Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, December 20, 2014

20 December 1914: The First Battle of the Champagne Opens

After the Western Front was established General Joffre did not believe he had any choice but to keep attacking the enemy now occupying a major part of France. Also, he could not afford to let the Russians, who feared that the Germans might move massive reinforcements from west to east, believe for even a second that the French were less than determined to hold up their end of the alliance. His attention soon focused on the Champagne Region between Reims and Verdun, where the nearly level rolling terrain broken only by smaller rivers and streams made offensive operations seem feasible.

Un-Defaced: A German Medical Column Passing Through the Champagne, September 1914

This was, however, at a point in the war when the defensive advantages of the new weaponry and the trench networks still evolving were not fully evident. Attacks were ordered by Joffre all along the massive German salient into France, which had its apex near St. Quentin. The strongest of these attacks was planned to be on the salient's southside, in the Champagne, mounted by the Fourth Army and (to their east) the Second Army. It was launched on 20 December 1914 with some initial advances, but enemy counterattacks, poor quality munitions, and bad weather hindered anything more substantial. French commanders reevaluated matters and decided to narrow the focus of their attacks. Meanwhile, the German Army strengthened their second and third line defenses. The renewed French attacks began on 12 February 1915, followed a cycle similar to the December assault: initial success, difficulty advancing beyond the first line of trenches, and relentless counterattacks by the Germans. After another pause for rethinking matters, the offensive resumed on 12-16 March but no major breach could be made by attacking on the narrower fronts since any Poilus who successfully broke through were devastated by flanking fire from German artillery.

Violated: French Machine Gun Position in the Champagne, Early 1915
(Note the Chalky Soil)

These were the early lessons of trench warfare. It cost the French and German Armies 90,000 casualties each to learn them. This First Battle in the Champagne was but the beginning here — the region would become one of the greatest killing grounds of the war for the French Army. It was the site of major action in every year of the war, except 1916 when Verdun and the Somme occupied everyone's attention. The Champagne would later be remembered as  the grimmest looking battlefield of the Western Front.

Moonscape:  the Champagne after Four Years of War

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