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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 2.—The Fighting On The Flanders Front From The Outbreak Of War Till May, 1916

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Part 2.—The Fighting On The Flanders Front From The Outbreak Of War Till May, 1916.

First German advance—Liege—General German advance—Brussels —Mons—Namur—Lille—The Aisne—The Marne—The British to the left of the line—West Flanders campaign—New Corps come in—Armentieres—Nieuport—La Bassee—Arras— Ypres—Messines—Positions—Neuve Chapelle—second Battle of Ypres—Minor offensives—Trench fighting—Line readjusted— Loos—Winter trench-work.

It may not be out of place to give here a brief outline of the progress of the fighting on or about the Flanders front from the outbreak of war up till the beginning of 1916. This account will of necessity be somewhat disconnected and sketchy; but it may serve to get the situation from time to time into proper perspective, and clear away erroneous ideas formed from the reading of contemporary newspaper accounts, which, as we now know, were not always strictly impartial.

The German advance towards France was first attempted mainly through Liege, the gateway to the Belgian plains. By the evening of August 3rd, 1914, German columns were on Belgian territory, and on the following day were closing in on Liege from the north-east, east and south. At this time the Belgian army was still in process of mobilization and was being placed in position to resist a German advance on Brussels and Antwerp. It was realized that Liege must eventually fall, but the city was nevertheless held in order to gain time, for as long as its forts could withstand the enemy's attacks he could make no progress by rail towards the plain beyond. The bombardment of the Liege forts commenced on August 4th, and three days later the city was entered; but Liege did not become an open gateway until the 15th, when the last of the forts was taken.

In the meantime the general advance of the German forces had begun. The enemy had got six armies in position, the First in the north and the Sixth in Alsace in the south. The general plan was to carry out a great sweeping movement, pivoting on the Sixth Army opposite Belfort, the First and Second Armies passing through Belgium, and forming the right of the German front descending upon Paris and the Marne Valley. This movement commenced on August 7th. By August 15th the First and Second Armies passed through Liege for Namur and page 78France, and four Army Corps were sent against Brussels and Antwerp. Five days later Brussels surrendered.

The British Army was in position before Mons, west of Namur, by August 21st, on a front of about 25 miles. This "contemptible" force, commanded by Sir John French, consisted of the Ist Army Corps (Haig), the IInd Army Corps (Smith-Dorrien), and one Cavalry Division (Allenby). On the right of the British was the French Fifth Army, while away to the westward beyond the British left was a force of French Territorials. The task of the British was to protect the left of the general advance to the north. The Allies' plan was, first to meet the shock of the German advance on the defensive, and then to take the offensive against the German right by a turning movement with Namur as the pivot. This was expected to raise the siege of Namur, and thus open the way to re-occupy Brussels and form a junction of the British left with the Belgian Army advancing from Antwerp.

On August 22nd the Germans attacked the front and right flank and rear of the French Fifth Army, which gave way. Information as to the situation did not reach Sir John French, and the result was that the attack on the British next day was doubly severe. Under pressure from the front and on the right flank the British were slowly but surely forced back and the famous retirement from Mons began.

The worst of the retreat from Mons was over by the evening of August 28th, by which date our IInd Army Corps was on the Somme. Thenceforward the pursuit was slack, and the British were in position on the Aisne on the 30th.

Notwithstanding the lesson of Liege, the fortress of Namur was held to be invincible; yet, attacked on August 20th, it was entered by the Germans three days later.

In the vicinity of Lille was the extreme right of the German force advancing upon Northern France. This force consisted mostly of cavalry and horse artillery, with the IInd Corps of Infantry, the last being rushed forward by motor transport. It operated beyond the right of the German First Army (von Kluck) and formed a huge raiding-party, which had for its object the cutting of the communications of the British force with its principal bases at Boulogne and Havre. Moving southwards with its right on the River Lys, it created panic amongst the civilians in the district, and took Lille. That page 79city, with its obsolete fortresses, the Allies made no attempt to hold. British Marines were hurried across the Channel to save Ostend, but the Germans had no intention of occupying that port, their main line of advance being by Arras towards Amiens. The raiding force for the time being met with no opposition. The Allies, relying on their anticipated victorious advance into Belgium, had made no preparation to meet this contingency. Amiens was evacuated forthwith. British Headquarters sent orders to abandon Boulogne as the main supply base, and a new base was established at St. Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire.

We return now to the British Army which, on August 30th, had reached the Aisne, and had on its left a new French Army, the Tenth, which had come into position on August 28th. The line now held by the left of the Allies was an ideal position: indeed, it was the one actually selected forty years before by the French Staff for a final stand against an invading force that might overcome the frontier defences and be marching on Paris. The enemy's pressure on the centre, with the object of dividing the force and then mopping up the western portion, including, of course, the British, proved, however, to be too great, and a general retirement to the Maine was ordered. The great retreat from Mons, in which 100,000 British were opposed to a quarter of a million Germans, came to an end on September 5th.

Von Kluck's First Army, instead of continuing its sweep towards Paris, now changed direction to the south-east and attempted to drive a wedge between the left of the French Fifth Army and the right of the British force, which he was pleased to consider demoralized. As a result of this change, the raiding force of cavalry off on von Kluck's right was drawn in to conform, and Lille was evacuated by the Germans. Advantage was immediately taken of von Kluck's mistake in moving across our front. His right was attacked on September 6th, by the British and French on the left of the Allied line; pressure was continued on the 7th; and on the following day the German right was in retreat. On the 9th the German centre was badly beaten, and on the 10th the Battle of the Marne became a drive. The enemy, however, was too strong in numbers for us to convert his retreat into a rout, and on September 12th he had got back in good order to the Aisne. page 80The position taken up was as nearly perfect as could be imagined, situated as it was on the crest of a plateau some two miles north of the Aisne stream. In passing over this ground a few days before, the enemy had left behind working parties to prepare defensive trenches in case of a retirement.

On the supposition that the enemy was merely holding a delaying position, the British opened the Battle of the Aisne with a frontal attack. We succeeded in crossing the stream on September 14th, but, after a five days' struggle, realized that this was no rearguard matter, and a weary war of entrenchments began.

To turn the enemy's right, the two new French Armies on our left, the Seventh and the Tenth, extended our line at right angles from the Aisne beyond Albert to Arras and Lens, and almost to the Belgian frontier, a distance of nearly seventy miles. Then the Germans took the offensive, stretching out their right in the endeavour to outstrip our movement. In this new effort, by which he hoped to secure the Channel ports and the Seine Valley for an advance on Paris, the enemy had the advantage of the better railway systems.

By the end of September, Sir John French had come to the conclusion that in consequence of the extension of the line the British Army was in the wrong place. At Mons it had been on the extreme left. Now it was almost in the centre of the Allied line, and consequently there were difficulties in the matter of communications and supplies, which crossed those of the French Armies. If the British were transferred to the left of the line, we should then be within easy reach of the Channel ports. There was also another aspect to be considered, namely, the imminence of a great offensive against Britain herself, with the possession of the Channel ports as the immediate objective. Antwerp was at its last gasp, and when that city should fall to the Germans a fresh army would be available for a dash at the gap between Lille and the sea. Even now the finest of the German troops were under orders for the north, and in the first week of October large masses of German cavalry appeared again in the neighbourhood of Lille and Armentieres. General Joffre concurred in the views of Sir John French, and the transfer was accordingly arranged.

Now commenced the West Flanders campaign, which proved to be harder and more intricate than any the Allies page 81had yet fought. It was a self-contained campaign, in which only three out of the eleven Allied Armies, namely, the French Eighth, the British, and the French Tenth, took part. When it was seen that Antwerp must fall the following plan was adopted by the Allies. The Belgian Army, covered by Sir Henry Rawlinson's British force, consisting of the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division, recently landed at Ostend and Zeebrugge for the purpose of assisting in the defence of Antwerp, would retire by Bruges and Ghent to the line of the Yser to protect the Allied left, and, together with the new French reinforcements, meet any attack along the coast by German troops released after the fall of Antwerp; Lille and La Bassee to he held by the Allies; and the British, pivoting on La Bassee, to swing south-east, isolate the northern wing of the Germans, and threaten the communications to the south.

By September 30th the French Tenth Army had got into position, with its right on the River Ancre near Albert and its left extending beyond Arras to the vicinity of Lens. Several French Territorial Divisions occupied Lille and Douai opposite the German right. On October 8th the Germans, who still held Lens, took Douai and shelled Arras and Lille. Their cavalry were still scouring this region as far west as Hazebrouck. Bailleul and Cassel, and were therefore within twenty miles of Dunkirk.

On October 11th, the IInd Corps (Smith-Dorrien), on the way to the new position in the line, had marched from Abbeville and was placed on the left of the French, between Bethune and Aire. On the same day the Corps wheeled round till its left rested on Merville, and during the next four days pushed the Germans back to the La Bassee-Lille Road. Further advance was checked by strong counter-attacks. Indian troops first came into the line on 19th October, the Lahore Division being placed near Bethune in support of the IInd Corps.

The IIIrd Corps (Pulteney) arrived at St. Omer on October 11th and marched to Hazebrouck. On the 13th it moved towards the line Armentieres-Wytschaete, linking up the Ypres and the La Bassee sections of the front. This Corps came into conflict with the enemy in strength at Meteren, and, after a sharp fight, drove him out of Meteren and Bailleul and occupied the line Bailleul-St. Jans Cappelle. By October 17th the IIIrd Corps had taken Sailly, Nieppe and Armentieres, and page 82pushed forward to a position with its right at Bois Grenier, three miles south of the Lys, and its left at Le Gheer, a mile north of the river. Here we were against the main German line, and it was found impossible to recover Lille, from which the enemy had driven the French Territorials on the 14th, or, indeed, to make any further advance from the position taken up here on October 19th. "This, the British right centre [about the Armentieres sector] was destined to have one of the most awkward places in all the coming: battle. It was not itself the object of any great massed attack, as on the Yser, at Ypres, and at La Bassee, but it suffered from being on the fringe of the two latter zones,.……and was gravely endangered in the German enveloping movements."*

The nucleus of the IVth Corps (Rawlinson) was the 7th Division and the 3rd Cavalry Division (Byng), which, as we have seen, had gone from Ostend and Zeebrugge to help the Belgians at Antwerp. When that city fell on October 9th; the Belgians and the British in accordance with the general plan, fell, back towards the Yser Canal. The Belgians took up the line of the Yser from Houthulst Forest (north-east of Ypres) through Dixmude to Nieuport, with French Territorials in support. Our 7th Division took up a position cast of Ypres on the line Zandvoorde-Gheluvelt-Zonnebeke, with the 3rd Cavalry Division as advanced guard on a line roughly from Bixschoote to Poelcapelle. French Cavalry holding Passchendaele. On October 18th, two days after the Allies had secured these positions, four reserve corps, rushed up from Germany, were put into the line from Roulers to Menin. Our IVth Corps, in the endeavour to secure the latter place as a pivot for a turning movement, came into contact with this overwhelming force, and being unable to make headway, entrenched itself on an eight-mile line just east of Gheluvelt cross-roads.

The Ist Corps (Haig) having detrained at St. Omer and marched to Hazebrouck on October 19th, was ordered to move through Ypres to Thourout, and to march thence against Bruges and Ghent. The presence of the four new German corps was not fully known to our Headquarters; and the 1st Corps, soon meeting with determined opposition at their hands, had to settle down east of Ypres as the left wing in the great struggle.

* John Buchan: "Nelson's History of the War."

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Opposed to the Allied line of nearly 100 miles from Albert to the sea at Nieuport were one and a half million German troops, outnumbering us by five to one. The four principal points in the line, at any one of which an advantageous breach might, be made for a German advance against the Channel ports and our lines of communications, were, in descending order of importance, Arras, La Bassee, Ypres, and Nieuport. Strangely enough, the Germans, in the great series of battles which now commenced, struck at all four points simultaneously.

The struggle for the shortest route to Calais, via Nieuport, came to an end on October 31st through the deliberate flooding of the countryside by the Belgians, who blocked the mouth of the Yser Canal for that purpose.

The fighting about La Bassee, where the Germans attacked in great strength on October 22nd, resulted in the pushing back of the left of the British line in that region, till, by the middle of November, the front ran from Givenchy (west of La Bassee) northwards past the west of Neuve Chapelle to near Laventie, thence bending back towards Estaires. Indian troops were employed with the British in these engagements, but the climatic conditions proved unsuitable.*

The heavy stroke at Arras by the Germans from October 20th to 26th was considered by them to be one of the main battles of the war, but by the beginning of November this attack had definitely failed.

The First Battle of Ypres commenced on October 21st, when Haig, in accordance with instructions, endeavoured to advance with the Ist Corps to Thourout and thence to Bruges and Ghent. In the course of the fighting the French Territorials were driven out of Houthulst Forest. The 7th Division and the 2nd Cavalry Division, then in the vicinity of Becelaere, were strongly attacked and the IInd Corps was compelled to halt on the line Zonnebeke-St. Julien-Langemarck-Bixschoote. The German attack was heavy all along the line; in the region of Armentieres, the posts on the left of the IIIrd Corps were driven in, Le Gheer being occupied by the Germans, though recovered later. Day after day the fighting continued. On October 29th a cumulative attack was made on the whole line,

* The Indian Divisions were transferred to eastern theatre of war towards the end of the following year.

page 84marking the beginning of the sternest struggle of the campaign in the West. The critical point of the whole battle, the crisis of the Flanders campaign and perhaps of the whole Western war, came on the 31st, but still the Allies held out. We lost Messines on November 1st. On November 11th the Germans made their supreme effort, the Prussian Guards being put in against Gheluvelt. They failed, however, and by November 20th both sides fell back generally upon the ordinary routine of trench warfare. So ended one of the most remarkable contests of the war, a great German army of a million being checked and bewildered by one only a fifth of its size. We had yielded some ground, but our line remained unbroken.*

From this time onward till early March of 1915, both sides devoted themselves to trench construction, with occasional raids, small attacks and counter-attacks. Of the raids the most important were those made by and upon the Indian troops about Givenchy, and of the minor attacks the heaviest were those at La Bassee.

In March, 1915, a new British Corps, the Vth, under Sir Herbert Plumer, came into the line north of Wytschaete; to the sonth of the Vth was the IInd Corps, behind Wytschaete and Messines; the IIIrd Corps (Pulteney) was east of Armentieres; the IVth Corps (Rawlinson) lay southwards from Estaires to west of Neuve Chapelle; thence the Indian Corps extended towards Givenchy; and finally came the Ist Corps linkinig up with the French. North of Ypres the French, with British cavalry at intervals, held from the salient to Dixmude, whence the Belgians continued the line to the sea at Nieuport. The Canadien Division came in in February.

We now had two armies in the field, the First Army (Haig), consisting of the Ist, the IVth, and the Indian Corps, and the Second Army (Smith-Dorrien), comprising the IInd, the IIIrd and the Vth Corps. The total strength of all arms was approximately half a million.

* For the three weeks' Battle of Ypres the German losses are estimated at not less than 250,000; those of the Allies from Albert to Nieuport were over 100,000; in the Ypres fight alone the British lost 40,000.

"It is instructive to remember that the British under Marlberough were rarely more than a division strong; that at Waterloo we had a division and a half; that at our strongest in the Peninsula we had no more than one modern army corps; that in the Crimea we had under two divisions; and that at the full tide of the Sonth African War we less than a quarter of a million, men. March, 1915, saw a British army assembled on the Flemish borders twelve times as large as that which had triumphed under Wellington in the Peninsula, and fifty-five times greater than the force which charged with King Harry at Agincourt." —John Buchan: "Nelson's History of the War.

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A new British offensive opened on March 10th, when troops of the First Army attacked at Neuve Chapelle, south of Armentieres, with the object of straightening the line and securing the ridge commanding Lille, Roubaix and Turcoing. To distract attention the Ist Corps attacked from Givenchy, and the IIIrd Corps advanced just south of Armentieres. They succeeded in capturing the village of Neuve Chapelle, but not the ridge. The hamlet of l'Epinette was taken on March 12th by troops of the IIIrd Corps, who advanced their line 300 yards on a front of half a mile.

The Second Battle of Ypres raged from April 22nd to May 13th, 1915, the Germans directing their attack mainly against the northern part of the salient between Ypres Canal and the Menin Road. Owing to operations elsewhere, the enemy found our line thinly held. On this occasion the Germans first used gas* in large quantities against our lines, the Canadians, who had put up a magnificent fight, suffering heavily from this barbarous weapon. As a result of the succession of attacks the salient was considerably reduced in size, but our line still remained unbroken.

Our minor offensives, such as that at Festubert, near La Bassee, in the middle of May, showed the necessity for greater artillery strength, and also that under our attacks the enemy's front did not bend but would break up into a series of field fortresses. The net result proved to be a condition of stalemate.

Midsummer activities in the West were a succession of small things, the one outstanding exception being the German attack on the French in the Argonne; and trench fighting now rose to the rank of a special science.

During the late summer of 1915 the British took over some thirty miles of additional line, and the front line from the North Sea southwards to the Somme was held thus:—Belgians and French on the Yser; British Second Army (Plumer) from

* Liquid fire was first used by the Germans in their attack on the British trenches at Hooge Crater two months later.

page 86Boesinghe, round Ypres, to a point south-west of Armentieres; the First Army (Haig) to a point due west of Lens; the French Tenth Army to the south of Arras; the new British Third Army (Monro) thence to the Somme.

The enemy held his front in varying degrees of strength, his troops being most heavily massed round Ypres, Armentieres, La Bassee, Lens, and all the avenues to Lille. For the present it was the task of the British to hold these forces in position, not necessarily to win ground.

In September the Freneh advanced in Champagne, and as a subsidiary action to that operation we attacked at Loos on the 25th, our object being to isolate the railway junctions of Lens and open the way into the plain of the Scheldt. Loos was taken, but the greater objective was not secured. Four other but smaller attacks made at this time included one by troops of the IIIrd Corps from Bois Grenier, south-west of Armentieres, against the German trenches at le Bridoux.

This fighting died away by the beginning of November, and both sides settled down to trench work during the winter.*For several months there was little of importance to chronicle. There were endless local attacks and counter-attacks, mining and counter-mining, and an incessant struggle with nature, but no extensive operations. At this time, initiated, apparently, by the Canadians, the small raids were evolved, a novel form of minor operation by which damage was inflicted, prisoners taken for identification purposes, and the enemy kept in a constant state of tension, but in which the raiding parties always returned to their own lines without making any attempt to gain territory.

Such was the general position in Flanders when the New Zealand Division came to France in the spring of 1916.

* Sir Douglas Haig became Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces on December 15th, 1915.