London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - The Aisne in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE AISNE

The meteoric advance of the 1st Army Corp on the 14th had left the western wing of the British force far behind. Had the 2nd Army Corp had the luck to find a bridge which had defied destruction—as was the case at Bourg—there is no knowing but that they might have pushed forward shoulder to shoulder with the 1st Army Corp and established themselves on the heights beyond. No such good fortune, however, was theirs. At Venizel, Missy and Vailly the bridges had been successfully demolished and the approaches to the river were everywhere difficult, especially at Missy, where for three-quarters of a mile the ground on the south side of the river lies flat and exposed. The bridge at Condé, as has already been explained, was intact—had, in fact, been designedly left so by the enemy—and for that very reason was outside of consideration as far as the problem of crossing the river was concerned. It became, therefore, a matter for the R.E., and with characteristic promptitude that indefatigable corps started in on its work of repair and construction. The work had to be carried out under no small difficulties, and to the accompaniment of a systematic shelling, the enemy on the heights beyond having the exact range of the river. There were considerable casualties among the Engineers. By midday, however, on the 14th the work was practically completed, the road bridges at Venizel, Missy and Vailly, and the railway bridge east of Venizel, having been repaired, in addition to which eight pontoon bridges had been thrown over the river at varying intervals. This was good work on the part of the R.E., nor did their labours begin and end with the work of repair and construction. Captain Johnstone [2] and Lieut. Flint worked below Missy all through this day up to seven o'clock in the evening, bringing back the wounded on rafts and returning with ammunition—all the time under fire. The former got the Victoria Cross for this; the latter the D.S.O.

Handicapped though they were in comparison with the 1st Army Corp by the lack of a negotiable bridge, the three divisions at the Soissons end of the line were by no means disposed to sit still while the Sappers were working at their pontoon. The 11th Brigade (in the 4th Division) got itself ferried across below Venizel early in the day, and lost no time in getting into its position to the west of Bucy, where it dug itself in near St. Marguerite. At midday the 12th Brigade were able to cross by the repaired road bridge at Venizel and they at once linked up with the 11th Brigade at Bucy, just in time to take part in an attack which was made upon the Vregny heights opposite at 2 p.m. Meanwhile a pontoon bridge was being built close to the Venizel road bridge, and by 5.30 this, too, was finished, and the 10th Brigade crossed and completed the concentration of the 4th Division.

A mile higher up, at Missy, the 5th Division was in the meantime experiencing great difficulty in getting to the river, the flat ground approaching it being swept by a murderous fire from the far side. The 13th Brigade, in fact, was foiled in all its attempts in this direction, and remained throughout the day at Sermoise. The 14th Brigade, however, managed to cross early in the afternoon at Moulins des Roches and with all the speed possible linked up with the 4th Division on its left, arriving at its post just in time to help in repelling a strong German counter-attack, which was launched against our lines at three o'clock. These two brigades in retaliation made repeated attacks on the Chivres heights during the afternoon, but without success, and at night they fell back to St. Marguerite.

The 3rd Division reached the river at Vailly. Here the bridge had been blown up, but a single plank bridged the gap made at the north end, and by this the 8th and 9th Brigades got across in single file. The 7th Brigade in the meanwhile was getting across on rafts—three men at a time—a slow and tiresome business, which occupied the whole day. It was midday by the time the 9th Brigade, which followed the 8th, had crossed by the single plank above-mentioned, but they pushed forward at once and secured the heights opposite, the R. Fusiliers establishing themselves well forward on the Maison Rouge spur to the left, and the Lincolns on the Ostel spur, within half a mile of La Cour de Soupir farm held by the Guards. Here they remained all night, but at seven o'clock next morning the R. Fusiliers were heavily attacked and driven back to the Maison Rouge farm, with the loss from among their officers of Captain Byng, Captain Cole, Captain Attwood and 2nd Lieut. Hobbs. The Northumberland Fusiliers, who had pushed forward along the road up the wooded valley between the spurs, also had serious casualties, and had to withdraw. The Lincolns at the same time were driven from the Ostel spur and by 1 p.m. had re-crossed the river to the south side.

Once more, after another very wet night, the 5th Division on the 15th attacked the Chivres heights, and, once more failing, had to fall back to a line from St. Marguerite to the bank of the river between Sermoise and Condé. There they dug themselves in and there they remained till the end of the Aisne battle. The position was very bad from a strategic point of view, as it was on the low ground by the river, with the Germans only 400 yards away on the heights beyond; but it was the best that could be done. The 5th Division was greatly upset at its second failure to take the Chivres heights. It did not realize (as, indeed, who did at that time?) that the Allied advance had reached its farthest north, and that the Chivres heights were to remain untaken by either French or English for very many months to come.

The failure of the British left to advance encouraged the Germans to deliver counter-attacks all along the line, especially against the advanced position held by the 1st Army Corp These, however, failed just as completely as had our own attempt to advance on the left. Several very determined attacks were made against the Guards' Brigade at the Soupir farm, but all were repulsed with heavy loss.
The enemy was all this time steadily outranging our artillery with its big eleven-inch guns, popularly known as "Black Marias." The difficulty of properly entrenching against this long-range cannonade was greatly increased by the scarcity of proper tools, but, by means of a mixed assortment of implements, borrowed from the farms, a certain amount of protection was secured, and this was steadily improved upon from day to day. It began to be realized by now, by all parties concerned, that these entrenchments were likely to be rather more permanent than the emergency ditches scooped out with hands and mess-tins at Mons and Le Cateau, and in point of fact the line held at this time remained practically unchanged till the removal of the troops to Flanders.

On the right the 1st Army Corp held the ground from the Chemin des Dames through Chivy to La Cour de Soupir. On their left was the 3rd Division about a mile to the north of Vailly. Then came the gap caused by the bridge at Condé being in the German hands. Beyond this the 5th Division—as we have seen—held the ground from the bend in the river east of Missy to St. Marguerite; and beyond St. Marguerite the 4th Division joined up with the 6th French Army. The 6th Division arrived at this time, thus technically completing General Pulteney's 3rd Army Corp As a matter of fact, however, the Commander in Chief, at the first, utilized the greater part of this division to strengthen the 1st Army Corp on the right, where the greatest German pressure was being felt, the remainder being held in reserve.

About noon on the 16th, the line held by the Guards' Brigade at the Soupir farm, always the special object of German attention, was treated to an exceptionally violent bombardment. So accurate, in fact, was this fire, that the Brigadier-General ordered a temporary retirement to the shelter of the road behind and below. Very shortly after this retirement had taken place, it was seen that a barn at one end of the farm buildings, which had just been vacated, was on fire. This barn was being used as a temporary hospital, and in it at the time were some fifty wounded Germans. It was clearly a case for very prompt action and very risky action, but there was no hesitation about it. Without the loss of a moment, Major Matheson, who at the time was commanding the 3rd Coldstream, called for volunteers, and accompanied by Major Steele and Drs. Huggan and Shields and some men of No. I Company under Lord Feilding, he rushed forward through the shell-fire to the blazing building. All concerned worked with such goodwill that every wounded man was successfully got into safety and with few casualties on our side, but a few minutes later Dr. Huggan, who had been very active in the rescue work, was killed by a shell which burst in a quarry into which some of the wounded had been carried. The same shell killed twelve others, including three officers of the 52nd Oxford Light Infantry who were attached at the time to the Guards' Brigade, and wounded fifty more. Dr. Huggan, who was best known as a Scotch International football player, had greatly distinguished himself on former occasions, both at Landrecies and Villers-Cotterêts, by his courage and devotion to the wounded. He was buried in the garden of the farm.
The 16th was otherwise an uneventful day, but on the 17th there was a good deal of fighting here and there, enlivened by some fine individual acts of bravery and devotion.

An incident on the right of our line at this time attracted much attention on account of the German methods which it disclosed—methods with which we afterwards became much more familiar. At the village of Troyon a captain and two subalterns and 160 men of the Northamptons had entrenched themselves by the roadside some distance ahead of the main body. Two hundred and fifty yards to their front, and separated from them by a turnip field, was a German entrenchment containing from 400 to 500 men. For five days the Northants men had to remain in trenches which were knee deep in water. Rain fell ceaselessly, and on the 17th seemed to come down harder than ever. Ague appeared among the men, and considerably reduced their effective strength. On the 15th the captain in command showed himself for a moment above the trench and was at once killed. Shortly afterwards the senior lieutenant was also killed. The command then devolved upon the junior lieutenant, who had less than a year's service.

On the 17th—to the surprise of all—the Germans were seen advancing across the turnip field holding up their hands. It was to be assumed that they too had had enough of their water-logged trenches. The Northamptons, naturally gratified at this surrender, left the trench to meet them. When, however, the German officer saw how few men they had to deal with, he changed his mind and ordered his men to charge. The young lieutenant promptly shot the German officer and a sergeant with his revolver, but was himself immediately shot down, though, strange to say, not killed. The affair, however, would obviously have gone very badly for the Northamptons, who were outnumbered by three or four to one, if the 1st Queen's, who had been looking on from the right flank, suspecting foul play, had not promptly brought their machine-gun to bear on the situation. The 1st Coldstream were also quickly on the spot, and the German force was accounted for to a man.
Further west, in the Soupir district, the Guards' Brigade, who seemed specially singled out at this period for all the enemy's most ferocious attacks, were given a particularly bad time on this day. All attacks, however, were beaten off with severe loss to the enemy.

One incident is worth recording. North of Chavonne, where the 2nd Grenadiers were posted, there was a barn from which some snipers were keeping up a very irritating fire on the battalion. There was no artillery available at the moment for its destruction, and yet its destruction was of all things most desirable for the safety of the battalion. While the problem was under consideration, Corpl. Thomas, of the 2nd Grenadiers, decided on a line of action. They were in a wheat-field in which the sheaves were stacked ready for carting. With a couple of comrades whom he persuaded to accompany him, he left the trenches, caught up a sheaf in each hand, and raced full tilt for the barn. There they piled up the sheaves against the wood-work, set fire to them and raced back again. Not a man of the party was touched, though both coming and going they ran through a hail of bullets. It is satisfactory to record that the barn burnt bravely and that the enemy retired with some rapidity. Later on, on November 6th, this same Grenadier, then a sergeant, gained the D.C.M. for another act of conspicuous gallantry.

The British force had now been five days on the Aisne, and had lost an average of 2,000 men per day. On the 17th, one of the 2,000 to fall for his country was Captain Wright, R.E. He was only a unit—one out of a host that fell; but he stands out, both on account of the manner of his death and because only a short three weeks before he had gained the Victoria Cross for great gallantry during the destruction of one of the bridges over the Mons canal. On this occasion the 5th Cavalry Brigade had to get across to the south side of the river. Now that further advance was for the time being out of the question, the north side of the Aisne was clearly no place for cavalry. So the 5th Cavalry Brigade had to get back across the pontoon bridge at Vailly. The bridge itself and both banks were under shell-fire, but Captain Wright, who was responsible for the bridge, considered himself equally responsible for the safety of those who crossed. The casualties among the cavalry were not many; but there were some; and it was while helping one of these wounded men into shelter that Captain Wright was killed.

On the night following, there was another gallant death among the Sappers. It was highly important to establish telephonic communication between the 9th Brigade on the north bank and Divisional Head Quarters on the south bank. There was no bridge and there was no boat. The river was swollen, sixty yards across and very uninviting. A private in the R.E. volunteered to try and swim across with a line; but he was a married man, and Lieut. Hutton, R.E., would not allow it. He himself took the line, plunged into the river, and very nearly got across, but was sucked under by the eddies and drowned.

Another act this day which gained no Victoria Cross was that of Captain Everlegh, of the 52nd Oxford Light Infantry, who left the shelter of his trench to help a wounded animal, and was killed by a shell in so doing. It does not detract from the nobility of the act that the animal in question was only a pig.

The German attack was still mainly confined to the right end of our line, where the Germans ceaselessly, and always unsuccessfully, tried to drive the 1st Army Corp from the heights on which they had established themselves in the first day's fighting. The Germans lost very heavily in these attacks and our own casualties were far from light. On the 20th the Aisne casualty list had mounted up to 561 officers and 13,000 men. In order to make up deficiencies, the Commander in Chief decided to send up the 18th Brigade, out of the 6th Division, just arrived, to support the 2nd Brigade on the extreme right of our line.
The 18th Brigade, on its arrival, took up a position between the 2nd Brigade and the French, with the W. Yorks as its right-hand battalion. It was this battalion's first day's fighting, and its initiation was a particularly cruel one, for the French troops, who should have protected its right, coolly went away to their dinner, leaving the flank of the W. Yorks absolutely unprotected, with the result that they found themselves mercilessly enfiladed and driven from their trenches with considerable loss. The Sherwood Foresters, also in the 18th Brigade, were in reserve down a steep slope in rear of the W. Yorks trenches. They were lying down in groups, talking over the prospects of their first day in the fighting line, when the news of the disaster above reached them. Without waiting to get into any formation, they jumped to their feet and charged up the slope. The officers were so far ahead as to be conspicuous, and nearly half of their number fell, but the survivors charged home, and, supported by some of the 4th Dragoon Guards, dismounted, led by Major Bridges, they joined up with the W. Yorks and re-took the lost trenches. The French, returning hurriedly from their dinner, full of apologies for their absence, and anxious to make reparation, put in some useful work with the bayonet on our flank.

This little affair cost us six hundred men, the Sherwood Foresters alone losing fourteen officers.

Between September 20th and 25th the battle of the Aisne seemed on the high road to die of inanition. It had come in like a lion; it went out like a very small lamb. When we use the term "battle of the Aisne" we are, of course, talking parochially. The Aisne battle has now been raging for an indefinite number of months over a front of a hundred miles. For us, however, the meaning of the term does not extend beyond the four weeks during which British and German troops faced one another between Soissons and Bourg. This is the only battle of the Aisne we are at present concerned with, and this battle began to get very quiet and uneventful. The weather, however, took a turn for the better, the wind shifting round out of the north-west, and sunshine once more took the place of the bitter rain storms of the past fortnight.

On the 25th, German activity was to some extent revived by the arrival of 200,000 reinforcements from Brussels and from the neighbourhood of Verdun. These came up by train by way of Liége and Valenciennes, and were distributed at various points along the enemy's right. The Verdun troops were reported very weary. The stimulus afforded by the arrival of these new troops was, however, merely sporadic, and from the point of view of public interest the Aisne battle may be said to have shot its bolt. Its waning days were, however, illuminated by one individual act of such remarkable courage that the history of the Aisne period would scarcely be complete without it.

On the morning of the 28th, while the 2nd Coldstream were on the left of the 4th Brigade at what was known as the Tunnel post, the men of Captain Follett's company were sent out in a very thick mist to reconnoitre. It was a risky undertaking, for the German lines were very close. Suddenly the mist lifted, and two out of the three were instantly shot, the third getting home with only a graze. As leaving them where they lay meant fourteen hours' exposure before they could be got in under cover of darkness, Pte. Dobson volunteered to try and get them in at once. The undertaking appeared on the face of it an absolute impossibility, as it involved crossing a good deal of open ground in full view of the enemy. However, Dobson crawled out and managed to reach the men, one of whom he found dead, and the other wounded in three places. He applied first-aid dressings and then crawled back. A few minutes later he crawled out again, this time in company with Corpl. Brown, the two men dragging a stretcher between them on which the wounded man was placed and dragged back into safety, none of the three being hit. It need scarcely be added that Dobson got the Victoria Cross for this most remarkable performance, Corpl. Brown being awarded the D.C.M.

Towards the end of September operations in the Champagne country, as has been said, were beginning to stagnate. The Aisne had ceased to be a battlefield on which contending forces strove for position, and met in open shock on the downs, or in the beet fields. It had degenerated into a scene of mutual siege, where, in parallel lines of trenches, two armies were content to sit down and block progress. In view of the steady decrease in the distance between the hostile trenches, artillery operations had gradually assumed a more or less complimentary character and the game of war became restricted to sniping and construction work. With each succeeding day the position became more and more aggravated as trenches were made deeper and more secure, and entanglements of all kinds reduced still further the possibility of surprise or assault. For the soldier on duty such operations have but little interest; for the historian or the student of war they have none. We may, therefore, turn without reluctance to the more general situation, which by now was rapidly beginning to develop in interest.

The end of September and the beginning of October found both the Germans and the Allied Armies extending their flanks westward. As growing familiarity with the trench system of warfare began to make it clear to both sides that no further progress was possible by means of direct pressure, the German and Allied leaders began to scent a more favourable outlet for their energies on the western flank of operations, where—and where only—a roadway still lay open. The gradual shifting of German troops westward, or, to be more accurate, north-westward, could have no meaning but that of an attempt to force their way into France along the flat plains of Western Flanders; and no sooner was such an intention made plain than a corresponding movement was made by the Allies in an endeavour to forestall the enemy and envelop his flank before he could extend it. It was clear that the German move postulated the speedy capture of Antwerp, as the fall of that fortress was a necessary preliminary to any extended movement along the Belgian seaboard. A considerable British force was in process of being sent to Antwerp, and in addition to this force, the 7th Division and 3rd Cavalry Division were landed at Zeebrugge on October 7th, with a view to co-operating either with the Antwerp troops or with the main Allied Army as circumstances dictated.

A consideration of these several important factors in the situation suggested to the Commander in Chief the desirability of entrusting the western extension movement, in the first instance, to the British Army at the moment occupying the Aisne trenches. Not only would such an exchange of positions greatly increase the facilities for bringing up supplies and for communications generally with England, but, in the event of the co-operation of the 7th and 3rd Cavalry Divisions, it would have the advantage of putting that detached body of troops in touch with the left of the main British Army and so of consolidating the command.

General Joffre at first demurred, on account of the obvious objections attending the transfer from one set of troops to another of trenches situated so very close to those of the enemy as were ours on the Aisne, such transfer only being possible at night and under the strictest precautions. The C. in C, however, was insistent, and in the end the French General was persuaded that the advantages of the plan outweighed the drawbacks. There can be no question now but that the judgment of the Commander in Chief was fully endorsed by the event.

The transfer of troops was begun on October 3rd, on which day the cavalry set out by road for Flanders, and two days later the 2nd Army Corp started entraining for St. Omer at Pont Ste. Maxence and Soissons. Nothing could have been more auspicious than the start of the cavalry as they turned their backs on the Aisne valley. The heavy rains of mid-September had been succeeded by a spell of magnificent weather, and on the morning of the 3rd it was at its best. The sun shone out of a clear sky, and, slanting over the backs of the men as they rode, fell full on the wooded slopes above Le Moncel and Chivres, where the tints of autumn were already beginning to show among the green. Below, down the valley, the winding Aisne showed up here and there, reflecting back the blue of the sky. The spirits of all ranks were in tune with the weather and the scene. Trench warfare offers no opportunities to cavalry—as cavalry—and the change westward at any rate carried with it the promise of increased action.

Footnotes
[2] Killed June 6th, 1915.