The Battle of the Aisne was fought in September 1914. 13,541 British soldiers lost their lives in futile attempts to break through the German lines of shallow trenches dug along the Chemin des Dames ridge, located north of the River Aisne. Opposed by machine gun fire and heavy howitzers, they were unable to penetrate the German positions on the heights north of the river and the war would descend rapidly into stalemate, where neither side could advance. Weapons of modern industrialised warfare would inflict horrendous casualties on an unprecedented scale. A hail of machine gun bullets and a torrent of shell fire would stop the mobile war at the Battle of the Aisne. Unable to make a breakthrough, the opposing sides began to consolidate their ground by digging trenches.
The German Army was conscripted and amounted to an awesome 9.9 million men. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 100,000 men was an army of volunteers. The armies used different rifles. The British Tommy was armed with the Short Magazine Lee–Enfield Rifle. Each magazine carried ten rounds and it was named after the American inventor James Lee and the Royal Small Arms Factory located at Enfield in north London. Regarded as an effective service weapon even in the Second World War, British infantrymen were trained to fire it at 15 rounds per minute and hit their target at an effective range of 550 yards. German soldiers used the Mauser Gewehr 98 rifle, which had been in service since 1898. Its bolt action prevented rapid fire. The British Lee–Enfield Rifle and the German Mauser Gewehr 98 rifle eventually became the primary weapons used by snipers on the Western Front. Bullets fired from these rifles would travel at twice the speed of sound and the unfortunate soul hit by the shot would not have heard the sound of the bullet until after it had hit home.
Machine guns would come to dominate the battlefield and instigate the stalemate of trench warfare. This formidable weapon was developed by Hiram Maxim, an American inventor. First produced in 1884, it demonstrated its deadly capability to stop waves of advancing infantry during the Battle of the Aisne. The British Army placed an order for three machine guns to test during 1887, and surprisingly, despite living up to all requirements, the British never adopted the Maxim.
The German Army placed orders for the Maxim machine gun in 1887 and after testing, Kaiser Wilhelm II realised the potential of the machine gun and placed further orders. As early as 1901 the Germans had established a machine gun branch. When war broke out the German Army had 12,500 Maxim machine guns in operation. The Maschinen Gewehr 08 was fixed on a tripod, belt fed, water-cooled and fully automatic. One disadvantage was that these water-cooled machine guns would emit steam, which meant that British soldiers could detect a German machine gun position as the steam rose. The British would then target the barrel jacket and the crew operating the machine gun would be extremely vulnerable. The Maschinen Gewehr 08 was able to fire 7.92 mm rounds at targets at a rate of 600 rounds per minute at a distance of 4,000 yards, but was deadly at 2,200 yards and could tear a soldier in two. The bullets travelled at three times the speed of sound. Their crews were specially selected and were regarded as an elite force.
The British Army was late in realising the potential of the machine gun. When war broke out there were only two Vickers machine guns allotted to each infantry battalion. The Vickers was an advanced version of the Maxim; it had improved mechanisms and was lighter. British soldiers did not, however, receive adequate training in how to operate the Vickers. The Vickers used .303 ammunition and could fire 450 rounds a minute, but with few of these guns in supply and with those that were being operated by inexperienced soldiers, they did not make any impact during the early stages of the war; and especially at the Aisne. If a Vickers machine gun was fired continually for an hour the barrel would be worn out and had to be replaced. It took a well-trained and skilful soldier to change a barrel in the heat of battle. It was not until October 1915 that the British Army realised the potential of the machine gun and established the Machine Gun Corps.
Modern artillery would of course have an enormous impact on the course and conduct of the war. All European Armies had field artillery. These field artillery guns were flat trajectory and their purpose was to subdue enemy assaults and to support their own infantry advances at short range. The British Army used the 18 pounder, first produced in 1904. They were developed from lessons learned during the Boer War and would become the standard field gun operated by the British. By August 1914 the British Army had 1,226 in service. They were used throughout the conflict and by the end of the war 9,424 were in operation. The 18 pounder had a calibre of 3.3 inches; it could fire shells weighing between 4.6kg and 8.4 kg and had a range of 6,525 yards. It had a rate of fire of 8 rounds per minute.
The German Army used the 77-mm (3-inch) field gun and could fire high explosives with a range of 11,250 yards. However they also possessed more formidable examples of artillery in the form of howitzers that could project heavy shells and create enormous craters. German artillery used the 10.5cm (4 inch) Feldhaubitze 98/09 during the Battle of the Aisne, which could fire the Feldhaubitzgranate 98, a 15.8-kilogram high explosive shell or the Feldhaubitzschrapnel 98, a 12.8-kilogram shrapnel shell. German artillery also used the German 21cm Langer Morser (long mortar) with a calibre of 8.3 inches and range up to 11,000 yards. Its barrel could be fired at a high angle of elevation, which meant that it could be positioned behind hills and ridges and fire on the enemy positions on the other side. The German howitzer designed for siege warfare fired various types of shell during the Battle of the Aisne including high explosive shrapnel, small, high velocity shells, known as “whizz-bangs” or “Jack Johnsons”. The HE shell fired by German 21cm howitzers emitted black smoke and would cause the most devastation. They could blow a crater 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Such explosions destroyed villages, levelled trees and vaporised men.
The BEF arrived at the southern banks of the Aisne on 12 September 1914 after marching approximately 160 miles for three weeks. They endured their baptism of fire at Mons on 23 August and fought rearguard actions as they retreated south towards the banks of the Marne, where between 5 and 10 September they assisted the French armies in inflicting a defeat upon the German forces. Compelled to withdraw to the River Aisne, the German forces went north across the river and established a defensive position along the wooded heights of the Chemin des Dames, approximately 60 miles north-east of Paris. It was an arduous trek for the British, who were demoralised and suffering from exhaustion and hunger by the time they reached the banks of the Aisne. Some soldiers were suffering so badly that they wrapped their puttees around their bleeding feet in an attempt to alleviate the pain.
As the BEF advanced towards the Chemin des Dames, German engineers attempted to destroy the bridges across the river. They only caused partial damage to the bridge at Venizel and it was here that Brigadier-General Hunter Weston led the 11th Infantry Brigade across during the night of 12/13 September. Remarkably, these soldiers in their exhausted state crossed this swollen river in full darkness, with only a single lamp to guide them from the north bank. One wrong step could result in these weary soldiers falling into the river and drowning. At daylight German artillery bombarded the River Aisne and those still crossing were further destabilised by fountains of water being thrown into the air around them. By the following morning the 11th Infantry Brigade had established a bridgehead on the northern bank of the river and had consolidated a position along the ridge above Bucy-le-Long. When the rest of the BEF arrived, the majority of bridges had been destroyed or partially damaged by German engineers with explosives, so it was a massive engineering challenge for the Royal Engineers sappers either to repair the damaged bridges or build pontoons, which they did under enemy shellfire.
By the morning of the 14th, General Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps had successfully crossed the River Aisne. It was an enormous gamble for Field Marshal Sir John French, commander of the BEF, to push his soldiers beyond the limits of physical endurance to cross and establish a bridgehead. French did not know whether General von Kluck’s First German Army was going to continue to withdraw northwards or establish a defensive line and hold the ground.
Unbeknown to French, he was sending his exhausted troops into a battle where the enemy were dug in in shallow trenches on the high ground, supported by heavy howitzers and in many cases concealed by woodland. This would be the first time that British soldiers would experience high-calibre German artillery. The calibres of these guns ranged from 15cm to 21cm or 6 inches to 8 inches. The British could only deploy old pattern 6-inch howitzers, which were inferior to the German howitzer and were flat trajectory, which meant that they could not reach the German artillery positioned behind the ridges. The inferior British artillery response arrived on 23 September. Neither British nor French artillery could match the enemy’s firepower.
Waves of British soldiers advanced uphill through muddy beet fields, as heavy rain blew in their faces and shell fire of an unprecedented magnitude was brought to bear upon them. The Battle of the Aisne began on 14 September and would last until the end of the month. Much blood was shed on the first day in the battle for the sugar factory at Cerny, north of Vendresse. During the struggle men of the 2nd Infantry Brigade were pulverised by German shellfire from the howitzers. The morning fog meant that the advancing infantry, labouring uphill, could only see 200 yards ahead.
Some elements of the 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment were positioned in a nearby wood along the Vendresse Ridge. Many casualties were inflicted by shells exploding when they hit the tree trunks around them. Private Harland was one of the casualties:
“We’d got quite used to them and we lay there talking and telling each other when a shell was coming. One great 90-pounder shell went over us. If it hadn’t hit anything it wouldn’t have mattered for those shells do not explode unless they hit something. This shell hit a tree just behind me. It exploded. That shell killed three men and wounded seven, of whom I was one. A piece of shrapnel went right into my foot. I thought at the time that my leg was gone. There was a chap lying next to me - I think he was one of the men at a Brighton brewery. He lay quite still. A piece of the shell had gone through his head and killed him.” (Brighton Herald, 26th September 1914).
The 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment and the 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment were sent forward to support the 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps to launch a further attack towards the sugar factory. They too suffered heavy casualties. An anonymous 2nd Lieutenant from the battalion recalled:
“Had only gone about a hundred yards under a perfect hail of bullets when I heard a singing sound on my right. Two 8-inch shells had pitched 20 yards to my left and blew sky high a few of my platoon. The shells emitted a tall cloud of black dust and smoke. Truly terrible missiles. We go on forward, but as yet I can see nothing. At least we reach the firing line. How anyone reached it is beyond comprehending. And such a line. All manner of regiments are there, and the dead and wounded are lying round in scores.” (National Archives: WO95/1270: 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment War Diary.)
Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Lloyd and his adjutant Captain Richard Howard-Vyse led from the front with the 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and were killed by machine gun fire. The assault upon the sugar factory was a savage and costly effort. An estimated 50% of the assault force became casualties as a consequence. They stood no chance.
Those that miraculously reached the factory, remnants of the 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment, 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps, cleared the enemy with the bayonet. They charged through the German artillery batteries that were positioned close to the factory and a struggle inside the two-storey factory ensued. They eventually overwhelmed the German defenders.
The 2nd Infantry Brigade suffered heavily. Brigadier-General Bulfin lost two out of his four battalion commanders. The 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment was decimated. As well as losing CO Lieutenant-Colonel Walter Lloyd, seven officers were killed, six wounded, together with 500 men listed as casualties. Many of the casualties came from B Company: three out of five officers, 175 out of 200 ranks. The scale of such losses was almost bewildering.
The 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment had 6 officers killed, including the CO Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Montresor, along with 11 other ranks killed and 114 missing. They also suffered 3 officers and 79 men wounded. Despite their losses, they were able to capture 250 German soldiers that managed to get into a nearby sunken lane to evade the bullets. They were rounded up and escorted to the rear. The 2nd Royal Sussex dug into positions and held on under heavy bombardment until relieved on 19 September.
The 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps suffered 306 casualties from the ranks, seven officers wounded and eight officers killed. The 1st Northamptonshire Regiment lost two officers killed, four officers and 102 men wounded.
By Paul Kendall