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Germans were matched against each other from opposite heights as never
before, the battle of the Aisne soon resolved itself into a series of
daily actions in which every arm of the opposing hosts engaged. There
was little rest for the troops day or night. Artillery fire beginning at
daybreak and continuing till dusk might break out again at any hour
of the night, the range of the enemy's intrenchments being known.
Frequently the artillery seemed to open fire in the still watches of the
night for no other reason than to prevent the enemy in his trenches from
getting any sleep at all, and many a man was borne to the rear on both
sides suffering from no wound, but from utter exhaustion - a state of
collapse which is often as deadly as shrapnel to the soldier in the

For weeks at a time the only real rest for many of the troops engaged
along the line of battle came in snatches of a few hours when they were
temporarily relieved by fresh troops brought up from the rear, and
these in their turn might be soon exhausted by the continuous strain of
keeping on the alert to repel attacks - or, as frequently happened, their
ranks might be decimated, or worse, when they were ordered to a charge.
Officers and men suffered alike from the strenuous nature of the demands
made upon them - and so far as actual casualties are concerned the battle
was one in which officers of all ranks, in all the armies, suffered
perhaps more severely, in proportion to the number engaged, than in any
previous battle. Hundreds of British officers, for example, were among
the victims whose bones lie rotting in the valley of the Aisne, as whole
pages of their portraits in the London journals, bearing many of the
best known names in the British Empire, testified in mute protest
against the horrors of war. And both Germany and France have a similar
"roll of honor."


While the great battle of the Rivers was in progress the most connected
stories of its daily developments came through the British official news
bureau, and these are reproduced in part in the pages that follow. The
author of these reports is believed to be Colonel Swinton, of Field
Marshal French's staff, who is generally credited with having
contributed to the literature of the war some of the most interesting
and enlightening accounts of the operations of the British and French
armies in the field. And these reports are given here, because of their
general character of apparent truth and fairness, and in the absence of
any similar reports from the other side.


The following report from the British headquarters covers the period
when the Allies' forward movement was halted along the Aisne and also
describes the terrain, or country, in which the subsequent fighting

"From Thursday, September 10, the British army made [Illustration: In
the above view the Rivers Marne, Ourcq, Aisne, Oise, and Meuse are
clearly shown, exaggerated in size for convenience of reference. The
position of the Allies September 20, 1914, is shown by a black dotted
line running from between Amiens and Peronne to Verdun and Nancy. The
German front is indicated by the shaded sections, which also show the
German lines of communication or retreat, numbered from 1 to 7. At this
time the Allies were pushing north to Arras, endeavoring to turn the
German right flank in common of General von Kluck.] steady progress in
its endeavor to drive back the enemy in co-operation with the French.
The country across which it had to force its way, and will have to
continue to do so, is undulating and covered with patches of thick wood.

"Within the area which faced the British before the advance commenced,
right up to Laon, the chief feature of tactical importance is the fact
that there are six rivers running across the direction of the advance,
at all of which it was possible that the Germans might make resistance.
These rivers are, in order from the south, the Marne, Ourcq, Vesle,
Aisne, Ailette and Oise.

"The Germans held the line of the Marne, which was crossed by our forces
on September 9, as a purely rearguard operation. Our passage of the
Ourcq was not contested. The Vesle was only lightly held, while
resistance along the Aisne, both against the French and the British, has
been and still is of a determined character.

"On Friday, September 11, but little opposition was met with along any
part of our front, and the direction of the advance was, for the purpose
of co-operating with our allies, turned slightly to the northeast.
The day was spent in rushing forward and gathering in various hostile
detachments. By nightfall our forces had reached a line north of the
Ourcq, extending from Oulchy-le-Chateau to Longpont.

"On this day there was also a general advance of the French along their
whole line, which ended in a substantial success, in one portion of the
field Duke Albrecht of Wuerttemburg's army being driven back across the
Saulx, and elsewhere the whole of the artillery of a German corps being
captured. Several German colors also were taken.

"It was only on this day that the full extent of the victory gained by
the Allies on September 8 [at the Marne] was appreciated by them, and
the moral effect of this success has been enormous. An order dated
September 6 and 7, issued by the commander of the German Seventh Corps,
was picked up. It stated that the great object of the war was about to
be attained, since the French were going to accept battle, and that upon
the result of this battle would depend the issue of the war and the
honor of the German armies.

"On Saturday, the 12th, the enemy were found to be occupying a very
formidable position opposite us on the north of the line at Soissons.
Working from the west to the east, our Third Army Corps gained some high
ground south of the Aisne overlooking the Aisne valley, to the east of
Soissons. Here a long-range artillery duel between our guns and those of
the French on our left and the enemy's artillery on the hills continued
during the greater part of the day, and did not cease until nearly
midnight. The enemy had a very large number of heavy howitzers in
well-concealed positions.

"At Braisne the First cavalry division met with considerable opposition
from infantry and machine-guns holding the town and guarding the bridge.
With the aid of some of our infantry it gained possession of the town
about midday, driving the enemy to the north. Some hundred prisoners
were captured around Braisne, where the Germans had thrown a large
amount of field-gun ammunition into the river, where it was visible
under two feet of water.


"On our right the French reached the line of the River Vesle. On this
day began an action along the Aisne which is not yet finished, and which
may be merely of a rearguard nature on a large scale, or may be the
commencement of a battle of a more serious nature.

"It rained heavily on Saturday afternoon and all through the night,
which severely handicapped transport.

"On Sunday, the 13th, extremely strong resistance was encountered by the
whole of our front, which was some fifteen miles in length. The action
still consisted for the most part of a long-range gunfire, that of the
Germans being to a great extent from their heavy howitzers, which were
firing from cleverly concealed positions. Some of the actual crossings
of the Aisne were guarded by strong detachments of infantry with

"By nightfall portions of all our three army corps were across the
river, the cavalry returning to the south side. By early next morning,
three pontoon bridges had been built, and our troops also managed to
get across the river by means of the bridge carrying the canal over the

"On our left the French pressed on, but were prevented by artillery fire
from building a pontoon bridge at Soissons. A large number of infantry,
however, crossed in single file the top girder of the railway bridge
left standing.

"During the last three or four days many isolated parties of Germans
have been discovered hiding in the numerous woods a long way behind our
line. As a rule they seemed glad to surrender, and the condition of some
of them may be gathered from the following incident:

"An officer proceeding along the road in charge of a number of led
horses received information that there were some of the enemy in the
neighborhood. He gave the order to charge, whereupon three German
officers and 106 men surrendered.


"Rheims was occupied by the enemy on September 3. It was reoccupied by
the French after considerable fighting on September 13.

"On the 12th, a proclamation, a copy of which is in the possession of
the British army, was posted all over the town. A literal translation of
this poster follows:

"'PROCLAMATION - In the event of an action being fought early today or in
the immediate future in the neighborhood of Rheims, the inhabitants are
warned that they must remain absolutely calm and must in no way try
to take part in the fighting. They must not attempt to attack either
isolated soldiers or detachments of the German army. The erection of
barricades, the taking up of paving stones in the streets in a way
to hinder the movement of troops, or, in a word, any action that may
embarrass the German army, is formally forbidden.

"'With an idea to securing adequately the safety of the troops and to
instill calm into the population of Rheims, the persons named below have
been seized as hostages by the commander-in-chief of the German army.
These hostages will be hanged at the slightest attempt at disorder.
Also, the town will be totally or partially burned and the inhabitants
will be hanged for any infraction of the above.

"'By order of the German authorities. (Signed) "'THE MAYOR.'

"Here followed the names of eighty-one of the principal inhabitants of
Rheims, with their addresses, including four priests, and ending with
the words, 'And some others.'"


The following descriptive report from Field Marshal Sir John French's
headquarters was issued September 22:

"At the date of the last narrative, September 14, the Germans were
making a determined resistance along the River Aisne. The opposition has
proved to be more serious than was anticipated.

"The action now being fought by the Germans along their line is
naturally on a scale which, as to extent of ground covered and duration
of resistance, makes it undistinguishable in its progress from what is
known as a 'pitched battle.'

"So far as we are concerned, the action still being contested is the
battle of the Aisne. The foe we are fighting is just across that river,
along the whole of our front to the east and west. The struggle is not
confined to the valley of that river, though it will probably bear its

"On Monday, the 14th, those of our troops which had on the previous
day crossed the Aisne, after driving in the German rearguards on that
evening, found portions of the enemy's forces in prepared defensive
positions on the right bank and could do little more than secure a
footing north of the river. This, however, they maintained in spite of
two counter-attacks delivered at dusk and 10 p.m., in which the fighting
was severe.

"During the 14th strong reinforcements of our troops were passed to the
north bank, the troops crossing by ferry, by pontoon bridges, and by the
remains of permanent bridges. Close co-operation with the French forces
was maintained and the general progress made was good, although the
opposition was vigorous and the state of the roads, after the heavy
rain, made movements slow.


"One division alone failed to secure the ground it expected to. The
First Army Corps, after repulsing repeated attacks, captured
prisoners and twelve guns. The cavalry also took a number of prisoners.

"There was a heavy rain throughout the night of September 14th,
and during the 15th the situation of the British forces underwent no
essential change. But it became more and more evident that the defensive
preparations made by the enemy were more extensive than was at first
apparent. The Germans bombarded our lines nearly all day, using heavy
guns brought, no doubt, from before Maubeuge as well as those with the

"All the German counter-attacks, however, failed, although in some
places they were repeated six times. One made on the Fourth Guards
Brigade was repulsed with heavy slaughter.

"Further counter-attacks made during the night were beaten off. Rain
came on towards evening and continued intermittently until 9 _a.m_., on
the 16th. Besides adding to the discomfort of the soldiers holding
the line, the wet weather to some extent hampered the motor transport
service, which was also hindered by broken bridges.

"On Wednesday, the 16th, there was little change in the situation
opposite the British; the efforts made by the enemy were less active
than on the previous day, though their bombardment continued throughout
the morning and evening.

"On Thursday, the 17th, the situation still remained unchanged in its
essentials. The German heavy artillery fire was more active than on the
previous day. The only infantry attacks made by the enemy were on the
extreme right of our position, and, as had happened before, they
were repulsed with heavy loss, chiefly on this occasion by our field


"In order to convey some idea of the nature of the fighting it may be
said that along the greater part of our front the Germans have been
driven back from the forward slopes on the north of the river. Their
infantry are holding strong lines of trenches amongst and along the
edges of the numerous woods which crown the slopes. These trenches are
elaborately constructed and cleverly concealed. In many places there are
wire entanglements and lengths of rabbit fencing.

"Both woods and open are carefully aligned, so that they can be swept by
rifle fire and machine-guns, which are invisible from our side of the
valley. The ground in front of the infantry is also, as a rule, under
cross fire from the field artillery placed on neighboring heights, and
under high angle fire from pieces placed well back behind the woods on
top of the plateau.

"A feature of this action, as of the previous fighting, is the use by
the enemy of numerous heavy howitzers, with which they are able to
direct long range fire all over the valley and right across it. Upon
these they evidently place great reliance.

"Where our men are holding the forward edges of the high ground on the
north side they are now strongly intrenched. They are well fed, and in
spite of the wet weather of the last week are cheerful and confident.


"The bombardment by both sides has been heavy, and on Sunday, Monday,
and Tuesday was practically continuous. Nevertheless, in spite of the
general din caused by the reports of the immense number of heavy guns
in action along our front on Wednesday, the arrival of the French force
acting against the German right flank was at once announced on the
east of our front some miles away by the continuous roar of their
quick-firing artillery, with which the attack was opened.

"So far as the British are concerned, the greater part of this week has
been passed in bombardment, in gaining ground by degrees, and in beating
back severe counter-attacks with heavy slaughter. Our casualties have
been severe, but it is probable that those of the enemy are heavier.

"The rain has caused a great drop in the temperature and there is more
than a distant feeling of autumn in the air.

"On our right and left the French have been fighting fiercely and have
been gradually gaining ground. One village already has been captured and
recaptured twice by each side and at the time of writing remains in the
hands of the Germans.

"The fighting has been at close quarters and of the most desperate
nature, and the streets of the village are filled with dead of both


"As an example of the spirit which is inspiring our allies the following
translation of an _Ordre du Jour_ (order of the day), published on
September 9, after the battle of Montmirail, by the commander of the
French Fifth Army, is given:

"'Soldiers: Upon the memorable fields of Montmirail, of Vauchamps,
of Champaubert, which a century ago witnessed the victories of our
ancestors over Blücher's Prussians, your vigorous offensive has
triumphed over the resistance of the Germans. Held on his flanks, his
center broken, the enemy now is retreating towards the east and north
by forced marches. The most renowned army corps of old Prussia, the
contingents of Westphalia, of Hanover, of Brandenburg, have retired in
haste before you.

"'This first success is no more than the prelude. The enemy is shaken
but not yet decisively beaten. You have still to undergo severe
hardships, to make long marches, to fight hard battles. May the image of
our country, soiled by barbarians, always remain before your eyes! Never
was it more necessary to sacrifice all for her.

"'Saluting the heroes who have fallen in the fighting of the last few
days, my thoughts turn toward you, the victors in the last battle.
Forward, soldiers, for France!'


"So many letters and statements of our wounded soldiers have been
published in our newspapers that the following epistle from a German
soldier of the Seventy-fourth Infantry regiment, Tenth Corps, to his
wife also may be of interest:

"'My Dear Wife: I have just been living through days that defy
imagination. I should never have thought that men could stand it. Not a
second has passed but my life has been in danger, and yet not a hair of
my head has been hurt.

"'It was horrible; it was ghastly, but I have been saved for you and
for our happiness, and I take heart again, although I am still terribly
unnerved. God grant that I may see you again soon and that this horror
may soon be over.

"'None of us can do any more; human strength is at an end. I will try to
tell you about it. On September 5 the enemy were reported to be taking
up a position near St. Prix, southeast of Paris. The Tenth Corps, which
had made an astonishingly rapid advance of course, was attacked on

"'Steep slopes led up to the heights, which were held in considerable
force. With our weak detachments of the Seventy-fourth and Ninety-first
regiments we reached the crest and came under a terrible artillery fire
that mowed us down. However, we entered St. Prix. Hardly had we done
so than we were met with shell fire and a violent fusillade from the
enemy's infantry. Our colonel was badly wounded - he is the third we have
had. Fourteen men were killed around me. We got away in a lull without
my being hit.

"'The 7th, 8th, and 9th of September we were constantly under shell and
shrapnel fire and suffered terrible losses. I was in a house which was
hit several times. The fear of death, of agony, which is in every man's
heart, and naturally so, is a terrible feeling. How often I have thought
of you, my darling, and what I suffered in that terrifying battle
which extended along a front of many miles near Montmirail, you cannot
possibly imagine.

"'Our heavy artillery was being used for the siege of Maubeuge. We
wanted it badly, as the enemy had theirs in force and kept up a furious
bombardment. For four days I was under artillery fire. It was like hell,
but a thousand times worse.

"'On the night of the 9th the order was given to retreat, as it would
have been madness to attempt to hold our position with our few men, and
we should have risked a terrible defeat the next day. The first and
third armies had not been able to attack with us, as we had advanced
too rapidly. Our morale was absolutely broken; in spite of unheard-of
sacrifices we had achieved nothing.

"'I cannot understand how our army, after fighting three great battles
and being terribly weakened, was sent against a position which the enemy
had prepared for three weeks, but, naturally, I know nothing of the
intentions of our chiefs; they say nothing has been lost.

"'In a word, we retired towards Cormontreuil and Rheims by forced
marches by day and night. We hear that three armies are going to get
into line, intrench and rest, and then start afresh our victorious
march on Paris. It was not a defeat, only a strategic retreat. I have
confidence in our chiefs that everything will be successful.

"'Our first battalion, which has fought with unparalleled bravery, is
reduced from 1,200 to 194 men. These numbers speak for themselves.'"


The next report from the official chronicler at the front, dated
September 24, was in part as follows:

"The enemy is still maintaining himself along the whole front, and in
order to do so is throwing into the fight detachments composed of units
from the different formations, the active army, reserve, and landwehr,
as is shown by the uniforms of prisoners recently captured.

"Our progress, although slow on account of the strength of the defensive
positions against which we are pressing, has in certain directions been
continuous, but the present battle may well last for some days more
before a decision is reached, since it now approximates nearly to siege

"The nature of the general situation after the operations of the 18th,
19th, and 20th, cannot better be summarized than as expressed recently
by a neighboring French commander to his corps: 'Having repulsed
repeated and violent counterattacks made by the enemy, we have a feeling
that we have been victorious.'

"So far as the British are concerned, the course of events during these
three days can be described in a few words. During Friday, the 18th,
artillery fire was kept up intermittently by both sides during daylight.
At night the Germans counter-attacked certain portions of our line,
supporting the advance of their infantry as always by a heavy
bombardment. But the strokes were not delivered with great vigor and
ceased about 2 _a.m_. During the day's fighting an aircraft gun of the
Third Army Corps succeeded in bringing down a German aeroplane.


"On Saturday, the 19th, the bombardment was resumed by the Germans at an
early hour and continued intermittently under reply from our guns, which
is a matter of normal routine rather than an event.

"Another hostile aeroplane was brought down by us, and one of our
aviators succeeded in dropping several bombs over the German line, one
incendiary bomb falling with considerable effect on a transport park
near LaFère.

"A buried store of the enemy's munitions of war also was found not far
from the Aisne, ten wagonloads of live shells and two wagons of cable
being dug up. Traces were discovered of large quantities of stores
having been burned - all tending to show that as far back as the Aisne
the German retirement was hurried.

"On Sunday, the 20th, nothing of importance occurred until the
afternoon, when there was an interval of feeble sunshine, which was
hardly powerful enough to warm the soaking troops. The Germans took
advantage of this brief spell of fine weather to make several attacks
against different points. These were all repulsed with loss to the
enemy, but the casualties incurred by us were by no means light.

"The offensive against one or two points was renewed at dusk, with no
greater success. The brunt of the resistance naturally has fallen on the
infantry. In spite of the fact that they have been drenched to the skin
for some days and their trenches have been deep in mud and water, and
in spite of the incessant night alarms and the almost continuous
bombardment to which they have been subjected, they have on every
occasion been ready for the enemy's infantry when the latter attempted
to assault. Indeed, the sight of the troops coming up has been a
positive relief after long, trying hours of inaction under shell fire.


"The object of the great proportion of artillery the Germans employ is
to beat down the resistance of their enemy by concentrated and prolonged
fire - to shatter their nerve with high explosives before the infantry
attack is launched. They seem to have relied on doing this with us,
but they have not done so, though it has taken them several costly
experiments to discover this fact.

"From statements of prisoners, it appears that they have been greatly
disappointed by the moral effect produced by their heavy guns, which,

Online LibraryThomas Herbert RussellAmerica's War for Humanity → online text (page 27 of 49)