The Race to the Sea

Heading North Through Artois: 1914

In this issue of the Trip-Wire, I'm going to beat on one of my favorite drums: the Great War didn't just involve trench warfare. Focusing on the Western Front here to make my point, clearly the first month of the war was one of movement featuring long marches, corresponding retreats, and brief holding actions. In month two, there was the Battle of the Marne and the retreat to the Aisne, where things started to get bogged down trench-wise, as was also happening over in the Vosges Mountains near the Swiss border. However, there were three areas where the combatants still saw opportunities for mobile warfare and potentially decisive action: Flanders, Lorraine, and in the area just west and north of where the main forces had found themselves bogged down, which would become known as the locale of the "Race to the Sea." The second half of September and October saw a lot of action in these areas and, collectively, this period constituted in my reckoning, a second war of movement. Starting this month with the most famous of these campaigns, the Race to the Sea, I'm going to explore each of them, focusing on the lost opportunities for each side.   MH

Race to the Sea: Initial Moves Off the Aisne

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.

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.

French Cavalry on the Move

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.

Race to the Sea: "In Picardy It Was"

French Infantry on the Move

By 22 September enough units of the French Second Army were in place to take the initiative. Their opening attack north of Compiegne pushed the German First Army back, but German reinforcements from the Aisne soon arrived. A major battle was joined around the town of Roye, where an effective attack by XVIII Corps seemed to give the Germans an opportunity to penetrate the French lines and cut off the forces of the Second Army moving into the sector farther north. The attackers, however, were as exhausted as the defenders, and there were no more troops available at the time to force a breakthrough. Thus, the German Army lost a strategic opportunity to cap off the flood of French troops deploying to join in the Race to the Sea. It had, for a fleeting moment, the possibility of becoming a one-man race. That moment, however, quickly passed. While indeterminate fighting continued in the southern part of Picardy, the main action shifted north to what would become the famous battlefields of 1916 around Albert and Peronne.

Looking Toward Bapaume Down the Albert-Bapaume Road, Scene of Important Action, 1914, 1916, & 1918

The next major action, known in some work as the Battle of Albert (1914), involved concerted German attacks first south, then north of the Albert-Bapaume Road. In both cases, last-minute reinforcements sent by General Joffre managed to stave off defeat. By the end of September the two sides were again looking north for opportunities to flank their opponent. A vicious action at Gommecourt and some surrounding villages ten miles north of Albert on 5 October did little more than set in place the frontline for 1916's battle. With great foresight, the German Army settled in dominating positions such as Thiepval Ridge and fortifying villages like Beaumont Hamel that would provide great advantages on 1 July 1916. As the forces in place were locking up the front around the Somme, both commanders adjusted their approach to continue the flanking effort. Joffre split off forces from his Second Army and placed them under a new commander, Louis de Maud'huy, with hopes of reenergizing the effort. Falkenhayn, meanwhile moved troops north to threaten the communications hubs of Lille and Arras. Seeing the threat, Joffre countered by creating a provisional army group under the command of Ferdinand Foch, recent hero of the Marne. Foch saw Lille was lost, but Arras and the nearby strategic de Lorette Heights — they simply had to be saved.

Sources: Over the Top November 2014

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Different Perspectives

Here are some helpful supplemental sources on the early 1914 campaign in the west available online.

Six Weeks in 1914

Mission Command During the War of Movement in World War I

Concise Summary of the Race to the Sea

The British Expeditionary Force

French Army Order of Battle in 1914

Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial

Discussion of Good Books on the Race to the Sea

Race to the Sea Map

Click on Link to Open Large Version in New Window

A series of running battles were fought in the race to the sea. For a month and [a] half both armies slipped north leaving a path of total destruction called the "Kingdom of Death."

Charles Casimer Krawczyk, Remembrance: As Long As We Live

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After the Marne — A Second War of Movement

Cavalry Would Play a Big Role in the Race to the Sea

After the September 1914 Battle of the Marne, big sections of the battlefields in France and Flanders seemed to be "locking up," especially along the Aisne River and in the Alsace. None of the commanders, however, could accept the stalemate, so improvised efforts were attempted to seek a decision via a breakthrough or flanking maneuver in the post-Marne Second War of Movement. Alas, these attempts failed and left the combatants doomed to the "Long War" of 1914-18. Nevertheless, a close study of these operations reveals that within them were both the same lost opportunities for victory and the war-shaping events characteristic for the longer struggle that took place in the First War of Movement, when the Schlieffen Plan and Plan XVII were guiding the commanders.

Alas, no one would gain an advantage in the Race to the Sea. One last opportunity to avoid total trench warfare would fail in Flanders on the last day of October 1914. The Western Front was in lockdown. It would not move dramatically until the first Ludendorff Offensive launched on 21 March 1918. The forces in France and Flanders, the men being mobilized, and tens of thousands of schoolboys not yet aware of their military destinies, were condemned to 1,236 days of trench warfare and many failed attempts to break out of it.

Churchill on the "Race for the Sea"

The second phase of the war now opened. The French, having heaved the Germans back from the Marne to the Aisne, and finding themselves unable to drive them further by frontal attacks, continually reached out their left hand in the hopes of outflanking their opponents. The race for the sea began. The French began to pass their troops from right to left. Castelnau’s army, marching behind the front from Nancy, crashed into battle in Picardy, striving to turn the German right, and was itself outreached on its left. Foch’s army, corps after corps, hurried by road and rail to prolong the fighting front in Artois; but round the left of this again lapped the numerous German cavalry divisions of von der Marwitz—swoop and counter-swoop. On both sides every man and every gun were hurled as they arrived into the conflict, and the unceasing cannonade drew ever northwards and westwards—ever towards the sea.

Where would the grappling armies strike blue water? At what point on the coast? Which would turn the other’s flank? Would it be north or south of Dunkirk? Or of Gravelines or Calais or Boulogne? Nay, southward still, was Abbeville even attainable? All was committed to the shock of an ever-moving battle. But as the highest goal, the one safe inexpugnable flank for the Allies, the most advanced, the most daring, the most precious—worth all the rest, guarding all the rest—gleamed Antwerp—could Antwerp but hold out.
{Antwerp fell on 10 October 1914]

. . . The object of prolonging the defence of Antwerp was, as has been explained, to give time for the French and British Armies to rest their left upon that fortress and hold the Germans from the seaboard along a line Antwerp-Ghent-Lille. This depended not only upon the local operations but on the result of the series of outflanking battles which marked the race for the sea. A decisive victory gained by the French in the neighborhood of Peronne, or by the British beyond Armentières and towards Lille would have opened all this prospect. High French authorities have concluded that a more rapid and therefore no doubt more daring transference of force from the right and centre of the French front to its left, ‘looking sixty kilometers ahead instead of twenty-five,’ and generally a more vigorous attempt to outflank the Germans following immediately upon the victory of the Marne and the arrest of the armies at the Aisne, might well have shouldered the Germans not only away from the sea, but even out of a large part of occupied France. In the event, however, and with the forces employed, the French and British did not succeed in turning the enemy’s flank.

Winston Churchill, The World Crisis

Race to the Sea: Into Artois

German Infantry Poised to Attack

Action shifted in early October to the vicinity of Arras and Souchez village near the Lorette Heights and Vimy Ridge. Once the Germans were contained before Albert, French cavalry units headed north to take part in the operations to block attacks on Arras and Lens and outflank the German right wing. French reinforcements flooded into Artois between 29 September and 2 October, transported by bus from the railway stations around Amiens. On 2 October, however, the French were buffeted by a powerful assault at Monchy-le-Preux, to the northeast of Arras.

Next, elements of several German armies tried but soon abandoned a direct assault on the city of Arras. They had been frustrated primarily by the French 77th Division, recently arrived from Lorraine. It was commanded by a senior general, Ernest Barbot, who had been scheduled for retirement had war not broken out in 1914. His troops were deployed north of Arras on 2 October around the village of Souchez which is strung along the Arras-Bethune highway. His use of the 75 cannon at point blank rage convinced the German commanders they would not take Arras via coup-de-main.

Subsequently, two corps of German cavalry were ordered to break into the French rear and cut the rail lines bringing reinforcements. The village of Vimy was captured. The German horse troops, however, unexpectedly ran into some local territorial troops fighting effectively from prepared positions and got bogged down. Another opportunity lost.

On 4 October Foch arrived on the scene, reenergizing the two armies in the sector, Castelnau's Second Army and Maud'huy's Tenth Army. Also, the additional French troops that the German cavalry was hoping to block began arriving in force around Arras and went on the attack. The cavalry commander, General Marwitz, was compelled to withdraw east of the heights.

Memorial in Souchez to General Barbot and the 77th Division

With what they believed to be a temporary advantage, the French attacked on 8 October but were surprised to find that a new corps arriving from the east, the XIVth, had force-marched from Mons to reinforce the Germans. These new troops effectively slammed the door on the advancing French. The German Army needed to keep moving north though. Sixth Army had been probing north towards Lens, which they captured on 4 October, and on to La Bassée and Lille where they would collide with British troops moving into the sector from the Aisne. These newly arrived Tommies would play a critical role in what was to be the last phases of the Race to the Sea. Rudyard Kipling in his History of the Irish Guards gives an overview of the major redeployment the General French's BEF would conduct in October 1914:

Held up along their main front, the Germans struck at the Flanders plain, the Allies striving to meet the movement and envelop their right flank as it extended. A British force had been sent to Antwerp; the Seventh Division and the Third Cavalry Division had been landed at Zeebrugge on the 7th October with the idea of helping either the Antwerp force or co-operating with the Allied Armies as circumstances dictated. Meantime, the main British force was being held in the trenches of the Aisne a hundred and twenty miles away; and it seemed good to all concerned that these two bodies of British troops should be consolidated, both for purposes of offence, command and, by no means least, supply, on the Flanders flank covering the Channel. . . It will be remembered that the Second and Third British Army Corps were the first to leave the Aisne trenches for the west. On 11 October the Second Army Corps was in position between the Aire and Béthune and in touch with the left flank of the Tenth French Army at La Bassée.

It was in the 11-mile gap between La Bassée and Armentières in the north that the final act of the Race to the Sea would be played out. The fierce fighting would result in setting an immovable section of the Western Front that would not be abandoned by German forces until October 1918.

Race to the Sea: End of Opportunities

The BEF on Its Way to a Battlefield in France

The great chase with its numerous lost opportunities for decisive action was winding down. The increasingly desperate German High Command realized the better strategic move was to leapfrog their opponents rather than race along them side by side. Their attention and energies were now refocused toward the Channel coast itself and Flanders. But in mid-October, a gap existed in northern France between the French and German forces still attempting to move up from the south, and the Allied and German forces being pumped into Flanders. Sir John French was planning a general offensive in this area aimed at recapturing the important city of Lille which the Germans had taken.

On 10-11 October, transported by bus from Abbeville, the British troops took up position on the front line between Béthune and Ypres, and reinforcements from Saint-Omer and Antwerp soon joined them. The British Army set about establishing a front to Armentières with the French cavalry filling the farther gap between two army corps positioned farther south. On 12 October, however, the French lost control of Vermelles, a small town on the edge of the Pas-de-Calais coal basin, and this forced the British to make a move southwards in an attempt to fill the breach. On 13 October fierce fighting erupted between the British and Germans at Givenchy-lès-La Bassée and Cuinchy, on both sides of the La Bassée canal, and continued for four days. Decisively, German reinforcements had begun arriving in the midst of the fighting. The British managed to advance ten kilometers to the east until they came up against Aubers Ridge, where German counter-attacks forced them to fall back. By its conclusion, Givenchy had been captured, lost, and recaptured, the town of La Bassée would be secured by German forces (and held for the next four years), and II Corps had suffered 3,000 casualties.

The La Bassée Canal Split the Sector

Another Allied attack was planned for 19 October. The only success during this attack would lead to tragedy. The 2ndbattalion of the Royal Irish captured Le Pilly, a village on Aubers Ridge, but the rest of the advance failed. On 20 October the Germans went on the attack. A major offensive was launched all along the German line from Arras to the sea. Fortunately, that day II corps had halted their offensive and been ordered to hold their line. German attacks on 20 and 21 October were repulsed, but General Smith-Dorrien decided to retreat to a stronger defensive line that had been prepared behind the front line.

The new line began close to the right wing of II corps, but as it ran north the gap increased until at its northern end it was two miles behind the most advanced portions of the line. The retreat was carried out over the night of 22-23 October and caught the Germans by surprise. 23 October was thus a quiet day. The German attack was renewed on 24 October along the entire Sixth Army front. A daylight attack failed to make any headway. It was followed by an attack at dusk, which did break into the British trenches at two places, but local counter-attacks restored the situation. During this period, the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps arrived, and Indian troops would subsequently play an increasingly important role in the fighting.

A second night attack, on 26-27 October, caused more problems. Part of the British line was broken and the village of Neuve Chapelle captured. This created a shallow salient in the British line. At this early period in the war, the buildings of Neuve Chapelle still survived, making the village a dangerous strongpoint that threatened the British lines. A major counterattack was launched on 28 October but failed to retake the village. On 29 October the village was reported to have been evacuated, but later in the day German troops used the ruins as cover for their last major attack of the battle. After the failure of the attack on 29 October, the Germans moved much of their heavy artillery north towards Ypres, where it took part in the battle of Gheluvelt. This marked the end of the serious fighting around La Bassée. On 30 October the Indian Corps would relieve II corps.

39th Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Army Arriving on the Western Front

Sources:, Remembrance Trails

100 Years Ago:
Britain's Cairo Conference Determines the Future of the Middle East

The Paris Peace Conference ensured there was no peace in the Middle East. Five years after the Sykes-Picot Agreement, uprisings in Iraq and Syria were ruthlessly crushed by the occupying powers. Britain's military, overstretched in the postwar period, was particularly concerned about the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Winston Churchill, colonial secretary, saw an opportunity to develop a new strategy for the Middle East and asked the cabinet to authorize a conference to find some new solutions. He received an approval and the conference opened in Cairo on 12 March 1921. During this conference, Churchill would help establish the government, ethnic composition, and political boundaries of Iraq and other portions of the Middle East.

Churchill with Some of the "40 Thieves" at the End of the Conference

Forty experts on the region attended, (Churchill called them his "40 Thieves," including T.E. Lawrence, "Mother of Iraq" Gertrude Bell, A.T. Wilson representing the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, assorted High Commissioners, and Air Marshal Hugh Trenchard, present to make a pitch for the RAF taking over internal security in Iraq.

The two main issues on the agenda were the selection of Iraq's new monarch and the Arab response to the choice, and the second was the military situation in Iraq. Lawrence's argument for outsider Hashemite Kings in Iraq and Trans-Jordan based on the thinking that a non-native ruler could be independent of the rival allegiances was accepted. Feisal bin Hussein kAli al Hashemi, recently dethroned and banished from Syria, received the throne of Iraq with the understanding he would govern in consultation with the British High Commissioner. Feisal's brother, Abdullah, received the throne of Transjordan. Lawrence was convinced this settlement gave the Arabs all Britain had ever promised.

With Churchill's support Trenchard's air policing scheme won out. On the other big issue, British troops were to be phased out and replaced by an RAF-led "air policing" establishment in lieu of ground forces.

During the week-long proceedings, Britain also took on a League of Nations mandate for Palestine. By the summer, this would prove the thorniest issue for Churchill to deal with in the aftermath, as Chaim Weizmann's Zionists demanded a Jewish majority in the mandate, while Arab Christians and Muslims demanded a repudiation of the Balfour Declaration.

The only public announcement on the decisions made during the conference, was a report made by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on 14 June 1921. It drew little comment from the press and the conference is barely mentioned in the published letters and autobiographies of the main participants.

Sources: Wikipedia, PBS

Soldiering On: Progress Report on the National World War I Memorial

Friday, 19 February 2021, 2:44 PM Local

As you can see from the photo above, construction on the new National World War I Memorial continues apace. Not shown is the progress being made on the centerpiece of the memorial the 58 x 10-foot bronze bas-relief, A Soldier's Journey, by sculptor Sabin Howard. We will have a special report on his work in a future edition of the Trip-Wire.

Here, though, I can report some future landmarks of the full project, thanks to commissioner Edwin Fountain. Here are three tentative dates the commission is targeting for bringing the memorial to fruition:

16 April 2021—First Colors Ceremony: Broadcast/live-streamed event first flag raising and “re-opening” of the memorial. Most of the event will be pre-recorded, but live and on-site elements will include first raising of the colors, music by Pershing’s Own, a flyover by the 94th Fighter Squadron (legacy unit of the 94th “Hat in the Ring” Aero Squadron), followed by Taps played on Gen. Pershing’s bugle.

17 April 2021 (estimated): Memorial park re-opens to the public. Th exact date will depend on the state of the contractor’s finishing work. But when it re-opens, everything will be in place but the sculpture, which will be represented by a full-scale rendering, first of Sabin’s initial sketch and then over time replaced in sections by photographs of the completed clay sculpture.

Memorial Day 2024 (very tentative): Dedication of the memorial and unveiling of “A Soldier’s Journey.” The full bronze sculpture will be installed all at once, before the dedication.

Detail from Sabin Howard's Sculpture

A World War One Documentary

Professor Herwig at the Map

America's National World War One Museum with its magnificent venue has been a magnet for the best scholars of the Great War for years. Lately, they have started their own YouTube channel and are making some of the best of the presentations accessible. This month I would like to recommend a talk that to me is a double winner. First, the presenter, historian Holger Herwig, is an engaging speaker. He's able to convert his vast store of knowledge into an enjoyable and often amusing lecture. In this video, he examines the most important struggle of the First World War, the campaign that culminated in the September 1914 Battle of the Marne. Instead of me trying to explain why the Marne was so critical, let me suggest you click on the screen below, so you can listen to Professor Herwig do a much better job.

Click on Title to Access Story
Tinderbox: Germany's Naval Build-Up

Webinar, 3 March 2021: Professor Jennifer Keene on "Why World War I Still Matters to America"

They Went Missing in World War One, New Book

Frederick Luke, VC, Remembered

The Anti-Teutonic Terror of 1917

Maps of France's WWI Red Zones

Life in Germany after Five Years of War

Remains of 200 WWI German Soldiers Discovered at Craonne

Martyr Edith Cavell Remembered

Thanks to each and every one of you who has contributed material for this issue. Until our next issue, your editor, Mike Hanlon.
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