This Leonaur special edition, published to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, collects three of Edmund Dane’s well regarded, concise histories of warfare Never before published in this form, this substantial trilogy covers events from the outbreak of hostilities in late July, 1914, to the battle of Neuve Chapelle in early March, 1915—approximately the first six months of the conflict. Germany had long planned this war. It had its well equipped army’s inexorable advance mapped out in every detail, taking into account the French fortifications along it’s borders and the terrain to be traversed. German commanders decided to march through the northern flank of Belgium and present this as a ‘fait de complete’ to the Belgians, sweetened by terms they thought would not be refused. However, the Belgians and their small archaic army, fought back. This resistance, a story of unparalleled bravery and tenacity has been substantially forgotten due to the world-wide carnage that followed. The German Army did, of course, advance through Belgium, into France and towards Paris. The French Army fought as it stubbornly retired and the small regular British Army was quickly transported to the battle line. The B. E. F stood and fought at Mons, but could not endure the seemingly endless supply of German troops thrown at it or the vast superiority in well-served artillery at the disposal of the invaders. A dogged retreat to the Marne was fought, with actions around Le Cateau that saved the British Army from annihilation. The British and French armies turned before Paris and counter-attacked driving the Germans north over the Marne and Aisne. Towards the end of the year the Germans stood at the First Battle of Ypres—a pivotal engagement that marked the beginning of the war of stalemate. From this point on the great armies of the Western Front would gain little on the tortured battleground of blood, mud and wire. Neuve Chapelle was the first of many offensives that defined the conflict—typified by an appalling loss of life for no significant gain. The days of mobility were over and the armies began to dig into the ground for the long haul to 1918.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
On the night of September 12 the British had possession of all the south bank of the Aisne from Soissons up to Maizy, immediately to the south of Craonne.
At daybreak on Sunday, September 13, Sir John French ordered a general advance across the river. Opposite the places where the waterway could most readily be crossed, the enemy had posted strong bodies of infantry with machine guns. Along the bluffs, and behind the side valleys above, they had disposed their artillery in a range of batteries upwards of fifteen miles in length.
The battle began with one of the most tremendous and concentrated artillery duels that has ever taken place, for the line was prolonged both east and west by the French artillery, until it stretched out to more than twice the length of the British front.
Of the nine bridges over this section of the Aisne, all save that at Condé had been blown up. Near a little place called Bourg on the north bank, some three miles below Maizy, the valley is crossed by an aqueduct carrying the Oise and Aisne canal. This canal passes in a series of locks over the ridge north-west. The canal is much used in connection with the chalk quarries.
Troops of the 1st British division, defying a fierce bombardment, advanced in rushes along the towing path, or crept along the parapets of the aqueduct. Every man deliberately took his life in his hands. Others crept breast high in the water along the canal sides. The German guns stormed at them, and many fell, but foot by foot and yard by yard they crawled on, while supporting riflemen from the ridges behind them picked off the Germans who strove to oppose their passage. The resistance was furious. They won, however, a footing on the north bank. Once there, no counter-assaults could dislodge them.
This bridgehead formed at the opposite end of the aqueduct, more troops rushed across, covered by a concentration of the British artillery. In this way, at length, the whole division got over, including the cavalry. Forthwith they advanced up the road leading across the ridge from Bourg, along the side valley, towards Chamouille.
While these events were taking place, troops of the 2nd division were, five miles farther down the river, near Vailly, carrying out a feat of equal daring. Just about Vailly, the Aisne is crossed obliquely by the railway line from Soissons. The railway bridge, a structure of iron, now lay in the stream. Most of the confusion of massive ribs and girders was under water, and the deep and smoothly sweeping current, swollen by recent rains, foamed and chafed against the obstacle. One of the long girders, however, still showed an edge above the flood. It was possible for men to cross upon this girder, but only in single file. Not more than two feet in breadth at the outside, not less than 250 feet in length, this path of iron resembled, if anything could, that bridge, narrow as the edge of a scimitar, over which the faithful Mussulman is fabled to pass into Paradise. It was swept by shot and shell. From the heights across the valley belched without ceasing the hail of death. Wounded or unnerved a man saw his end as surely in the grey-green swirl of waters.
But the soldiers who undertook this service did not hesitate. It may be doubted if there has ever been anything in ancient or in modern war more coolly heroic. Here was the spirit which has made Britain the mother of mighty nations. Not a few of these heroes fell, inevitably, but the spirit was in all, and if some fell, others won their way over, and having won it kept their footing against heavy odds. In sight of this struggle, amid the unceasing roar of the batteries on either side, the 4th Guards Brigade were, a mile away at Chavonne, ferrying themselves over in boats. Notwithstanding the furious efforts to annihilate them, both as they crossed and as they sprang ashore, a whole battalion in this way got across and made good their foothold.
Halfway between Condé and Soissons, at the village of Venizel, at the same time, the 14th brigade were rafting themselves over on tree-trunks crossed with planks, derelict doors, and stairways.
These footholds won, the troops, like the 1st division, lost no time in pushing forward to seize points of vantage before the enemy could rally from his astonishment. The 2nd division advanced along the road from Vailly towards Courteçon; the 12th brigade made an attack in the direction of Chivres, situated in a small side valley to the west of the Chivres bluff. Slightly higher up this side valley, and on its opposite slope, the Germans held the hillside village of Vregny in force. The cleft at once became the scene of a furious combat.