London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Advance to the Aisne in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE ADVANCE TO THE AISNE

On the following day, September 2nd, the British Force found itself facing the Marne from the north bank, and the whole of September 3rd was occupied in getting the troops across, an operation of some little delicacy, as it involved in many cases the exposure of our flank to the enemy. During the process of transit the whole of the British cavalry—which had hitherto been distributed along the length of our line—was concentrated by the river side in the open ground at Gournay. By nightfall the whole force was on the south side and the bridges had been blown up.
The following day saw the end of the great retreat. There was, it was true, a further retirement of some twelve miles to a line running from Lagny to Courtagon, but this last proved to be the southernmost point of France which our troops were destined to see.

The British Army had now in twelve days covered a distance from Mons of 140 miles as the crow flies, and of considerably more as troops march. During these twelve days two pitched battles had been fought, in addition to many rear-guard actions and cavalry skirmishes. The bulk of the fighting had so far fallen on the 2nd Army Corp, whose casualties already amounted to 350 officers and 9,200 men. However, the long, demoralizing retreat had now at last reached the turning-point. At Rebaix we picked up 2,000 fresh troops belonging to the 6th Division. These had been trained up from the mouth of the Loire, Havre being no longer reckoned safe, and were a welcome stiffening to the footsore veterans from Mons.

The period that follows is familiarly known as the battle of the Marne, a broad classification which—as such—is allowable, but which is apt to mislead. In the strict sense there was no battle during the British advance. The fighting that took place between September 5th and September 14th was desultory, and was chiefly in the nature of independent and—to a great extent—disconnected engagements, mostly of the advance guard and rear-guard type. The tributaries of the Marne, the Grand Morin and the Petit Morin were each defended, the latter as stubbornly as was the Marne itself, and, in point of fact, some of the hardest fighting which the advancing army met with was on the 10th, after the Marne had been left well behind.

The advance at first was slow and cautious. When an army has for fourteen days been systematically falling back before an enemy, the only casualties within its ken are its own. It may be assumed—and with every right—that there are also killed and wounded among the pursuing force. But they are never seen. Only khaki-clad figures fill the field ambulances; only khaki-clad figures are left behind in the hospitals, and in the cemeteries and roadside trenches. The ever-swelling roll of "missing" is all on one side. There are no missing among those who pursue. In such circumstances, to the tired soldier-mind the pursuing enemy becomes in time invested with a species of invulnerability. At the end of fourteen days that enemy has assumed an altogether fictitious value for evil; it becomes a death-dealing engine, relentlessly sweeping up wounded and stragglers, and itself showing no scars; it inspires an all but superstitious dread. To such a frame of mind the sight of a few grey-clad figures stretched upon the ground and a few groups of grey-clad prisoners marching to the rear acts as a very salutary tonic. The scales drop from the eyes; the glamour of the unknown fades away, and the enemy sinks from its apotheosis to the level of mere mortal clay.
It took two days for this new spirit to get hold of the British force feeling its way northward. Then it got confidence and began to push; and in exact ratio to the vigour of its push was the tale of prisoners and guns captured.

The turn of the tide came on September 5th. On that day General Joffre told the Commander in Chief that he was going to take the offensive. The German advance had—as all the world now knows—swerved off from Paris towards the south-east, thereby half exposing its right flank to the 6th French Army. Gen. Joffre quickly made the exposure complete by wheeling that army towards the east, at the same time throwing forward the left of his line. Von Kluck was quick to realize that he was in a tight place, and with characteristic promptitude cleared out northwards.
The pursued army spun on its heels and followed, but followed at first with an excess of caution which was perhaps excusable in a tired army to whom anything but retreat was a new experience.

At the moment of the above surprising change in the tide of war, the 6th French Army line ran due north and east from Ermenonville to Lagny. This line was pressing eastward. The British force lay between Lagny and Courtagon, facing north, and in a continuation of the same line on our right came Conneau's cavalry and the 6th French Army.

September 6th, which was practically the first day of the advance, saw little fighting, our troops advancing some ten miles only to the line of the Grand Morin, which was not defended with any great show of vigour. We took a few prisoners only, and some maxims.

On the 7th there was much more doing, but it was chiefly cavalry work. McCracken's 7th Brigade, however, met with a fairly stubborn resistance at Coulommiers, in the course of which the S. Lancs sustained a good many casualties. De Lisle's 2nd Cavalry Brigade was, as usual, in the forefront of all that was doing. This brigade got in touch with the enemy soon after leaving Fretoy. The 9th Lancers, who were doing advance guard to the brigade, pushed on, however, with great boldness, till they reached the village of Moncel, which was found to be in occupation of German cavalry. Without a moment's hesitation, and without any knowledge of the strength opposed to it, the leading troop took the village at a gallop and cleared it of the enemy. They were, however, themselves compelled shortly afterwards to withdraw, as two fresh squadrons of the enemy—who proved to be the 1st Guard Dragoons—came down on the village from the north. At the same time a third squadron appeared to the west of the village. These new arrivals were at once charged by Col. Campbell and Major Beale-Brown at top speed with a troop and half of the 9th Lancers. They rode clean through the Germans, who faced the charge, and then—wheeling to the right—the Lancers joined up with the troop that had already entered the village.

The Germans now retreated to the north side of the village. In anticipation of this movement a squadron of the 18th Hussars had already been posted dismounted among the corn stooks on that side. These now opened fire on the retiring Germans, some seventy of whom turned and charged the dismounted Hussars in line. The latter with great nerve and steadiness let the Dragoons get within 100 yards of them, and then practically annihilated them with a volley. Only a dozen escaped.

The casualties among the 2nd Cavalry Brigade were not heavy, but Col. Campbell, while leading the charge south of the village, was wounded in the arm by a lance. Captain Reynolds at the same time was very badly wounded in the shoulder, and Lieut. Allfrey, while trying to extract the lance from the wound, was killed.

The general order was now for the British Army to advance to the north-east in the direction of Chateau Thierry and so try and reach the Marne. The country round here, however, was very difficult, especially in the thickly-wooded neighbourhood of the Petit Morin, and the advance was at first slow and cautious. The 8th Brigade on reaching the valley of the Petit Morin met with a strong resistance, which gave it some trouble before it managed to cross at Orly, where the enemy had left six machine-guns strongly posted on the opposing slope. However, after J Battery R.H.A.—which had displayed the greatest gallantry throughout these operations—had pounded the position for some time, the 4th Middlesex under Col. Hull (now the only colonel left in the 8th Brigade) and the R. Scots drew up on the edge of the wood topping the narrow valley, and at a given signal dashed down the slope to the bridge and up the far side; whereupon the Germans made off, abandoning their machine-guns, and the position was won.

In the course of this advance the R. Scots lost 2nd Lieut. Hewat, who was killed, and Lieut. Hay, who was badly wounded by two bullets in the side, but the casualties among the rank and file were not heavy. They captured some 200 prisoners in the village of Orly. The 2nd Division at La Trétoire met with a very similar resistance, but here the 2nd and 3rd Coldstream and some of the cavalry managed to get across higher up at La Force, and turned the flank of the resistance. The enemy's defence—as at Orly—proved to emanate from few men but many mobile machine-guns, which, by the time the passage had been forced, were far beyond pursuit or capture, but which had been as effective for purposes of obstruction as a brigade. The Coldstream did not dislodge the enemy without casualties, among those wounded being the Hon. C. Monk, Lieut. Trotter, Sir R. Corbet and 2nd Lieut. Jackson.
On the same day on the right of the line the Black Watch and the Camerons, the latter of whom had now been appointed to the 1st Brigade vice the Munster Fusiliers, did some very fine work between Bellot and Sablonière, and took a quantity of prisoners; but they had to fight hard for them, and both regiments had a number of casualties, Captain Dalgleish and the Hon. M. Drummond in the Black Watch being killed. The 1st Cavalry Brigade co-operated with the two Scotch regiments by attacking the village of Sablonière, which was finally captured, together with many prisoners, by the 11th Hussars. In addition to this little cavalry success, the 3rd and 5th Cavalry Brigade each had an encounter this day with German cavalry, and in both instances maintained the unquestioned superiority of the British in this particular arm of the service.

At five o'clock on the morning of the 9th the 2nd Army Corp started out for the Marne. The whole Army Corp had to cross by the one bridge at Chailly, so the operation was a protracted one, but by dark they were all across and had pushed ahead some miles north of the river. A German battery on the heights above Nanteint was attacked with great determination and captured by the Lincolns during this advance, the Germans sticking with great gallantry to their guns till every man of the battery had been killed or wounded.
The 3rd A.C, on the left of the 2nd, had considerable trouble in crossing at La Ferté. Here the bridge had been destroyed, and the north bank was strongly held by the enemy (with machine-guns as usual). The R.E. came to the rescue with a pontoon bridge, but the German fire was persistent, and it was night before the bridge was completed.
The 1st Army Corp in the meanwhile had crossed at Chateau Thierry, but not without some destructive opposition from machine-guns.

On the morning of the 10th the advance became a race between the 5th and the 2nd Divisions. These two set out northwards at 5 a.m. covered by Gough with the 3rd and 5th Cavalry Brigade The 3rd Division had been stopped at Germigny, and had consequently fallen behind, and the 4th and 6th Divisions—as we have seen—had to put up with a long wait at La Ferté. The advance was therefore in the shape of a wedge, the effect of which was to threaten the flank of the Germans in front of the 6th French Army and cause them to retire with considerable haste. By midday, however, the 3rd Division on our left had all but come up into line, and the formation became more orthodox again. Our aeroplanes, favoured by beautiful weather, were now doing fine work, and, by the information they gave, made it possible to push the advance right up to the line of the Ourcq. There was little serious opposition, but desultory fighting took place here and there all along the line, and at Montreuil the Cornwalls suffered some serious losses.
We captured a number of prisoners during this advance to the Ourcq. The 9th Brigade alone took 600 north of Germigny, and at Haute Vesnes the 6th Brigade captured 400 and put as many more hors de combat, the 1st King's Royal Rifles (60th), who were well supported by the 50th Battery R.F.A., being the main contributors to this result. In all, we took over 2,000 prisoners that day and many guns. The woods were everywhere full of stragglers, many of whom were only too glad to surrender. Others, however, put up a fight and were only taken after a stubborn resistance.

On the 11th Gen. Joffre shifted the advance half a point to the east, the effect of which was to narrow the front of the British troops and so cause a good deal of congestion on the few roads at our disposal.
On this day a sudden and very abominable change came over the weather, the wind chopping round to the north-west, and the temperature dropping in one day from great heat to bitter cold. Rain fell continuously, and there was wide-spread lamentation over the greatcoats thrown away in the heat of the Mons retreat.