First Battle of the Aisne
The First Battle of the Aisne was the Allied follow-up offensive against the right wing of the German First Army
German First Army
-First World War:The 1st Army during World War I, fought on the Western Front and took part in the Schlieffen Plan offensive against France and Belgium in August 1914. Commanded by General Alexander von Kluck, the 1st Army's job was to command the extreme right of the German forces in attacking...

 (led by Alexander von Kluck
Alexander von Kluck
Alexander Heinrich Rudolph von Kluck was a German general during World War I.- Military career :He enlisted in the Prussian army in time to serve in the seven-week Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War, where he was wounded twice in the Battle of Colombey-Neuilly...

) & Second Army
German Second Army
The 2nd Army was a World War I and World War II field army.-First World War:The 2nd Army during World War I, fought on the Western Front and took part in the Schlieffen Plan offensive against France and Belgium in August 1914...

 (led by Karl von Bülow
Karl von Bülow
Karl von Bülow was a German Field Marshal commanding the German 2nd Army during World War I from 1914 to 1915.-Biography:...

) as they retreated after the First Battle of the Marne
First Battle of the Marne
The Battle of the Marne was a First World War battle fought between 5 and 12 September 1914. It resulted in an Allied victory against the German Army under Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. The battle effectively ended the month long German offensive that opened the war and had...

 earlier in September 1914. The offensive began on the evening of 13 September, after a hasty pursuit of the Germans
German Empire
The German Empire refers to Germany during the "Second Reich" period from the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Emperor, Wilhelm II.The German...



When the Germans turned to face the pursuing Allies on September 13, they held one of the most formidable positions on the Western front. Between Compiègne
Compiègne is a city in northern France. It is designated municipally as a commune within the département of Oise.The city is located along the Oise River...

 and Berry-au-Bac
Berry-au-Bac is a commune in the department of Aisne in Picardy in northern France.-References:*...

, the Aisne River
Aisne River
The Aisne is a river in northeastern France, left tributary of the river Oise. It gave its name to the French département Aisne. It was known in the Roman period as the Axona....

 winds westward and is about one hundred feet wide, ranging from twelve to fifteen feet deep. Low-lying ground extends a mile on each side, rising abruptly to a line of steep cliffs three to four hundred feet high, then gently leveling to a plateau. The Germans settled on the higher northern side two miles (3 km) beyond the crest, behind a dense thicket that covered the front and slope.

Low crops in the unfenced countryside offered no natural concealment to the Allies. Deep, narrow paths cut into the escarpment at right angles, exposed infiltrators to extreme hazard. The forces on the northern plateau commanded a wide field of fire.

In a dense fog on the night of September 13, most of the BEF crossed the Aisne on pontoons or partially demolished bridges, landing at Bourg-et-Comin
Bourg-et-Comin is a commune in the department of Aisne in Picardy in northern France.-References:*...

 on the right and at Venizel
Venizel is a commune in the Aisne department in Picardy in northern France.-Population:...

 on the left. At Chivres
Chivres is a commune in the Côte-d'Or department in eastern France.-Population:-References:*...

 east of Venizel was an escarpment the Germans had selected as their strongest position. The French Fifth Army crossed the Aisne at Berry-au-Bac and captured the eastern tip of Chemin des Dames
Chemin des Dames
In France, the Chemin des Dames is part of the D18 and runs east and west in the département of Aisne, between in the west, the Route Nationale 2, and in the east, the D1044 at Corbeny. It is some thirty kilometres long and runs along a ridge between the valleys of the rivers Aisne and Ailette...

, a steep ridge named after the royal coach road Louis XV had built for his daughters. Contact was established along the entire front. East of Chemin des Dames, the French Fourth
Fourth Army (France)
The Fourth Army was a Field army of the French Army, which fought during World War I and World War II.-World War I:*General Fernand de Langle de Cary *General Henri Gouraud...

, Fifth and Ninth
Ninth Army (France)
The Ninth Army was a Field army of the French Army during World War I and World War II. It initially was the only part of the French army that faced the Germans directly as they came unexpectedley through the Ardennes during the early stages of the Fall of France.-World War I:*General Ferdinand...

 armies made only negligible progress beyond the positions they had reached on September 13.

Under the thick cover of the foggy night, the BEF advanced up the narrow paths to the plateau. When the mist evaporated under a bright morning sun, they were mercilessly cross-raked by fire. Those caught in the valley without the fog's protective shroud fared no better.

Trench warfare begins

It soon became clear that neither side could budge the other and since neither chose to retreat, the impasse hardened into stalemate that would lock the antagonists into a relatively narrow strip for the next four years. On September 14, Sir John French
John French, 1st Earl of Ypres
Field Marshal John Denton Pinkstone French, 1st Earl of Ypres, KP, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCMG, ADC, PC , known as The Viscount French between 1916 and 1922, was a British and Anglo-Irish officer...

 ordered the entire BEF to entrench but few digging tools were available. Soldiers scouted nearby farms and villages for pickaxes, spades and other implements. Without training for stationary warfare, the troops merely dug shallow pits in the soil. These were at first intended only to afford cover against enemy observation and shell fire. Soon the trenches were deepened to about seven feet. Other protective measures included camouflage and holes cut into trench walls then braced with timber.

Trench warfare was also new for the Germans, whose training and equipment were designed for a mobile war to be won in six weeks, but they quickly adapted their weapons to the new situation. Siege howitzers now lobbed massive shells into Allied trenches. Skillful use of trench mortars, rifle grenades and hand grenades (first used against English troops on September 27), enabled the Germans to inflict great injuries upon Allied troops, who had neither been trained nor equipped with these weapons. Searchlights, flares and periscopes were also part of the German equipment intended for other purposes but put to use in the trenches.

A shortage of heavy weapons handicapped the British. Only their 60-pounders (four to a division) were powerful enough to shell enemy gun emplacements from the Aisne's south shore, and these guns were inferior to German artillery in caliber, range and numbers. Four batteries of 6 inches (152.4 mm) guns (a total of sixteen) were rushed from England. Though a poor match against the German 8 inches (203.2 mm) howitzers, they helped somewhat. Defensive firepower was limited to rifles and two machine guns alloted to each battalion. The British regulars were excellent marksmen but even their combined accuracy was no match for the German machine guns and grenades.

The British had equipped very few of their aeroplanes with wireless and they were used to report troop movements. It was only natural for aviators to recognize the advantage of observing artillery fire. On September 24, Lieutenants B.T. James and D.S. Lewis detected three well-concealed enemy gun batteries that were inflicting considerable damage on British positions. They radioed back the location of the batteries, then droned in a wide circle waiting to spot their own gunners' exploding shells. Anti-aircraft fire was desultory and inaccurate. The German army used only percussion shells of which, according to Canadian sources, "not one in several hundred ever hit its aerial target, and fell to earth frequently at some point in the British lines and there burst."

Race to the Sea

For a three-week period following the unexpected development of trench warfare, both sides gave up frontal assaults and began trying to encircle each other's flank. The period is called "Race to the Sea
Race to the Sea
The Race to the Sea is a name given to the period early in the First World War when the two sides were still engaged in mobile warfare on the Western Front. With the German advance stalled at the First Battle of the Marne, the opponents continually attempted to outflank each other through...

." As the Germans aimed for the Allied left flank, the Allies sought the German right wing.

The western front thus became a continuous trench system of more than 400 miles (643.7 km). From the Belgian channel town of Nieuport
Nieuport, later Nieuport-Delage, was a French aeroplane company that primarily built racing aircraft before World War I and fighter aircraft during World War I and between the wars.-Beginnings:...

, the trench lines ran southward for some hundred miles, turning southeast at Noyon
Noyon is a commune in the Oise department in northern France.It lies on the Oise Canal, 100 km north of Paris.-History:...

 continuing past Reims
Reims , a city in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, lies east-northeast of Paris. Founded by the Gauls, it became a major city during the period of the Roman Empire....

, Verdun
Verdun is a city in the Meuse department in Lorraine in north-eastern France. It is a sub-prefecture of the department.Verdun is the biggest city in Meuse, although the capital of the department is the slightly smaller city of Bar-le-Duc.- History :...

, Saint-Mihiel
Saint-Mihiel is a commune in the Meuse department in Lorraine in north-eastern France.-History:Saint-Mihiel was captured by the Germans in the first year of World War I, and was re-captured during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel from 12 September to 19 September 1918, during World War...

 and Nancy; then cutting south again to the northern Swiss border twenty miles (32 km) east of Belfort
Belfort is a commune in the Territoire de Belfort department in Franche-Comté in northeastern France and is the prefecture of the department. It is located on the Savoureuse, on the strategically important natural route between the Rhine and the Rhône – the Belfort Gap or Burgundian Gate .-...


The BEF, left exhausted by the Aisne battle, remained relatively inactive. It was mainly the French who engaged the Germans in the "Race" but the British grew increasingly alarmed as the Germans advanced. Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...

, First Lord of the Admiralty, determined to prevent the Germans from capturing other channel ports which could be used as bases to attack English shipping. In late September, he arrived in France to arrange the transfer of the BEF to the north. By October 10 all but one corps had reached their staging areas in the Saint-Omer
Saint-Omer , a commune and sub-prefecture of the Pas-de-Calais department west-northwest of Lille on the railway to Calais. The town is named after Saint Audomar, who brought Christianity to the area....

-Communications:The town enjoys excellent rail connections, with frequent daily services to Lille and Paris, some by High Speed Line. There is a small international airport, concentrating on business flights, at Merville-Calonne just 12 kilometre / 8 miles away...

 area, where the last camouflaged move was not detected by air reconnaissance until October 8, too late to muster adequate forces against the British.

Meanwhile, the Belgian Army became a growing threat to German communications as the battle shifted northward. The Germans made plans on September 28 to capture the port of Antwerp and crush the Belgian forces. This important maritime city was encircled by an obsolete fortress system that could not withstand even 6-inch shells. An outer ring of eighteen forts ranged from seven to nine miles from the city, an inner ring from one to two miles. Each fort was armed with two machine guns, but lacked telephone communications and means for observing gunfire. One 6-inch gun poked out at each mile, none of these forts had high explosive projectiles or smokeless gunpowder and several thousand surrounding acres had been cleared to provide unobstructed fields of fire.

At daybreak on September 29, General Hans von Beseler, called from retirement at the age of sixty-five, arrayed six divisions in an arc facing the outer ring of forts. The heavy siege howitzers that had destroyed the defenses of Namur
Namur (city)
Namur is a city and municipality in Wallonia, in southern Belgium. It is both the capital of the province of Namur and of Wallonia....

 and Liège
Liège is a major city and municipality of Belgium located in the province of Liège, of which it is the economic capital, in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium....

 had been placed well beyond the range of Belgian artillery. Aided by aircraft spotting, German gunners quickly found their targets. Belgian guns belched dense, black smoke puffs revealing their exact location and the fields cleared by the defenders deprived the forts of any concealment. Two of the forts were quickly reduced to rubble; the others fell in methodical succession. Without waiting for the outcome, the Belgian government and 65,000 troops departed from Ostend
Ostend  is a Belgian city and municipality located in the Flemish province of West Flanders. It comprises the boroughs of Mariakerke , Stene and Zandvoorde, and the city of Ostend proper – the largest on the Belgian coast....

 that night, leaving an army of 80,000 to hold off the enemy. Next day the entire outer ring collapsed, prompting a mass evacuation of civilians to neutral Holland. A British Royal Marine Division joined the defending troops during the attack, but even this combined force was unable to stem the German drive. After six days of stubborn fighting, the remaining garrison retired across the Scheldt River to the southern border of Holland, while the rest of the Belgian army retreated to the South, subsequently attaching itself to General Foch
Ferdinand Foch
Ferdinand Foch , GCB, OM, DSO was a French soldier, war hero, military theorist, and writer credited with possessing "the most original and subtle mind in the French army" in the early 20th century. He served as general in the French army during World War I and was made Marshal of France in its...

's Ninth Army
Ninth Army (France)
The Ninth Army was a Field army of the French Army during World War I and World War II. It initially was the only part of the French army that faced the Germans directly as they came unexpectedley through the Ardennes during the early stages of the Fall of France.-World War I:*General Ferdinand...


There were two later battles on the Aisne
Aisne is a department in the northern part of France named after the Aisne River.- History :Aisne is one of the original 83 departments created during the French Revolution on 4 March 1790. It was created from parts of the former provinces of Île-de-France, Picardie, and Champagne.Most of the old...

; The Second Battle of the Aisne
Second Battle of the Aisne
The Second Battle of the Aisne , was the massive main assault of the French military's Nivelle Offensive or Chemin des Dames Offensive in 1917 during World War I....

 (April-May 1917) and the Third Battle of the Aisne
Third Battle of the Aisne
The Third Battle of the Aisne was a battle of the German Spring Offensive during World War I that focused on capturing the Chemin des Dames Ridge before the American Expeditionary Force could arrive completely in France. It was one of a series of desperate offensives, known as the Kaiserschlacht,...

 (May-June 1918).

See also

  • La Ferté-sous-Jouarre memorial
    La Ferté-sous-Jouarre memorial
    The La Ferté-sous-Jouarre memorial is a World War I memorial in France, located on the south bank of the River Marne, on the outskirts of the commune of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, 66 kilometres east of Paris, in the department of Seine-et-Marne...

  • Ronald Simson
    Ronald Simson
    Ronald Francis Simson, was a Scottish rugby union player for . Simson was the first rugby international - of any nationality - to die in the war...

    , rugby player - the first rugby internationalist to die during the war, killed in this battle.
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