If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Sun Down

Last week's update has been incredibly well received.  Today, the series on the opening of the war and how the Western Front developed continues, with a look at the actions that occurred between the rivers Marne and Aisne in mid September 1914.  As these essays are meant to be educational in tone, I certainly appreciate any feedback the reader may have in either comments, questions or suggestions.  You can follow "If Ye Break Faith" on social feeds, including Twitter and Facebook.

 A strong advance had pushed the French and British back, putting Paris in danger and the Germans tantalisingly close to completing their campaign.  Needing to take a stand somewhere before all was lost, the French Commander in Chief, Joffre, announced to his officers, “We will fight on the Marne.”[1]  So desperate was he to prevent a complete collapse, of the calculated withdrawal becoming a rout, he added “Under present conditions, no weakness will be tolerated.”[2]

The reversal at the Battle of the Marne “was not decided by a single brilliant master-stroke or decisive breakthrough: ultimately the will of the commanders was no less important than that of the exhausted young men who actually did the fighting”[3]  

There is a sport, very little known, which sees competitors alternate between playing a game of chess and rounds of boxing.  Both on their own are analogous to warfare; together they sum up the combination of intellectual and physical components of war quite well.  For, if a competitor gets trounced in the ring, he may not fare too well in making sound movements on the board.  Likewise, if he’s concentrating too much on his piece moves when on the canvas, he’s likely to have a loose guard.  Such is what faced the Germans and the allies in the West in early September 1914.  Both armies were showing the strain that modern war would place upon body and mind.  Several things of both natures were to contribute to events unfolding as they did, and all taken together show how the war, begun with grand schemes of movement and manoeuvre would grind down to a nearly unbreakable halt and years of static warfare.

First, “it is necessary, however, to take account of the situation on other parts of the battlefront for unless the Germans intentions elsewhere had been frustrated, Joffre’s victory would have been impossible and defeat probable.”[4] In the south, the French army’s major effort into Alsace Lorraine as dictated by the stratagem known as Plan XVII had met their opposition, the blocking force covering the sweeping flank of the Schlieffen Plan.  Fairly evenly matched, both forces made gains and losses at terrible cost, but no advantage to either side.  For the Germans, this was less critical as their battle was meant to be won by the Armies further north falling upon Paris.  Ideally they were to have reduced the French, but at minimum they merely needed to hold them in place.  Conversely, the French could not yield too much, in fact to win the war on their terms; the Germans along the frontier must be eliminated.  Concurrently, with the failure to check the German right and the retreat towards the capitol, French units in this centre would have to stand fast in order to prevent the whole front from collapsing.  The terrain and border fortifications, such as those at Verdun proved sufficient to slow German progress here, where the south-eastern apex of Germany’s advance of the entire war was reached.[5]

Even though the German strategy had been hugely successful, things were beginning to go wrong.  The strong right wing of the Schlieffen Plan consisted of four Armies, notwithstanding having been reduced at the outset to reinforce the centre made up of the remaining three Armies.  All these Armies totalled nearly three million men and were controlled centrally by the Chief of the General Staff, Helmut von Moltke, whose headquarters was in Luxembourg, one hundred seventy miles away from the front line.[6] Despite the vaunted expertise the German Imperial Staff was noted for, it was not foreseen that such numbers required a level of command and control (Army Group) in between that of Army and General Headquarters.  An Army Group would have bound two or more Armies together and have an operational headquarters much closer to the front.  Without this, the four Armies outside Paris began to develop gaps between each other as their commanders fought their battles, with no ability to coordinate between flanking units.  Worse, Generalobersst Alexander von Kluck, commanding 1st Army ignored an order from Moltke to halt as an effort to maintain cohesion.  He was too eager for the notoriety of capturing Paris.

Kluck’s indolence would cost dearly.  The hastily reinforced French 6th Army collided with Kluck’s, effectively stopping his victorious advance.  The French organisation was missing the same penultimate level of command as the Germans, but their good fortune in being pushed back so far was that the 5th, 9th and 4th Armies opposite the Germans near Paris were more consolidated, and were within reasonable distance of Joffre’s headquarters (Grand Quartier Général-GQG), which had been at Vitry-le-François on the River Marne and had moved back as the Armies had withdrawn.

In deciding to face west to meet the French 6th Army, Kluck’s forces became further estranged from von Bülow’s 2nd Army, creating a thirty mile gap[7] that Joffre chose to exploit.  If he could move quickly, the entire tactical situation may be reversed.  Joffre would need every asset he could spare.  His problem was that most of his Armies were engaged elsewhere along the line and he couldn’t rely on the British Expeditionary Force to help.  Field Marshall Sir John French was operating within the mandate given to him by his superiors, which read in part “It must be recognised from the outset that the numerical strength of the British force and its contingent reinforcement is strictly limited.”[8] After holding actions at Mons and Le Cateau, he had adduced his losses as critical and brought the BEF out of the line.

Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener had come to Paris to meet with the BEF’s commander.  It is not known what transpired in that encounter, but a subsequent appeal to French’s honour as a British gentleman by Joffre secured the Field Marshall’s cooperation.

French’s prevarications had caused a delay in the proposed counter attack, usually a flaw in offensive operations.  In this case, it proved an advantage.  In the interim, Kluck had shifted his lines to meet 6th Army, where he supposed the real threat to be, in turn widening the gap he had created a further five miles.[9] The BEF and the French 5th Army were able to push successful attacks on the exposed German flanks at the edge of this empty space, driving a wedge between the two German Armies.

The clock had run out for Moltke.  A plan anticipated to have Paris in hand within forty days had failed.  With his armies spaced too thin and out of touch with each other, pursuing the advance was dangerous.  The longer they remained forward, the more disparate these units might become.  Supply and reinforcement along extended lines would become difficult.  If the BEF and the French fully exploited the gap between 1st and 2nd Armies, these lines of communication might be cut altogether.  Moltke found he had little choice but to collapse his line and consolidate all his armies.  On the 10th of September, contradicting his former orders to maintain the offensive and despite some successful counter attacks near Verdun, Moltke ordered a general retreat.

As had the French, just days before, the Germans now gave ground in an attempt to gain strength and buy time.  The Germans still had a particular advantage.  While morale might suffer through the act of withdrawing across recently captured land so dearly paid for, the choice was theirs to pick the ground on which they would make their stand.  Along the banks of the Aisne river, with low hills and great fields of observation German units began to dig in and wait for the allies pursuing them to come within range.  The first spades-full of earth of the fortification of the Western Front were being turned.

In the first forty days of the war, for a cost of more than 660 000 casualties[10] the war in the west had failed to be won or lost with the decisive plans of either side, and was slowly descending into stalemate.  

[3] Holmes, Richard “The Western Front” BBC Books, 1999, pg 51
[4] Liddell Hart, Basil “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1972, pg 88
[5] Liddell Hart, Basil, ibid. pg 89
[6] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg 208
[7] Liddell Hart, Basil, ibid. pg 89
[8] Holmes, Richard, ibid. pg 46
[9] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg 117
[10] http://eng.wikipedia.org, entry “Battle of the Frontiers”

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