ESTABLISHING THE WESTERN FRONT
Throughout the war there was an undercurrent of criticism against the dispersion of British forces and dissipation of British energy, and the briefest history of it cannot avoid a certain amount of discursiveness. The reason, if not the justification, is the same in both cases; for happily or unhappily the British Empire is scattered all over the globe, and unless colonies were to be abandoned to enemy attacks and the natural forces of native discontents, they had to be defended in part at least by British troops. Fortunately the task required but a fraction of the military strength which Germany needed to hold Alsace-Lorraine in time of peace, and long before the end Great Britain received from her dominions fourfold the help in Europe that she had to lend them overseas. The rally to the British flag was to us one of the most inspiring, and to the Germans one of the most dispiriting, portents in the war; but it took time to bear its fruits, and meanwhile the cause of civilization had to rely upon the gallantry of French armies and the numerically weak British forces fighting on the Marne and on the Aisne.
The human eye is ever longing to pierce the veil of the future, but it was perhaps as well that men could not foresee, as the Allies drove the Germans across the lower reaches of the Aisne, how long that river would be reddened with the blood of the contending forces. They thought that the tide of invasion would recede as fast as it had advanced, and it was only as the days of German resistance lengthened into weeks, and the weeks into months of the longest battle in history, that staffs and armies and peoples began to grasp the awful potentialities of scientific progress in the art of modern war. The battle without a morrow had long been the ideal consummation for victorious strategy, but no one had yet foreseen the battle without an end and armies without flanks. That sooner or later one or other combatant would be outflanked had been the universal assumption of the strategist; but in the autumn of 1914 the combatant forces gradually extended their fronts in the effort until they rested upon the frontier of Switzerland and the sea, and the deadlock of a deadly embrace began which was not effectively broken until the wrestling of four years wore down the strength of the wrestlers and left the final decision in the hands of new-comers to the European field of battle.
The deadlock was no part of the original German plan, but German forethought during the advance to the Marne had provided entrenchments in the rear for the event of a retreat, and the natural strength of the forest of St. Gobain, the Chemin des Dames, and the Argonne as well as a study of the campaign of 1814 had suggested an obvious line of defence. It was not, however, expected by the Entente higher command which proceeded with its frontal attack on the assumption that the Germans were merely fighting rearguard actions to secure their further retirement; and it was only when the German front refused to budge that pressure spread out to the Allied left wing in an attempt to turn the German right flank, which would have stood more chance of success had it come a fortnight earlier as a first instead of a second thought. An even better alternative might have been to revert to Joffre's original plan, which had failed in August on the Saar, to thrust forward against the Crown Prince and threaten the left of the Germans and the communications of their forces in Belgium and northern France. But it is easier on paper after the event than it was in action at the time to convert an improvised defensive into a considered offensive strategy; and the Germans themselves had occasion during the autumn and the rest of the war to regret that their second thoughts had not come first.
The battle of the Aisne began, like that of the Marne, on Sunday, 13 September. The Germans' retreat had taken them north of the river except at a few bridgeheads, but the river was deep and its crossings were all commanded by fire from German batteries concealed on the slopes rising up from the northern bank. Maunoury's 6th Army attacked on the left from Compiègne and the Forêt de l'Aigle to Soissons, and several divisions were got across. From Soissons eastward for fifteen miles to Pont-Arcy the line of attack was held by the British Army; the whole of the 4th Division got across near Venizel, and most of the 5th and 3rd Divisions farther east, but the Germans succeeded in holding the bridge at Condé. The 2nd Division was also only partially successful in the region of Chavonne, but the whole of the 1st got across at Pont-Arcy and Bourg. On Monday, Maunoury pressed forward up the heights, capturing Autrèches and Nouvron, but, like the British on his right between Vregny and Vailly, he found the German positions impregnable on the plateau. Haig's First Corps was more successful farther east; Vendresse and Troyon were captured and the Chemin des Dames was almost reached. But D'Esperey's 5th French army could make little impression on the Craonne plateau; Foch's 9th was unable to force the Suippe to the east of Reims, and Langle's 4th, while it occupied Souain, was similarly held up in Champagne.
On the 15th the Germans counter-attacked. Maunoury was driven out of Nouvron and Autrèches, the British were forced back from Vregny almost to the river, and the Moroccan troops withdrew on Haig's right flank. There was a lull on the 16th, and on the 17th Maunoury recovered the quarries of Autrèches; but east of Reims the 9th Army had fallen back from the Suippe, and the Prussian Guard had captured Nogent l'Abbesse and was threatening Foch's connexion with Langle in Champagne. The 18th saw little progress on either side, except along the Oise, where Maunoury had as early as the 15th begun to outflank the German right. This success, coupled with the stalemate along the rest of the front, suggested to Joffre a change of strategy. Numerically the opposing forces were not unequal, but the Germans had all the advantages of position. To attack up carefully protected slopes with a river in the rear and its crossings commanded by the enemy's fire, promised little hope of success, and threatened disaster in case of failure and retreat. Accordingly, Joffre, taking some risks by weakening his centre, began on the 16th to lengthen and strengthen his left by forming two new armies. Castlenau gave up his command of the 2nd to Dubail in Lorraine and took over the new 7th, and a 10th was entrusted to Maud'huy, another of the professors of military history to whom the French and the Russian armies owed so much of their generalship. By the 20th Maunoury had swung his left round until it stretched at a right angle from Compiègne north to the west of Lassigny. Castelnau's 7th continued the line north through Roye to the Albert plateau; and on the 30th Maud'huy's 10th took up the tale through Arras to Lens.
But if the impact of equal forces on the Aisne flattened them out towards the west, it had the same effect in the other direction, though here it was the Germans who took the offensive in trying to penetrate Sarrail's flank on the Meuse and thus get behind the whole front of the Allies. Verdun was the nut to be cracked, but Sarrail had been extending its defences so as to put the city beyond the reach of the German howitzers and surrounding it with miles of trenches and wire-entanglements; and the Germans preferred to attempt another method than frontal attack. About the 20th four new corps, chiefly of Württemburgers, appeared in Lorraine, bringing their forces up to seven against Sarrail's three; and an attack was made on Fort Troyon on the Meuse which reduced it to a dust-heap but failed to carry the Germans across the river. A more serious onslaught was made on the 23rd against St. Mihiel, which was captured while the neighbouring forts of Paroches and the Camp des Romains were destroyed. But again the Germans were prevented from pushing their advantage, and were left with no more than a wonderful salient which looked on the map like Germany putting out its tongue at France and resisted all efforts to repress this insolence until the closing months of the war.
Having achieved but a sterile success to the south of Verdun, the Crown Prince encountered a greater failure to the west. On 3 October he attacked Sarrail's centre in the forest of the Argonne, seeking to recapture St. Menehould, the headquarters he had abandoned on 14 September. His troops were caught in La Grurie wood and so badly mauled that they temporarily lost Varennes and the main road through the Argonne to Verdun. Foiled in both these directions, the Germans revenged themselves by bombarding Reims in the centre and ruining its cathedral; "the commonest, ugliest stone," wrote a German general, "placed to mark the burial-place of a German grenadier is a more glorious and perfect monument than all the cathedrals in Europe put together." The bombardment did not help them much; Neuvillette, which they had seized two miles north of Reims, was lost again on 28 September, and the French also recovered Prunay, the German occupation of which had driven a wedge between Foch's and Langle's armies. On the other hand, Berry-au-Bac, where the great road crossed the Aisne and the French often reported progress, remained in German hands for four years longer. Both sides were now firmly entrenched, and their armies were learning that new art of trench warfare which was to tax their ingenuity, test their endurance, and drain their strength, until years later this war of positions once more gave place to a war of movement. The lines had become stabilized, and between Reims and the Alps they did not alter by half a dozen miles at any point from September 1914 until September 1918. The question of October was whether and where they would be fixed between the Aisne and the sea.
Joffre's outflanking move was promptly countered, if not indeed anticipated, by the German higher command, and in the first days of October there was a general drift of German forces towards their right and the Channel ports. Most and the best of the new levies were sent into Belgium, and the stoutest troops in the fighting line were shifted from East to West. Alsace was almost denuded; the Bavarians were moved from Lorraine towards Lille and Arras, and the Duke of Württemberg into Belgian Flanders. Von Bulow was sent to face Castelnau and Maud'huy between the Oise and the Somme, and only Von Kluck and the Crown Prince with a new general, Von Heeringen, from Alsace were left to hold the line of the Aisne. Von Moltke was superseded by Falkenhayn, and a new phase came over German strategy. The knock-out blow against France had failed, and the little British Army threatened to grow. France had been the only foe the Germans had counted in the West, but a new enemy was developing strength, and the German front was turned to meet the novel danger.
The British Army made a movement which was sympathetic with this change and symptomatic of the future course of the war. It was clearly out of place along the Aisne in trenches which could be held by French territorials and where its long communications crossed those of three French armies. It was needed in Flanders close to its bases and to the Channel ports which the Germans had now resolved to seize in the hope of cutting or straining the Anglo-French liaison and furthering their new campaign on land and sea against their gathering British foes. The idea had occurred to Sir John French before the end of September, and on the 29th he propounded it to Joffre; Joffre concurred, called up an 8th Army under D'Urbal to support and prolong the extension of the line into Flanders, and placed Foch in general charge of the operations north of Noyon. The transport began on 3 October and was admirably carried out, though some of the ultra-patriotic English newspapers did their best to help the enemy by their enterprise in evading the Censor and giving news of the movement to the public; for if business was business to the profiteer, news was news to its vendors.
For a fortnight the British were on the road and out of the fight, which was left for the most part to Castelnau's 7th and Maud'huy's 10th Armies; and strenuous fighting it was for all-important objects. There was little profit in a British out-march round the German flank in Flanders unless the links between it and the Oise could be maintained, and the Germans were as speedily reinforcing and extending their right as we were preparing to turn it. At first Castelnau seemed to be making rapid and substantial progress; he captured Noyon on 21 September, was pushing on by Lassigny to Roye, and optimistic maps in the English press depicted the German right being bent back to St. Quentin and the French outflanking it as far north-east as Le Catelet. These were not intelligent anticipations. Von Kluck had been reinforced, and a desperate battle ensued from the 25th to the 28th, in which Castelnau was driven back from Noyon and Lassigny. This counter-attack was repulsed with great losses at Quesnoy and Lihons a little farther north, but Maud'huy was not less heavily engaged north of the Somme in a several days' struggle for the Albert plateau. The line established was supposed to run through Combles and Bapaume, and it was not till long afterwards that the public realized how far it had sagged to the westwards, or what that sagging meant when the British had to fight their way up to Bapaume.
North of that watershed the fronts were fluid, if the scattered bodies of French Territorials and German cavalry could be said to constitute a front at all; and there was a strenuous race and struggle to turn the respective flanks. Neither side, it was soon apparent, would succeed in that object, and the practical question was at what point the outflanking contest would reach the coast. The German ambition was to push their right as far south as the mouth of the Seine, while the Allies hoped to thrust their left to the north until it joined the Belgian Army at Antwerp. Maud'huy had entered Arras on 30 September, and some of his Territorials pushed forward to Lille and Douai. During the first three days of October he was fighting hard on the eastern slopes of Vimy Ridge but was compelled to fall back on Arras, while the Germans occupied Lille and Douai and their cavalry penetrated as far as Bailleul, Hazebrouck, and Cassel. But the British from the Aisne were moving up towards their positions on Maud'huy's left, the Aire-La Bassée Canal being fixed as the point of their junction, and the 7th Division, with a division of cavalry, had landed at Ostend and Zeebrugge while the Naval Division was sent to assist in the defence of Antwerp. The Allied dream of a front along the Scheldt to Antwerp, barring German access to the sea, seemed on the verge of realization; but dramatic as the moment was, the tension would have been far more acute had men grasped what a difference possession of the Belgian coast was to make in the course of the war.
Success was missed by the Allies because it had been a more urgent task to break the German offensive on the Marne than to save the remnants of Belgian soil and assist the detached Belgian Army; and the whole of our available force had been sent to the vital spot. Isolation is always dubious strategy, but there were sound as well as natural motives behind the decision which led the Belgian Army after the German occupation of Brussels on 20 August to fall back north-westwards on Antwerp instead of southwards to join the Allies at Mons and Charleroi. The isolation did not involve ineffectiveness, and so far away as the Marne the Allies experienced the benefit of Belgian fighting at Antwerp. Three successive sorties alarmed the Germans for the safety of their far-flung right and its communications, and diverted reserves from their front in France to their rear in Belgium (see Map, p. 34). The first began on 24 August and drove the Germans from Malines, while 2000 British marines landed at Ostend. Then the Belgian right stretched out a hand towards the British and captured Alost, while the left struck at Cortenburg on the line between Brussels and Louvain. The communications of the capital were thus threatened on three sides, and the Germans had to recall at least three of their corps from France. It was this interference with their vital plans in France, coupled with the panic produced by the Belgian advance, which provoked the Germans into their barbarities at Louvain, Malines, and Termonde. Schrecklichkeit was to deter the contemptible Belgian Army from spoiling a mighty German success. That was the view of the German staff, and a soldiery prone as ever to pillage and rapine, needed little encouragement to extend to civilians, women, and children the violence which their leaders organized against cathedrals and cities.
Panic produces plots in all countries--in the minds of the panic-stricken, and Germans no doubt believed in the tales of civilian conspiracies which they used to justify their military crimes. Major Von Manteuffel ordered the systematic destruction of Louvain, with its ancient university and magnificent library. The Cathedral and Palais de Justice at Malines were ruined by bombardment after the Belgian troops had left it; and Termonde was burnt because a fine was not paid in time. Massacre, looting, and outrage attained a licence which only the Germans themselves had equalled during the Thirty Years' War. It and other orgies were a natural expression of German militarism; for excessive restraint in one direction provokes relaxation in others, and the tighter the bond of martial law, the less the respect for civil codes. The proverbial licence of soldiery is the reaction against their military discipline.
The second, called "the great sortie" from Antwerp, nearly coincided with the battle of the Marne. It began on 9 September: Termonde was reoccupied, but the main effort was towards Aerschot and Louvain. Aerschot was recaptured on the 9th, though the fiercest struggle took place at Weerde between Malines and Brussels. Kessel, just outside Louvain, was taken on the 10th, but German reinforcements began to arrive on the 11th, and two days later the Belgians were back in their positions on the Nethe, their retirement being marked, as before, by a fresh series of German atrocities. A third sortie induced by representations of the French higher command and by the impression that the German forces before Antwerp had been reduced, was planned for 26-27 September, and some fighting occurred at Alost and Moll. But by this time the new Germany strategy was at work, and the "side-shows" of the first phase of the war became the main objectives of the second. The French Army was fairly secure in its trenches and the way to Paris was barred. But the approach to the Channel ports was not yet closed, and Antwerp was on the way to the Belgian coast. It was a fine city to ransom; its loss might convince the Belgians that there was no hope for their independence; and historical Germans bethought themselves of Napoleon's description of Antwerp as a pistol pointed at England's heart. Its fall would be some consolation for the lack of a second Sedan, and on 28 September the siege began.
The Antwerp defences had been, like those of Liège and Namur, designed by Brialmont, and were begun in 1861. But the rapid growth of the city and the increasing range of guns made Brialmont's ring of forts, which was drawn little more than two miles from the walls, useless as a protection against bombardment, and twenty years later a wider circle of forts, which was barely completed when war broke out, was begun ten miles farther out, beyond the Rupel and the Nethe, and extending almost to Malines. One of the objects of the Belgian sorties had been to keep this ring intact and prevent the German howitzers from being brought up within range of the city. But there are only two means by which forts can be made effective defences; either their artillery must be equal in range and power to that of the attacking force, or the attacking force must be prevented by defending troops from bringing its howitzers within range. Neither of these two conditions was fulfilled. The Belgian trenches, so far as any had been dug, were close under this outer ring of forts, and the German 28-cm. howitzers had an effective range of at least a mile and a half longer than that of any guns the Belgians could mount. These howitzers had already disposed of the fortifications of Liège, Namur, and Maubeuge, and it was only a question of days and hours when they would make a breach in the outer defences of Antwerp.
Their fire was concentrated on Forts Waelhem and Wavre, south and east of Antwerp. Both had been destroyed by 1 October, and the reservoir near the former, which supplied the city with water, was broken down, flooding the Belgian trenches north of the Nethe, beyond which they had now taken refuge. Farther to the left Termonde was seized by German infantry and the Belgians driven across the Scheldt. On the 2nd the Government resolved to leave Antwerp, but its departure and the flight of the civilians were postponed by the arrival of Mr. Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, and first a brigade of Royal Marines and then two naval brigades of splendid but raw and ill-armed recruits. They were at once sent out to help the Belgians to defend their trenches along the north bank of the Nethe against the German numbers and their more effective shells. On the 5th and following night both the left and centre of the defence were pierced, the Germans crossed the Nethe, and began to concentrate their howitzers on the inner line of ramparts. On the 7th the exodus from the city began by land and water, and amid heartrending scenes a quarter of a million people strove to reach the Dutch frontier or safety on the sea. The Belgian and British troops did their best to hold off the Germans while the flight proceeded and the city was subject to bombardment. It was doubtful whether any would get away, for the Germans had at last begun serious fighting up the Scheldt in order to cut off the retreat towards Zeebrugge and Ostend. In the narrow gap between the intruding Germans and the Dutch frontier some were forced across the latter and interned; others fell into the enemy's hands; and less than a third of the first Naval Brigade escaped to England. On the 9th the bombardment ceased, and on the 10th the Germans made their formal entry into a well-nigh deserted city. They had got their pistol pointed at the heart of England, but like Napoleon they learnt that it was a pistol which could only be fired by sea-power.
Most of the Belgian Army with the remnants of the British forces got away to the coast through the gap beyond the Scheldt which Von Beseler had failed to close in time; and it is impossible to say whether the gallant efforts of the Royal Marines and naval brigades did more to facilitate this escape than the postponement of the retreat, caused by their arrival, did to frustrate it. As an end in itself the expedition for the relief of Antwerp was a failure; but it was designed to subserve a larger operation, the scope of which has not yet been revealed. At the time of its dispatch there may still have been hopes for the success of Joffre's larger strategical scheme of bending back the German flank in Flanders behind the Scheldt; and obviously, if the failure of the Germans at the Marne and a successful defence of Antwerp by the Entente should induce the Dutch to intervene, the German position in the West would be completely turned. In either case "other and more powerful considerations," as the Admiralty expressed it on 17 October, prevented the "large operation" of which the expedition of the Naval Division had been merely a part, from being carried out; and the "powerful consideration" may have been the forces which Germany was massing at Aix and in Belgium to defeat the Entente strategy in Flanders.
The fall of Antwerp was as fatal to our scheme of controlling the Scheldt as Castlenau's and Maud'huy's successful defence between the Oise and Arras had been to the German project of reaching the mouth of the Seine; and it still remained to be seen at what point the expanding pressure upon the opposing flanks would impinge upon the coast. Neither side had yet reconciled itself to or perhaps conceived of such a stalemate to their strategy. Rawlinson's 7th Division of infantry and 3rd of cavalry had not been landed at Zeebrugge and Ostend on 6 October to defend those ports or even the Yser, and the fresh German armies advancing through Belgium were not intended to waste their strength on the ridges in front of Ypres or floods around Dixmude. The Germans hoped, if not to turn the Entente flank, at least to seize Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne; and Joffre and French were planning to make La Bassée, Lille, and Menin the pivot of a turning movement which should liberate Brussels, isolate Von Beseler in Antwerp, and threaten the rear of the German position along the Aisne. To render these plans feasible it was necessary that La Bassée and Lille should be held and that the indefinite German flank in Flanders should be outreached; and thus the country from Arras northwards to the coast became the ground on which the autumn campaign in the West was doomed to be decided.
Antwerp fell amid a fluid front. On 9 October Maud'huy's 10th Army was holding up in front of Arras; but his Territorials were falling back on Lille and its environment as the Belgians retreated to join Rawlinson at Ostend. French's three corps were on their way to prolong and establish Maud'huy's left, and an 8th French army under D'Urbal was designed to fling the line yet farther north. But the Germans were bent on a similar object, and their masses of cavalry, released from the front on the Aisne by its settlement into trenches, were keeping open the country and the issue. The rival armies were like two doors swinging towards one another on the same hinge; but they were not wooden or rigid, and the banging together began at the hinge near La Bassée and extended northwards to the coast in a concussion spread over several days. On 11 October Smith-Dorrien's 2nd Corps reached the La Bassée Canal between Aire and Béthune, while Gough's cavalry was clearing the German patrols out of the forest of Nieppe. On the 12th he attempted a frontal attack on La Bassée, but found the German position too strong, and determined to try to wheel round it on the north. This movement had some success; the 3rd Division drove the Germans from village to village until on the 17th Aubers and Herlies, north to north-east of La Bassée, were taken by assault. But the Germans were simultaneously and in the same way driving in the French Territorials; on the 13th they occupied Lille, and on the 19th an Irish brigade which had advanced beyond Herlies to Le Pilly was cut off and captured. So far as the 2nd Corps was concerned the doors had banged together.
Pulteney's 3rd was moving towards collision on the left. It detrained from St. Omer on the 11th, drove the Germans out of Meteren on the 13th, occupied Bailleul and Armentières and then crossed the Lys, gaining a line from Le Gheir, north of Armentières, to Bois Grenier by the 17th. An attempt to clear the right bank farther north failed against the opposition of the German front from Radinghen to Frelinghien and thence along the river. Here, too, the way was barred, but north of the Lys there was as yet no stable control. There were some French and British cavalry and some weak detachments of infantry; but Haig's 1st Corps had not yet completed its transport from the Aisne, Rawlinson's 7th Division was being expanded into a 4th Corps, and the Belgian Army was painfully making its retreat from Antwerp. On the 13th Von Beseler was in Ghent, on the 14th in Bruges, and on the 16th in Ostend. The outflanking here was being done by the Germans with uncomfortable rapidity. On the day that the Germans entered Ostend, the Belgians were driven out of the forest of Houthulst and took refuge far behind the Yser. Four French cavalry divisions recovered the forest on the 17th, but the 7th British Division which had occupied Roulers on the 13th was driven back to a line south-east of Ypres running through Zandvoorde, Gheluvelt, and Zonnebeke (see Map, p. 288).
D'Urbal's 8th French army now, however, came up to support the exhausted Belgians and assist in holding the Yser from Dixmude to the sea, where British warships were assembled to harass the German flank along the dunes; and Sir John French thought the moment had come for an offensive wheel round Menin towards the Scheldt. Haig's 1st Corps was expected shortly to fill the gap between Rawlinson's 4th and D'Urbal, and Rawlinson was instructed to advance on the 18th, seize Menin, and then await Haig, who was to move through Ypres on to Thourout, Bruges, and Ghent. In England it was confidently expected that the Germans, who had arrived at Ostend on a Friday, would enjoy but a week-end visit to the seaside resort, and the newspapers were not more sadly optimistic or ill-informed than headquarters in France. The orders given on the 18th and 19th could only have been the outcome of complete ignorance of the strength of the German Army, which was as much underestimated by the Intelligence Department on the spot as it was later exaggerated by writers on the campaign. In reality four new German Corps were already at Brussels or Courtrai mainly from Württemberg and Bavaria, and although the presence in them of men with grey beards and boys with none gave rise to some ill-timed satisfaction in the British press, these Landsturm troops were not to be despised. Rawlinson moved on Menin on the 19th, but was stopped three miles away by the German masses coming from Courtrai, and had to entrench on a line running east of Gheluvelt. On the same day the 1st Corps detrained at St. Omer and marched towards Ypres. Instead of advancing on Thourout and beyond, it had to dig itself in on a line of defence from Rawlinson's left at Zonnebeke to Bixschoote, where the French began their own and the Belgian front along the Yser to Nieuport.
The impact of the opposing forces had flattened them out until they extended to the coast, and the point at which they reached it remained fixed for four years to a day. Instead of a brilliant strategical run round the enemy's flanks to a distant goal in his rear, there was fated to be a strenuous scrimmage all along the line. It was a democratic sort of war, depending for its decision upon the stoutness of the pack rather than on the genius of the individual. The pressure was differently distributed at different periods during those endless years; now it was Ypres, now Verdun, then the Somme and the Chemin des Dames that was selected for the special push; and in time as their man-power began to fail the Germans laid greater stress on the concrete of their lines. But the line was never really broken, and no flank was ever fully turned. It wavered at places and times now in favour of one side and now in that of the other; but the end only came when the whole was pushed back by superior weight of numbers, advancing at an average rate of less than a mile a day.
The first great trial of strength is associated in British minds with the first battle of Ypres. The French dwell rather on the equally strenuous struggle farther south round Arras under Foch. For the line of battle stretched north from the Albert plateau for a hundred miles, and we can hardly claim that the boys and the middle-aged men, at whom some were inclined to scoff, in Flanders were the pick of the German troops sent into the fray. The glory of the defence consisted rather in the resistance of better troops to superior numbers backed by a vast preponderance of artillery. The estimates of the German forces are still little more than conjectures; and the figures of a million and a half Germans to half a million French, British, and Belgians, or of fifty corps to twelve and a half, will probably be corrected when the German statistics are known. If it is further true that at the actual points of fighting the disproportion was five to one, we need no further illustration of the ills which inadequate co-ordination imposes on an Alliance, and inadequate staff-work and intelligence on any fighting force. The Allied tactics were probably not so clumsy nor the German troops so feeble as these thoughtless estimates imply.
It was not a struggle in which there was much scope for strategy on either side, because there had been no fixed data on which to base it. Each combatant had been bent on out-flanking the other before the sea was reached and success denied; but neither knew from day to day or hour to hour where his own or the enemy's line would be. It was idle to plan at headquarters the investment of places which might at the moment be well behind the lines, or the defence of others which the enemy might already have passed; and the alleged inexplicable nature of the German strategy seems to be largely due to an antedating of the establishment of a line of battle. They might have done better to concentrate on Arras with a view to breaking the Anglo-French liaison on the La Bassée Canal and isolating the British Army, than to distribute their onslaughts over a front of a hundred miles. But the problem was to outflank a wing which was still in the air, and not to break a line which was not yet formed; and even if it were in existence, subsequent experience would have justified the conviction that success was to be obtained by pressure along an extended front rather than by concentration on limited sectors like Verdun, or even the 18-mile front of the battle of the Somme. The struggle which closed the autumn campaign in the West was not, in fact, a new battle fought on a preconceived plan, but the final clash of armies seeking to outmarch each other's flanks in a battle begun on the Marne; and the popular German advertisement of a new campaign against the Channel ports and a different enemy than the French was merely a fresh coat of paint designed to cover a structure that had gone to pieces.
Apart from the effort to outflank, neither side could therefore have any definite plan, and neither was able to choose the scene of conflict. Two years later, when they withdrew to the Hindenburg lines, the Germans admitted freely enough that the earlier line had been none of their choice, and it was certainly none of ours. It was, in fact, imposed upon both the combatants by that same balance of forces which eventually also imposed upon them, against their will, the deadlock in the West. On 19 October Sir John French was still hoping that Haig could outflank the Germans at Ghent, and the presence of the Kaiser on the coast a few days later suggests that his generals still cherished the idea of an outmarch rather than a break-through. It was the British Navy that put the final check on that design, and accident played its part. Three Brazilian monitors of shallow draught but heavy armament had been purchased by the Admiralty in August: they could work inshore even along the shallow waters of the Belgian coast which precluded counter-attack by submarines, and from 18 to 28 October their guns swept the Belgian shore for six miles inland and repelled the onslaught of the German right on Nieuport. Haig's outflanking project had been rendered equally impossible by the strength of the German resistance to Rawlinson's move on Menin, and by the 21st both sides had been pinned down to a ding-dong soldiers' battle all along the front. Its chronology is as important as its localities, and it is hard to follow the course of the struggle if the narrative loses itself in the different threads of the various corps engaged. For all were fighting at the same time, and the only generalizations possible are that the straggle tended to concentrate from both wings towards the apex at Ypres and to culminate in the combat of the last day of the month.
This bird's-eye view and lack of information about the details do less than justice to the crucial battle, which Maud'huy under Foch's general direction waged against the Germans round Arras and both they and the French regard as one of the decisive incidents in the war. Clearly, if Von Buelow succeeded in breaking through towards Doullens or Béthune there was little to stop his reaching Boulogne or Abbeville, and the British Army would be first isolated and then driven into the sea. The struggle for Arras began on the 20th, after the Germans had secured an initial advantage by seizing Lens, and Von Buelow was given the Prussian Guard to achieve its capture. The climax was reached on the 24th in an attempt to take the important railway junction of Achicourt just south of the city. Arras itself was reduced almost to ruins by the German bombardment; but Maud'huy's men held good, and on the 26th were even able to take the offensive. The Germans were driven out of their most advanced positions, though they held the Vimy Ridge, and accepting defeat before Arras, transferred some of their best troops, including the Prussian Guards, farther north. Possibly this relinquishment was the worst of their tactical mistakes, but the higher commands on both sides had learnt the cost of persisting in attempts to break through, and Falkenhayn may well have thought it best to seek a weaker spot.
Maud'huy's successful resistance made it possible for Smith-Dorrien's 2nd Corps to hold a line north of the La Bassée Canal, though not the line on which he had first come up against the Germans advancing from Lille. That formed a right angle, stretching north-east from Givenchy to Herlies and then north-west to Fauquissart; but on the 22nd his right was driven out of Violaines, and the salient had to be evacuated by withdrawal to a line in front of Givenchy, Festubert, and Neuve Chapelle. On the 27th Neuve Chapelle was taken by the Germans. A gallant attack by Indian troops, who had been brought up from Marseilles to assist Smith-Dorrien's tried and depleted corps, checked their advance on the 28th and drove them back into Neuve Chapelle; and another German attack was held before Festubert. Here Sir James Willcock's Indian Corps had a hard task for the next few days, and a breach in our lines on 2 November was only repaired by a desperate charge of the Gurkhas. The winter of northern France was to have more effect on their physique than German warfare on their moral, and after a final assault on Givenchy--one of the virgin pivots of the war in the West--on 7 November, the battle in front of the 2nd Corps subsided into an artillery duel. The fighting in front of Pulteney's 3rd Corps, which carried on the line from Smith-Dorrien's left towards Ypres, was overshadowed by the struggle round that city; but it had enough to do to maintain the connexion. Its hold on the left bank of the Lys north of Armentières was strenuously disputed; on the 20th the Germans seized Le Gheir at the south-east corner of Ploegstreet Wood, but were immediately driven out. They took it again on the 29th and some trenches in the wood with no more permanent success, but managed on the 30th to take and retain St. Yves a little farther north.
This was part of the Ypres fighting, and downwards from the coast the surge of battle was also drawn into that maelstrom. The British naval guns had destroyed the attraction of the dunes, and the Germans turned towards the inland marshes along the Yser. On the 23rd they crossed it and advanced to Ramscapelle, but were driven back by the Belgians, while fourteen unsuccessful attacks were made the following night on Dixmude, farther south. A more successful attempt was made on the 24th and 25th on Schoorbakke, and the Germans advanced towards the railway embankment near Pervyse. The Belgians now bethought themselves of the expedient their forbears had found effective in the days of William the Silent and Alexander Farnese. The Yser was dammed at Nieuport, the sluices were opened above Dixmude, and slowly the river rose above its banks and spread over the meadow-flats the Germans were striving to cross. Men were drowned and guns submerged, and presently an impassable sheet of water protected the Belgians on the railway from Nieuport to Dixmude. The Germans, however, made two more efforts to pierce the Belgian line north and south of the inundation. On the 30th they seized Ramscapelle, but were expelled by the French on the 31st, and on 7 November a determined attack was made on Dixmude, now defended by Admiral Ronarc'h and his French marines. It succeeded after three days' fighting and a heavy bombardment on the 10th. But Dixmude had, as was natural in a country which had generally feared attack from France, been built on the eastern bank of the Yser; and the Germans were never able to debouch across the river (see Map, p. 288).
The capture of Dixmude coincided with the last attack on Ypres. That famous battle was but an act in the drama played along the Flanders front, and it may not have been more decisive and was perhaps less dramatic than the battle of Arras. But the act extended throughout the play, and gradually attracted more and more attention. It was a natural continuation of the outflanking struggle, and there was no interval between the British attempt to get to Ghent and the German effort to reach the Channel ports. The two ambitions here clashed in front of Ypres. Rawlinson's failure before Menin left him facing south-east, while the expulsion of the Belgians and then the French Territorials from the Houthulst forest left Haig and the French contingents facing north-east from Bixschoote to Zonnebeke; the apex of this Ypres salient was at Becelaere. D'Urbal's 8th Army from Bixschoote north to Dixmude played a subsidiary part similar to that of Pulteney's 3rd Corps farther south; but had it not been for the supports he was able to send to Haig's assistance, the Germans would assuredly have broken through.
The attack began from the apex to our right at Zillebeke on the 21st, and its momentum showed that nothing more than stubborn defence was possible. The 7th Division bore the brunt of the attack, and Haig's 1st Corps was precluded from a counter-offensive by the need of detaching supports to the south-east of Ypres, where long stretches of line were only held by cavalry, and Pulteney was being pressed in front of Ploegstreet. On the 23rd the Germans made an impetuous onslaught on Langemarck, but the pressure was relieved by a French advance on the left and their taking over the line of our 1st Division, which enabled Haig to move in support of the centre. Nevertheless the Germans drove it from Becelaere and got into Polygon Wood. At night on the 25th they struck at Kruseik, between Gheluvelt and Zandvoorde. There followed a suspicious lull, and on the 29th the reinforced Germans drove against the centre of the 1st Corps at Gheluvelt; an initial success was reversed later on in the day, but on the 30th the attack shifted towards the right at Zandvoorde, and the 1st Division was forced back a mile to Zillebeke, while the 2nd conformed and the 2nd Cavalry Division was driven from Hollebeke back to St. Eloi. The Kaiser arrived that day and the crisis on the morrow. Gheluvelt was the point selected for the blow, and the 1st Division was thrust back into the woods in front of Hooge, where headquarters were heavily shelled. The flank of the 7th Division was thus exposed, and the Royal Scots Fusiliers were wiped out. Fortunately the arrival of Moussy with part of the 9th French Corps averted further disaster, though he had to collect regimental cooks and other unarmed men to help in holding the line. Allenby's cavalry farther south was in equally desperate straits near Hollebeke, and he was only saved by the transference of Kavanagh's 7th brigade from the north of Hooge to his assistance. North of the Ypres-Menin road the German attack had not been seriously pressed, and it was from this direction that help came between 2 and 3 p.m., the hour which Sir John French once described as the most critical in the Ypres battle. The main instrument was the 2nd Worcesters, who fell upon the German advanced and exposed right, and retook Gheluvelt by a bayonet charge. This relieved the pressure on the 7th Division, and by nightfall their positions had been regained.
But the battle was not yet over. On 1 November the Germans renewed their attack on Allenby and captured Hollebeke and Messines, and then in the night Wytschaete. Luckily on that day the French 16th Corps arrived and recovered Wytschaete. The Germans themselves now needed reinforcements and time to recover, and for some days there was little fighting except an unequal artillery duel. On the 6th a German attack on Zillebeke nearly succeeded, but was eventually repulsed by a charge of the Household Cavalry. Another pause followed, but the Germans were bent on one more effort, and the Prussian Guards were brought up from Arras to make it on the 11th. They charged on the Menin road against Gheluvelt and drove the 1st Division back into the woods behind; but then they were held, and counter-attacks recovered most of the lost positions. The Germans by this time were tired of Ypres, though they continued for four days longer to struggle for Bixschoote, where Dubois and his Zouaves put up a splendid and successful defence, and a few spasmodic attempts were made at Zillebeke and elsewhere between 12 and 17 November. Then, with the arrival of further French reinforcements, the Germans desisted, and the line of battle in Flanders sank into an uneasy winter torpor. The second as well as the first thoughts of the German command for the campaign of 1914 in the West had come to nought, or to what was nearly as bad, a stalemate; and the East was calling with an urgent and distracting voice to other fields of battle.