London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Passage of the Aisne in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE PASSAGE OF THE AISNE

On September 12th the battle of the Aisne may be said to have begun. The first and second stages of the war, the retreat from Mons, and the advance from the Grand Morin, were of the past. The third stage—the passage and occupation of the Aisne by our troops—covers a period of some four weeks, the greater part of which was, comparatively speaking, barren of incident. The first three days, however, were eventful, and the 14th saw one of the most stubbornly contested battles of the war. This will be dealt with in its place.

The 12th saw the first real check to our fifty-mile advance. Very early in the day it became apparent to our commanders that the retreat of the Germans had been in accordance with a plan pre-arranged (in the event of certain happenings) and that the pursued now definitely stood at bay. The situation was not one to encourage a reckless offensive. A wide valley some two miles across, down the centre of which wound the sluggish Aisne, now swollen and discoloured by the rains; steep down-like bluffs on either side of the valley, furrowed by deep-cut roads that twisted down to the lower ground—the bluffs in many places thickly and picturesquely wooded. To the west Soissons, to the east Rheims; and in face, on the opposite slope, the great German Army. It was not known at the time that, on the Craonne plateau crowning the slopes opposite, the forethought of the Germans had prepared in advance a complete system of very elaborate trenches, of a kind then new to warfare, but since horribly familiar. These were supplemented in many cases by the old stone quarries and caves which run the length of the heights.
Such was the scene in which the German and the Allied armies were destined to face one another for over a year, dealing out ceaseless death, desolation and pain, and gaining no fraction of military advantage for either side. That this was so is now history, but on September 12th, 1914, the future was still the future, and neither side had as yet had experience of the dead-wall method of fighting which has ever since characterized the Great War. The British commanders therefore, and the troops under them, prepared to push on with all the enthusiasm inspired by the events of the past week.

The first honours in the opening of this new act of the war-drama fell to the 1st Cavalry Brigade who in the early hours of the morning were ordered to get possession of the village of Braine, a place of some importance, as it commanded the only road down to Missy on the southern side of the valley. The place was held by a battalion of German infantry, the houses loop-holed, and the streets barricaded. The 1st Cavalry Brigade advanced from Cerseuil to the edge of the valley, and, leaving their horses on the high ground, made down the slope to the river on foot. The place was stubbornly defended, and was not taken without a certain amount of loss on our side, Captain Springfield in the Bays being killed, and Captain Pinching wounded, but after some rather fierce house-to-house fighting in the main street, the place was eventually captured and cleared of the enemy by nine o'clock, the German casualties amounting to some 300.

Sir Hubert Hamilton thereupon advanced the 3rd Division to Brenelle, while Sir Charles Fergusson passed on with the 5th Division through the captured village of Braine to Sermoise. Away on the right the 1st and 2nd Divisions advanced as far as Courcelles and Vauxcéré.
The first infantry division to come into action in the Aisne valley was the 4th, under Gen. Snow, who—having crossed the Ourcq unopposed—arrived at Buzancy on the morning of the 12th and found the right of the 6th French Army bombarding the Germans, who were in occupation of the Mont de Paris, just south of Soissons. Snow at once chimed in with his own guns, and a tremendous artillery duel resulted, in which the Germans after a time threw up the sponge and made off across the Soissons bridge, which they destroyed behind them.

The 3rd and 5th Cavalry Brigade were in the meantime at Chaudun awaiting developments.

The south side of the Aisne was now clear of the enemy, and the problem arose as to how best to get our troops across. The weather was still as bad as could be, with a bitter cold driving rain from the north-west which made any air reconnaissance an impossibility. It was essential, however, to learn the state of the bridges, so other means had to be devised. The Missy bridge was of especial importance, and Lieut. Pennycuik, R.E., volunteered to find out all about this by floating down the river on an improvised raft. This he succeeded in doing, at no little risk to himself, and reported the bridge practically destroyed, the north end having been blown up. The bridge at Condé was intact but inaccessible, the long, straight approach to it being open to concentrated machine-gun fire throughout. It had obviously been left as a bait, and to have attempted it would have been to have played straight into the enemy's hands. The question was, in fact, discussed between the Commander in Chief and Sir Horace, but they decided that, as its capture could only be effected at a great sacrifice of life, and as its possession was strategically of very little value to the enemy, it should be left alone.

On our extreme right near Bourg there was no trouble about crossing, the aqueduct, which here carries the canal across the river, having survived the attempts of the enemy to blow it up; and by this the 1st Division and some of the cavalry and artillery crossed easily enough during the middle of the day on the 13th, and pushed forward some three or four miles along the Laon road. The rest of the cavalry crossed further up the river at Villers. This wing of the army met with very little systematic opposition, but desultory shell-fire and machine-gun fire was going on all the time, and the 1st Scots Guards had some casualties, Houldsworth being killed and Monckton and Balfour wounded.

By nightfall the 1st Brigade had reached Moulins, the 2nd and 3rd Brigades being at Gény. The 5th Brigade had succeeded in reaching Pont d'Arcy by 9 a.m., but found the bridge there destroyed, one solitary girder partly submerged alone remaining, and by this they scrambled across in single file, with a blind shell-fire playing all around. Single girders, however, are not recognized as a military means of communication, so the R.E. set to work to build a pontoon bridge alongside.

The 4th Brigade, on the left of the 2nd Division, had the worst time this day; they made an attempt to cross at Chavonne itself, but were vigorously opposed, the enemy being in possession of the village, and keeping up a ceaseless machine-gun fire which cost us some good men. The Irish Guards were the chief sufferers, especially in officers, Captain Berners, Lord Guernsey and Lord Arthur Hay being killed. However, late in the afternoon, some of the 2nd Coldstream got themselves ferried across in a small boat which was found—minus oars—higher up the river, whereupon the enemy, who as usual were weak in numbers, but strong in machine-guns, made off. The rest of the brigade then crossed in single file by the remains of the bridge, which—like that at Pont d'Arcy—still offered a shaky foothold from shore to shore.