by Tom B
GQC Fere-en-Tardenois 1940 hrs 19 September 1914
General Joseph Joffre’s reputation for imperturbability was being sorely tested. The latest news emanating from General Maunoury was most discouraging. The 62nd Reserve Division had failed in its attempt to cross the Oise and IV Corps was unable to bridge the Aisne. The II Cavalry Corps had been repulsed in its attack and was now fighting off counterattacks by German cavalry. These attempts to rescue XIII Corps had failed and so too had its attempts to break out of encirclement on its own. There was also news confirming at last the suspicion that I Cavalry Corps had been entrapped as well.
With the failure of the attacks by Fifth Army and the BEF on the 13th Joffre had decided that turning the German right flank was preferable to continued frontal assaults against the German defense line which appeared to be getting stronger in its entrenchments by the hour. To effectuate this envelopment Joffre had sent XIII Corps to Sixth Army as reinforcement. With the I Cavalry Corps in its vanguard XIII Corps had easily crossed the Oise south of Creil late on the 16th. The next day it had easily brushed aside the German cavalry divisions in that sector and then with French cavalry in its van and on its right left flank rapidly marched up the west bank of the Oise. Meanwhile the Sixth Army and BEF made costly pinning attacks designed to make it difficult for the Germans to reinforce the threatened flank. In the late morning German infantry north of Compiege fled across the Oise. In the afternoon the 61st Reserve Division crossed the Oise and followed.
Yesterday morning the XIII Corps had reached Ribecourt while the French cavalry had galloped on ahead to attack Noyon. It was then that an aviator landed with reports of large columns of German infantry disgorging out of Cuvilly. The German forces divided into two groups. One of them charged the left flank of XIII Corps, which was no longer protected by a cavalry screen. The other engaged 61st Reserve Division with some assistance from the German cavalry divisions, and in a few hours forced that unit to retreat behind the Oise.
I Cavalry Corps belatedly turned back to help XIII Corps. When night fell all communication with XIII Corps had been lost. Attempts to reestablish communications during the night were unsuccessful. With the early morning air patrols a clearer picture of the situation emerged--a picture, which confirmed their worst fears. The German forces that had ambushed XIII were three possibly four infantry divisions. In addition another German division had reached Ribecourt despite the pinning attacks. The XIII Corps was definitely encircled.
The rest of the day consisted of frantic attempts to rescue the surrounded forces. Conneau’s II Cavalry Corps sped to the left flank. The Sixth Army made a maximum effort to breakthrough the river defenses of German First Army only to be repulsed with heavy casualties. The 61st and 62nd Reserve Divisions tried to cross the Oise without success. Likewise an attack by the British III Army Corps made only minor progress against the German trenches.
Despite the failures Maunoury remained upbeat. He planned to force march 61st and 62nd Reserve Divisions further south where he was confident they would be able to cross the Oise during the night. Tomorrow they would accompany II Cavalry Corps and by noon storm the German line of encirclement simultaneous with an attempt by IV Corps to cross the Oise south of Compiegne.
While Maunoury’s optimism pleased Joffre--it so very much exemplified French élan--nonetheless it was increasingly obvious to Joffre that additional forces were needed. To that end Joffre and his staff finalized the plans for assembling at Beauvais a reconstituted Second Army under the command of General de Castelnau. An additional worry surfaced when someone had reminded him that yesterday afternoon a train had been badly damaged by artillery fire near Aubreville. Evidently its plume had been spotted by German observers on the Vauqois.
Despite all of these problems and concerns Joffre slept soundly that night.
Luxembourg 2015 hrs
"You fail to appreciate the importance of Verdun!"
General Helmuth von Moltke stared daggers at his accuser, the man determined to be his replacement, General Erich von Falkenhayn, the Prussian Minister of War. Moltke waved his hand dismissively, "That is most unfair! As you know I included the pinching off of Verdun in my modifications to, to, uh, my predecessor’s strategic plan--" For some reason Moltke had found it increasing difficult to say "Schlieffen" the last few days.
"--- only to pull back when it was on the verge of success!" countered Falkenhayn.
"The French had plugged the Revigny Gap, and the Meuse forts, especially Troyon, would’ve been formidable obstacles. With my alternative plan, Verdun ‘s importance is much less. It no longer justifies the losses we would have suffered. We do not need it. What we need is the prompt redeployment of forces to our right flank."
"You overestimate the French powers of resistance and furthermore continue to think of Verdun merely as a communication center. You fail to realize how its loss would shatter French morale!"
The afternoon of the 18th, while XV Army Corps and IX Reserve Corps of Seventh Army were closing Moltke’s trap on French XIII Corps, Kaiser Wilhelm publicly announced a change in policy. It was convoluted in its phrasing but the gist of it was that Moltke was ordered to keep Falkenhayn abreast of German strategy and that if Falkenhayn did not concur the matter would be resolved by the Kaiser himself. . This imperial order already generated a mixed reaction with the German Army. On the one hand there was a whispered voice of discontent that the Kaiser was robbing the General Staff of the great strength of its unambiguous command structure—essentially making it more like the befuddled Imperial Navy. Sometimes these whispers included some speculation re a malefic influence being exerted by certain senior admirals. Others however whispered—much less quietly—that this was a mere stopgap measure in order to phase Falkenhayn in as Moltke’s successor.
Either way Moltke did not like it. The only thing he saw as positive in this situation was that it might make it easier to deal with Crown Prince Wilhelm and Prince Rupprecht, both of whom had been very obstinate to date.
So what was happening now was one of those meetings were rivals try to reach an agreement while conceding as little as possible the other’s competence. For example, while Falkenhayn did agree that the Channel Ports were indeed important objectives, he not once, but twice couched that observation in sarcastic remarks about Moltke failing to realize such an obvious thing earlier in the campaign. He also made comments about Moltke neglecting Antwerp. Moltke reluctantly conceded there was a need there, especially since the Belgians had again attempted a sortie.
The big point of contention though was Verdun. Falkenhayn had proposed a renewed attempt to encircle and destroy Sarrail’s Third Army at Verdun—or failing that at least to force it to abandon Verdun but cutting its supply lines. Falkenayn was upset that Moltke had moved XIV Army Corps by rail out of Lorraine—indeed it had begun to arrive at Montidier just a few hours ago. Falkenhayn had wanted that unit to be part of a force with which to attack the French forts on the right bank of the Meuse. Moltke in turn saw no need for Falkenhayn’s left pincer attacking across the Woevre Plain. On the other hand, he did see an important role for Falkenhayn’s right pincer plowing through the Argonne Forest. However, while Falkenhayn hoped his Argonne offensive could emerge from the forest and link up with the larger force crossing the Meuse, Moltke thought it useful merely to advance as far as Aubreville, cutting the main rail line from Paris to Verdun. This would make it more difficult for Joffre to quickly shuttle divisions to the west.
GQG Fere-en-Tardenois 1105 hrs 23 September 1914
General Joffre stoically digested the latest serving of sour news. General de Castelnau had just reported that Second Army’s early morning attempt to punch through the trench line of what had been identified as German Seventh Army in order to rescue XII Corps and I Cavalry Corps had made small progress at a heavy cost in casualties. It had been much the same yesterday when Second Army had initiated its attack soon after arriving by rail at Beauvais. Likewise the pinning attacks being made by Sixth Army and the BEF were also using up men and shells.
Still the news was not completely bad. Aerial reconnaissance reported that XIII Corps was still bravely holding out even though its perimeter had contracted. Against Second and Sixth Armies, the Germans made only very localized counterattacks, leading Joffre to conclude they were strong enough to attempt an offensive. De Castelnau continued to believe that the German defenders were also suffering heavy losses and would soon be too weak to adequately defend their trenches. So far though, few German soldiers had been captured. Meanwhile Conneau’s II Cavalry Corps was probing near the vicinity of Montdidier searching for a gap that could be exploited. The best news of all came from Antwerp. The Belgian Army had begun at first light the sortie which he had requested three days ago. Joffre still had confidence that was already being called the Battle of the Oise could be turned into another French triumph—or at least something he could present as such.
Joffre could now see that Amiens was the key to the entire Western Front. Whether or not XIII Corps was saved, he would need to form another army to capture Amiens. Once he had seized Amiens he would be able to roll up the German defensive line. After that the war would soon be over.
Just west of St. Riquier 1350 hrs
From the top of a hill Hauptman Bauer could plainly see Abbeville through his binoculars. He was the commander of the lead squadron of 8th Chevauleger Regiment in the vanguard of I Bavarian Army Corps, which had started this war by fighting fiercely in Lorraine and had been hurriedly moved east on von Moltke’s orders. After detraining at Valenciennes on the 16th the corps hard marched first to Arras where it rested briefly then proceeded on to Doullens. Now they had arrived at the outskirts of their main objective.
The Chevaulegers were about 10 kilometers in front of the 1st Bavarian Jaeger Battalion, which in turn was about 5 kilometers ahead of the 1st Bavarian Infantry Division. At this moment the primary mission of the cavalry was reconnaissance. How strong were the French forces garrisoning Abbeville? If they were particularly weak the 1st Bavarian Infantry Division would attack at dusk. If on the other hand, it was strongly defended then a dawn attack by the entire corps would be necessary. At St. Riquier they had encountered only a single weak outpost, which had not been expecting them and was quickly eliminated. Bauer regarded that as a promising sign.
He now saw a plane lumbering its way through the air over Abbeville. Bauer was fairly surely it was an Albatross from the corps’ aviation section. He knew of some cavalrymen volunteering for aviation. He considered those men to be borderline sane at best. Bauer much preferred a good horse. While he had some grudging admiration for the brave souls that flew in those flimsy and cantankerous contraptions, Bauer resented those who argued that airplanes would soon replace cavalry was the instrument of reconnaissance. There were things that could not be properly observed from the air.
Brussels 1745 hrs
Once again General Hans von Beseler found himself reminiscing about the other war. The war that was so very long ago and yet could still evoke vivid flashes of memory. Would memories of this war persist in the same way for those young soldiers who managed to survive? He was sure it would.
He dismissed the Last war memories and concentrated with renewed vigor on the current conflict. The Belgians had attacked before dawn between Dender and Willebroak Canal. It was increasingly obvious to him that the Belgian sortie was more than a feint. This attack was not completely unexpected. Joffre had got himself in a bind with the encirclement of XIII Corps. It made sense his would call upon the Belgians to siphon off German forces.
Apparently the Belgians did not realize that those forces had already been siphoned off. Intent on a maximum effort at Antwerp Moltke had committed the II Bavarian Army Corps to be part of what was now being called Army Group Beseler. That corps had already detrained at Namur before the attack started and with a hard march it should be able to mount a counterattack around noon tomorrow Likewise Moltke had given him the Bavarian Cavalry Division which would be could be entering the fray in the afternoon. Together with III Reserve Corps, 4th Ersatz Division, 1st Marine Division and the Landwehr Brigades these forces would allow him to make a powerful riposte.
He was grateful—and a little surprised—that Moltke had granted him these forces. Beseler had once thought he was going to be Schlieffen’s successor. There had been some resentment when Kaiser Wilhelm had tagged Moltke instead. This had prompted Beseler’s retirement, which he terminated when the war started. He wondered if Moltke really appreciated him that much. Another possibility—much more likely in Beseler’s mind—was that Moltke was looking to win over a respected voice to his cause.
General Beseler choose not to ruminate too far along those lines. No matter the reason why he got thse divisions, he was glad to have them.
GQG Beauvais 0920 hrs 23 September 1914
General Joffre had become disenchanted with France’s allies—except possibly for the tenacious Serbs. The Russians, for instance, had blundered their way into catastrophe at Tannenberg Forest and in the last fortnight had suffered still another defeat at the Masurian Lakes. The Belgians, on the other hand, did demonstrate courage –for a while that it is. Their most recent sortie struck Joffre as being halfhearted. But the biggest disappointment of them all was the British. When on the evening of the 24th he finally notified them of the German capture of Abbeville—news he had been sitting on for several hours—they had become downright hysterical. During the night a letter from arrived from General Sir John French reminding him that the rail link from the Boulogne and Calais ran through Abbeville and that the Germans therefore had severed the British line of communication, the artery through which the lifeblood of the BEF flowed. As if the French Army did not know that! Steps were being taken to route supplies from England through LeHavre—indeed the first ships had been offloaded just last night.
The letter from Gen. French had gone on to strongly recommend that the BEF again be allowed to take up its position on the left of the French. The letter enumerated several reasons justifying this action—such as easing the British supply lines. Joffre did not trust the British and most especially he did not trust their commander. Put Sir John French too near the coast he would think about leaving France altogether if things went awry. He had done so on one occasion already. So it was prudent to keep the BEF away from the coast. However Joffre realized he could not afford to be blunt. So instead he stalled, writing a reply to French where he agreed in principle with the suggestion but stated that it would have to wait until the current crisis was resolved. He in turn presented cogent reasons such as the fact that moving the BEF at this time would tie up rail cars he so desperately needed to properly deploy and supply the French Army.
Early yesterday morning a frantic John French had stormed into his headquarters and demanded to speak with him. The British General bluntly informed him in unequivocal terms that the BEF was moving to the left flank of the French and would be beginning their withdrawal no later than noon of the 29th. French made it clear that Kitchener and Asquith had concurred in this decision. Many a French general would’ve exploded over this insufferable outrage, but Joffre calmly accepted the inevitable. He ordered his staff to work out the necessary details with their British counterparts. However in the afternoon Joffre had moved his headquarters to Beauvais—ostensibly to be closer to where the most important battles were going to occur but also to get away from the insufferable British. Making matters worse an afternoon attempt by a Territorial Division and an independent cavalry brigade to retake Abbeville had failed miserably.
The BEF’s II Army Corps was scheduled to strain entraining the night of the 29/30th so as to keep the Germans ignorant. The trains would carry them as far as Dieppe from which they would proceed to the Somme by forced march—though the possibility of using buses to move the troops was being explored.
There were other disappointments though which Joffre could not blame on allies. For instance de Castelnau had failed in his effort to rescue XIII Corps and I Cavalry Corps. Second Army had managed at considerable cost to capture Montdidier yesterday morning but was unable to advance any further. Reports came in late yesterday indicating that most of XIII Corps had finally surrendered. C’est la guerre.
He even had a telephone call from Viviani yesterday afternoon. This was most unusual because the Prime Minister usually knew better than to try to intervene in the operation of the army. Viviani was concerned that the loss of Abbeville meant that Artois was now completely severed from the rest of France. The Prime Minister had blathered about the economic consequences and some other things Joffre couldn’t remember now. Joffre harbored a suspicion that Gallieni was responsible for the phone call. So Joffre pretended to listen after which he assured Viviani that access to Artois would soon be restored without of course sharing any details. What was most important now was the assault on Amiens by General Louis Maud’huy’s Tenth Army, which was scheduled to begin the morning of the 29th. This could well be the battle that decides the war.
BEF HQ Fere-en-Tardenois 1015 hrs
General Sir John French was beginning to calm down. He still had a long way to go. One of the things helping to steady his volatile nerves was his visitor, Sir Winston Churchill.
"Joffre was correct when he told you that we can use Le Havre for your primary supple route. In fact the first shipment of supplies landed at le Havre should be arriving to your quartermasters within the hour. Admittedly this situation does most certainly present some problems in that the freighters must make a longer voyage, but with the number of hulls we have available that problem is scarcely more than an inconvenience. There is some transient complications such as assigning more shore personnel to Le Havre. We might make use of Dieppe as well—before I departed England Admiral Battenberg heartily agreed with me that we should look more closely at using Dieppe as a supply port in addition to Le Havre. Since II Army Corps is scheduled to detrain at Dieppe that should prove rather convenient for you."
This was news General French longed to hear. The news of Abbeville’s capture had shaken him to a core. Prior to that he had been full of confidence that the war would be won in two months. He found Joffre’s reassurances less than persuasive. Yesterday the German First Army had launched a fierce morning attack against III Army Corps’ bridgehead over the Aisne. While the initial assault was repulsed III Army Corps expended most of its stock of artillery shells General Pulteney in command of III Corps expressed grave doubts about the survival of the bridgehead absent a replenishment of artillery shells. French had reluctantly approved an abandonment of the bridgehead during the night. It was accomplished smoothly with the pontoon bridge blown up at 0430 after the last soldier had crossed.
General Haig in his mocking insolence had insinuated an hour ago that the decision to abandon the hard won river crossing might have been "hasty". Just another in a long string of insults. He would not forget it! For the time being though he forced himself not to brood on it.
"That is heartening news, sir" he replied, "Nothing worries a general more than to hear his line of communication has been severed. It now looks like the Germans accomplished less than they intended. My deepest gratitude goes out to the Royal Navy for so quickly making things right again. You’ve no idea how much I’ve fretted these last two days."
Actually Churchill did have an idea about that—a rather disturbing one. He had heard things about French’s personality from being in the Cabinet. Churchill was due another cigar and lit one up. As he did he realized that there was one silver lining to the Abbeville situation. The accursed newspapers had recently found out that Seydlitz had survived Heligoland Bight. Lord Northcliffe was once again mercilessly hounding poor Prince Louis. The loss of Abbeville chased Seydlitz off the front pages and probably saved the Prince from tendering his resignation. Well, at least for a while.
"While we can supply the BEF through Le Havre and Dieppe, that does not mean we should sit back and let the bloody Huns simply hold on to Abbeville. You must surely be aware there are other serious consequences to the position now held by the Germans. It is imperative that we drive them out. That is one of the heroic tasks that rests on your august shoulders."
Churchill was trying to rally French’s warrior spirit. However while the general feebly nodded there was something in Churchill’s phrasing he found worrisome. "One of the…"
"Ahem. Might one ask what other heroic tasks are slated for the British Army?" French attempted not to sound sarcastic. He wasn’t sure he succeeded but in any event Churchill did not seem to take it in an ill way taking his time to savor his cigar before replying, "You may indeed ask and I shall bestir myself to answer. It’s become very clear in my mind of late that the key to victory in this convoluted struggle lies in Belgium. We can in time commit a sizable force to first Antwerp and then to Ostend as reinforcements for the gallant Belgians whose indefatigable spirit in the face of atrocity and adversity sets a resplendent example for us all. This combined force will then attack into the vulnerable flank of the Germans and gnaw away at their liver."
French was nonplussed. In his recent conversation with Joffre he had made no mention of a "sizable force" being sent to Belgium. Instead he had pictured that the BEF in Picardy would soon be reinforced with 7th Division, 3rd Cavalry Division and ultimately the en route Indian divisions. Did Kitchener have some plans he was sharing with Churchill but not his commander in the field? How bloody damn typical of the bastard!"
Churchill noticed the look on French’s face. "Is something wrong, general?"
"What to say? Best to be neither affirmative nor confrontational" thought French.
"Uh, er, nothing really. You are quite right about Belgium being important. We’ve received news this morning that German siege artillery has started to bombard the forts of Antwerp. Clearly that’s an ominous development."
Churchill nodded glumly, "It most certainly is. Kitchener has stated that it will take at least three weeks for the Germans to demolish the defending forts, so we have some time but we can’t afford to dawdle. Decisions of vital importance need to be made soon. For that reason I am afraid I must cut this visit short and leave anon."
Churchill paused to work some more on his cigar. Then he grinned broadly and announced with the slobbering enthusiasm, "I am going to Antwerp!"
Outskirts of Antwerp 1605 hrs
The German siege artillery relentlessly pounded away at Antwerp’s outer ring of forts. General von Beseler had arrived not long ago. He wanted to see for himself the awesome "Big Bertha" 42cm Krupp howitzers in action. A senior artillery officer related that magazine explosions had been observed in both Fort Whaelem and Fort Dorpveld. Beseler looked at the damaged forts through a telescope. He saw Dorpveld get hit again by a 42cm anticoncrete shell. He could see a section of wall collapse.
The schwerpunkt of the Belgian sortie on the 23rd had been between the Dendre River and the Willebroak Canal with the objective of enveloping III Reserve Corps’ left flank, whereas their sortie back on the 9th had tried to envelop the right flank. To the east of the main effort they also made attacks in order to pin IIR Reserve Corps as it was being enveloped. Meanwhile to the west the lone Belgian cavalry division guarded the attackers right flank. The main attack had encountered only a Landwehr brigade plus one brigade of the recently arrived 4th Ersatz Division. These German defenders fell back towards Brussels.
The next morning the Belgian units making pinning attacks received a rude shock from German 21cm howitzer batteries, followed by a vigorous German counterattack. Soon afterwards the Belgian enveloping force began to encounter II Bavarian Army Corps. The Belgians had been ambivalent about the sortie from the start and their divisional commanders were warned to exercise caution. By noon they were falling back across the line with the Germans in hot pursuit. The Bavarian Cavalry Division arrived at this time and further harried the retreating Belgians.
It was not a route. The Belgians by now had accumulated considerable experience in making orderly retreats. The 4th Ersatz Division made a futile attempt to cut off the retreat of one of the Belgian divisions. So the sortie ended with the already battered Belgian Army a little more bruised. This action did however set the stage for the German bombardment, which began at dawn yesterday.
Sixth Army HQ St. Riquier 1955 hrs
Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria had set up his headquarters at St. Riquier just before noon. Having just consumed a light supper he reviewed the situation of his army. I Bavarian Army Corps was firmly ensconced at Abbeville. It had been reinforced the previous day by I Cavalry Corps, which was now temporarily assigned to his command. XXI Army Corps had arrived at Amiens soon after sunset yesterday and today had hard marched up the north bank of the Somme to take its assigned position on the left flank. The XIV Reserve Corps however was not due to arrive for two more days.
His orders from OHL were to merely hold the river line from the boundary with Seventh Army near Amiens to the sea. Until XIV Reserve Corps arrived that seemed reasonable but it was frustrating bordering on intolerable to Rupprecht that he was being told nothing about the operation he was expected to wage afterwards. Surely a major offensive turning the French left flank was what was being envisaged! Prince Rupprecht thrilled at the notion of first turning the French flank then leading the war winning march on Paris.
Unpleasant memories arose to ruin the fantasy. The Bavarian Crown Prince still rankled over the abrupt termination of his assault on Nancy. Admittedly the French resistance there had been stronger than expected, but he thought they were on the verge of crumbling when the inexplicable order arrived, depriving his army and himself of victory and glory.
Like a majority of the German generals Prince Rupprecht had expected the Kaiser to remove Moltke from command within a week after ordering the retreat. He had clearly failed in carrying out the mission and that should have been that. So the arrangement that had ensued wherein the Kaiser granted Falkenhayn came as a surprise. Apparently his success at the Battle of Oise had bought him some more time. Prince Rupprecht shook his head at that thought. Moltke was supposed to encircle and destroy most of the French Army then capture Paris. Instead he destroys a French corps and some cavalry and that makes everything right. Rupprecht didn’t know what to make it of it. The idea that the army’s command structure was becoming almost as confused as the poor navy’s was quite disturbing. So too was the obviousness of Kaiser Wilhelm’s scheming to find a way to interfere in decisions he should be leaving to others.
On the other hand Prince Rupprecht was not all that enthused at the prospect of Falkenhayn having complete control of the army. Rupprecht suspected that Falkenhayn would not be as intimidated by his royal stature as Moltke usually was.
OHL Luxembourg 2210 hrs
General von Moltke had taken a break during which he had played the cello and then performed a meditation exercise. Spiritually refreshed he returned now to get the latest reports. In the main they were encouraging. Oh, there were reports that some elements of the French XIII Corps and I Cavalry Corps had slipped though the German cordon the previous night and had been seen roaming around. Moltke didn’t let that worry him. These units were completely out of communication with little if any food and ammunition. Most of them would be rounded up in the next few days.
He looked again at the map. German divisions were entrenched along a continuous line that ran from the Swiss border in Alsace to the mouth of Somme. Suddenly he felt once again the presence of his predecessor.
He smiled for both of them.
10 Downing Street London 1040 hrs Oct 1, 1914
Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener of County Kerry was pointing. Herbert Asquith the British Prime Minster suddenly recalled something his wife had told him and fought to suppress what would’ve been a very embarrassing laugh. Margot really had intense dislike of the man! The prime minister was finding himself becoming increasingly ambivalent about the Secretary of War. One the one hand, he found Kitchener to be downright inscrutable. On the other, Kitchener had done several very positive things, such as keeping the BEF in the fight when Sir John French had wanted to withdraw to Boulogne. Given recent events it also looked like the formation of the dozen New Army divisions was a prudent precaution. The mid-September ebullience after the Miracle of Marne had worn off. It was no longer certain that the "boys would be home for Christmas." What a long war might do to the Empire was something Asquith chose not to consider right now.
The full Cabinet had been assembled for a briefing on recent developments. Kitchener had put up a large map of northern France and Belgium on an easel for all the ministers to see. He deftly wielded a pointer. Right now it was aimed at Amiens.
"Today the French Tenth Army is continuing its attack on Amiens. As usual Joffre has not been very forthcoming with details, but from what little we have been told it appears that they have encountered heavier than anticipated resistance but are nevertheless making slow but steady progress. Meanwhile " His slid the pointer in an arc from Amiens to Compiegne then east to along the Aisne to Soissons, "the French Second and Sixth Armies are making attacks which will ‘pin’ the German Seventh and First Armies so that they cannot be rush reinforcements to Amiens. However" at this he rapidly shifted the pointer to the section of the Somme around Abbeville, "the enemy forces around Abbeville are not pinned by any attack and we expect that the Germans will use them to reinforce Amiens."
At this he paused and stared at the ministers, not unlike a pedagogue looking to see if his pupils had absorbed a difficult lecture.
"What is your expectation, Lord Kitchener? Are you confident that the French will be able to take Amiens?" asked the prime minister.
Kitchener moved the pointer away from the map, holding it in both hands. He gave Asquith one of those enigmatic looks that tormented the prime minister with its ineffability. After some though Kitchener replied "I think it likely the French will drive the Germans out of Amiens in a day or two, Prime Minister. However it must be noted that even if the French fail it will be because the Germans seriously weakened their strength around Abbeville to reinforce Amiens. So in either case what important to us is that when three days from now when our II Army Corps attacks the German presence around Abbeville will be so weakened that together with the French already forces in that vicinity—" at this last comment the pointer made a small oval around Abbeville, "they will be able to win a lodgment on the north bank of the Somme and then proceed to capture Abbeville. After that II Corps is to remain at Abbeville until the arrival of both Cavalry Corps and III Army Corps—at which time a general advance to the northeast can begin."
Again the teacher looked to see if his dullards were getting the lesson. Unfortunately he noticed one of the perennial troublemakers was getting ready to spring some new mischief.
"Lord Kitchener, do you plan to land 7th Division at Dieppe to participate in this offensive?" asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, the Welshman who wasn’t Welsh.
"No, sir, we are going to send the 7th Division and 3rd Cavalry Division as well to Belgium."
"But surely, general, given the dreadful importance of driving the Germans away from the Somme those units are better employed in conjunction with the rest of the BEF."
"No, minister, it is not better. By deploying those forces in Belgium we can prevent the fall of Antwerp—"
"—but general just yesterday you told us the fall of Antwerp was inevitable—"
"--the eventual fall of Antwerp is inevitable, Mr. Lloyd George. But the deployment of those two divisions—in addition to those units Mr. Churchill has organized—can delay the fall of Antwerp and give us more time to breakthrough the German defenses along the Somme. This will take time and if in the meantime the Germans quickly overwhelm Antwerp and the Belgian Army they could easily be in Dunkirk or even Calais," Kitchener slammed the tip of the pointer roughly in the vicinity of Dunkirk for emphasis, "before British and French forces could arrive from the Somme."
This provoked some murmuring amongst the ministers. Asquith stared uneasily at both Lloyd George and Kitchener. The ill feeling between the two had roots in the Second Boer War, when Lloyd-George had strongly protested several of Kitchener’s policies, especially the use of concentration camps. It was best to shift the focus of the discussion. He also looked at the representatives of the Admiralty—First Sea Lord Prince Louis Battenberg and the chief of the Naval War Staff, Admiral Doveton Sturdee. Before this meeting was ended he wanted some concrete proposals from those two about how the Royal Navy could best be used to assist the British Army now that the war had moved close to the coastline.
"Yes, Lord Kitchener, it’s quite right to remind us again of the importance of Channel Ports and of the extremely brave work our esteemed colleague Churchill is performing as we speak. Perhaps it is time we discuss certain telegrams Churchill sent us last night."
Antwerp 1050 hrs
It was music to Winston Churchill’s ears—the sounds of cannon fire and musketry. He was visiting the Royal Marine Brigade at the scene of the morning’s heaviest fighting. Most regrettably the heaviest fighting had occurred around dawn and Churchill was never one for rising early. He had introduced himself to the brave soldiers and cheered them on. They in turn had cheered him, which gladdened his heart so much he had shed tears. Never in his life had he felt so alive as here in Antwerp amidst the shattered buildings and splattered bodies, the cacophony and screams which is the bedlam of warfare. God, how he loved it!
Suddenly a large German shell exploded not far off. It’s incoming noise had made the soldiers fall down for cover, but Churchill had defiantly remained standing. He might well die this day but he would die being Churchill. This allowed him forget last night, when he had met with the Belgian government and was informed that within two—at most three days—they would be forced to abandon Antwerp. Churchill had implored them with every ounce of his persuasive powers to persist—soon two more British naval brigades would be arriving very soon as reinforcements and then the 7th Division would be here to lead the brave Belgians in a counterattack. If only they would have heart the war could be won here at Antwerp!
Spurred to heroic heights by the current crisis Churchill had cabled London asking that he be granted command of all British units in Antwerp with a temporary rank of lieutenant general. The only reply so far from Asquith was terse and oblique—merely that the proposal was duly noted and would taken under consideration at this morning’s Cabinet meeting. A brief meeting with the Belgians before coming here had included a concession on their part that they "might" be able to hold out a "little longer" than they had indicated last night. They had also praised the Royal Naval Brigade for the assistance they provided in repelling a German assault. They had also relayed reports that they had received from Joffre that the attack on Amiens was making slow but satisfactory progress. Together this information provided Churchill with a speck of hope—but being Churchill a speck was all he needed.
The German bombardment continued.
Lens 1710 hrs
A week ago General von Moltke had decided to experiment. The VII Army Corps in Second Army was one of those situations where a six squadron cavalry regiment—the 16th Uhlan--had been split in half to provided cavalry for each of the divisions in the corps. Moltke ordered that one squadron remain with the divisions and the rest of the regiment recombined into an independent 16th Uhlan Regiment. He then did the same thing with the 17th Hussars Regiment in X Army Corps, which was also in Second Army. Moltke ordered the formation of the 24th Cavalry Brigade using these two regiments. Moltke’s reasoning was that for at least the near future VII Army Corps and X Army would remain in a static defensive role where cavalry would be of scant value. The Guard Corps was being removed from Second Army and assigned an important new mission. The Guard Corps could make good use of additional cavalry and so the newly formed 24th Cavalry Brigade was subordinated to its command.
A motorcar had just arrived at Lens. It brought word that the 1st Guard Division had begun to arrive at Douai and the 2nd Guard Division would be joining it in another two hours. The commander of the 25th Cavalry Brigade thanked the messenger. Hopefully by tomorrow morning the telephone lines to Douai would be working.
The cavalrymen had stormed into Lens in the early morning. Resistance proved to be even lighter than expected—there was only a weak local garrison of inadequately armed poorly trained militia. Taken by surprise, some militiamen had fled and others quickly surrendered. A few isolated pockets stubbornly fought for a while but within the last hour the last of them had been eliminated. His immediate orders were to reconnoiter the local area, billet in Lens and see that the horses were properly tended to. He found the last item to be so obvious as to be somewhat insulting, but then again dealing with Prussian Guards he should be expecting that.
Lens was a coal mining city. The reports coming in from the scouting forces often included references to the dreariness of the flat countryside dominated as it was by slag heaps. It wasn’t pretty but it was obvious that this was area of great industrial value to France.
IV Reserve Army Corps HQ Thourotte 1425 hrs
At the end of the Battle of the Oise the IV Reserve Corps had taken up positions along the German defensive line from the Oise River to Cuvilly, which then became the new boundary between First and Seventh Armies. The IV Reserve Corps was the famous unit, which had initially blunted the flank attack of the French Sixth Army during the Battle of the Ourcq—part of what the French kept calling the Battle of the Marne, supposedly a great French victory. The men of the IV Reserve Corps had some serious doubts about that.
The redoubtable leader of IV Reserve Corps was General Hans von Gronau. For the last three days his corps had been under attack by the French Second Army. The main effort was directed towards Cuvilly but another smaller attack—perhaps a diversion—headed for Remy. He had just come back from the front southwest of Cuvilly. It appeared that the main French attack been finally smashed with the help of a battalion of foot artillery General von Kluck had sent him this morning. Intelligence reports from First Army HQ speculated that the French assaults were probably intended merely as pinning attacks and that the main French objective was probably Amiens.
Between the Battle of the Oise and the latest assaults there had been a few days where his men had been able to recover from exhaustion—even though they had to do an immense amount of digging. The IV Reserve Corps had participated in the destruction of French XIII Corps and had eventually taken over 7,000 prisoners. Morale-- which had deteriorated seriously in mid-September, underwent a dramatic recovery.
Gronau looked at his maps. He did not believe in attacking quite as much as Kluck –or for that matter the French—did. In his mind there was a time to defend and a time to attack. A good general knew when to attack and when to defend. It was now time again to attack. His enemy had concentrated their forces against his right wing for the recent attacks. Were they weak opposite his left? The French had expected the boundary between Armies to be a weak point. Perhaps they were not completely wrong.
French Tenth Army HQ Conty 1510 hrs
The latest reports from GQG deeply disturbed General Louis Maud’huy. Apparently the Bavarian forces around Abbeville had crossed the Somme during the night and were currently mistreating the Territorial Division and cavalry brigade which was the main force guarding that sector. Maud’huy had suspicions that contrary to the intelligence estimate of GQG that there was more than a single enemy division at Abbeville. This development was a threat to his left flank he could not afford to ignore. He began drafting orders for General Conneau to take his cavalry corps and deal with the threat. Writing these orders actually lifted Maud’huy’s spirits a small notch because this crisis seemed the easiest of his problems to deal with right now.
Maud’huy had been ordered by Joffre to launch his assault on Amiens two days ago-- the morning of the 29th. The night before the attack his forces had not been able to concentrate properly and Maud’huy had strongly recommended the attack be postponed at least one day. The reply from Joffre insisted the attack go ahead on schedule. The attack did not get underway until the afternoon and the infantry without artillery support were slaughtered. Yesterday there was another round of attacks and while they did have artillery support this time the results were still not encouraging. Here and there a stretch of trench and a few strongpoints had been captured but the cost in casualties remained exorbitant and strong German counterattacks immediately contested the meager gains.
The preliminary battlefield reports filtering their way to his headquarters about this morning’s attacks sounded no better. To add to his concerns GQG had informed him that Second Army was going to desist in its pinning attacks because it had shot off its supply of artillery shells. Maud’huy began to investigate the possibility of crossing the Somme to envelop Amiens.
This was the first time command of an entire army had been entrusted to Louis Maud’huy. He began to wonder if it was going to be the last.
Longeuil Ste. Marie 2205 hrs
Under strong moonlight the 11th Reserve Jaeger Battalion advanced with one battalion of the 71st Reserve Infantry Regiment on its right and another on its left and the third following behind as a reserve. Moonlight reduced both the advantages and disadvantages of a night attack. So far the attack had been successful. The weakly held French trench line—minimally protected by barbed wire—had been quickly breached and after a quick savage melee, several hundred prisoners taken. The devolution of the offensive advance into confusion—the usual bane of night attacks when they meet initial success—was so far not in evidence. Perhaps it was some combination of the moon and Gronau’s ability to improvise and plan on short notice. The Germans were beginning to encounter French counterattacks but these were not well organized and were being defeated piecemeal.
The advance of these units continued steadily down the west bank of the Oise River—the boundary between the French Sixth and Second Armies. Other elements of their division, the 22nd Reserve Infantry, followed behind—including two battalions of field artillery.
When news of this development reached GQG, Joffre was already soundly asleep and none on his staff dared to wake him.
Schellebelle (Belgium) 2320 hrs
The foot artillery battalion of II Bavarian Army Corps had just arrived in the area. In the bright moonlight the artillerymen could see the engineers of the corps pontoon train hurriedly erecting a bridge over the formidable Schelde River. Milling about along the south bank of the river were cavalrymen of the 2nd Bavarian Heavy Reiter Regiment. A few were on horseback but most were dismounted. Everyone realized that the moon was a mixed blessing. It can sufficient illumination that they could dispense with lamps for most tasks—but it also made discovery by a Belgian patrol much more likely.
The moon reflected on the waters of the river was very beautiful, but only the cavalrymen could afford to take the time to appreciate it fully. The artillerymen already had a good idea where to deploy their howitzers. They made preparations for the morning. And the engineers continued apace with their construction.