13: Race to the Sea


The Germans were stopped at the Marne but they have had time to regroup on the banks of the Aisne. The French and British attack to try to drive them out of France. In the aftermath the race to the sea begins as each army continues to leapfrog to the north in an attempt to outflank their opponent.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great war Episode 13. Last week we journeyed into the east to find out what had been happening in Serbia and Prussia during the first few weeks of September. This week we travel back to the Western Front and when we last visited this area the German advance through France had been halted at the Battle of the Marne and the German First and Second armies had begun to retreat in the direction they had come from. This week we continue to follow the events in this area as the German, French, and British troops meet again along the Aisne river. The results of this battle begins what is called the Race to the Sea as the armies fight a running series of battles that slowly wind their way north to the English Channel. This is a very critical few weeks for the armies on the Western front as the results of the Race to the Sea will set the stage for the trench warfare of the next 4 years that would become the hallmark of the war.

The Battle of the Aisne took place after the German army retreated following the events of the Battle of the Marne. After the Germans had decided to retreat Moltke ordered them to retreat to the Aisne river and to fortify their positions to prepare for a defense against the French and British. The Entente armies helped out the Germans at this stage by not quickly following up their victory on the Marne and attacking the Germans before they could properly prepare themselves for the defense. The Germans were the only army to focus on defensive operations before the war began, as early as 1904 they had begun making trench digging and field fortification creation part of army exercises. The German leaders had realized that these field fortifications would be invaluable if the German army ever was in a position where they needed to defend against the advance of a foe. Compare this to the British and French doctrine that was actively averse to such defenses. At the same time that the Germans were digging in both sides were starting to pull troops from the south to bolster their lines in the north. This movement meant that both armies would be standing on the defensive in the south as the troops simply wouldn’t be available to carry out offensive operations. This movement is what begins a trend that you will see throughout this episode where the commanders of the armies are constantly setting their troops in the southern edge of the battle on the defensive so that they can be stripped of troops to be moved north to try and outflank the enemy. This type of movement would be the cause of the Race to the Sea. Right now we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves, so let’s get back to the banks of the Aisne.

The Aisne is a deep and wide river and thankfully for the Entente troops when the battle began there were still bridges that they could use to cross. There was a 500 foot high ridge behind the river that the Germans had fortified which gave them a nice view of the battlefield in front of them. On this line was the soldiers of the German First and Second armies that had been fighting since Liege. At the Marne they had been exhausted and while they had been digging in on the Aisne they were able to receive some rest which was critical. They would be reinforced by the Seventh Army that was being brought in from Alsace. It was originally thought that this army would be moved in from Alsace and would be used to resume the offensive but instead it would end up being used to fill the gap that still existed between the First and Second army. The primary French troops making the assault were the Fifth and Sixth armies which you may remember from the Battle of the Marne, these troops had been on the move since the Battle of the Marne and they probably wouldn’t fall into anybody’s definition of fresh. They had however, much like their German counterparts, received some reinforcements from the South. The British would play a big role in the fighting on the Aisne and they would use pretty much the entirety of their small army during the fighting.

British troops would be the first to cross the Aisne river on September 13th and begin the attack on the German lines. They were lucky enough to find an intact bridge and they used it to push strongly against the German lines. In his book a World Undone G.J. Meyer quotes a German officer, this is a pretty long quote, but worth it “Three days ago our division took possession of these heights and dug itself in. Two days ago, early in the morning, we were attacked by an immensely superior English force, one brigade and two battalions, and were turned out of our positions. The fellows took five guns from us. It was a tremendous hand-to-hand fight. How I escaped myself I am not clear. I then had to bring up supports on foot…and with the help of the artillery we drove the fellows out of the position again. Our machine guns did excellent work; the English fell in heaps.” The French Sixth army was attempting to flank the German army to the Northwest around the French city of Compeigne but they would be unable to accomplish this task in their attacks over the next few days. On the other side of the line the French Fifth Army was able to find the gap between the German First and Second army. The Seventh army was arriving but had been unable to position itself into this gap as the French began to advance. By September 14th the British troops were being told to entrench any position they were able to take across the Aisne river. By September 17th the Seventh army had managed to halt the French advance and while Joffre continued to hope that the attack would successful he was forced to admit that all that the French troops could do was “keep the enemy under threat of an attack.” During the last few days of fighting on the Aisne, before the fighting began shifting to the north the Germans were able to launch some vicious counterattacks but were unable to push the French and British back across the river.

After September 17th trench warfare developed along the line of battle that would soon spread to the entire front. Both armies were digging in around the Aisne and the battle line in this area would not change greatly for several years, even though many men would die trying. As I mentioned earlier this is when the Race to the Sea really began. By the middle of the battle on the Aisne both Joffre and Falkenhayn realized how important it was to get troops further north where the line wasn’t so settled and hard to break. They began playing a balancing act that they would be playing until November by trying to leave just enough troops on the current battleline while moving every available body further to the north to carry on the battle. Both of the armies had stripped as many soldiers from Alsace and Lorraine as possible and soon they were pulling troops from even closer to the battles as they wound north. This presented some logistical nightmares for the people responsible for moving the armies. An single army group took 140 trains to move them around and the Germans especially suffered from the damage that the rail lines had suffered in northern France at the retreat of the French and British troops. The French were in a better position because most of the rail lines on their side of the battle had not yet been touched by the battles so they were still in pretty good shape. It is important to note that while it is called the Race to Sea the armies didn’t just put on their running shoes and sprint for the English channel, the name Race to the Sea is sort of the wrong name to call it. Instead of just moving to the coast the two armies would fighting a series of running battles over the next two months as the battle just kept shifting further north.

We won’t be covering the entirety of the Race to the Sea today, or this episode would be an hour long. Instead we will just cover the first 4 of the battles. Separating these battles seems a bit arbitrary to me because they are mostly just one continuous action, but history has split them up so we shall as well. Our first battle is the Battle of Picardy, which would run from September 22nd to the 26th. This battle would be fought by the French Sixth and Second armies. If you remember the second army was originally far to the south, this is a new Second army made out of part of the second army and part of the sixth army and part of the first army. Did you get all that? Because I’m pretty confused. Basically at this point troops were moving so fast that the French and Germans were creating new armies on the fly that at times were almagamations of other armies into one. Sometimes they would get a new name like the French Tenth army that we will meet later and sometimes they just took the number of their predecessor. What this means is that if you do happen to remember anything about the positioning of the armies from before you should probably try to forget it because the same numbers will start popping up again now in very different places. So the French second army was formed out of all those pieces and put under the command of General Castelnau. It would be facing the German First and Sixth armies, the Sixth army was again an amalgamation of a bunch of German formations stripped from all along the front and put under the command of Crown Prince Rupprecht. The French would be the first to attack during the battle as they moved up the Oise river valley to try and move around the Germans on the Aisne. They ran smack into the German 6th army that was just arriving from Lorraine. The French had some initial success, mostly due to the fact that the German troops were still arriving and getting settled. As more Germans began to arrive the French advance slowed and then came to a halt. Joffre would them commit his, at this moment, last reserve corps into the battle in an attempt to keep it moving but to no avail. By September 26th the battle had stagnated and the troops began digging in. You are going to get tired of me saying this today but around the 25th the Generals began to see that attacking in this area was going to be difficult and began moving their main points of effort to the north, and on the 25th of September the Battle of Albert would begin.

As the Germans and French began moving troops to the north out of Picardy they began to meet each other in the vicinity of Albert. The Battle of Albert would run for four days between September 25-29. This is still the French Second and German Sixth Armies, on the German side it was primarily the XXI and the I Bavarian Corps who were literally just stepping of the train from Lorraine. The Germans began the attack on September the 25th and met some success along the line as the French were not well positioned this far to the north. The Germans continued to commit more troops to the battle as more arrived from Lorraine and by the 27th they had pushed back the French forces in the area, which were at this point mostly reserve formations. The German advance would start to grind to a halt around the 28th as the French moved troops to the north to meet the new German attack. Once the Germans began slowing down the French counterattacked in an effort to drive them back off of their recent gains but these attacks met with little success. As soon as the German attack began slowing on the 28th both sides began frantically digging in across the front in pretty much whatever positions they found themselves in. In the days after the 29th, when the battle is considered to have finished troops would continue the attacks in this region without any real gains to show for it. After the 29th Falkenhayn and Joffre began shifting divisions, you guessed it, to the north of Albert and into the area around Arras.

The Battle of Arras would occur from October 1 to October 4th and the Battle of Arras in 1914 shouldn’t be confused with the Battle of Arras in 1917. Yes, the two armies will be right here in 1917 which I guess spoils the results of the battle we are discussing now, but I bet you already knew the result anyway. This began as spillover from the Battle of Albert and it is also the first appearance of the French tenth army. Joffre had taken the X and XVI Corps from the Alsace Lorraine region and moved them north due by rail, using those mostly still intact French railways. The two corps were to be moved north and were to be used to turn the German flank, the goal of the French for the entire Race to the Sea. They would eventually be commanded by General Louis Maud’huy who at this point was commanding a piece of the French Second Army. At this point the Second army had grown quite large, under its umbrella were 8 corps stretching over 100 miles of front. An army this large was quickly becoming unwieldy and difficult to control, during the Battle of Arras the troops under Maud’huy would be broken off and joined with the troops arriving from the south to create the French Tenth Army.

But for right now the troops under Maud’huy were arriving in the area around Arras on September the 30th and they arrived just in time to stop the first German attack in the area which fell upon them the very next day. At this point Maud’huy thought that it was only the German cavalry and maybe some scattered infantry facing him so he probably wasn’t overly concerned. In fact at this time the 5th Bavarian reserve division was advancing toward the French city of Douai to the east of Arras and they ran into a French attack in the same area. The French were able to stop the German advance but as more German troops arrived in the afternoon of October 1st they were able to surround Douai with several thousand French soldiers still in the town. By the evening of the 1st the French had surrendered and the Germans had taken the town, with a total prisoner haul of around 2,000. On October 2nd French troops from the south started arriving in force. Really if you look at it from a modern day perspective of supply chain management this is just-in-time delivery at its finest. Troops arriving from hundreds of miles away JUST as they are needed on the front. Anyway these French troops arrive and are put in the line to try and stop the Germans from advancing to the west of Douai and onto Arras. On October 2nd the Germans were advancing over the entire line from Drocourt in the south to Frenoy in the north and on October the third their advance on the city of Arras would begin in earnest. They would reach the suburbs of the city on the third but there they would be stopped by strong French resistance. At this point the French line runs from the south, into the city of Arras and then to the north in front of Vimy Ridge. With their advance on the city halted for the moment the Germans began attacking in the north in an attempt to capture Vimy Ridge. During this fighting for Vimy ridge a gap developed in the middle of the French line that actually had the French commanders very seriously considering retreating from the area and giving it over to the Germans. The would eventually decide to stay on their current line in front of Vimy Ridge which would be under constant attack for the next few days. By October the 4th the man thrust of the action was beginning to shift to the north, but the Germans were still launching some attacks to try and capture the Ridge. On October 4th orders came down for their to be a German attack in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, which the leaders on the spot decided maybe wasn’t such a great plan. They found reasons to delay the attack and late in the evening they would finally begin their assault. This final large attack would be successful and the Germans were able to capture the town of Vimy and part of the Ridge to the west. The Germans were not able to capture the entire ridge but they were able to get a very good foothold. Over the next several days the Germans would continue small attacks in the area which allowed them capture more and more of the ridge. Finally on October 9th the French launch their final counter attack in the area but it was defeated. The attack was actually close to success, so close that all of the reserves that the Germans had in the area were quickly rushed forward to fill gaps in the line. This rushing forward of troops would cause units to get horribly mixed up and the Germans would take several days to sort out the mess that had been created.

On October 5th there would be a slight shake up of the French command structure. On that day General Foch would arrive to take command of the entire northern sector of the French armies. This was done by Joffre because as the fighting continued to expand northward and coordination between the participating armies became more and more difficult. By the 10th the fighting around Arras had died down a bit and the fighting had, any guesses?, yep, it had moved north. The action would flow into the Battle of La Bassee which was a bit more spawling of a battle that what we have discussed so far and would run from October 2 all the way to November 2, remember what I said last week about battles lasting months? This is only the beginning. This battle was fought in the area between Arras in the south and Ypres in the north. During this time the French Second army, veterans of the battles of Albert, Picardy, and Arras were pretty much just told to sit and hold the line while the primary point of effort was taken up by the French tenth army under Maud’huy. This also marks the first time we have encountered British forces on our race northward. These troops were under the command of the II Corps under General Smith-Dorrien. This marks the first appearance in the war of some of the British colonial soldiers in this case soldiers from India. Belonging to the Lahore Division these soldiers were fresh off the boats from India and as was the British custom they were all Indian soldiers with British officers. These soldiers would show incredible bravery in the coming battles, even if their dietary requirements caused some issues for British quartermasters. They would acquit themselves well on the battlefield throughout the entirety of the war and were just the beginning of the British utilizing their vast colonial empire in the fighting.

The battle began on October the 14th with the British slowly moving forward while pushing back light German resistance. At this point the German line was held mostly by thinly spread German cavalry and light infantry so they never tried to really resist the British advance and instead instituted a series of counterattacks that hindered the British and kept them off balance. The German Sixth army would begin arriving on the 18th of October and that is when the defense of the area would start to stiffen. Before the Germans were able to bring up enough men to fully stop the British advance, now with the help of the French, the Entente armies were able to capture Givenchy in the south and gain a foothold on Aubers Ridge to the east of Neuve Chapelle. By the 19th enough German troops had arrived to fully stop the British and French advance and the next day they began to counterattack. Already by the 20th you can see the tendencies of the last few weeks come into play as the British soldiers to the south of the line were already digging in while just to their north other troops were continuing to try to advance. It was actually pretty difficult to dig trenches in this area due to the high water table that made any ditch deeper than a foot fill with water, the armies in this area were forced to improvise by created breastworks above ground to try and provide some protection. It also made them great targets for artillery.

On the 21st the Germans were now on the attack and had been able to punch through the British lines near the northern edge of the battle. Throughout the day they attempted to make the breach wider and deeper but were defending against constant counter attacks. By around mid day the British were finally able to drive the Germans back thanks to great usage of supporting artillery fire. However, with these attacks the last groups of British reserve troops were put into the line, and there wouldn’t be any more until several days later. Partially due to this fact Smith-Dorrien ordered a line of defenses built to the west of the current British line, to give them something to fall back to should it be required. This line ran from Givenchy to Neuve Chapelle and then to the north it was worked on by both British engineers and French civilians. They didn’t have a ton to work with in terms of materials but they did their best. The British would fall back to these positions before the next German attack on October 24th. This attack began at 2AM and while the Germans were able to make some headway they suffered heavily at the hands of British artillery. On the evening of the 24th the Germans tried another attack, this time to the south of Neuve Chapelle to similar results. The next day they attacked yet again, this time being thrown back after hand to hand fighting. The next day, finally, there were no attacks. Also on this day the British reinforcements began to arrive.

On October 26th the Germans would attack again towards Neuve Chappelle and this time they were able to gain a foothold in the town and to push the British back out of their positions. Early on the 27th the British tried to counterattack but these attacks were complete failures. By the evening of the 27th the British were forced to concede Neuve Chappelle to the Germans and they retreated west out of the town. They had lost a lot of men trying to defend the town. An example being three battalions which in total had 600 men, each of the battallions should have had more than that by themselves. On October the 28th the Indian troops of the Lahore division were used in an attempt capture Neuve Chappelle, they had arrived in the area just a few days before. They were brought up and the attack began at 11AM and at first they had success and were able to retake most of the town. After most of the town was taken they were then subject to murderous counter attacks by the Germans and were eventually forced to retreat. Their casualties were staggering, one Indian unit started the attack in the morning with 300 men and by nightfall they came back out with 60.

The battle line began to settle down at this point, with the Germans in command of Neuve Chappelle. More troops from India were arriving every day and they were formed into the Indian Corps which would relieve the II Corps. This relief had to be done under the cover of darkness to avoid German artillery and therefore took several days. The II Corps would get a well deserved 10 days out of the battle line, but as is the way with war, most of the units would be brought back into fighting after only a few days rest. The battle of la bassee was over and it had cost the French and British 15,000 men. The German figure was also large although an exact number isn’t know, all that is known is that it was above 6,000. What mattered was that both armies were stopped once again and the fight was shifting northward. It would move northward into the area around Ypres, an area that would consume German and British forces for the next 4 years.

This is however where we end for today and next week we won’t be coming straight back to continue our Race. Instead we will be going back into the East for the Battle of the Vistula River. We will then check in with Belgium, where the war started, to find out how the fortress city of Antwerp is holding up. Finally we will take our first trip around the world to find out why this war is truly a World War as fighting gets going everywhere there is a European colony, which is pretty much everywhere.