fifth Army. On the far west flank of the French, the BEF prolonged the line from Maubeuge to Valenciennes against the 1st Army and Army Detachment von Beseler masked the Belgian army at Antwerp.
On 26 August, German forces captured Valenciennes and began the Siege of Maubeuge (24 August – 7September). Leuven (Louvain) was sacked by German troops and the Battle of Le Cateau was fought by the BEF and the 1st Army. Longwy was surrendered by its garrison and next day British Marines and a party of the Royal Naval Air Service ("RNAS") landed at Ostend; Lille and Mezières were occupied by German troops. Arras was occupied on 27 August and a French counter-offensive began at the Battle of St. Quentin (1914) (Battle of Guise 29–30 August). On 29 August the Fifth Army counter-attacked the 2nd Army south of the Oise, from Vervins to Mont Dorigny and west of the river from Mont Dorigny to Moy towards St. Quentin on the Somme, while the British held the line of the Oise west of La Fère. Laon, La Fère, and Roye were captured by German troops on 30 August and Amiens the next day. On 1 September Craonne and Soissons were captured and on 5 September the BEF ended its retreat from Mons, German troops reached Claye, 10 miles (16 km) from Paris, Reims was captured, German forces withdrew from Lille and the First Battle of the Marne (Battle of the Ourcq) (5–12 September) began, marking the end of the Great Retreat of the western flank of the Franco-British armies.
By 4 September the First and Second armies had slowed the advance of the 7th and 6th armies west of St. Die and east of Nancy, from where the Second Army had withdrawn its left flank, to face north between Nancy and Toul. A gap between the left of the Second Army and the right of the Third Army at Verdun, which faced north-west, on a line towards Revigny against the 5th Army advance, west of the Meuse between Varennes and St. Ménéhould. The Fourth Army had withdrawn to Sermaize, west to the Marne at Vitry le François and then across the river to Sompons, against the 4th Army, which had advanced from Rethel, to Suippes and the west of Chalons. The new Ninth Army held a line from Mailly against the 3rd Army, which had advanced from Mezières, over the Vesle and the Marne west of Chalons. The 2nd Army had advanced from Marle on the Serre, across the Aisne and the Vesle, between Reims and Fismes to Montmort, north of the junction of the Ninth and Fifth armies at Sezanne. The Fifth Army and the BEF had withdrawn south of the Oise, Serre, Aisne and Ourq, pursued by the 2nd Army on a line from Guise to Laon, Vailly and Dormans and by the 1st Army from Montdidier, towards Compiègne and then south-east towards Montmirail. The new French Sixth Army, linked with the left of the BEF, west of the Marne at Meaux, to Pontiose north of Paris. French garrisons were besieged at Strasbourg, Metz, Thionville, Longwy, Montmédy and Maubeuge. The Belgian army was invested at Antwerp in the National redoubt and at fortress troops continued the defence of the Liège forts.
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July and on 1 August, military operations began on the Polish border. Libau was bombarded by a German cruiser on 2 August and on 5 August Montenegro declared war on Austria-Hungary. On 6 August Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and Serbia declared war on Germany; war began between Montenegro and Germany on 8 August. The Battle of Stallupönen (17 August) caused a minor check to the Russian invasion of East Prussia and on 12 August Britain and France declared war on Austria-Hungary, as Austrian forces crossed the Save and seized Shabatz. Next day Austrian forces crossed the Drina and began the first invasion of Serbia. The Battle of Cer (Battle of the Jadar, 17–21 August) began and the Battle of Gumbinnen in East Prussia took place from 19–20 August. On 21 August Austro-Hungarian forces withdrew from Serbia. The Battle of Tannenberg (26–30 August) began in East Prussia and the in the Battle of Galicia (23 August – 11 September) the First Battle of Kraśnik was fought in Poland from 23–25 August. Shabatz was retaken by Serbian forces and the last Austrian troops retired across the Drina, ending the First Austrian Invasion of Serbia. The First Battle of Lemberg (26–30 August) began in Galicia and the Battle of Komarów (26 August – 2 September) and the Battle of Gnila Lipa (26–30 August) began in Poland. A naval action took place off the Aaland Islands and a German cruiser SMS Magdeburg ran aground and was intercepted by a Russian squadron.
On 3 September Lemberg was captured by the Russian army and the Battle of Rawa (Battle of Tarnavka 7–9 September) began in Galicia. The First Battle of the Masurian Lakes (7–14 September) began and on 8 September the Austro-Hungarian army commenced the Second Invasion of Serbia, leading to the Battle of Drina (6 September – 4 October). The Second Battle of Lemberg (8–11 September) began and on 11 September, Austrian forces in Galicia retreated. The Battle of the Masurian Lakes ended on 15 September and Czernowitz in Bukovina was taken by the Russian army. On 17 September Serbian forces in Syrmia were withdrawn and Semlin evacuated, as the Battle of the Drina ended. Next day General Paul von Hindenburg was appointed Oberbefehlshaber der gesamten Deutschen Streitkräfte im Osten ("Ober Ost", Commander-in-Chief of German Armies in the Eastern Theatre). on 21 September, Jaroslaw in Galicia was taken by the Russian army. On 24 September Przemyśl was isolated by Russian forces, beginning the First Siege as Russian forces conducted the First Invasion of North Hungary (24 September – 8 October). Military operations began on the Niemen (25–29 September) but German attacks were suspended on 29 September. The retreat of Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia ended and Maramaros-Sziget was captured by the Russian army. An Austro-Hungarian counter-offensive began in Galicia on 4 October and Maramaros-Sziget was retaken. On 9 October, the First German offensive against Warsaw began with the battles of Warsaw (9–19 October) and Ivangorod (9–20 October). As the situation on the eastern front deteriorated in September, the new German high command under General Falkenhayn attempted to retrieve the situation in France and inflict a decisive defeat.
Operations in Belgium, August–October 1914
On 2 August 1914, the Belgian government refused the passage of German troops through Belgium to France and on the night of 3/4 August, the Belgian General Staff ordered the 3rd Division to Liège to obstruct a German advance. Covered by the Third Division, the Liège fortress garrison, a screen of the Cavalry Division and detachments from Liège and Namur, the rest of the Belgian field army closed up to the river Gete by 4 August, covering central and western Belgium and the communications towards Antwerp. The German invasion began on 4 August, when an advanced force of six German brigades from the German 1st Army, 2nd Army and 3rd Army, crossed the German-Belgian border. Belgian resistance and German fear of Francs-tireurs, led the Germans to implement a policy of schrecklichkeit ("frightfulness") against Belgian civilians soon after the invasion, in which massacres, executions, hostage taking and the burning of towns and villages took place and became known as the Rape of Belgium.
On 5 August, the advanced German forces tried to capture Liège and the forts of the position fortifiée de Liège by coup de main. The city fell on 6 August but the forts were not captured and on 12 August, five German super-heavy 420-millimetre (17 in) howitzers and four batteries of Austrian 305-millimetre (12.0 in) howitzers, began systematically to bombard the Belgian defences, until the last fort fell on 16 August. On 18 August the Germans began to advance along the Meuse River towards Namur and the Belgian field army began a withdrawal from its positions along the Gete, to the National redoubt at Antwerp. On 20 August the German 1st Army took Brussels unopposed and the Belgian field army reached Antwerp, with little interference from German advanced parties, except for an engagement between the 1st Division and the German IX Corps near Tienen, in which the Belgians had 1,630 casualties.
While the BEF and the French armies conducted the Great Retreat into France (24 August – 28 September), small detachments of the Belgian, French and British armies conducted operations against German cavalry and Jäger. On 27 August a squadron of the RNAS had flown to Ostend, for air reconnaissance sorties between Bruges, Ghent and Ypres. British marines landed at Dunkirk on the night of 19/20 September and on 28 September occupied Lille. The rest of the brigade occupied Cassel on 30 September and scouted the country in motor cars and an RNAS Armoured Car Section was created, by fitting vehicles with bullet-proof steel. On 2 October the Marine Brigade was moved to Antwerp, followed by the rest of the Naval Division on 6 October, having landed at Dunkirk on the night of 4/5 October. From 6–7 October the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division landed at Zeebrugge. Naval forces collected at Dover were formed into a separate unit, which became the Dover Patrol, to operate in the Channel and off the French-Belgian coast.
Antwerp was invested to the south and east by German forces after 20 August, while the main German armies chased the Franco-British over the border and pursued them southwards to the Marne. Belgian forces in Antwerp tried to assist the French and British with sorties on 24–26 August, 9–13 September and 26–27 September. On 28 September German heavy and super-heavy artillery began to bombard Belgian fortifications around Antwerp. On 1 October forts Sint-Katelijne-Waver, Walem and the Bosbeek and Dorpveld redoubts by the 5th Reserve and Marine divisions. By 11:00 a.m. fort Walem was severely damaged, fort Lier had been hit by a 16-inch (410 mm) shell, fort Koningshooikt and the Tallabert and Bosbeek redoubts were mostly intact and the intervening ground between Fort Sint-Katelijne-Waver and Dorpveld redoubt had been captured. Despite reinforcement by the Royal Naval Division from 2 October, the Germans penetrated the outer ring of forts. When the German advance began to compress a corridor from the west of the city along the Dutch border to the coast, the Belgian field army withdrew from Antwerp westwards towards the coast. On 9 October, the remaining garrison surrendered, the Germans occupied the city and some British and Belgian troops escaped the Netherlands to the north and were interned for the duration of the war. The Belgian withdrawal was protected by a French Marine brigade, Belgian cavalry and the British 7th Division around Ghent and the Belgian army occupied a defensive line along the Yser river in west Flanders, from Dixmude to the coast on 15 October.
First Battle of the Marne, 5–12 September
Joffre used the railways which had transported French troops to the German frontier to move troops back from Lorraine and Alsace to form a new Sixth Army under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury with nine divisions and two cavalry divisions. By 10 September twenty divisions and three cavalry divisions had been moved west from the German border to the French centre and left and the balance of force between the German 1st–3rd armies and the Third, Fourth, Ninth, Fifth armies, the BEF and Sixth Army had changed to 44:56 divisions. Late on 4 September Joffre ordered the Sixth Army to attack eastwards over the Ourcq towards Château Thierry as the BEF advanced towards Montmirail and the Fifth Army attacked northwards, with its right flank protected by the Ninth Army along the St. Gond marshes. The French First–Fourth armies to the east were to resist the attacks of the German 5th–7th armies between Verdun and Toul and repulse an enveloping attack on the defences south of Nancy from the north. The 6th and 7th armies were reinforced by heavy artillery from Metz and attacked again on 4 September along the Moselle.
Oh 5 September the Sixth Army advanced eastwards from Paris and met the German IV Reserve Corps, which had moved into the area that morning and was stopped short of high ground north of Meaux. Overnight the IV Reserve Corps withdrew to a better position 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) east and French air reconnaissance observed German forces moving north to face the Sixth Army. General Alexander von Kluck the 1st Army commander, ordered the II Corps to move back to the north bank of the Marne, which began a redeployment of all four 1st Army corps to the north bank by 8 September. The swift move to the north bank prevented the Sixth Army from crossing the Ourcq but created a gap between the 1st and 2nd Armies. The BEF advanced from 6–8 September and crossed the Petit Morin and captured bridges over the Marne and extablised a bridgehead 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) deep. The Fifth Army also advanced into the gap and by 8 September crossed the Petit Morin, which forced Bülow to withdraw the right flank of the 2nd Army. Next day the Fifth Army recrossed the Marne and the German 1st and 2nd armies began to retire as the French Ninth, Fourth and Third armies fought defensive battles against the 3rd Army which was forced to retreat with the 1st and 2nd armies on 9 September.
Further east the Third Army was forced back to the west of Verdun as German attacks were made on the Meuse Heights to the south-east but managed to maintain contact with Verdun and the Fourth Army to the west. German attacks against the Second Army south of Verdun from 5 September almost forced the French to retreat but on 8 September the crisis eased. By 10 September the German armies west of Verdun were retrating towards the Aisne and the Franco-British were following-up, collecting stragglers and equipment. On 12 September Joffre ordered an outflanking move to the west and an attack northwards by the Third Army to cut off the German retreat. The pursuit was too slow and on 14 September the German armes had dug in north of the Aisne and the Allies met trench lines rather than rearguards. Frontal attacks by the Ninth, Fifth and Sixth armies were repulsed on 15–16 September, which led Joffre to begin the transfer of the Second Army west to the left flank of the Sixth Army, the first phase of the operations to outflank the German armies, which from 17 September to 17–19 October moved the opposing armies through Picardy and Flanders to the North Sea coast.
First Battle of the Aisne, 13–28 September
On 10 September Joffre ordered the French armies and the BEF to advance and exploit the victory of the Marne and for four days the armies on the left flank advanced and gathered up German stragglers, wounded and equipment, opposed only by rearguards. On 11 and 12 September Joffre ordered outflanking manoeuvres by the armies on the left flank but the advance was too slow to catch the Germans, who ended their withdrawal on 14 September on high ground on the north bank of the Aisne and began to dig in, which reduced the French advance from 15–16 September to a few local gains. French troops had begun to move westwards on 2 September, using the undamaged railways behind the French front, which were able to move a corps to the left flank in 5–6 days. On 17 September the French Sixth Army attacked from Soissons to Noyon, at the westernmost point of the French flank, with the XIII and IV corps, supported by the 61st and 62nd divisions of the 6th Group of Reserve Divisions, after which the fighting moved north to Lassigny and the French dug in around Nampcel.
The French Second Army completed a move from the eastern flank of the French line and took over command of the left-hand corps of the Sixth Army, as indications appeared that German troops were also being moved from the eastern flank. The German IX Reserve Corps had arrived from Belgium by 15 September and next day joined the 1st Army for an attack to the south-west with the the IV Corps and the 4th and 7th cavalry divisions, against the attempted French envelopment. The attack was cancelled and the corps ordered to withdraw behind the right flank of the 1st Army. The 2nd and 9th cavalry divisions were dispatched as reinforcements next day but before the retirement began, the French attack reached Carlepont and Noyon, before being contained on 18 September. The German armies attacked from Verdun westwards to Reims and the Aisne on 20 September, cut the main railway from Verdun to Paris and created the St Mihiel salient, south of the Verdun fortress zone. The main German effort remained on the western flank, which was revealed to the French by intercepted wireless messages. By 28 September the Aisne front had stabilised and the BEF began to withdraw on the night of 1/2 October, with the first troops arriving in the Abbeville area on 8/9 October. The BEF prepared to commence operations in Flanders and join with the British forces which had been operating in Belgium since August.
German plan of attack
After the defeat on the Marne, Moltke ordered a retirement to the Aisne by the 1st and 2nd armies on the German right wing and a withdrawal to Reims and a line eastwards past the north of Verdun, by the 3rd, 4th and 5th armies. The 6th and 7th armies were ordered to end their attacks and dig in. The withdrawal was intended to make time, for the 7th Army to be transferred from Alsace, to the right wing near the Oise but Franco-British attacks, led to the army being sent to fill the gap between the 1st and 2nd armies instead. Moltke was replaced by Falkenhayn on 14 September, by when the 1st Army had reached the Aisne, with its right flank on the Oise and the 7th Army had assembled on the Aisne, between the 1st and 2nd armies. Further east the 3rd, 4th and 5th armies had dug in from Prosnes to Verdun, secure from frontal attacks. The 1st Army was still vulnerable on its northern flank, by French troops transferred from the south, which could be moved faster over undamaged railways, than German troops using lines damaged during the Great Retreat. General Wilhelm Groener, head of the Railway Department of OHL suggested three alternatives, a frontal attack from the new positions, a defence of the line of the Aisne, while reserves were transferred to the right flank or to continue the withdrawal and comprehensively regroup the German armies, ready to conduct an offensive on the right flank.
On 15 September Falkenhayn wanted to continue the withdrawal and ordered the 1st Army to fall back and dig in from Artems to La Fère and Nouvions Catillon, to protect the right flank from a French offensive, while the 6th Army moved from Lorraine to the western flank, ready for a general offensive to begin progressively on 18 September from the 5th Army in the east, pinning French troops down westwards, until the 6th Army enveloped the French beyond the right of the 1st Army. The plan was cancelled soon afterwards when General Tappen reported on a tour of inspection at the front and reported that the French were too exhausted to begin an offensive, that a final push would be decisive and that more withdrawals would compromise the morale of the German troops after the defeat on the Marne. From 15–19 September Falkenhayn ordered the 1st, 2nd and 7th armies, temporarily under the command of General Karl von Bülow to attack southwards and the 3rd–5th armies to attack with the intention of weakening the French and preventing troops from being moved westwards. The 6th Army began to move to the western flank on 17 September ready for a decisive battle (Schlachtentscheidung) but French attacks on 18 September led Falkenhayn to order the 6th Army to operate defensively, to secure the German flank.
French plan of attack
French attempts to advance after the German retirement to the Aisne were frustrated after 14 September, when German troops were discovered to have stopped their retirement and dug in on the north bank of the Aisne. Joffre ordered that the German 1st and 2nd armies be attacked but attempts by the Fifth, Ninth and Sixth armies to advance from 15–16 September had little success. French Military Intelligence also reported German troop movements from east to west, which led Joffre to continue moving French troops from the east, which had begun on 2 September with IV Corps and continued on 9 September with XX Corps, 11 September with XIII Corps and XIV Corps on 18 September. The depletion of the French forces in the east took place just before a German attack on 20 September, against the Third Army on either side of Verdun, the Fifth Army north of Reims and the Sixth Army along the Aisne, which ended with the creation of the St. Mihiel Salient. Joffre maintained the French emphasis on the western flank, after receiving intercepted wireless messages, showing that the Germans were moving an army to the western flank and continued to assemble the Second Army to the north of the Sixth Army. On 24 September the Second Army was attacked and found difficulty in holding ground, rather than advancing round the German flank as intended.
First phase, 25 September – 4 October
Battle of Picardy, 22–26 September
The French Sixth Army began to advance on 17 September along the Oise west of Compiègne. French reconnaissance aircraft were grounded during bad weather and cavalry were exhausted, which deprived the French commanders of information. As information reached Joffre that two German corps were moving south from Antwerp, the Sixth Army was forced to end its advance and dug in around Nampcel and Roye. The IV and XIII corps were transferred to the Second Army, along with the 1st, 5th, 8th and 10th Cavalry divisions of the Cavalry Corps of General Conneau, the XIV and XX corps were withdrawn from the First and the original Second Army to assemble south of Amiens, with a screen of the 81st, 82nd, 84th and 88th Territorial divisions protecting French communications. The French advanced on 22 September, on a line from Lassigny north to Roye and Chaulnes around the German flank but met the German II Corps, which had arrived on 18/19 September on the right flank of the IX Reserve Corps. Despite the support of the four divisions of the Cavalry Corps of General von der Marwitz, the Germans were pushed back to a line from Ribécourt to Lassigny and Roye, which menaced German communications through Ham and St. Quentin. On 24 September the French were attacked by the XVIII Corps as it arrived from Reims, which forced the French IV Corps at Roye on the right flank back. To the north the French reached Péronne and formed a bridgehead on the east bank of the Somme, only for the German XIV Reserve Corps to reach Bapaume on 26 September. The offensive capacity of the Second Army was exhausted and defensive positions were occupied, while Joffre sent four more corps to the Second Army. Over the next week the northern flank of the Second Army was moved further north and on 29 September, a subdivision d'armée under General Maud'huy, was formed to control the northern corps of the Second Army as they assembled near Arras.
Battle of Albert, 25–29 September
On 21 September Falkenhayn had decided to concentrate the 6th Army near Amiens, to attack westwards to the coast and then envelop the French northern flank south of the Somme. The offensive by the French Second Army forced Falkenhayn to divert the XXI and I Bavarian corps as soon as they arrived, to extend the front northwards from Chaulnes to Péronne on 24 September and drive the French back over the Somme. On 26 September the French Second Army dug in on a line from Lassigny to Roye and Bray sur Somme and German cavalry moved north, to enable the II Bavarian Corps to occupy the ground north of the Somme. On 27 September the cavalry of Von der Marwitz drove back the 61st and 62nd Reserve divisions of General Joseph Brugère, who had replaced General Albert d'Amade, to clear the front for the XIV Reserve Corps to link with the right flank of the II Bavarian Corps. The French subdivision d'armée began to assemble at Arras and Maud'huy found that instead of making another attempt to get round the German flank, the subdivision was menaced by a German offensive.
The German II Bavarian and XIV Reserve corps pushed back a French Territorial division from Bapaume and advanced towards Bray sur Somme and Albert. From 25–27 September the French XXI and X corps north of the Somme, with support on the right flank by the 81st, 82nd, 84th and 88th Territorial divisions under Brugère and the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 10th Cavalry divisions of the Cavalry Corps of General Conneau, defended the approaches to Albert. On 28 September the French were able to stop the German advance on a line from Maricourt to Fricourt and Thiépval. The German cavalry under Von der Marwitz was stopped in the vicinity of Arras, by the French cavalry. On 29 September Joffre added X Corps which was 20 miles (32 km) north of Amiens, the Cavalry Corps which was south-east of Arras and a provisional corps under General Victor d'Urbal, which had a Reserve Division in Arras and one in Lens, to the new Tenth Army.
Second phase 4–15 October
First Battle of Arras, 1–4 October
The First Battle of Arras was the first engagement between the French subdivision d'armée and the German 6th Army after the Battle of Albert. On 30 September, a French division arrived at Arras and on 1 October repulsed a German attack against the Cojeul river and high ground near Monchy-le-Preux. The French were then slowly pushed back from Guémappe, Wancourt and Monchy-le-Preux until the arrival of X Corps. The French XI Corps was withdrawn from the Ninth Army and sent to Amiens; by 1 October two more corps, three infantry and two cavalry divisions had been sent northwards to Amiens, Arras, Lens and Lille, which increased the Second Army to eight corps along a front of 100 kilometres (62 mi). Joffre ordered Castelnau to cease attempts to outflank the Germans opposite and operate defensively, while the subdivision d'armée advanced on Arras, with the area between the Second Army south of the Somme and the subdivision d'armée held by territorial divisions. On 28 September Falkenhayn ordered all available troops to the 6th Army to conduct three operations, an offensive on the existing northern flank by the IV, Guard and I Bavarian corps near Arras, an offensive by the Cavalry Corps of von der Marwitz, on the right flank of the 6th Army across Flanders to the coast and an acceleration of the operations against Antwerp, before it could be reinforced.[Note 3]
Rupprecht intended to halt the advance of the French on the west side of Arras and conduct an enveloping attack around the north of the city. On 1 October Maud'huy was ready to begin an attack to the south-east past Arras and Lens, under the impression that the subdivision d'armée was opposed only by a cavalry screen, rather than the three German corps which had arrived in the area and were preparing a new offensive. The Guard, IV and I Bavarian corps assembled on a line from Arras to Douai, opposite the Territorial divisions of General Brugère and attacked on 1 October, forestalling the attack being prepared by the subdivision d'armée. On 3 October Rupprecht reinforced the reserve corps to the north of Arras and ordered the IV Cavalry Corps from Valenciennes to Lille. From 3–4 October costly German attacks were made on Beaurains, Mercatel and the Arras suburbs of St. Laurent-Blangy and St. Nicolas which were repulsed and forced the Germans to move northwards. On 4 October German troops entered Lens, held by a group of cyclists and an unmounted brigade of the 5th Cavalry Division. Souchez and Neuville St. Vaast were captured and the Germans gained a footing on the Lorette Spur. German attacks were made from the north of Arras to reach the Scarpe but were eventually repulsed by the X Corps. By 4 October German troops had reached Givenchy-en-Gohelle and driven between the French division on the left flank and the cavalry corps operating further north. On the right flank of the subdivision d'armée to the south, the Territorial divisions were separated from X Corps, prompting Castelnau and Maud'huy to recommend a retreat. Joffre made Maud'huy's subdivision d'armée independent as the Tenth Army and told Castelnau to keep the Second Army in position, to wait for the increasing number of troops further north to divert German pressure.
Foch was appointed as a deputy to Joffre, with responsibility for the northern area of operations, occupied by the Territorial divisions and Second and Tenth armies. By 6 October the Second Army front from the Oise to the Somme and the Tenth Army front from Thiepval to Gommecourt, Blaireville, the eastern fringe of Arras, Bailleul, Vimy and Souchez had been stabilised. The operation by the cavalry under Marwitz to the north of the 6th Army had pushed back the French Territorial divisions to a line between Lens and Lille and on 5 October Marwitz issued orders for the cavalry to advance westwards to Abbeville on the Channel coast and cut the railways leading south. At the end of 6 October, Falkenhayn terminated attempts by the 2nd Army to break through in Picardy. To the north, the I and II Cavalry corps attacked between Lens and Lille and were quickly repulsed and forced back behind the Lorette Spur. Next day the cavalry was attacked by the first troops of the French XXI Corps advancing from Béthune. On 8 October the German XIV Corps arrived from Mons and took over from the cavalry, which were sent north to resume their attack from La Bassée and Armentières. The IV Cavalry Corps had moved north of Lille and on 8 October reached Ypres and then turned south-west towards Hazebrouck, where they were met by a new French cavalry corps under General de Mitry and forced to retire to Bailleul. By 9 October the defensive lines established on the Aisne in September had been extended to the west and north to within 30 miles (48 km) of Dunkirk and the North Sea coast.
On 3 October 3rd Joffre formed the Tenth Army under General de Maud'huy to reinforce his left and prevent its envelopment. The XXI Corps arrived from Champagne and the 13th Division assembled west of Lille. On 5 October Chasseurs from the 13th Division began to take positions north and east of the town. At the suburb of Fives the French troops were fired on and then drove back German troops from the railway station and fortifications, capturing a number of machine-guns and prisoners. North of the town, French troops engaged German patrols near Wambrechies and Marquette and the 7th Cavalry Division skirmished around Fouquet. The Lille garrison of Territorial and Algerian mounted troops dug in to the south at Faches and Wattignies, linking with the rest of the 13th Division at Ronchin. A German attack at Ronchin reached the railway and the French retook Fives, Hellemmes, Flers, the fort of Mons-en-Baroeuil and Ronchin. To the west, cavalry engagements took place along the Ypres Canal but next day the 13th Division left Lille with the XXI Corps towards Artois, Lille being left with the Territorial and Algerian troops. On 9–10 October, the II Cavalry Corps attacked German troops between Aire-sur-la-Lys and Armentières but was unable to advance to Lille, which was then left to its fate. On 9 October a German aeroplane dropped bombs on the Post Office, next day a German bombardment began and the garrison surrendered on 12 October, by when eighty civilians had been killed; Bavarian troops occupied Lille on 13 October.
Third phase, 15 October–November
Battle of La Bassée, 10 October – 2 November
By 4 October the position of the troops under Maud'huy risked encirclement, when German troops reached Givenchy, to the north-west of Vimy and the left-hand French division had been separated from the cavalry operating further north and a gap had been forced between the Territorial divisions to the south and X Corps. Castelnau and Maud'huy wished to withdraw but rather than lose all of northern France, Joffre created a new Tenth Army from Maud'huy's forces and gave Castelnau a directive to maintain the Second Army in its positions until the pressure of operations further north, diminished the power of German attacks between the Oise and the Somme. Foch was appointed deputy to Joffre and given command of all French troops in the north. On 6 October the French line from the Oise to Arras had been secured; Joffre and French had agreed to concentrate the BEF around Doullens, Arras and St. Pol, ready for operations on the left of the French Tenth Army.
By 8 October the French XXI Corps had moved its left flank to Vermelles, just short of La Bassée Canal. Further north the French I and II Cavalry corps under Conneau and de Mitry, part of the 87th Territorial Division and some Chasseurs held a line from Béthune to Estaires, Merville, Aire, Fôret de Clairmarais and St. Omer, where the rest of the 87th Territorial Division connected with Dunkirk; Cassel and Lille further east were still occupied by French troops. Next day the German XIV Corps arrived opposite the French, which released the German 1st and 2nd Cavalry corps to attempt a flanking move between La Bassée and Armentières. The French cavalry were able to stop the German attack north of the La Bassée–Aire canal. The 4th Cavalry Corps further north managed to advance and on 7 October passed through Ypres, before being forced back to Bailleul by French Territorial troops near Hazebrouck. From 8–9 October the British II Corps arrived by rail at Abbeville and was ordered to advance on Béthune.
The British 1st and 2nd Cavalry divisions covered the arrival of the infantry and on 10 October, using motor buses supplied by the French, II Corps advanced 22 miles (35 km). By the end of 11 October, II Corps held a line from Béthune to Hinges and Chocques, with flanking units on the right 3.5 miles (5.6 km) south of Béthune and on the left 4.5 miles (7.2 km) to the west of the town. On 12 October the II Corps divisions attacked to reach a line from Givenchy to Pont du Hem, 6 miles (9.7 km) north of La Bassée Canal across ground which was flat and dotted with farms and buildings as far as a low ridge 10 miles (16 km) east of Béthune. The German defenders of the I and II Cavalry corps and attached Jäger disputed every tactical feature but the British advance continued and a German counter-attack near Givenchy was repulsed. The British dug in from Noyelles to Fosse. On 13 October the II Corps attack by the 3rd Division and the French 7th Cavalry Division gained little ground and Givenchy was almost lost to a German attack delivered in a heavy rainstorm, with British casualties of c. 1,000 men.
On 14 and 15 October the II Corps attacked on both sides of La Bassée Canal and German counter-attacks were made each night. The British managed short advances on the flanks, with help from French cavalry but lost 967 casualties. From 16–18 October II Corps attacks pivoted on the right as the left flank advanced to Aubers against German opposition at every ditch and bridge, which inflicted another thousand casualties. Givenchy was recaptured by the British on 16 October Violaines was taken and a foothold established on Aubers Ridge on 17 October; French cavalry captured Fromelles. On 18 October German resistance increased as the German XIII Corps arrived, reinforced the VII Corps and gradually forced the II Corps to a halt. On 19 October British infantry and French cavalry captured Le Pilly but were forced to retire by German artillery-fire. The fresh German 13th and 14th divisions had arrived and began to counter-attack against all of the II Corps front. At the end of 20 October the II Corps was ordered to dig in, from the canal near Givenchy, to Violaines, Illies, Herlies and Riez, while offensive operations continued to the north. Subsequent operations in the Battle of La Bassée took place after the "Race to the Sea".
Battle of Messines, 12 October – 2 November
The 1st and 2nd Cavalry divisions under General Allenby covered the assembly of the III Corps at St. Omer and Hazebrouck from 10–12 October, to allow the III Corps to advance eastwards towards Lille. The cavalry was ordered to extend as far north as Ypres. In front of the First Cavalry Corps, was a line of hills from Mont des Cats to Mt. Kemmel, about 400 feet (120 m) above sea level, with spurs running south, across the British line of advance, occupied by the German IV Cavalry Corps with three divisions. On 12 October, the British cavalry advanced and found the Germans dug in on Mont des Cats and at Flêtre on the road from Cassel to Bailleul. The 3rd Cavalry Brigade attacked Mont des Cats, up slopes covered in hop-fields towards a monastery on the hilltop, with dismounted cavalry attacking from the west and mounted cavalry with a battery of horse artillery from the south. Next day the cavalry advanced onto high ground east of Mont des Cats and occupied Mt. Noir, 3 miles (4.8 km) north of Bailleul. On 14 October the cavalry advanced north-eastwards, occupied Dranoutre and Kemmel against slight opposition and then reached a line from Dranoutre to Wytschaete, linking with the 3rd Cavalry Division of IV Corps, which had been operating in Belgium since early October.
On 15 October the cavalry was ordered to reconnoitre the Lys from Estaires to Menin. Estaires was captured by French cavalry during the day but German defences prevented an advance beyond Comines, which was 5.5 miles (8.9 km) west of Menin, where advanced guards of the German XIX and XIII Corps had arrived during the night. A foothold was gained at Warneton and German outposts at Houthen and Hollebeke, west of the Ypres–Comines canal were pushed back to the far side. By the end of 15 October the Cavalry Corps and the 3rd Cavalry Division held the Lys river from Armentières to Comines and the Comines canal to Ypres. The BEF was ordered to make a general advance on 16 October as the German forces were falling back and only the III Reserve Corps was advancing westwards from Antwerp. The cavalry were ordered to cross the Lys between Armentières and Menin as the III Corps advanced north-east to clear the way for the cavalry and gain touch with the 7th Division near Ypres.
The cavalry advanced towards the Lys between Houplines and Comines at 6:00 a.m. in fog, which grounded RFC reconnaissance aircraft and made artilllery support impossible. The river was a muddy stream 45–60 feet (14–18 m) wide and 5 feet (1.5 m) deep at that point and flanked by water meadows. The banks of the Lys were cut by boggy streams and dykes, which kept the cavalry on the roads. German outposts were pushed back but the crossings were well-defended and dismounted cavalry attacks were not able to dislodge the German defenders. Cavalry which got to Warneton town square were withdrawn during the night. The attack was resumed on 18 October when the cavalry attacked from Deulemont to Tenbrielen but made no progress against a strong and well-organised German defence, ending the day opposite Deulemont in the south to the railway at Tenbrielen to the north. From 9–18 October the Cavalry Corps had c. 175 casualties. The encounter battle ended and subsequent operations in the Battle of Messines took place after the end of the "Race to the Sea".
Battle of Armentières, 13 October – 2 November
The battle took place during attempts by the German and Franco-British armies to envelop the northern flank of their opponent. After an encounter battle in early October, German attacks around Armentières in late October and November, were repulsed by British and French forces. To the south the battle overlapped the Battle of La Bassée and to the north coincided with the Battle of Messines. On 11 October the British III Corps comprising the 4th and 6th divisions, arrived by rail at St. Omer and Hazebrouck and then advanced behind the left flank of II Corps towards Bailleul and Armentières. II Corps was to advance around the north of Lille and II Corps was to reach a line from Armentières to Wytschaete, with the Cavalry Corps on the left as far as Ypres. French troops were to relieve the II Corps at Béthune to move north and link with the right of III Corps but this did not occur. On the northern flank of III Corps, in front of Allenby's cavalry was a line of hills from Mont des Cats to Mt. Kemmel, about 400 feet (120 m) above sea level, with spurs running south, across the British line of advance, occupied by the German IV Cavalry Corps with three divisions. On 12 October the British cavalry advanced and captured the Mont des Cats. 
The 4th and 6th divisions advanced on 13 October and found German troops dug in along the Meterenbecque. A corps attack from La Couronne to Fontaine Houck began at 2:00 p.m. in wet and misty weather and by evening had captured Outtersteene and Meteren at a cost of 708 casualties. On the right the French cavalry of de Mitry attempted to support the attack but with no howitzers, could not advance in level terrain, dotted with cottages used as improvised strong points; on the northern flank the British cavalry took Mont Noir near Bailleul. The German defenders slipped away from well-sited defences, dug in front of houses, hedges and walls to keep the soldiers invisible, dug earth having been scattered rather than used for a parapet which would have been seen. Lille had fallen on 12 October and this revealed the presence of the German XIX Corps; air reconnaissance by the RFC reported that long columns of German infantry were entering Lille from Douai and leaving on the road to Armentières. It was planned that III Corps would attack the next German line of defence before German reinforcements could reach the scene. Rain and mist made air reconnaissance impossible on 14 October but patrols found that the Germans had fallen back beyond Bailleul and crossed the Lys. The German 6th Army had been ordered to end its attacks from La Bassée to Armentières and Menin until the new 4th Army had moved through Belgium and prolonged the German northern flank from Menin to the sea.
During the day the Allied forces completed a weak but continuous line to the North Sea, when Allenby's cavalry linked with the 3rd Cavalry Division south of Ypres between Wytschaete to Messines, Wulverghem and Neuve Eglise. The infantry reached a line from Steenwerck–Dranoutre after a slow advance against German rearguards, in poor visibility and close country. By evening Bailleul and Le Verrier were occupied and next day an advance to the Lys began as German troops and cavalry retired. The III Corps closed up to the river at Sailly, Bac St. Maur, Erquinghem and Pont de Nieppe, linking with the cavalry at Romarin. On 16 October the British secured the Lys crossings and late in the afternoon German attacks began further north at Dixmude and next day the III Corps occupied Armentières. On 18 October the III Corps was ordered to participate in an offensive by the BEF and the French army, by attacking down the Lys valley. Part of Pérenchies ridge was captured but much stronger German defences were encountered and the infantry were orered to dig in. On 18/19 October the III Corps held a line from Radinghem to Pont Rouge, west of Lille. The encounter battle ended and subsequent operations in the Battle of Armentières took place after the end of the "Race to the Sea".
From 17 September – 17 October the belligerents had made reciprocal attempts to turn the northern flank of their opponent. Joffre ordered the French Second Army to move to the north of the French Sixth Army, by moving from eastern France from 2–9 September and Falkenhayn ordered the German Sixth Army to move from the German-French border to the northern flank on 17 September. By the next day French attacks north of the Aisne, led to Falkenhayn ordering the Sixth Army to repulse French forces to secure the flank. When French advanced it met a German attack rather than an open flank on 24 September and by 29 September the Second Army had been reinforced to eight corps but was still opposed by German forces near Lille, rather than advancing around the German northern flank. The German Sixth Army had also found that on arrival in the north, it was forced to oppose the French attack rather than advance around the flank and that the secondary objective of protecting the northern flank of the German armies in France had become the main task. By 6 October the French needed British reinforcements to withstand German attacks around Lille. The BEF had begun to move from the Aisne to Flanders on 5 October and reinforcements from England assembled on the left flank of the Tenth Army, which had been formed from the left flank units of the Second Army on 4 October.
The Allies and the Germans attempted to take more ground, after the "open" northern flank had disappeared, the Franco-British attacks towards Lille in October, being followed up by attempts to advance between the BEF and the Belgian army by a new French Eighth Army. The moves of the 7th and then the 6th Army from Alsace and Lorraine had been intended to secure German lines of communication through Belgium, where the Belgian army had sortied several times during the period between the Franco-British retreat and the Battle of the Marne. In August British marines had landed at Dunkirk. In October a new 4th Army was assembled from the III Reserve Corps and the siege artillery used against Antwerp and four of the new reserve corps training in Germany. A German offensive began by 21 October but the Fourth and Sixth armies were only able to take small amounts of ground, at great cost to both sides at the Battle of the Yser (16–31 October) and further south at Ypres. Falkenhayn then attempted to achieve a limited goal of capturing Ypres and Mount Kemmel, in the First Battle of Ypres (19 October – 22 November). By 8 November Falkenhayn concluded that the attempt to advance along the coast had failed and that taking Ypres was impossible. The French and Germans, had not been able to assemble forces near the northern flank, fast enough to obtain a decisive advantage. Where the opposing forces had attempted to advance, they had quickly been stopped and forced to improvise field defences, against which attacks were repulsed with many casualties. By the end of the First Battle of Ypres both sides were exhausted, short of ammunition and suffering from collapses in morale and refusals of orders by some infantry units.
On October 1914 French and British artillery commanders met to discuss means for supporting infantry attacks, the British practice being to keep the artillery silent until targets were identified and the French firing a rafale which ceased as the infantry began the assault. A moving barrage of fire was proposed as a combination of both methods and became a standard practice as guns and ammunition were accumulated in sufficient quantity. Falkenhayn issued memoranda on 7 and 25 January 1915, defining a theory of defensive warfare to be used on the Western Front, intended to enable ground to be held with the fewest possible troops. By economising on manpower in the west, a larger number of divisions could be sent to the Eastern Front. The front line was to be fortified to enable its defence with small numbers of troops indefinitely; areas captured were to be recovered by counter-attacks. A second trench was to be dug behind the front line to shelter the trench garrison and to have easy access to the front line through covered communication trenches. Should counter-attacks fail to recover the front trench, a rearward line was to be connected to the remaining parts of the front line, limiting the loss of ground to a bend (Ausbeulung) in the line, rather than a breakthrough. The building of the new defences took until the autumn of 1915 and confronted Franco-British offensives with an evolving system of field fortifications, which was able to absorb the increasing power and sophistication of attempted breakthrough attacks.
By the end of the battles at Ypres, German army casualties in the west were 800,000 men, including 116,000 dead. The French army casualty total from October–November was 125,000 men, which with losses of 329,000 men from August–September, gave a total of 454,000 casualties by the end of the year. In 2001 Strachan recorded 80,000 German casualties at Ypres, 89,964 British casualties since the beginning of the war, 54,105 of the total being incurred at Ypres and that c. 50% of the Belgian army had become casualties.
First Battle of Flanders
Battle of the Yser, 18 October – 30 November
During the Allied retreat from Antwerp, French, British and Belgian troops covered the withdrawal from positions around Ghent, whence the troops fell back towards Ypres and the Yser. The British IV Corps took up positions to the north of Ypres on 14 October, where I Corps arrived on 19 October, with cavalry covering a gap to the south of the town. The BEF was intended to begin a general advance eastwards soon after. The Battle of the Yser from (18 October – 30 November 1914) took place from Diksmuide–Nieuwpoort, along a 35-kilometre (22 mi) stretch of the Yser river and Yperlee canal in Belgium. Falkenhayn created a new 4th Army from the troops released from the siege of Antwerp and new reserve corps from Germany, with orders to capture Dunkirk and Calais to inflict an "annihilating blow". The assembly of the Belgian army along the Yser ended the "Race to the Sea", with the Belgians holding a 15-kilometre (9.3 mi) front southwards from the coast, Belgian, French and British troops holding another 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) further to the south, the BEF holding 40 kilometres (25 mi) and the Tenth Army holding another 25 kilometres (16 mi) on the extreme right flank of the northern front.
German attacks on the Yser position began on 18 October and on 22 October, German troops gained a foothold over the river at Tervaete. The French 42nd Division at Nieuport, intended for an attack up the coast towards Lombartzyde, began to move forward on 23 October, when the Belgians had been driven back from a salient between Dixmude and Nieuport but detached a brigade to reinforce the Belgians. German heavy artillery, mostly in the III Reserve Corps from Antwerp was countered on the coast by Allied ships under British command, which bombarded German artillery positions from the sea and forced German attacks to be conducted further inland. On 24 October, fifteen German attacks established positions over the Yser for 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) and the French sent the rest of the 42nd Division to the centre, where by 26 October the Belgian Commander Félix Wielemans, had decided to retreat, before representations by the French liaison officer and orders from the Belgian king led to a withdrawal being cancelled. Next day Sluice gates on the coast at Nieuport were opened, which began the flooding of the area between the Yser and the railway embankment. On 30 October a German attack crossed the embankment at Ramscapelle but were forced back on the following evening and the inundations reduced the fighting to local operations.
First Battle of Ypres, 19 October – 22 November
The First Battle of Ypres (part of the First Battle of Flanders) began on 19 October with attacks by the German 6th and 4th armies at the same time that the BEF attacked towards Menin and Roulers. On 21 October, attacks by the 4th Army reserve corps were repulsed in a costly battle and on 23–24 October German attacks were conducted to the north, on the Yser by the 4th Army and to the south by the 6th Army. French attacks by the new Eighth Army were made towards Roulers and Thourout, which diverted German troops from British and Belgian positions. A new German attack was planned in which the 4th and 6th armys would pin Allied troops while a new formation, armeegruppe von Fabeck with six new divisions and more than 250 heavy guns took over the boundary of the two German armies, to attack north-west between Messines and Gheluvelt. The British I Corps was dug in astride the Menin road, with dismounted British cavalry further south. German attacks took ground on the Menin road on 29 October and drove back the British cavalry next day, from Zandvoorde and Hollebeke to a line 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) from Ypres. Three French battalions released from the Yser front, by the inundation of the ground around the Yser, were sent south and on 31 October the British defence of Gheluvelt began to collapse until a battalion counter-attacked and drove back the German troops from the crossroads.
German attacks south of the Menin road took small areas but Messines ridge had been consolidated by the British garrison and was not captured. By 1 November the BEF was close to exhaustion and 75 of 84 infantry battalions had fewer than 300 men left; ⅓ of their establishment. The French XIV Corps was moved north from the Tenth Army and the French IX Corps attacked southwards towards Becelaere, which relieved the pressure on both British flanks. German attacks began to diminish on 3 November, by when armeegruppe von Fabeck had lost 17,250 casualties. A French offensive was planned for 6 November towards Langemarck and Messines, to widen the Ypres salient but German attacks began again on 5 November in the same area until 8 November, then again on 10–11 November. The main attack on 10 November was made by the 4th Army between Langemarck and Dixmude, in which Dixmude was lost by the Franco-Belgian garrison. Next day to the south, the British were subjected to an unprecedented bombardment between Messines and Polygon Wood and then an attack by Prussian Guard, which broke into British positions along the Menin road, before being forced back by counter-attacks. From mid-October to early November the German Fourth Army lost 52,000 and the Sixth Army lost 28,000 casualties.
- Writers and historians have criticised the term Race to the Sea and used several date ranges, for the period of mutual attempts to outflank the opposing armies on their northern flanks. In 1925, Edmonds the British Official Historian, used dates of 15 September – 15 October and in 1926 17 September – 19 October. In 1929 the fifth volume of Der Weltkrieg the German Official History, described the progress of German outflanking attempts, without labelling them. In 2001 Strachan used 15 September – 17 October. In 2003 Clayton gave dates from 17 September – 7 October. In 2005, Doughty used the period from 17 September – 17 October and Foley from 17 September to a period between 10–21 October. In 2010 Sheldon placed the beginning of the "erroneously named" race from the end of the Battle of the Marne to the beginning of the Battle of the Yser.
- German armies are numbered thus: "7th Army" and French armies thus: "Second Army".
- I Cavalry Corps with the Guard and 4th Cavalry divisions, II Cavalry Corps with the 2nd, 7th and 9th Cavalry divisions and the IV Cavalry Corps of the 3rd, 6th and Bavarian Cavalry Division.
- Edmonds 1925, pp. 27–100.
- Edmonds 1926, pp. 400–408.
- Reichsarchiv 1929, p. 14.
- Strachan 2001, pp. 266–273.
- Clayton 2003, p. 59.
- Doughty 2005, p. 98.
- Foley 2005, pp. 101–102.
- Sheldon 2010, p. x.
- Strachan 2001, p. 194.
- Strachan 2001, pp. 195–198.
- Strachan 2001, pp. 167–169.
- Strachan 2001, pp. 190, 172–173, 178.
- Skinner & Stacke 1922, p. 7.
- Skinner & Stacke 1922, pp. 7–8.
- Skinner & Stacke 1922, pp. 8–9.
- Tyng 1935, p. 73.
- Skinner & Stacke 1922, pp. 10–11.
- Tyng 1935, p. 128.
- Tyng 1935, p. 154.
- Skinner & Stacke 1922, p. 9.
- Tyng 1935, pp. 173, 210.
- Skinner & Stacke 1922, pp. 5–9.
- Skinner & Stacke 1922, pp. 10–12.
- Foley 2005, p. 99.
- Terraine 1980, p. 25.
- Strachan 2001, p. 211.
- Edmonds 1926, p. 34.
- Edmonds 1925, pp. 39–65.
- Raleigh 1922, pp. 371–374.
- Raleigh 1922, pp. 375–390.
- Corbett 1938, pp. 168–170.
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