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

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Launching the Race to the Sea: September 1914

Early British Trenches On the Aisne

One aspect of the post-Marne war of movement that is mislabeled and usually under-discussed is the "Race to the Sea,” conducted from mid-September to mid-October 1914. It is mislabeled because it was neither a race nor headed to the sea but actually a succession of abortive attempts to gain the northern flank of the opposition. For this article's purpose, what is neglected in accounts is that the combatants each at least twice came close to turning or closing off that flank. A key figure from that period, General Joseph Gallieni, is supposed to have said: “the Allies were always 24 hours and an Army Corps behind the Germans." This is true in one sense—the Allies (French forces in the key locations) were rarely able to follow Bedford Forrest's advice (Get thar the furstest with the mostest) well enough to be in a position to turn the German flank—but misleading in another. They repeatedly moved quickly enough to frustrate their enemy's moves, and the Germans sometimes managed to miss their own opportunities.

During this period, whole armies from both sides were maneuvering and engaged in intense, desperate combat. Tens of thousands of soldiers were confronting one another over a battlefield eventually stretching 125 miles in length. It was almost comparable to the Battle of the Marne in the scope of the battle and its fateful importance. In the cross-France movement of armies and mobilization of new formations, it was similar as well to the build-up before the Battle of the Marne—with some difference. Before the Marne, General Joffre and his staff had shorter distances to shift troops, since, as his forces retreated, his position became more compact. After the Marne, it was the German Army retreating and drawing back on their lines of communication, reversing the situation. This is why they were often a little speedier in extending the lines during the Race to the Sea. Also, the German Army had a new supreme commander.

French Cavalry

The Battle of the Marne had ended the career of Helmuth von Moltke. His duties were absorbed in mid-September 1914 by the war minister, Lt. General Erich von Falkenhayn. Holding both posts Falkenhayn guided the empire's fortunes during the Second War of Movement. He shifted his armies artfully, coming close at times to turning the Allies' flank, while reorganizing the field forces and improving their supply.

He had gained high offices applying a unique formula of detached analytical thinking, aloofness, and personal charm to overcome his disadvantageous Bohemian and Austrian ancestry. Falkenhayn had supported war in 1914, made himself indispensable when hostilities broke out, and had won the admiration of Kaiser Wilhelm as well as the circle of the Crown Prince, his one-time student.

German Infantry On the March

Stuck on the ridges above the River Aisne, both commanders, Joffre and Falkenhayn, decided concurrently to attempt to flank their enemy to the north and ordered preliminary attacks along the Oise River, which flows into the Aisne near Compiègne from the northeast. Joffre made the first move, using Maunoury’s Sixth Army in an advance up the Oise, at the western end of the Aisne battlefield. Joffre ordered Maunoury to advance on the right bank of the river, giving him more space to move around the German flank (Kluck’s First Army). Instead, the French Sixth Army moved up the left bank, nearer the Germans, and did not cross over to the north until 17 September. 

By that point, Kluck had already moved his own right wing across the river, and the French advance stalled. Having attempted to turn each other's flanks with troops already on the Aisne, both Joffre and Falkenhayn now brought in new armies from Lorraine. The French Second Army (Castelnau) formed up south of Amiens, the German Sixth (Crown Prince Rupprecht) around St. Quentin. The Germans also used their Seventh Army (Heeringhen), which had earlier been used to plug a gap on the Aisne. These probes on 17 and 18 September proved indecisive. However, as described above, both sides were also moving additional armies into the region, and they were ready a few days later to resume fighting on a broader front across Picardy.

Source: Originally presented in the March 2021 St. Mihiel Tripwire

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