by Tom B
IV Reserve Army Corps HQ Thourotte 0120 hrs Oct 2, 1914
"General von Gronau, our Jaegers report that they have captured intact a French bridge over the Oise!"
It had been a long, long night. Overall the attack of IV Reserve Corps appeared to be progressing well, but as usual in this war reports had been fragmentary, frequently delayed and sometimes downright contradictory. And it was worse, much worse with night battles. General Hans von Gronau, the corps commander looked again at the maps, then he stared at the clock. For two minutes he kept his thoughts to himself, then he commanded, "Send the following message to 7th Cavalry Division!"
He would start the messages with the cavalry division. There would be many others. The night was far from over.
German First Army HQ Vauxaillan 0135 hrs
General von Kluck was leading the triumphant troops of First Amy through the streets of Paris. Ahead he could see the reviewing stand where the Kaiser was eagerly awaiting for arrival so he could bestow the Blue Max in person and promote him to Feldmarshal.
He felt a hand gently shaking his body.
"General von Kluck, sorry to disturb you, sir, but there is an urgent message from General von Gronau!"
The dream faded as he opened his eyes. It was so wonderful while he was having it but it was so cruel when he woke up and was forced to realize it was merely a dream. Not unlike the frustrating dreams he had about certain women when he was younger.
The general sat up and looked at his aide. "Yes, Ludwig, what is it?"
His aide handed him the message. There was just barely enough light to read it. Rubbing his tired eyes and suppressing a yawn, the general hardened himself--middle of the night news was usually bad.
This time was an exception! One dream faded from his consciousness to be replaced by another. Less than a month ago he had thought himself on the verge of the decisive victory only to have von Moltke lose his nerve and ruin it all. Further adding to his frustration in the last fortnight Moltke had repeatedly ordered him not to bridge the Aisne. Assisting in the destruction of French XIII Corps had been satisfying, but he felt like a fisherman deprived of the big fish. So he had been forced to content himself with attacking the French and British bridgeheads—ultimately eliminating the latter, which he attributed to his resolve and tactical skill. Now at last was his long awaited opportunity. He quickly—very quickly—thanked the Almighty. As he dressed he began issuing orders, "Send the following message to II Army Corps. Detach one brigade from 3rd Division and immediately force march it to reinforce IV Reserve Corps."
He looked forward to the day.
Just south of Compiegne 0800 hrs
The German artillery commenced firing promptly on the hour. The French infantry of IV Corps had grown very familiar with the different types of German artillery. They quickly identified their tormenters as 15cm howitzers—the most usual type of German foot artillery. The French infantry hunkered down in their trenches and strong points—more so than they would had it been merely 77mm field guns.
The bombardment continued for nearly half an hour. This was something much more serious than the sporadic exchange of artillery of the last week. Were the Germans attempting to cross the Oise today? When they dared to poke their heads up they looked anxiously to the west.
Bray-les-Mareuil 0810 hrs
"Vive la France!"
Dismounted the 5th Cuirassier Brigade fought desperately to hold off the Bavarian infantry. Shortly after dawn with the help of their horse artillery they had fought their way through a ring of Bavarians who had surrounded a French Territorial Brigade. The Bavarians had soon recovered and fought to shut again the jaws of their trap. The cuirassiers fought with their tunics covering their breastplates, using their carbines not their sabers. Their cavalry carbine had proven to be a decidedly inferior weapon to the Mauser in previous battles, but it was their only option.
A fifth of the cavalrymen did not fight at all but were occupied with holding the horses, which would be soon needed when the Territorial infantry had made good their escape. Then the cuirassiers could mount up again. Now and then a stray bullet wounded one of the horses however.
The shelling of the horse artillery battalion helped keep the Bavarians from overrunning their line. When the enemy did attempt to advance it was in small groups hugging the ground for cover. It was plain that they too had learned some rough lessons in this terrible war.
Schellebelle 0855 hrs
A dawn patrol by a troop of Belgian cavalry had discovered Bavarian cavalry north of the Schlede. They hurriedly summoned reinforcements then made a desperate charge hoping to eliminate the bridgehead. The fire of 15cm howitzers from the German foot artillery battalion on the couth bank eviscerated their assault. Earlier in the war the Belgian horseman might well have persisted in their attack and been exterminated. They had learned that lesson and so they now fell back at a gallop to take up dismounted defensive positions. Their few Maxims were rushed to the area as was the horse artillery.
It soon become clear to the Belgian cavalrymen that the Bavarian bridgehead could not be immediately eliminated. Their only hope was to cordon it off and wait until the 4th Infantry Division arrives. And pray while they waited—for themselves and for Belgium.
Compiegne Forest 0935 hrs
Two brigades of the German 7th Cavalry Division trotted their way through the woods southeast of Compiegne with the 11th Reserve Jaeger Battalion following close behind. To their right of them was the 1st Jaeger zu Pferde Regiment, the organic cavalry unit of the 22nd Reserve Division. A scout had just returned and was now informing the commander of the 2nd squadron of 11th Uhlan Regiment of what lay ahead. The commander was pleased with the news. A chance to use to old ways! He ordered a messenger dispatched to the regimental HQ and prepared his squadron to charge.
The squadron suddenly erupted from the tree line. Ahead of them was a battery of French 75mm field guns. Cries of alarm went up from the surprised French artillerymen, some of whom ran off in terror. Of those that remained to fight only a few had rifles and were trying to bring them into action while others tried to make do with mere pistols. This resistance was brave but ultimately futile and those who survived the lance either surrendered or perished by the saber. The Uhlans had lost many a comrade to these infernal weapons and were now grateful for a measure of revenge. All the guns were captured intact.
Antwerp 1510 hrs
Churchill packed his belongings. The Prime Minster had notified him late last night that the government was rejecting his proposal. The British naval brigades had arrived this morning and were immediately committed to the battle. Still the Belgian mood remained deeply pessimistic and their government was evacuating Antwerp. There was some news he heard lees than two hours ago that the Bavarian cavalry had overnight bridged the Schlede. This development was distressing everyone who knew about it. Churchill thought they were blowing it out of proportion. Perhaps it was time to return his creative mind to the fleet and admirals and not fantasize about being a general.
The bursting of German artillery shells of varying sizes continued relentlessly. He had visited Belgian units this morning and saw troubling signs that this awful bombardment was destroying spirit as well as flesh. He shook his head stoically, trying to keep the sense of failure from paralyzing him.
It was time to go home.
IV Reserve Army Corps HQ Thourotte 1755 hrs
General von Gronau desperately needed some sleep. Now and then during the day he had managed to nap for a few minutes. He told himself he would sleep when the point was reached when the battle no longer required his immediate attention. He had been telling himself that for the last four hours.
Once he had learned of the capture of the French bridge across the Oise, Gronau had decided upon a bold attack. He ordered the 7th Cavalry Division to hasten by moonlight to the captured bridge. In the period of total darkness between moonset and first light two cavalry brigades had crossed over to the east bank where the 11th Jaeger Battalion and the 1st Reserve Jaeger Zu Pferde Regiment were waiting for them. These forces quickly infiltrated Compiegne Forest. There the horses were watered, fed and allowed a brief rest.
Meanwhile Gronau had informed von Kluck, requesting immediate reinforcements. He also directly contacted the neighboring IX Reserve Corps, which was part of Seventh Army and asked that they take over the defense of Cuvilly. He initially received a noncommittal response, but eventually IX Reserve Corps grudgingly complied with the request.
What was critically important was holding the bridge and to that end he prepared his forces against the inevitable French counterattacks. With daylight these French counterattacks came from two directions. The first round came up from the south trying to retake the bridge. Around 1030 a larger French force tried to advance east from Remy hoping reach the Oise and thereby cut off the German units to the south. Neither of these efforts had any artillery support, and both were readily defeated.
Meanwhile Gronau had repositioned the foot artillery battalion Kluck had assigned him and at 0800 it commenced a protracted bombardment of the French forces to the south of Compiegne. After that the cavalry and Jaegers descended on the rear of the French. Communications under these circumstances was a serious problem so it was not until nearly 1400 that the first word of the initial success of this attack reached his HQ. Around that time the lead battalion of the 5th Infantry Brigade—the reinforcements he requested from Kluck--reached his front line after a forced march. He had already sent one battalion of 71st Regiment as well as the rest of 7th Cavalry Division over the bridge but they had been ordered to merely guard the bridge, reconnoiter to the east and maintain the line of the communication. He now ordered these forces forward to support the attack with the rest of 71st Regiment crossing the Oise as well.
Sixth Army HQ Abbeville 2015 hrs
Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria bridled at the latest telegram from General von Moltke. It stipulated that when Sixth Army launched its immanent attack of the left flank of the French forces assaulting Amiens—tentatively identified by intelligence as the Tenth Army—that their own right flank must be well protected. Furthermore, the III Bavarian Corps, which was scheduled to finish detraining at Arras tomorrow morning, had been ordered to march to St. Pol and from there to proceed on to Etaples. The III Bavarian Corps was supposed to be reinforcing Sixth Army! Rupprecht had wanted to use it as a reserve in the big battle ahead but now it was being marched off to secure what was clearly a secondary objective.
It had been a day of small setbacks and irritation. The worst had been the daring rescue of the encircled Territorial Brigade by French cavalry. The other attacks by the French cavalry had turned out to be little more than pinpricks though they did push back his timetable a few hours.
The German I Cavalry Corps had crossed the Somme during the morning and right now the 26th Reserve Division was starting to cross the Somme as well. The other division belonging to the XIV Reserve Corps – the 28th Reserve--was for the time being, to remain on the north bank of the Somme.
With utter disgust, Crown Prince Rupprecht reread the worst part of the miserable telegram, "Advance of Sixth Army against the French left flank must be cautious and not go further then Poix." It was obvious to him that Moltke had completely lost his nerve. He had lost it at the Marne, as well as at Fort de Troyon, Revigny and most the most galling of all at Nancy. Moltke acted as if tepid half measures could win a war. Rupprecht decided it had come to the point where he needed to contact von Falkenayn, despite his personal dislike of the man and his disapproval of the Kaiser’s manipulative scheming.
Tomorrow Crown Prince Rupprecht would begin his war winning offensive. In three days he planned to capture Beauvais. Within a week his artillery would be shelling the defenses of Paris!
BEF HQ Dieppe 2135 hrs
The commander of the Cavalry Corps, General Sir Edmund Allenby, had arrived by train barely an hour ago. General Sir John French had let him freshen up before meeting with him, his chief of staff General Sir Archibald Murray, and the commander of II Army Corps, General Horace Smith-Dorrien. II Army Corps had completed its detraining during the day and with great professional skill preparing to move out well before dawn. On the other hand, Cavalry Corps had not yet completed its move. The remainder was due to arrive midday tomorrow.
"What’s the latest news from GQG?" asked Allenby.
"Slow progress at Amiens—victory is expected soon. Which is exactly the same as what they told us yesterday. What is new is that the Germans are making a modest counterattack against the right wing of Second Army. Not getting much in the way of details about that one. The news that is most relevant to our situation is that a Bavarian corps has crossed the Somme south of Abbeville and is heavily engaged with a Territorial Division and some cavalry."
"So it was a corps and not a division at Abbeville, after all" remarked Smith-Dorrien in a decidedly caustic voice.
"Can we get something more specific than ‘some cavalry’?" asked Allenby with only slightly less ire than Smith-Dorrien, "and has there been any signs of German cavalry divisions."
French shook his head. He let Murray answer for him "Not much more in the way of details right now I’m afraid, about either the German or French forces. They do promise to give us more information tomorrow and think that’s good enough for our purposes and we should stop pestering them."
"Bloody damn typical!" bellowed Smith-Dorrien. It was mild language for him.
"Have our own airplanes been able to fly any patrols over here?" asked Allenby.
Murray exchanged an awkward look with French and replied hesitantly, "Uh, there have been some problem in the moving of our aviation assets. These are being sorted out. Two planes did manage to take off for a brief patrol late today. One developed engine trouble almost immediately and crashed. The pilot broke an arm and a leg. The other could only made a short patrol around the local area because there was little daylight remaining. We’ll have more airplanes ready tomorrow though."
Allenby and Smith-Dorrien exchanged glances. French thought he heard a snorting sound from Smith-Dorrien and was sure they were sharing some very disapproving thoughts about himself and his staff. French was ambivalent towards Allenby and simply hated Smith-Dorrien. He gazed at Murray. His feeling toward his chief of staff weren’t very positive either, though on occasion his contempt was admixed with some pity for the bugger. He really wished he had been able to get Henry Wilson as his chief of staff, but the Cabinet would not accept Wilson. It was all due to that bleeding ‘Curragh Mutiny’ mess earlier this year. Everyone had gotten so worked up over Ireland. Now that controversy seemed so incredibly remote to Sir John French. Who the hell cared about Ireland anymore?
North of the Schlede River in Belgium 0845 hrs October 5, 1914
Florian loved dogs. Most people like dogs but Florian loved dogs. He was a private in a Belgian machine gun company, which used teams of dogs to transport the Maxim machine guns. When the dogs brought a machine gun to its firing position the firing team lifted it from the sled. After that was accomplished there were men in the company who were assigned to watch over the sleds and take care of their dogs until they were again needed to move the precious weapons to a new location. Before the war erupted Florian counted himself blessed to be assigned to this position.
Since the war started he thought himself fiendishly cursed. For along with the men the dogs suffered in this terrible conflict. Artillery was their bane. How many of them had he seen torn to pieces by shrapnel? Some had died quickly. Some had died slowly in great pain. He had to shoot three badly wounded dogs so far. He could remember each one.
There had been some brief artillery exchanges soon after dawn. Since then things had been surprisingly quiet. The dogs looked tired, as tired as the weary men and the overworked draught horses. Florian was tending for two of his favorite dogs when Hubert came over, carrying a shovel over his left shoulder. "Well Florian, what’s your opinion—do you we really are surrounded?"
"I don’t know, Hubert. A lot of the men think so. What does the captain say?" Florian neither particularly liked nor disliked Hubert. He gave the man some of his attention but continued tending to the dogs. Hubert was one of those who at the start of the war were very enthusiastic but of late had become something of a whiner.
"He doesn’t deny it any more!"
"But he hasn’t said that we are—now has he?"
"No he hasn’t but he did tell us to conserve ammunition and now he’s put us on half rations. That should tell you something."
Florian merely nodded, but then suddenly something occurred to him and he was alarmed, "Do you know if they are putting the dogs on half ration as well?"
British 5th Division HQ St. Valery-sur-Mer (on Somme Bay) 1050 hrs
"Message for General Smith-Dorrien from General French," announced the motorcyclist. Telegraph has carried the message from Dieppe to II Army Corps HQ but there no wires up yet to St. Valery where Smith-Dorrien was visiting General Ferguson, the commander of 5th Division, in the hotel, which last night had become his HQ.
The messenger was quickly escorted upstairs to a large suite with a veranda. General Horace Smith-Dorrien was engaged in a heated discussion with General Ferguson and a half dozen staff officers. The message was promptly delivered. Smith-Dorrien looked like he was expecting the message, but not particularly looking forward to it.
Smith-Dorrien read the message without comment. He sighed and frowned, walking over to the veranda where he gazed at the bay. The clouds were beginning to break and the air was moist but not clammy with a gentle breeze carrying the smell of the ocean. The general was struck by how blue the water was in contrast to the dingy brown Somme, which seeped into it. He saw a pair of fishing boats with sails. They added to the loveliness and he managed to smile a bit. Then he realized something was missing and his smile disappeared.
"Where in hell is our bloody navy!"
He half turned so he could look at the officers and still gesture towards the water. He left hand jabbed in the direction of the sea.
"There isn’t a single bleeding British warship out there. Not a damn one! Here we are in pox ridden France, laying our lives on the line day after bloody day with our poor boys living like animals in filthy rat infested trenches—and now here we are on the coast and where in the name of God’s Creation is our fuckin’ navy?"
The officers in the room carefully exchanged glances. It was nothing new. General Smith-Dorrien was in full fledged rant mode again.
"Jesus! The high and mighty Admiralty pukes tell anyone who’ll listen how the fleet is going to win this war. But what I ask you have they done? What return have they given us for all the money Parliament spent on their damn ships while we in the army had to scrimp on machine guns and new artillery? Oh, they claim that they won a big victory in something or other Bight back in August only now it turns out that it wasn’t such a great victory after all, now was it? And since then they have done nothing I tell you, those bleeding fanny faced wankers in the navy haven’t done shit."
His face flushed the general paused to replenish his lungs.
"Here we are fighting the most important battle of the entire war. And right out there is the English Channel. Now can anyone tell me why, f’r Chrisake, why there ain’t battleships sitting out there in the bay? There ain’t a single bloody one."
Three officers in the room had some thoughts about the bay probably being too shallow for a battleship. One young major looked like he was about to say something along those lines, but a fellow officer warned him off with a shake of the head and a concerned look.
"Bleeding feckless buggers is all they are."
He stomped back in to the room and looked again at the communication from Sir John French.
"II ARMY CORPS IS HEREBY ORDERED TO CROSS THE SOMME RIVER AND CAPTURE ABBEVILLE. CAVALRY CORPS WILL FOLLOW II ARMY CORPS ACROSS THE SOMME AND COVER ITS FLANK. 4TH DIVISION TOGETHER WITH THE FRENCH FORCES COMMANDED BY CONNEAU WILL SAFEGUARD YOUR LINE OF COMMUNICATIONS. 6th DIVISION EXPECTED TO ARRIVE TOMORROW MORNING"
Smith-Dorrien had pretty much expected this. Since coming to France he had learned that Sir John French had essentially three moods—unbounded optimism, panic and dark depression. To Smith-Dorrien’s thinking all were very bad qualities in an officer, but the first was actually the worst. He had seen it at Mons and seen again after the Marne. And now he was seeing it yet again and it worried him.
Yesterday’s attack admittedly had gone like a charm. In the morning II Army Corps encountered only a single German reserve division. There was some hard fighting initially but Smith-Dorrien’s two divisions—the 3rd and the 5th eventually defeated it with some small help from a French cavalry division. In the afternoon some German cavalry galloped into the fray but Allenby’s Cavalry Corps had arrived before them and they were soundly thrashed as well.
During the night elements of the 5th Division had stumbled their way to the to the Somme, encountering little of the enemy. Soon after dawn the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry found an unguarded intact bridge. Meanwhile 3rd Division with some help from Cavalry Corps continued to press the Germans to the southeast, but was encountering stiffer resistance today. It could only advance at a very slow pace but still seemed to be giving more hurt than it was taking.
The 6th Division was part of III Army Corps under the command of General Pulteney. It had originally been scheduled to arrive this morning but because the French Sixth Army on its left had suddenly found itself in a pickle, Joffre had delayed its entraining. He probably would’ve delayed it more but General French had protested vehemently. With only three infantry and two cavalry divisions of the BEF on hand Smith-Dorrien thought some prudence was in order. Still he had been given his orders. He reminded himself that he could’ve stalled for a few hours by sitting on the news of the captured bridge. Well Horace was a good soldier. He would obey his orders but in a cautious way. He looked at General Ferguson and said, "There are some things we need to work out."
Brugge (Belgium) 1140 hrs
King Albert I, the soldier king of Belgium, had an agonizing decision to make. He had to choose between being Admiral Beatty or General Joffre. It was a choice did not want to make. The last two days most of his army had retreated to west, leaving only the 2nd Division and the British Royal Naval Division defending Antwerp. His biggest worry about this withdrawal was that the Bavarian units, which had previously established a bridgehead over the Schlede might cut off the escape route of his army.
The afternoon of the 3rd the Belgian 4th, 6th and Cavalry Divisions launched a series of ineffectual attacks against the Bavarian bridgehead. That night those units withdrew in stages to join the evacuation. The ploy was only partially successful—perhaps due to the full moon. The Bavarians erupted from the bridgehead well before dawn. The Belgian 4th and Cavalry Divisions managed to escape but the 6th Division echeloned behind them to the east was not so fortunate. During the day the two Bavarian infantry divisions plus their cavalry division swarmed around the 6th Division. All communication was soon lost with that division.
Last night and early this morning the 4th and Cavalry Divisions tried repeatedly to reestablish contact but were repulsed by the Bavarians. It was now fairly obvious that most of 6th Division had been encircled. So now the king was forced to choose. There was good intelligence that some of the forces attacking Antwerp were moving to reinforce the Bavarians. At Heligoland Bight Beatty had abandoned the disabled Princess Royal. King Albert had discussed that action with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill during his recent visit, not realizing that the affair would become so relevant so soon. On the one hand Churchill’s sober judgment was that Beatty had made the right choice, yet he had also commented there was a rumor in the Admiralty that the men of Beatty’s surviving ships had trouble buying drinks when they returned to their Scottish home base.
On the other hand, during the Battle of the Oise Joffre had fought tooth and nail to rescue the encircled XIII Corps and I Cavalry Corps. But alas tooth and nail were not enough and the poor men of those entrapped units ended up either dead or in chains. Still the effort had been made. The French had lost lives but retained honor.
The essential truth of the current situation–and it pained King Albert greatly to acknowledge it-- was that the Belgian Army had suffered immensely in its struggle. It’s able bodied strength now amounted to barely 60,000 men. The dreadful ordeal they had just endured at Antwerp had sapped an already sagging morale. If his army could disengage it King Albert believed it could regroup and make a stand along a natural defense line. But to hurl itself in its present state against the Germans could easily result in annihilation.
Reports indicated 1st and 3rd Divisions were beginning to take up defensive positions along the Terneuzen Canal, which extended north from Ghent. The 5th Division was not far behind them. This evening the 2nd Division would begin to evacuate Antwerp taking the intrepid British marines with them. Further allied reinforcements were on the way. Ships carrying part of the British 7th Division would be docking at Zeebrugge in less than three hours. A French naval infantry brigade had landed this morning and was en route to Ghent. Was this merely just another example of "too little too late"?
King Albert glumly reached his decision and announced it to the staff, "The 4th Division is ordered to persist in their attacks, which are to be carried out with the greatest intensity. The mission of cavalry division is to guard the line of retreat of 4th Division. If the 4th Division has not succeeded in breaking through the German encirclement by midnight then it is to fall back towards Ghent with Cavalry Division screening it from pursuit. If they do break through the German lines I am to be notified at once. We shall be going to bed late tonight."
He couldn’t get the damn photographic image of the capsized Princess Royal out of his mind.
OHL HQ Luxembourg 2125 hrs
Yesterday had been the first really bad day General von Moltke had had since September 13—and today was turning out to be still worse. Once again he wondered if his nerves would hold up under the strain.
He did not think his strategic plan of the last four weeks—the Moltke Plan, which superseded the Schlieffen Plan, had been over complicated. The concept was to form a strong defensive line that extended uninterrupted from the English Channel along the Somme over to the Aisne and then eastward to the frontier. It was essential to keep the key rail centers of Amiens and Rheims. This continuous line would severe the Pas de Calais from the rest of France. The Belgian Army would then be quickly destroyed and afterwards the Channel Ports scooped up easily.
The first disappointment came from Beseler who was supposed to capture Antwerp and destroy the Belgian Army. Moltke had thought he had provided Beseler with more than sufficient forces for that mission. Undeniably Beseler had done extremely well in the reduction of Antwerp’s fortifications but now this morning had come word that he had let the greater portion of the Belgian escape to the west. A small portion of the Belgian Army –at most a single division—had been encircled but the rest was escaping.
That was a merely a disappointment. What was happening south of the Somme was turning into calamity. Two days ago Crown Prince William had led his Sixth Army in an attack on the left flank of the French Tenth Army which tried to take Amiens first with a frontal assault and then had sent some units across the Somme to envelop the defending German Seventh Army. At first the attack went well even though there was some indication that it was not a complete surprise. The French Tenth Army quickly withdrew the forces it had sent across the Somme to envelop Amiens, evidently learning a lesson from the Battle of the Oise.
Then yesterday came news in the early afternoon that the Sixth Army was itself taken in the flank by a mixed force of British infantry and French cavalry. He had told Crown Prince Rupprecht not to get carried away with his offensive and to see that his flank was sufficiently guarded. All that had been required of Sixth Army was to force the French to desist in the attack on Amiens and then assume a defensible position. The "contemptible little army" had smashed into Rupprecht’s right flank and rear. They had reached the Somme this morning and soon afterwards crossed it in strength. Latest reports indicated fighting had begun at Abbeville. Meanwhile Sixth Army struggled to regroup. Fortunately Seventh Army whom they had come to assist in turn came to their rescue this morning with a vigorous counterattack against the French Tenth Army.
It seemed everyone wanted the Guard Corps. Kluck had in the last three days asked for it repeatedly. He claimed he could completely smash the center of the French line and thereby allow a war winning march on Paris. Sometimes he had asked for III Bavarian Corps as well though with less enthusiasm. The battle which was being fought in Compiegne Forest had yielded some gains—at least a dozen French 75 field guns had been captured intact and the French had been forced to withdraw from the western half of the forest and evacuate their bridgehead over the Aisne. It also caused the French Second Army to cease its attacks on Seventh Army. This morning’s reports however had indicated that the French had been able to contain the German penetration with a new set of trenches and Moltke did not think reinforcements would’ve made a decisive difference given the time it would take them to arrive. Even Falkenhayn had agreed with him on this matter.
Crown Prince Rupprecht had asked for the Guard Corps as well. He had requested it as early as the 2nd, which Moltke could now belatedly see was a clue to his true intentions. Rupprecht had also insisted that the III Bavarian Corps was supposed to be part of Sixth Army and should be force marched at once to its front line.
Last but not least there was Hindenburg, who in the last week virtually demanded that the Guard Corps be railed to him immediately to reinforce the joint German and Austrian offensive underway in Poland. Hindenburg was not interested in III Bavarian Corps though—he had a rather low opinion of Bavarians and did not desire their participation in the East. The irony in this is that Moltke did want to reinforce Hindenburg—that is once the objectives of the Moltke Plan were realized which he had hoped to achieve by mid-October. Then his plan had been to go completely on the defensive in the West and massively reinforce the East. This indeed had become one of his main points of friction with Falkenhayn—whose list of objectives for the Western Front were considerably longer than Moltke’s.
So what to do with the Prussian Guard? Yesterday they had captured the important industrial city and rail nexus at Lille in the early afternoon. Moltke’s original plan had been that once Lille was secured to force march the Guard Corps to St. Omer and finally to Calais. Meanwhile III Bavarian Corps would take Etaples then dash up the coast to seize Boulogne. After destroying the Belgian Army Beseler was to capture Ostend then continue through Belgium to take up positions near Dunkirk.
It was time to make some changes to the plan. Moltke started with the easier one, "What is the current position of III Bavarian Corps?"
"It is making camp roughly midway between St. Pol and Hesdin, Herr General."
"I now order that it is to march at the greatest speed to Hesdin where it is to turn south and then proceed to Abbeville. Sixth Army is to establish wireless communication and take direct command of it once it reaches Crecy."
"Yes, Herr General."
Moltke sighed and stared intensely at the map. His attention focused on the Yser Canal.
"When is IV Cavalry Corps expected to reach Bethune?"
"Around 1100 hrs tomorrow, Herr General"
"They are to increase their speed though not to point of endangering their mounts. After reaching Bethune they are to proceed directly to Nieuport, which they are to attempt to take by coup de main. After that they are to assume defensive positions along the west bank of the Yser Canal. Meanwhile the Guard Corps is by force march to take up a an eastward facing defensive line extending from Dixmund south to—"
He paused uncertain of the pronunciation.
German Sixth Army HQ L’Etoile 0855 hrs October 7, 1914
Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria was arguing with himself. Part of him of wanted to admit that on this one occasion General von Moltke, the mouse hearted chief of the German General Staff, had actually been correct. After all even a stopped clock is right twice a day. So Moltke had been correct in his instructions to Sixth Army. On the other hand part of the Crown Prince told himself it was all the fault of Moltke and his staff of twits for not informing him that the BEF was moving to the coast. If he had known that precious bit of information he most certainly would’ve been properly prepared.
The last two days had been decidedly unpleasant. Nevertheless Rupprecht had skillfully avoided being trapped between the French Tenth Army ahead of him and the BEF behind him. Certain things had helped. For one, there appeared be little if any coordination between the British and the French. This helped him break contact with the French Tenth Army. For another, when Tenth Army finally did switch over to the attack von Heeringen’s German Seventh Army came to his aid with a well executed attack which pinning it. There was also signs that the French were being handicapped by a shortage of artillery shells. Meanwhile the British seemed to place a higher priority on capturing Abbeville than on attacking the rear of his forces south of the Somme. This allowed Rupprecht to regroup bringing several units back north of the Somme.
This afternoon he would spring his counterstroke. Already a pair of cavalry divisions were skirmishing the British cavalry north of the Somme near the coast. This was intended largely as a diversion. The main attack would begin at 1300. His staff had recommended waiting until tomorrow when the III Bavarian Corps would be in position and ready for a dawn assault. Rupprecht listened to their advice but rejected it. There was also intelligence that additional columns of British troops were headed his way. He believed the forces around Abbeville to be only a single infantry division with some cavalry to the north. He would crush that division today before it could be reinforced and then use III Bavarian Corps to deal with the rest of the BEF when it arrived. He was confident that within a week he would destroy most of the BEF. According to his intelligence, the "contemptible little army" as the Kaiser had called them, had suffered massive casualties at Mons and Le Cateau. The current offensive to his mind was a last gasp of a battered army insufficiently replenished by replacement levies. He granted that his enemy had been bold but it was a bluff he was now going to call.
He found it ironic that the British had become such a thorn in his flesh and that he would now be the one to administer the coup de grace. Earlier in life some people had tried to persuade him that as the rightful heir to the Stuart line he should lay claim to the throne of England. At the time he dissuaded the partisans of the Stuart cause but the from time to time notion did cause him some amusement. The people he was now fighting so fiercely could have been his subjects.
Maybe he’ll be nice to their senior officers when then finally surrender. Perhaps he’ll take them to dine in a fine restaurant once Sixth Army has captured Paris.
10 Downing Street London 1030 hrs
Grinning from ear to ear Prime Minister Asquith held up the London Times for the Cabinet to see.
BEF ACHIEVES SMASHING VICTORY IN BATTLE OF THE SOMME
ABBEVILLE LIBERATED BY 5TH DIVISION
This produced clapping and some exclamation of ‘Here, here!" The newspapers had since the last week of September been fretting that the "direction of the war" was no longer promising a quick victory. The Daily Mail had gone so far as to say that the Miracle of the Marne was being squandered. Today finally he could read the paper and not feel criticism of his administration oozing out as a subtext.
Asquith was pleased until he noticed some ambivalent faces in the audience, "Winston, what’s wrong? Are you ill? You’re not showing your usual enthusiasm, old fellow."
Churchill attempted a smile, "Prime Minister, this is certainly the most heartening news. General French and General Smith-Dorrien are to be lauded for a most stunning feat of arms. It is not my desire to rain on the parade, so to speak. And yet I’m afraid that I must ask one question--what perchance does the Times say about Antwerp?"
Asquith stared at the newspaper, "Here it is. ‘The heroic city of Antwerp continues to defiantly resist the German siege, despite the continuing bombardment of its commercial and residential areas. This horrific shelling has killed and maimed thousands of innocent civilians and has left still greater numbers homeless. In desperation many of the city’s residents are fleeing to the west with the stalwart Belgian Army protecting them. These refuges from the German malevolence shuffle along the roadside with only the few possessions that they can carry’ "
The Prime Minister stopped his reading and stared at Churchill, "Yes, yes with a doubt a very touching situation with all those poor refugees fleeing and all that but what exactly is your point, Winston?"
Churchill was still rankled by what had occurred during his trip to Belgium. It also disturbed him that the leader of his nation could be so dense at times when it came to strategy. "The key point, Prime Minister, is that some time tomorrow the Germans will capture Antwerp. It is a city of the most incredible importance in this war and we’ve let it slip through our fingers. Once they secured the city, the German forces at Antwerp will doggedly pursue the Belgian Army. They mean to destroy the Belgians and then they will relentlessly march on, capturing in turn Ostend, then Dunkirk, then Calais…" Then Dover? He did not dare to dwell on that possibility. "
Asquith turned to Col. Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the Committee for Imperial Defense, who shared Churchill’s long face, "Well Maurice, do you agree with the First Lord here that the loss of Antwerp should have us deeply worried despite this great victory we had at the Somme?"
"Yes, Prime Minster I must concur with that assessment. The loss of Antwerp will be the greatest blow we’ve suffered so far in the war."
Asquith threw up his hands in exasperation. This day, which had started ever so nicely, was inexplicably turning sour. He turned to Kitchener whose facial expression as usual he found inscrutable. "Field Marshal Kitchener, are you going to join in this chorus of lamentation? Is no one here happy that Abbeville has been captured?"
Kitchener answered, "Prime Minster, let me put this in the proper perspective. There has been two highly significant developments. One regrettably is the imminent fall of Antwerp, which had been expected though it is occurring a little quicker than we thought. This is undeniably a serious setback but it’s one we’ve anticipated and made provisions for. The other is a remarkable success by our forces along the Somme, which exceeded our expectations. This completely alters the entire Western Front. We now have an opportunity to roll up the entire German line. This clearly outweighs the problems the Belgian situation presents us."
Asquith relaxed. It was a good day after all. Asquith looked at both Churchill and Hankey. Neither seemed convinced by Kitchener’s reasoning. Churchill looked like he was going to speak when Lloyd-George jumped in.
"Field Marshal, if I might interrupt, won’t the proper exploitation of this great opportunity you speak of necessitate that the BEF have the greatest possible strength?"
Kitchener gave Lloyd-George an icy stare, "Chancellor, if you mean to bring up yet again the decision to land IV Army Corps in Belgium then I’m afraid you still haven’t understood what the First Lord was just telling us about the threat to the Channel Ports—"
"—Oh, no, Lord Kitchener, I was thinking more about the delay in getting I Army Corps moved and---"
"—yes, there was some problem with Joffre because the Germans had penetrated the boundary between two armies and caused some havoc in the Compiegne Forest area, which is near to where our I Army Corps was positioned. We’ve communicated to him in the strongest possible terms the importance of this transfer and the gratifying result is that I Army Corps will entrain tomorrow."
Eager to deflect the mounting friction between Kitchener and Llord-George, the Prime Minster commented, "That’s splendid! We wouldn’t want Haig to miss the Battle of the Somme, now would we?"
Lloyd-George frowned and paused while a few ministers tittered. He continued, "Well said, Prime Minster, but Field Marshal Kitchener don’t you think it might be time to commit Territorial Force Divisions to the battle?"
"The Territorial Force is not ready to be committed to battle! Well at least not as whole divisions."
Lloyd-George arched an eyebrow, "Your last comment sort of begs the question, does it not, Lord Kitchener?"
Kitchener mumbled something inaudible to himself. He glanced uneasily at Hankey. After a deep sigh he finally spoke up, "Consideration has been given of late to the idea of sending a few battalions of the Territorial Force to augment the Regular Divisions. In fact we sent a regiment of yeomanry, the Northumberland Hussars, with 7th Division."
Lloyd-George demonstrated his famed ability to think quickly, "I take it then that deploying these battalions would serve as test of how combat ready the Territorial Force is?"
"You could say that, Chancellor," Kitchener grudgingly admitted after a pause, glaring daggers at Lloyd-George.
"And what then about the Indian Corps? My understanding is that elements of Lahore Division have been frolicking in Marseilles for over a week now. When do they get their test?"
"We had been waiting until most of the Indian Corps has arrived before committing them to battle."
Lloyd-George arched his eyebrow again, "So you think it best to break up the Territorial Divisions, but feel a need to keep Indian Corps intact?"
There was an ominous silence. For once Asquith had a clear understanding of what Kitchener was feeling. To prevent the exchange between Kitchener and Lloyd-George from getting worse he jumped in, "Col. Hankey, has the CID come to any conclusions yet about what we discussed the other—about ways for the Royal Navy to assist the army now that it is near the coast?"
St. Valery-sur-mer BEF II Army Corps HQ 1055 hrs
"General, sir, there is a call from General French."
General Smith-Dorrien bit his lip, bit it very hard. He muttered something inaudible to himself. Shaking his head and sighing deeply he strutted over to the damn telephone.
"General Smith-Dorrien speaking."
"Horace, this is General French. I’ve just had a fascinating meeting with General Ferdinand Foch. Joffre has recently given him command of what is being called Army Group West. Foch has command authority over the French Second and Tenth Armies and he is to coordinate their actions with our own. At first I was skeptical of the idea and as usual the translation problem was aggravating. Oh how I wished Wilson was here! He can speak French that would make Voltaire envious. Nonetheless after some initial misunderstanding this Foch fellow and I hit it off. He really is ball of fire. He and I agree that this great victory Allenby and you have won—we’re calling it the Battle of the Somme if you didn’t know—well this is the beginning of the end for the Boche."
Why is my stomach churning? Why am I not flattered by this? And why have I deliberately withheld from dear frenchie that I ordered Ferguson to entrench and fortify at Abbeville? Biting his lip some more Smith-Dorrien decided to let French ramble on.
"So it’s time we move on to the next phase. The French Tenth Army is going to resume its attack on Amiens at dawn tomorrow. This afternoon you are to take your corps and advance along the north bank of the Somme towards Amiens. Cavalry Corps will cover your left flank. Tomorrow III Army Corps will cross the Somme as well."
The time for silence was over, "General French, I must point out that the Germans are massing both infantry and artillery to the east of Abbeville. They have an observation balloon up overlooking my perimeter. This very strongly suggests that a major counterattack is in the works. Furthermore 3rd Division only started crossing the Somme early this morning. Until 3rd Division is in position it’s too dangerous to attempt an advance."
For a half a minute there was only static on the line. "Horace, why the hell did you wait so long to send 3rd Division across?"
"There was a serious threat to my line of communications from the German forces south of the Somme!"
"Don’t raise your damn voice to me, Horace! I thought Pulteney’s 4th Division and the French forces under Conneau provided more than sufficient protection to your line of communications. Oh, crap, let’s not argue that now. What’s done is done. When 5th Division gets into position you launch your attack. Is that understood?"
"Understood, sir" Smith-Dorrien’s tone of voice was far from enthusiastic. Members of his staff wondered if another explosion was coming.
East of Abbeville 1300 hrs
The German artillery commenced firing against the positions of the British 5th Division. In addition to the field artillery battalions of the 31st Infantry and 28th Reserve Divisions, there was a foot artillery battalion equipped with 15cm howitzers. The British artillery brigades with their 18 pounders and 4.5" howitzers tried to return fire with only shrapnel shells while the Germans used a mix of shrapnel and high explosive shells. The British stockpile of shells were more limited than the Germans and they conserved their ammunition awaiting the German infantry. Meanwhile the British infantry and machine gunners merely waited—those that did not have trenches nearby scrambling desperately to find some more form of cover.
They waited for nearly 40 minutes as the deadly German bombardment continued. Then came waves upon waves of German infantry in their feldgrau uniforms most with their pickelhaube helmets. Some British machine guns had survived the shelling and opened fire. They were joined by the artillery raining shrapnel shells, which burst in the air and mowed down the infantry. Soon afterwards the infantry commenced firing with their Lee-Enfields. The British regulars poured the rapid and accurate rifle fire for which they were famous into the ranks of the German attackers. In other sectors that had been hard hit by the preliminary bombardment the Germans were able reach the simple British trenches lacking barbed wire. The result then was a furious hand to hand melee.
Fort Ste Marie Antwerp 1450 hrs
The relentless shelling had finally stopped. The ensuing silence was deafening. General de Guise, commanding officer of the Fortress of Antwerp, looked in the mirror to see if there was anything amiss with his uniform. He did this repeatedly. It bothered him to the point of obsession that on this occasion he would somehow look evenly slightly unprofessional. When he was done inspecting himself he inspected the entirety of his remaining force—a sergeant and a lone private. It had been a brave struggle but now it was over. Dignity was the only force left to him. Desperately he clung to it. He removed his sword from the scabbard. He feverishly polished it one more time. He realized it was ironic that in all the years he had it he had never he had never cared this much about it.
In the foyer of the fort a German colonel was impatiently waiting. On the hour General De Guise would meet with him in this room. He would surrender his sword. He would surrender Antwerp.
Abbeville 2015 hrs
The German attacks tapered off with the twilight. The British 5th Division had borne the brunt of the initial assault. It had held the line but it had not been easy. Soon afterwards the infantry of the 3rd Division came to their assistance. Its artillery took longer to arrive and by dark the howitzer brigade was still not ready for action. Still 3rd Division managed to eliminate any possibility of the German attack succeeding this day. Just before dusk the Germans committed another brigade to their attack but the two British divisions doggedly held. Meanwhile the 2nd Cavalry Division to the north was hotly engaged by a formation of Bavarians marching south. It had delayed them but it could not stop them.
The Battle of the Somme was just beginning.
BEF IV Army Corps HQ Ostend Belgium 2040 hrs
The commander of the British IV Army Corps, General Sir Henry Rawlinson was deeply disturbed by the latest intelligence he had received from his Belgian liaison. It indicated that a substantial force of German infantry had captured Dixmude. It also included reports of German cavalry in strength west of the Yser and another force of German infantry at Ypres. The intelligence was annoyingly vague about the size of these enemy forces but gave the impression that the force at Dixmude was more than just a Jaeger battalion.
The British 7th Division had disembarked at Zeebrugge beginning the afternoon of the 5th. It then proceeded to Ostend where it now awaited the transports carrying the 3rd Cavalry Division--which were expected to begin docking a little after midnight. Once united the forces of IV Army Corps had planned to move out tomorrow to reinforce the main body of the retreating Belgian Army. Trains were already waiting for the 7th Division.
That had been the plan. The report in the general’s hand changed everything. The German forces to the southwest were a clear threat to Ostend, which they probably intended to seize by coup de main. If they succeeded it would be simply disastrous for the Entente.
The Belgians would simply have to manage their retreat without his immediate help. It was a rather easy decision to reach just not an easy decision to stomach. He turned to General Capper, the commander of 7th Division. "Send the yeomanry regiment and your cyclist company out to scout the Yser Canal area near Dixmude once the moon is up. At first light the rest of your division will march out towards Dixmude except for a single battalion which is to remain behind to guard Ostend while 3rd Cavalry is unloading."
"Yes, General." Capper didn’t see anything worth contending in Rawlinson’s orders but he did add, "Shall we send a message to King Albert that we won’t be needing the trains?"
"I’m afraid we must."