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History of the Great War of 1914 to 1918 (1914)

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Operations on the Western Front, 1914

On August 6 the Germans brought up their heavy howitzers, and in the course of the day, to the amazement of the soldiers of other nations, drove the Belgians out of two of their strongest forts at Liege. Still the Belgian resistance was obstinate and the Germans lost precious time in their advance. Some of the forts held out for many days, and as long as this continued, it was impossible for them to utilize the railways to pass the city in great force, and supply their troops. This delay enabled the French and British armies to advance and meet them on the frontier between France and Belgium.

As a diversion in favour of the Belgians the first French army made a premature inroad into Alsace. A force based upon Belfort crossed the frontier and occupied Altkirch on August 7, and took possession of the large industrial city of Mulhausen next day. On the 9th, however, this force was attacked from two directions and driven out. It was strongly reinforced and again advanced. There was hard fighting on the march, but on August 19, Mulhausen was again taken with several batteries of German field guns and many prisoners. The whole of Upper Alsace was apparently evacuated by the Germans and the French advanced to the Rhine.

The German mobilization was completed on August 14, and on August 19, the Belgian army was defeated at Louvain and driven into Antwerp. On August 20 the Germans occupied Brussels and levied a huge war contribution. Their armies, estimated at nearly a million of men, were rapidly advancing against the allied forces assembling near the Franco-Belgian frontier. The French mobilization was completed on August 17, and on the same day it was announced that a British expeditionary force, consisting of five infantry divisions and five cavalry brigades had actually landed in France. The movement of these troops, which began seven days before, had been kept a profound secret. The main body of the French army had in the first instance occupied a defensive position extending from Belfort to Mezieres near the Belgian frontier, some seventy-five miles southeast of Brussels. This had recently been extended westward by the movement of French troops and the British army to a line reaching from Namur through Charleroi to Mons, the British army being on the extreme left near Mons. Another French army was placed under orders to come up on the left of the British extending the line to the fortress of Lille. It was confidently expected that the ring of forts surrounding Namur and strongly garrisoned would delay the German advance for a considerable period. The bombardment of these forts by heavy howitzers began on the morning of August 22. They were completely wrecked and surrendered on the afternoon of the 24th. The fall of this town exposed the left flank of the allied army to an enveloping movement which the Germans were not slow to undertake.

The Second French Army had forced the passes of the Vosges Mountains and advanced into Lorraine. Their success in several small engagements induced them to make an ill advised attack on a strongly prepared position at Morhange which was repelled with heavy loss in men and guns. They were closely pursued across the frontier and retreated to the south of Luneville, which was occupied by the Germans. This entailed the retreat of the First Army from Alsace, and a large portion of it was immediately sent by rail to the extreme left of the allied line to form a part of the new Sixth French Army which was being organized near Amiens. Of twenty-five army corps of the first line troops in the German army, all but four were now massed for operations in France with the intention of making a rapid and irresistible onslaught upon the allied armies, which it was intended to envelop by a double flanking movement in the hope of bringing about another and greater Sedan. August 23 was a bad day for the allies. One French army was defeated at Charleroi; another at Virton, in advance of Nancy. The Sixth French Army failed to come up on the left of the British, who had held their position near Mons with great difficulty and heavy losses. Consequently, they were compelled to retreat to avoid being turned on both flanks. Lille surrendered and a general retreat of the whole allied left, from Verdun westward began toward Paris. On August 24, a flood of Uhlans swept through the north of France. They occupied Valenciennes, Denain and many other towns. The First German Army under General von Kluck continued its advance at top speed, trying to outflank the British in their retirement and drive them towards Maubeuge. The obvious purpose of its wide sweep westward was at once to turn the successive escarpments which form the natural defences of Paris to the eastward and envelop the opposing forces. Hot fighting took place at Landrecies on August 25, and next day at Le Cateau. The losses on both sides were severe, but the British were obliged to abandon many guns on continuing their retreat. Fighting took place that day on a front of almost one hundred miles. A very fierce assault by the Germans in the neighbourhood of Nancy was repelled with great loss. Mézières was abandoned by the French. The allied forces were pushed back all along the line on their left. On August 27 the old frontier fortress of Longwy surrendered after a bombardment of several days. Maubeuge was invested. The Germans advanced to the forest of the Argonne. The French Cabinet resigned and was replaced immediately by a stronger one, General Gallièni was appointed Governor of Paris. Arrangements were made for the removal of the French ministry to Bordeaux.

Large Russian armies had entered Eastern Prussia and Galicia, where they had gained important victories. The inhabitants were flying before them in terror. Three German army corps were promptly sent eastward by rail to oppose the invaders. The German operations in France were driven forward with furious energy and speed, regardless of losses and the exhaustion of the troops, in the hope of winning decisive victory before turning against their eastern enemy. The tired men were ruthlessly spurred onward and reminded of the military maxim that “sweat saves blood.” As their mobilization was more effective than that of the allies, they still greatly outnumbered them in the decisive theatre of war, west of Verdun. The British army was again outflanked and driven from Cambrai on August 26, and from St. Quentin on the 28th. On the 29th it was directed to fall back to a selected position behind the Marne, on a line extending from Compiègne to Soissons. Amiens, Laon and Reims were abandoned. The Fifth French Army on the British right made a fierce counter-offensive at Guise with some success, but its left attack failed and the line of the Somme was abandoned. The Sixth French Army, however, was hastily forming up on the British left, but retired toward Paris. The bridges crossing the Marne and other rivers were everywhere destroyed in the retreat. On September 3, the French Government removed to Bordeaux. General Joffre advised Sir John French to retire behind the Seine which he did, and the Germans crossed the Marne. It was no longer possible for them to outflank the allied left which then rested securely on the great fortress of Paris garrisoned by half a million men. Their whole enveloping movement had therefore failed. Their losses had been very great, not only in battle but on the march, owing to the feverish haste of their movements. Their First Army which had been moving directly upon Paris, swerved sharply to its left and marched eastward, thus presenting its right flank to an allied attack. The German line of communication extended back nearly two hundred miles through Belgium, to their own country, and the railways in many places were destroyed and bridges broken. In this perilous situation, the fateful decision was taken to withdraw six additional army corps and send them eastward for the protection of East Prussia and the support of the Austrian Army, which had been badly beaten in Galicia. After their departure, the advantage of numbers was considerably on the side of the allies.

On September 5 representatives of Great Britain, France and Russia signed an agreement binding each power not to conclude a separate peace, nor discuss conditions of peace without the consent of the others. General Joffre issued an order of the day, directing a general offensive to begin next morning. In the evening a sortie from the garrison of Verdun captured a large provision train on its way to the army of the German Crown Prince. The battle of the Marne began at sunrise on September 6, and continued for seven days. The right of the allies rested on Verdun, their left on Paris. The front of battle covered one hundred and fifty miles, and it is estimated that two and a half millions of men were engaged. By noon of the first day, von Kluck discovered the danger of his position and commenced a hurried retreat covering the movement of his columns by strong rear guards. His retirement exposed the flank of the armies on his left which in turn, were forced to retire. Maubeuge, however, surrendered on the 7th, with its garrison of forty thousand men, having endured a fierce bombardment for twelve days. The besieging force was liberated to strengthen other German armies. After retiring across the Marne, the Germans turned at bay and fought desperately to hold their ground. On September 11, the army of the Crown Prince launched a general attack on the French positions at the Grand Couronne de Nancy, which failed with great loss. On the following day, however, the Germans succeeded in taking the forts of Troyon and Camp des Romains on the Meuse and crossed that river at St. Mihiel. The German armies on their right retired across the river Aisne. Amiens, Reims, Chalons sur Marne were evacuated by them. Many prisoners and guns were lost in their retreat. The victors themselves were so amazed at their success, that it became popularly known in France as “the miracle of the Marne.” Foremost among the contributory causes of the German defeat, were the physical exhaustion of their troops, the breakdown of their transport service and the withdrawal of nine army corps at the critical moment to the eastern front.

They had already prepared a strong defensive position on the plateau north of the Aisne, with its right resting on the wooded hills near Noyon, and destroyed the bridges in their front. Four lines of railways leading from Belgium were available for their supply, and another connecting these, ran from east to west, close in rear. Their operations at first were wholly defensive, but were followed later by occasional counter-attacks. The allies prolonged their line steadily to their left in the hope of turning the German position, and striking their communications. The Germans responded by a similar extension of their lines northward, and at the end of the third week of the fighting on the Aisne, the lines held by the opposing forces reached La Bassée, within ten miles of the Belgian frontier.

Antwerp, the new seat of the Belgian Government, had been besieged by the Germans. Their bombardment began on September 28. The protecting forts were soon reduced to silence. A considerable body of British troops and marines had arrived for the assistance of the garrison, but on October 5, the situation was definitely pronounced hopeless, and the evacuation of the city began. Four days later, the Germans took possession.

A great force of cavalry followed by two newly organized German armies, began its advance on the roads leading to Dunkirk and Calais. Lille and the manufacturing towns in its vicinity were soon occupied by them without resistance. The British army had been reinforced from England, and by a strong contingent from India, which landed at Marseilles, and it was hastily moved from its position on the Aisne to a new line extending from La Bassée to Ypres. French and Belgian troops continued the line to the North Sea at Dixmude. In the middle of October, the Germans began a great attack near Ypres, making desperate efforts to force their way to Calais and Dunkirk. This lasted almost without intermission until November 5, when its failure was tacitly confessed. The allies acting on the defensive had lost one hundred thousand men while the loss of the Germans was undoubtedly much greater. At its conclusion, four millions of men faced each other in parallel lines of entrenchments, extending from the North sea to the Swiss frontier, a distance in a direct line of three hundred and fifty miles, but following the sinuous battle front, measuring more than five hundred. During the remainder of the year, these lines practically remained stationary, with little gain or loss of ground on either side.

Operations on the Eastern Front, 1914

The Russian advance against East Prussia and Galicia began on August 16. Two large armies were directed upon the former province. The first of these, known as the army of the Niemen, defeated a German corps in a rear guard action at Gumbinnen, and threatened Kœnigsberg, the great frontier fortress. The other, called the army of the Narew, advanced successfully in the region of the Masurian lakes and occupied Allenstein. On August 22, General Paul von Hindenburg was placed in command of the German armies on this front. By a skilful use of railways and mechanical transport, and taking advantage of the natural features of the country he enveloped and practically annihilated the army of the Narew near Tannenberg on August 30 and 31. Having been strongly reinforced from the western front, he turned swiftly against the army of the Niemen and drove it across the frontier with heavy loss. He next invaded and overran the greater part of the province of Suwalki. The Russians took up a position behind the Niemen, which Hindenburg failed to cross. He was subsequently worsted in a series of actions near Augustowo, September 28 – October 3, and forced to retire into East Prussia. Having been strongly reinforced from the west, the Germans again advanced and captured the great industrial city of Lodz. They then marched against Warsaw but were checked before reaching that city.

The Russian invasion of Galicia was more fortunate. After some minor successes, they won a very great victory over an Austrian army near Lemberg on September 2. They drove the Austrians across the river San, captured Jaroslav, and besieged the great fortress of Przemysl. They then advanced upon Cracow. The Austrian army was heavily reinforced by Germans and the Russians retired to the line of the Vistula to protect Warsaw. Here they were attacked and succeeded in holding their ground in a battle of six days' duration, when a strong force of cavalry enveloped the German left wing and forced them to make a long and costly retreat. Early in December, the Russians renewed the siege of Przemysl and again advanced towards Cracow.

The Austrian invasions of Serbia had been repelled with severe loss and a Serbian army invaded Bosnia and besieged Serajevo. In November, the Austrian army was reinforced, drove out the Serbians and pursued them into their own country. Belgrade was bombarded and laid in ruins. On December 5, the Serbian army defeated the invaders and recaptured Belgrade on the 14th.

Montenegro declared war on Austria on August 7, and assisted the Serbians in their invasion of Bosnia. On October 31, diplomatic relations between Turkey and the Allies were broken off. Following upon a Germano-Turkish attack upon the Russian Black Sea coast, Great Britain declared war against Turkey and annexed Cyprus on November 5, and France declared war next day. A Holy War against the Allies was proclaimed by the Sultan on November 25. The allied fleet bombarded the forts at the Dardanelles. The Turks invaded the Caucasian frontier of Russia, but were almost immediately driven out. Troops from India landed at the head of the Persian Gulf, and occupied the port of Basra on November 21. The Turks were defeated by this force at Kurna on the Tigris on December 8, and the richest part of the Delta was occupied by the victorious troops.

Naval and Colonial Warfare, 1914

With the entry of Great Britain into the war, the command of the seas passed into the hands of the Allies. It became no longer possible for the reservists of Germany and Austria to return from beyond the seas, and the conquest of the German colonies was an easy matter. About half of the German shipping at the declaration of war was on the high seas or in foreign and colonial ports. The destruction of German commerce and the close blockade of her ports must eventually accomplish her ruin. Her fleet, however, still commanded the Baltic and enabled her to carry on a prosperous trade with Scandinavia, and the outer world through Scandinavian ports. The main task of the British Grand Feet in the North sea was to prevent German squadrons or single ships from reaching the Atlantic or from remaining at sea any length of time without meeting a superior British force. The first encounter of any magnitude took place in the Bight of Heligoland on August 28. Three German cruisers and two torpedo boats were destroyed.

Small German squadrons made flying raids upon the English ports on two occasions. Appearing off Yarmouth on November 3, they caused some damage, and on December 16, the ports of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby were bombarded and many inhabitants killed or wounded. The German cruisers, which were then at sea, were able to inflict considerable damage on British and allied shipping. The most successful of these were the Karlsruhe, the Emden and the Koenigsberg. The Emden was finally destroyed by the Australian cruiser “Sydney” at the Cocos islands on November 9, and the Koenigsberg was bottled up in the Rufigi River in German East Africa, where she was subsequently destroyed. On November 3, a British squadron of three cruisers encountered a German squadron of much superior force off the harbour of Coronel in Chile. The German Admiral von Spee skilfully taking advantage of weather conditions, succeeded in sinking the Monmouth and Good Hope, while the third British vessel escaped. When this event became known to the Admiralty, another squadron of superior strength was secretly equipped and despatched under Admiral Sturdee in search of the victors. On the morning of December 5, the German squadron of five ships was sighted off the Falkland Islands and four of them were quickly destroyed. They were gallantly fought to the last.

Several British cruisers and destroyers were sunk by submarines, and on October 27 the “Audacious,” a new super-dreadnought, was sunk by a mine off the north coast of Ireland. German merchant shipping was quickly swept from the face of the ocean, being captured or interned in neutral ports.

The war against the German overseas possessions was vigorously prosecuted. The German colony in Samoa was taken by an expedition from New Zealand on August 29. The Bismarck Archipelago was captured by the Australians on September 12, and King William's Land, and Yap in the Caroline Islands were occupied by them in the latter part of the same month. The colonial forces of British South Africa invaded German South West Africa. Japan declared war against Germany on August 23. In September, a Japanese army, joined by a small British force, besieged the fortress of Tsing-tau which surrendered on November 7. The Marshall Islands were occupied by the Japanese on October 6.

An insurrection in South Africa headed by Generals de Wet and Beyers was quickly suppressed by the colonial forces.

A Canadian expeditionary force was rapidly assembled in August, 1914, at the training camp of Valcartier, near Quebec, where it remained until transportation and a sufficient escort of ships of war could be provided late in the following month; and on October 14, this force consisting of approximately 32,000 men arrived at Plymouth. Contingents from Australia and New Zealand were transported to Egypt. A large force of British territorial troops was despatched to India, liberating an expeditionary force of British and Indian troops for service in France. The French Nineteenth Army Corps from Algeria was conveyed across the Mediterranean unmolested, and great numbers of native troops were recruited for service in the French dominions of Africa and Asia, and brought to France. Such movements of troops would not have been practicable without absolute control of the sea.

At the end of the year, Germany had signally failed in her main purpose of destroying the French and British armies, and afterwards in a very desperate effort to reach the Channel ports. She had, however, overrun Belgium and remained in possession of a tenth of the soil of France containing its most valuable mines of coal and iron, and several of its greatest industrial towns. Austrian armies had been soundly beaten by the Russians and Serbians, and the province of Galicia had been lost.

Operations on the Western Front, 1914

In January the Allies made three determined efforts to pierce the German lines in Alsace, in Champagne, and at Souchez, north of Arras. A French force crossed the Aisne near Soissons and gained a precarious foothold north of the river. The stream rose in flood during the night and carried away most of the bridges, thus isolating the force on the north side. It was attacked by greatly superior numbers on the 13th and driven across the river with heavy loss. On the morning of March 13, a formidable offensive began on the British front at Neuve Chapelle, ten miles west of Lille. The German entrenchments were levelled by a well directed artillery fire and carried by the infantry without much difficulty. The advance was continued as far as the second fine, where the assaulting troops were compelled to halt through disorganization. The artillery was unable to continue its barrage from want of ammunition and the expected reinforcements did not come up. The position won was maintained and German counter-attacks were repelled with great loss. Neuve Chapelle has been aptly described as a victory that “halted half way through lack of prompt support and co-ordination.” On March 14, the Germans commenced a terrific bombardment of the British lines at St. Éloi. Shortly after, they sprang an immense mine and blew up part of the British entrenchments which were then carried by assault. Next day the British counter-attacked and retook most of the lost ground. On April 17, the British sprang a mine under Hill 60, three miles southeast of Ypres, and carried the German works by assault. Fierce fighting followed during the next five days. On the evening of the 22nd the Germans discharged a great volume of poisonous gas against the French trenches north of Ypres, which was carried toward them by a favourable wind. The French African troops holding this line were surprised and became panic-stricken. A whole division was nearly destroyed in consequence. The Germans poured into the gap and began to cross the canal. At the same time, they attempted to use gas against the Third Canadian Infantry Brigade, on the French right. Here the direction of the wind was not so propitious and the Canadians firmly held their lines and repelled the attack which was renewed against the Second Canadian Brigade on the following afternoon with no better success. These assaults with gas continued intermittently until the middle of May. Within two weeks, the allied troops were supplied with gas helmets and respirators and the temporary advantage of the Germans was at an end. They had forced the Allies to shorten their lines at Ypres, but failed to take the city and were ultimately driven back across the canal.

The month of April was also marked by a resolute effort on the part of the French to expel the Germans from their foothold across the Meuse at St. Mihiel. They made limited progress on the flanks of the German salient, but failed to carry the main position. Their losses were severe. To relieve the British and assist the Russians in their operations, General Foch began a great offensive on a front of twenty miles north of Arras on May 10. The first line of German trenches was overwhelmed by a terrific storm of shells and carried with little difficulty. The Germans were well prepared in their alternative lines of defence, and succeeded in holding their positions, although these attacks were continued with little relaxation for the next three months. The British attacked La Bassée, and gained some ground, but eventually failed again from want of artillery ammunition. On July 30, the Germans retook some trenches they had lost near Hooge by making use of flame projectors for the first time.

The Allies began a prolonged bombardment on September 1, which lasted for twenty-five days, preparatory to an advance on a wide front. The British attacked near La Bassée, and penetrated the German lines to a depth of two miles. The French gained some ground on the British right, and in Champagne pierced the German lines on a front of fifteen miles. Nearly 30,000 prisoners were taken, but the Allies failed to break the German third line. Troops were swiftly brought from the Russian front, yet subsequent counter-attacks made by the Germans in the months of October and November did not recover much of their lost ground and proved very costly. For the remainder of the year, operations on this front were of a local and unimportant nature.