from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume I page 157
'A Pen-Picture from
the Long-Drawn Battle of the Aisne'
Expressly written for ‘The War Illustrated’
by A. G. Hales

The Great Episodes of the War

map of the area


The modern battle is something totally different from any in the old days—even from a generation ago. It has developed into a series of entrenched engagements and approximates to siege operations, where each side holds its defences stubbornly, ready to attack as the opportunity offers. And this description of a battle might well be written about two-score different scenes of the great Battle of the Rivers, that weeks'-long struggle of Titans that beat all world war records, and counted the losses by hundreds of thousands.

All night long the big guns had been smashing away from both armies without ceasing, and in the morning the devil's tattoo was increased from the enemy's lines; but no sign was made that this day was not to be as the days that had preceded it. As the sun came up and lifted the mists that had shrouded the hills like a vast grey curtain, the warm light flashed on a sea of bayonets. The Kaiser's legions were in motion. They came as they always came, like fields of growing grain pushed forward, coat brushing coat, knee rasping against knee, shoulder to shoulder, like a Zulu impi debouching for a charge. In between the gaps that separated the packed brigades of infantry, the cavalry deployed. Their big guns dotted their front; their quick-firers were scattered everywhere along their living line. Standards hung limply in the scarce-moving air. No bugle spoke, no throbbing drums quickened the pulse. Staff officers rode in little detached groups, company and regimental officers with their men. Now and again an orderly officer, sitting bolt upright as if he had breakfasted on steel filings, spurred his way along the lines

There was nothing storm-like about the early stages of this attack. The foe advanced like the swell of the Zuyder Zee when it licks the topmost edges of the Dutchmen's dykes and rolls over meadow, mill, and farm—a silent, devastating force.

The Fiery French

As the sun lifted, and the bared bayonets of the advancing foe came into view, the "red caps" leapt to life. The guns were flung forward into the open, the big batteries behind the trenches depressed their muzzles and left the entrenchments of the enemy on the hills to take care of themselves. Shells that were like miniature torpedoes sped towards the heaped-up foemen, bursting just above or among them. The red-capped infantry swung out, the irrepressible Zouaves going forward at the trot, grinning and joking as they ran, their lean fingers upon their enormously long bayonets.

They are Irishmen dyed brown and made small, these Zouaves, and to them a bayonet charge is a hundred beanfeasts and a breakfast rolled into one.

Other regiments of the line swung out in fine soldierly style at the quick step that devours space. The cavalry, carefully screened until wanted, lay snug in the gaps of hills, each man standing by his charger, ready to leap to the leather at the first resonant sound of the bugle.

The German Onset

They laugh and toss jests and unbarbed jibes at one another in all the freedom of long-established camaraderie, but the muscles of their lean faces send their teeth together with a clip like the edges of a rat-trap meeting, and their black eyes sparkle like diamonds dipped in dew. Out from the on-moving multitude of Germanic power bursts their field artillery. They are good and game. They are riding a race with death, and they ride well.

The sluggish moving infantry breaks into a kind of heavy run. They know what they are up against, poor devils! And there is no "ginger" in the swing of their onset. They will do better by-and-by when the battle madness is on them.

Worthy of a Better Cause and a Better Kaiser

The cavalry surges forward to break the ground for the infantry, and give them time to come up before the shell fire shatters them.

They have far to travel, and death, many winged, goes to meet them. The Zouaves stand still, close up and volley. Bold riders in the front ranks of the oncoming cavalry pitch over their horses' heads or grip at floating manes, and miss and slide down, and to them, poor wretches, who will never feel the gladsome spring of horseflesh again, the brown earth seems to leap up. Again and again the Zouaves volley. The cavalry is upon them. They stand like stone, the first rank almost on the knee, long, deadly bayonets pointing upwards and outwards, the second rank crouching with bayonets ready to take the front rank's place should lance points reach home, the rear ranks volleying, eternally volleying, not wildly but rhythmically, as if the men were machine made.

The impact is awful. The front line of German horse, hurled on by the weight of numbers pressing behind, crashes into the bayonets. The smitten chargers rear and squeal in their death agony, striking out with fore hoofs as they wheel and plunge; the men who are left sit glued to their saddles and thrust; the lance points go home.

The first line of Zouaves is down; the second steps over their dead bodies, bracing their feet to the earth, fearing neither man nor devil, bent only on keeping the living line intact. They meet the steel of that ever-pressing mass, and fall where their comrades fell. The third line is the front line now; the men behind them volley, they hold the bayonet still and steady.

The Red-Cap Riders

Like unleashed hounds the French cavalry come to the rescue of the dauntless Zouaves. They ride as if racing; every spur is red, every charger is straining on the bit. They catch the halted German cavalry on the flank, and go through them like hounds through a hedge. They break them, scatter them, cut them down, and wheel out of the line of fire.

The French infantry fall back, their work is done, and grandly done; they leave their wounded to the stretcher-bearers, their dead to the God of Battles.

The Trenches Speak

The German infantry has reached the zone of rifle fire. They break into a run, trusting to the weight of their numbers to carry them over the trenches if they ever reach them. The spot they touch has been measured; there is scarce a sign of life in the trenches, the infantry are lying still, sighting their rifles; they have the distance to a yard, and this living wall surging toward them is doomed.

The dumb trenches speak, seventy-five thousand rifles roar as one; the German lines stop like an earthquake bridled. Again that rain of leaden eloquence snarling death! The Germans totter, reel, give way, and go rushing back whence they came— some of them.


from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume I page 166
'How the Little British Army
Crossed the Aisne'

The Great Episodes of the War

Above the old French cathedral town of Soissons, some fifty miles north of Paris, rises a vast, flat-topped mass of rock, covered with woods and brushwood, broken by quarries and seamed by wild green ravines. From the ravines, hill torrents flash and tumble into the broad, slow, deep waters of the Aisne River.

This great plateau of Soissons is reckoned to be the strongest natural fortress in Northern Europe. The Germans seized it years ago, and designed it for their chief attacking point against Paris. Their agents bought many of the quarries, and, while carrying on their ordinary trade, built secret gun and howitzer emplacements at the chief strategical positions on the tableland.

To this French Gibraltar, thus cunningly won and prepared, in times of peace, for an open-air siege battle, General Kluck retired with surprising swiftness after his defeat at the Battle of the Maine.


A Land Fort of Gibraltar Strength

So immensely strong was his position, to which the siege artillery destined for use at Paris was brought, that the German commander confidently looked forward to breaking his opponents and rapidly resuming the advance on the French capital. He had probably three hundred thousand men at the beginning on the Soissons plateau, and the Allies, still pursuing his rearguards in the plains of Champagne, came up against him with about an equal number of men.

On the eastern wing was the Sixth French Army, under General Castelnau, in the centre was a British force of three army corps, on the western wing, in touch with our men, were the Turcos of the Fifth French Army. General Castelnau swept partly round the cast of the tableland, with a view to attacking Kluck on the flank. The Turcos advanced towards the eastern end of the plateau, where the' rocky mass fell down in a gentle slope to Berry-au-Bac and the country round Rheims.

Our troops in the centre were faced with the most tremendous and perilous task that men have ever been called on to carry out. They had to storm the enemy's high fortified position by a direct frontal attack. They had no heavy siege artillery, such as the Germans had set in the commanding positions; they were also outnumbered in machine-guns. Then, in order to get within rifle range of the dim, grey masses of foes entrenched on every steep scarp and ravine cliff, they had to cross a river valley, widening from half a mile to two miles, and next bridge the river, a hundred and seventy feet in breadth, with pontoons, under the most terrific shell-fire mortal man has ever endured. When all this was done they had to climb up the ridge with guns, Maxims, and innumerable rifles blazing at them.

Giant Guns versus Flesh and Blood

It was not a battle of man against man, but a one-sided contest between a gigantic, systematised, and long-prepared collection of Krupp's war machinery and something like a hundred and twenty thousand young British athletes. It would have been no disparagement of the courage of our men had they failed to force the passage of the Aisne against such instruments of death. Just on the right of our troops, the Turcos, who are among the most fearless souls with mortal breath, were driven back from the ford of Berry-au-Bac. And still further westward, in the level country round Rheims, the German guns blew the French from a hill near Rheims and prevented them from retaking it.

Yet, in spite of the terrible disadvantages under which they attacked, Sir John French and his men crossed the valley of death and seized one of the principal, commanding positions on the plateau. The British advance began on Saturday, September 12th, with a glorious piece of work by the Queen's Bays and other cavalrymen under General Allenby. Fighting, now on horseback, now on foot, sometimes with sword and lance, sometimes with carbine fire like infantry, Allenby and his men won all the country up to the Aisne valley. They conquered, in one of those "hussar strokes" the Germans talk about but never achieve, the southern highlands of the Aisne, trenched by the tributary stream of the Vesle. Here Kluck had thrown out a strong advance guard to keep his splendid outer defences. In a swift, deadly fight, often waged hand-to-hand, the Germans were broken, and those that escaped blew up the Aisne bridges as they fled.

The Road Cleared for the British Advance

After this clearance, the way was open for the general British advance. Sir John French divided his forces into three equal parts, each of them an army corps in strength. On the left wing was the Third Army Corps, in the centre was the Second Army Corps under Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, on the right wing was the First Army Corps under Sir Douglas Haig. The three columns, when deployed in fighting line, stretched twenty miles along the southern wooded ridge of the Aisne valley.

On this ridge our artillery was placed, and so concealed among the trees that the German gunners—one, two, three, and four miles away, on and behind the opposite forested ridge—could not mark its position. The " Doves" quickly came, of course, soaring over the valley on their far from peaceful mission—grey-blue German aeroplanes with dove-shaped wings, sweeping behind our troops to search for our guns and find the range for the Krupp howitzer batteries. Our flying men, however, did not merely chase the " doves " away, but swooped like hawks at them, killing pilots and wrecking the machines.

Then our scouts of the sky darted across the valley, and, while dodging the puff-balls of the Krupp aerial guns, tried to discover the positions of the larger masses of German troops and get a glimpse of a gun muzzle peeping' here and there through the foliage. Nothing of much importance, however, was discovered by the morning of Sunday, September 13th.

A Great Battle in a Morning Haze

There was the empty river valley, with its broken bridges and the autumn sunlight playing over it. The roar of guns came from Soissons on one side and Rheims on the other, as our men silently went down into the deathtrap so carefully prepared for them. In order to discover at what points the main German forces were massed, a general advance in open order was ordered at dawn, all along the river for twenty miles. The morning haze hid our troops for a while, but by nine o'clock they were under an incessant shell-fire.

All the tongues of high, wooded rock, sloping from the tableland to the river, were crowded with German riflemen, with machine-guns and quick-firers. They had left one bridge intact, at the little town of Conde, in the centre of their position. Over this bridge they intended to pour in pursuit, when they had completely crippled our advance. They had some of their heavy guns directed at the Conde bridge-head, and the fire there was so overwhelming that our Second Army Corps, under Smith- Dorrien, could not cross the river at that point. So it bravely, desperately entrenched itself right in front of the German army, just where the Vesle poured its waters into the Aisne, and held the enemy, preventing them from using the bridge. Our batteries were brought to bear on and around Conde, to blow away anv German counter- attack.

Thus, in the centre, the position of stalemate was quickly arrived at. Either side could have smashed the Conde bridge with a few shells; but each, hoping for an opportunity to use it, left it intact, and set their sappers to work to deepen and push forward the trenches towards the river. Our men were at first in a very dangerous position. They had to entrench hastily under a terrific shell-fire. But by mighty "navvy" work they dug themselves at last into safety and began to make shell-proof covers on their earthworks. They were the men who had saved both the British and French forces from Kluck's enveloping movement at Cambrai, and the hardest job had again fallen to them.

A Fierce Fight Stopped by Darkness

Some of them got across the river to the left of Conde, though swept by a heavy fire, and entrenched on the opposite bank. On their right the Third Army Corps rafted some of their men across the Aisne near the broken bridge of Venizel. The bridge was repaired by our engineers but shattered again by German shells, and our artillery Had to be man-handled across it. As evening came on, sufficient troops had reached the opposite bank to force their way, by unceasing violent fighting, half up the steep plateau towards the village of Vregny. Vregny, however, was the main German position, where the German armament was chiefly massed. So terrible was the hurricane of lead from the guns and Maxims that by five-thirty o'clock in the evening our troops were held. But as they withdrew in the darkness, so did the Germans. The Germans retired two miles from the river and entrenched on the ridge. Our engineers were busy during the night throwing pontoons over the Aisne, across which men and guns went to reinforce the advance guard clinging to the wooded slopes round Bucy-le-long.

Altogether we had not made much progress at the Venizel crossing. To have escaped annihilation and won some of the lower slopes constituted a magnificent triumph of human energy and courage over the German machinery of death. But as the Germans held the great towering ridge above our men, and held it with heavier artillery than we possessed, our foothold on their vast open-air fortress was still somewhat chancy and perilous.

It was the First Army Corps, under the splendid leadership of Sir Douglas Haig, that turned the whole heroic adventure into one of the greatest successes of British arms. Sir Douglas commanded the extreme right wing of the British advance. He split his army corps into its two divisions, that each spread out fan-wise.

The Feat of the Girder Crossing

The Second Division, at a point some six miles east of Conde, found a broken bridge with one girder still showing partly above water. Single-file, and under a murderous tempest of Krupp shells, one of the infantry brigades crossed by the girder, and, headed by the Guards, fought a terrible battle at the foot of the river heights at Chavonne and held the bank.

In the meantime the First Division had found the one weak point in the German defences. Working about two miles further up the river, away from the British centre and close to the Turcos, they discovered that the canal bridge at the little village of Bourg was only weakly defended. Some tremendous mistake must have been made by General Kluck or one of his subordinate generals. Both our cavalry and guns, as well as our infantry, crossed the Aisne at Bourg with slight opposition. Sir Douglas Haig at once grasped the fine opportunity of the position he had so happily gained. By a series of quick, skilful, bold, decisive movements, he sent patrols in the evening up to the heights occupied by the enemy. Then, after allowing his main troops a few hours' sleep at night, dispatched them also up the tableland before dawn to support his advance guards at Vendresse, some three land a half miles north of the Aisne.

About three a.m. on Monday, September 14th, the decisive struggle at the critical point began. The Germans held a factory at Troyon, a village nearly on the ridge. This factory played in the battle for the Aisne the same part as the farm of Hougoumont played in the Battle of Waterloo. It was attacked in the misty dawn by the King's Royal Rifles, the Royal Sussex Regiment, the Northants, the Loval North Lanes, and the Coldstreams. A Battle Round a Factory

The Lancashire men won the factory, and all the wet, misty morning the fight went on, with the rest of the infantry brigade spread out on either side of the factory facing the German entrenchments on the wooded ridge. Our gunners could do little to help their foot soldiers. In the haze nothing could be seen to fire at. Meanwhile, another British brigade was working in a half-circle round from the east at

Vendresse. It was intended to reinforce the firing-line round the factory. But before so doing it came upon a strong hostile column sent to break through our position.

This column was hurled back — with blank-point rifle fire in the haze, followed by a fierce bayonet charge. Two thousand of our men, fighting with cool fury, stopped the entire counter-stroke.

While this decisive conflict was proceeding the other division of the First Army Corps had also managed to climb the plateau towards Ostel Ridge, some four miles west of the factory. The Germans then gave over their direct attack, and massed westward, past Ostel Ridge, and tried to wedge down to the river, dividing our army and threatening Haig's communications. But Sir Douglas obtained a cavalry division from Sir John French, turned the horsemen into infantry, and so secured his flank.

This was done with some very heavy fighting, but the Germans gradually weakened through the great losses they suffered. So, when the weakness of the enemy was clearly felt by our men, at four o'clock in the afternoon, a general advance was made by all the troops under Haig.

The Final Closing Charge

This was the grand, closing charge that decided the day. Upward and onward our men went, against a hurricane of shrapnel and rifle fire. But when night fell they had won the road along the ridge—the Chemin-des-Dames, or Ladies' Walk.

The crossing of the Aisne was accomplished. All the heavy artillery and many of the machine-guns, planted on the heights for use against our men, were captured. By reason of the winning of this commanding position on the plateau, our army was able to hold the Aisne for many weeks, against all counter-attacks, while General Joffre lengthened out his left wing till it reached the North Sea. Once again the little British Army had proved, to friend and foe, its marvellous qualities.


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