SEPTEMBER 29 1914 – FIRST BATTLE OF ALBERT

The Battle of Aisne had stabilized the section of battle-front which ran West from Verdun to Noyon, and beginning with the Battle of Picardy (September 22-26), both the Germans and the Entente forces hoped to extend the West end of their line quickly North in order to gain the upper hand. Picardy had demonstrated, however, that such hopes were likely to be dampened by the blood of both armies.

Following Picardy, the active battle-front shifted just to the North as the opponents sought an unprotected flank. The resultant Battle of Albert (September 25-29) was so fast and so fierce that neither of the opponents had time to count their losses . . . troops attacked almost as quickly as they could arrive to the area, and when the contest had finally ended in an obvious draw, the opponents quickly dug trenches in whatever ground they occupied, regardless of defensibility (or the lack thereof).

Another result of the hasty extension of the lines Northward was the (sometimes temporary) appointment of new commanders to the troops quickly sent to the active flank attacks. The West flank during the Battle of Aisne, for example, had been commanded by Alexander von Kluck for the Germans, and Michel-Joseph Maunoury for the French. During the race Northward, on the other hand, both the French and the Germans had to snatch whatever commander was least pre-occupied and rush him to the active area to command the troops sent there to extend the lines.

For this Germans, this was the Crown Prince of Bavaria, Rupprecht (Rupert) Maria Luitpold Ferdinand.

Rupandlux[1]

And his French counterpart there was Noël Edouard Marie Joseph de Castelnau (often simply called Edouard Castelnau.

Édouard_de_Castelnau[1]

At this point, the Western front looked a bit like this:

Albert

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SEPTEMBER 28 1914 – DRAW AT THE BATTLE OF AISNE COMMENCES THE RACE TO THE SEA

Following the German loss of momentum in their defeat at the Battle of the Marne, and close upon it the end of the Allies’ Great Retreat, the world came to realize that the Germans would not conquer France in one sweeping blow. The Germans, however, had realized this as early as mid-September . . . or at least their Chief of General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, recognized this development. Both a conservative and a pessimist, Moltke had hedged all of his hope for German victory in the war upon that first great campaign, and seeing its defeat had robbed him of his fighting spirit. He had no desire to direct the German military any longer, and so Moltke resigned on September 14, 1914.

He was immediately replaced by Erich von Falkenhayn.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-2004-0023,_Erich_von_Falkenhayn[1]

Falkenhayn’s first act was to clean up the wreckage of Moltke’s failed campaign. As huge numbers of German troops lay scattered across the region of the Marne River, Falkenhayn ordered them to withdraw to a position approximate with the Aise river. This would enable the German troops not only to take up a better defensive position, but also give them enough respite from the enemy to build some defenses.

As the Germans retreated, elements of the Entente forces, beginning on September 13, pursued them, hoping to stay close enough upon the German heels to force them to continue retreating. Thus, the fortunes of war had changed: just as the Germans had chased the Entente forces willy-nilly Southward across much of France, the Entente not hoped to chase the Germans aggressively enough to totally reverse the situation. The most aggressive of their elements was the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) led by John French.

F.M._Sir_John_French,_Commander_in_Chief,_in_France_(Photo_24-309)[1]

French directed his British forces North over and over again, hoping to crush the defenders and therefore open a hole in the line which could then be used to flank the entire German line across Northern France. This was not to be, however, for the Germans proved quick studies to the new type of warfare demanded by the First World War. So far, their commanders had generally all learned at least two lessons so far:

1) It is easiest to take new ground by occupying the land from which your opponent has just retreated

2) A small number of adequately manned and supported machine guns can effectively nullify an attack

From September 13-27, French ordered the BEF over and again against the German defenses on the Aisne. This resulted in little more than over 13,000 British casualties. Falkenhayn had stabilized a new defensive line running (approximately) from Noyon to Verdun, acting like a massive dam to Entent forces hoping to strike Northwards.

Aisne

No doubt Falkenhayn hope to eventually use this position from which to later make a stab towards Paris, but for now, there was nothing stopping him from sliding around the left flank of the Allied forces! Indeed, the Allied commanders observed the same thing: nothing was stopping them from sliding around the German right flank! Thus began a race Northwards by the opponents, each hoping to speed around the enemy’s flank before he could throw a proper line of defense across it. Indeed, one such double flanking conflict, the Battle of Picardy, had already ended on September 26 before the contest on the Aisne had been resolved.

Falkenhayn directed a masterful extension of the German lines farther and farther to the North. Meanwhile, the French (under Joseph Joffre) and British (led by John French and assisted by Douglas Haig) meant to outrace them and move East, or at the very least keep pace with the Germans in order to prevent them from moving West.

Haig_Joffre_and_French_at_the_Front_Gws_joffrefrhaig_01[1]
(Haig, Joffre, and French)

This resulted in a battle line gradually drawn almost directly North from Noyon (September 17) up to the North Sea near Nieuport, Belgium (October 16). In the meantime, several vicious battles would be fought as each army tried to gain the others’ flank. Simultaneously, the Entente and the Germans would be staking claim to French and Belgian territory from which they would hardly move over the course of the war. Thus, the move North was only later called, inappropriately, the Race to the Sea. Instead, it was a race to gain an advantage against the enemy in order to avoid a stalemate.

It was a race in which all of the competitors lost.

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SEPTEMBER 27 1914 – THE ALLIED GREAT RETREAT FINALLY HALTS

In 1914, both the French and German militaries had the same general war strategy: attack to win. This held true for their two respective military commanders also: Joseph Joffre and Helmuth von Moltke.

fr-joffre-port[1]
(Joffre)

Joffre’s relied on tactics of unrestrained offensives in order to carry his goals, and he intended to fling his armies directly across the Franco-German border, whatever the cost . . . and indeed, that cost turned out to be high.

Vonmoltke[1]

(Moltke)

Moltke, however, relied upon a different sort of attack: an incredibly large flanking maneuver, called the Schlieffen Plan, functioning like a large wheel of German armies slicing Westward across neutral Belgium, turning South to bite Paris off from the rest of France, and finally heading East to take the remaining French armies in the rear. If it worked, every French army would either be out-flanked or eventually encircled.

west1914[1]

For the first several weeks of the war (August 1-21), Moltke grew anxious for the slow advance of the German right wing. The fortified areas at Liege and Namur had dramatically slowed the German drive. As these places eventually fell to siege, however, the German advance finally picked up steam. Meanwhile, Joffre remained oblivious to the Northern threat, and remained focused on his own attacks on the Franco-German border which turned out to be entirely fruitless. By late August the French armies in the North had given much ground to the Germans, being overwhelmed, outflanked, or both.

WWOne07[1]

As the war entered early September, even the begrudged assistance of the British Expeditionary Force barely slowed the rapid German advance. Nevertheless, Moltke’s forces were no longer heading in a direction to encircle Paris. Part of the Moltke’s problem was the inconsistent, warping effect of the Allied defense, but Moltke himself proved shortsighted in his tactics: he ordered the far right-wing of the German army (the First Army) to remain linked with its neighboring army to the left (the Second). As a result, the German First Army no longer had the freedom to move West in order to out-flank its opponents. Worse, Moltke began taking troops from this right wing and sending them elsewhere.

url

By September 9, Joffre’s French armies were in a terrible state, generally disorganized by the constant retreating and quite demoralized for the amount of their country of which the Germans had taken possession. But their delaying actions on the Germans combined with their organized retreats had gained them the opportunity to make a defensive stand. What remained of the able-bodied French troops gathered on a line near the Marne river, so naming the consequent conflict the Battle of the Marne.

bataille_de_la_marne_sept09[1]

By mid-September, the Allied situation was still desperate, but they had shortened their lines enough that the Germans themselves would have to dangerously extend themselves in order to continue the advance. Moltke again proved too conservative for his own good (and the good of the German goals), and he ordered a halt in order to organize the integrity of the German lines. Significantly, Joffre’s troops too had been trying to gather themselves for the integrity of a defensive line, only the German advance had been too rapid to allow for this.

Battle_of_the_Marne,_west_flank_1914[1]

Finally, in late September with the German Southward push southward stopped, Joffre could order the final stages of the retreat: small, tactical salients were abandoned in favor of creating a more cohesive line, and troops were shifted away from indefensible positions back into a better line, or perhaps even into the reserves.

Though these final movements did not represent a “retreat” in the same sense as the massive withdrawals since mid-August, they nevertheless formed the final stages of the French retrograde movements. By September 27-28, Joffre could focus exclusively on the next stage of fighting on the Western front already in progress: a race back to the North!

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SEPTEMBER 26 1914 – THE FIRST BATTLE OF PICARDY

By late September 1914, at least three major stages on the Western front were entering crucial developments:

-The Germans and Entente were still counting their losses and examining the results of the recent Battle of the Marne, in which the German advance through France had finally been halted.

-The Entente still had to pull its forces together for organized resistance following a massive, general retreat from Northern France.

-A new phase was beginning in which battles began to shift farther and farther back into Northern France as the opponents sought to gain the other’s flank.

On September 26, a battle ended which punctuated the third of the above developments: Each side thought they had traveled far enough North to make a turn towards the enemy flank, but instead a vicious, desperate engagement followed instead between Albert (just north of the Somme) to Noyon on the Oise river.

Neither side managed to cut through the other, and Picardy eventually became merely a bloody northern extension of the battle lines of the Western Front, bracketed by the Battle of the Aise (Sept. 13-28) to the South, and the Battle of Albert (Sept. 25-29) to the North.

It’s a hallmark of the hurried, desperate nature of these battles that no certain figures of the casualties are available . . . each side was so anxious to gain the advantage of a flanking maneuver that neither took the time to count the costs.

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SEPTEMBER 25 1914 – SANDFONTEIN

In Southeastern Africa, the colonies of the European nations warred against each other. Near a place called Sandfontein were several water wells in the middle of a very arid area. The British troops marched into the area desperate for water, though knowing fully that the Germans might attack.

Indeed, the Germans had already been detected, but mostly ignored on account of the desperate need for water.

sandmap[1]

The Germans quickly busied themselves by occupying the heights which commanded the area, and cut the British telegraph wires. The Germans opened the battle with their artillery, slowly but methodically eliminating their counterparts. From that point, the German infantry began a slow, ratcheting advance with machine guns.

The British forces, seeing the hopelessness of their situation, surrendered only a half an hour later.

Notably, this battle stands as one of the examples of how un-nationalistic most of the soldiers were:

-once the cease fire had been finalized, troops from both sides raced to the wells together and congregated on friendly terms

-the British commander even had a pleasant discussion with his counterpart in which he congratulated him on his Chivalry. The German commander, in turn, commended the Englishman on his gallant defense

-the Germans accorded their slain enemies the same burial honors as to their own

The battle, though small and with few casualties, gave the Germans a glorious victory: they had begun with only about 1,700 soldiers, but because of their excellent tactics they had quickly forced the surrender of a British force numbering over 3,000.

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SEPTEMBER 24 1914 – THE SIEGE OF PRZEMYSL BEGINS

In the Southern half of the Eastern front, the Russians continued to advance against the Austro-Hungarian forces. Eventually, the Russian came upon Przemysl, a fortified city of strategic importance for its intersection upon rivers and roads.

Unfortunately for the Russians, its fortifications were quite imposing, and threatened to severely weaken any forces which attacked them. The map below highlights not only Przemysl’s tactical position (note the roads and rivers), but also the ring of fortresses which protected the city proper.

Przemysl_Map_WWI[1]

Seeing no easy way to take the city, the Russians began their siege on September 24, 2914. Though briefly interrupted in October, this siege would eventually be the longest of the entire First World War, stretching out into March of 1915.

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SEPTEMBER 22 1914 – GERMAN U-BOAT DEVASTATES A BRITISH SQUADRON

At the beginning of the First World War, nobody questioned the strength of the British naval fleet. It was the best in the world.

However, there were some who doubted whether the British admiralty recognized the true potential of submarines. Indeed, the official British strategy for defense against these new weapons seems quite primitive, in retrospect: upon sighting a U-boat, a detachment of sailors should take a small boat, row up to the enemy, and attempt to smash the periscope with a mallet!

After the defeat at Heligoland Bight in late August, the Kaiser had admitted that it might be best for the German navy to be used primarily as a defensive weapon. This strategy, however, was to be limited only to the surface ships. The U-boat arm of the navy, on the other hand, would be given free rein to cause as much damage as it could.

The events of September 22, 1914, threw the strategies of both the British and the Germans into sharp focus. On this day, the German submarine U-9 was traveling back to base from the North Sea through an area called the Broad Fourteens (roughly NorthWest of Amsterdam). She had seen little action on patrol, and had plenty of torpedoes remaining.

U9Submarine[1]

This seemed the story of most U-boat patrols up to this point: little gain in these first few weeks of the war, while two submarines had themselves been sunk. Fortune was about to change, however.

At 6AM, the U-9 surfaced after taking refuge from a storm beneath the waves, and quickly spotted the British cruiser Aboukir and two other ships.

HMS_Aboukir[1]

At a range of 550 yards, the U-9 fired a single torpedo at 6:20AM which slammed into Aboukir‘s side near the engine room. The cruiser immediately lost power, and began to sink very quickly, capsizing only 25 minutes later.

Meanwhile, the two other British ships had not spotted any submarines, so they thought that she had struck a mine. They therefore moved in closer to Aboukir in order to help the survivors. The U-9 had dived after firing the torpedo at the Aboukir, but came near the surface again about a half hour later, having not been attacked. Captain Otto Weddingen went for the next ship.

Otto_Weddingen[1]

This turned out to be the British cruiser Hogue. Weddingen fired two torpedo’s at her around 7AM from a range of only about 300 yards. The sudden loss of weight made the submarines bow breach the surface, and the crewmen of the Hogue immediately spotted the U-boat and began to fire.

HMS_Hogue[1]

Both of Weddingen’s torpedo’s found their mark, and the Hogue‘s captain gave the order to abandon ship only five minutes later. She capsized in only 10 minutes, and sank at about 7:15AM.

There remained but one more surface ship in the area, the British cruiser Cressy. She had spotted the U-9 along with the Hogue and fired at her, even attempting to ram the submarine though failed. As the Hogue went down, the Cressy returned to the task assisting survivors. Perhaps she thought that the submarine would be satisfied with sinking two cruisers and call it a day.

HMS_Cressy[1]

No such luck. The U-9 launched two torpedoes against the Cressy almost simultaneous with its attack on the Hogue, but only one of these struck home, a non-fatal blow. Weddingen therefore turned his submarine in order to use his last available torpedo, and fired it at around 7:25.

This second torpedo struck the Cressy at about 7:30, and quickly sent her into a steep list as had Aboukir and Hogue. The Cressy soon capsized, but floated upside-down until 7:55. Distress signals had been sent, resulting in the arrival of several destroyers to both assist in rescuing survivors as well as to hunt the submarine. The U-9, however, waited until nightfall to make good her escape, and returned to base safely.

These events had an enormous effect upon both the British and the Germans. For the British admiralty, they immediately recalled all of their cruisers from patrol duty, and severely criticized the actions of her captains in the battle. Both the admiralty and the public, however, began to have doubts whether the British navy was properly equipped to deal with submarines.

The Germans, however, could take great pleasure in seeing how just one U-boat could cause so much damage in such a small expanse of time. Weddingen received a hero’s welcome and the Iron Cross, 1st class. The victory of September 22 became a great source of pride and confidence not only for the German U-boats, but for Germany as a whole.

SM_U9_Postcard[1]

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