The Battle of the Aisne, 1914

12 – 15 September 1914: the Battle of the Aisne. The advance northwards from the Marne is halted as the Germans dig in along the heights above the River Aisne. British attacks are repelled and both sides dig in: for the British, the Aisne was the root of trench warfare.

British order of battle

Cavalry Division
Gough’s Command: 3rd and 5th Cavalry Brigades
I Corps: (Haig): 1st and 2nd Divisions
II Corps: (Smith-Dorrien): 3rd and 5th Divisions
III Corps: (Pulteney): 4th Division and 19th Infantry Brigade

This battle includes the tactical incidents
> the passage of the Aisne
> the capture of the Aisne Heights including the Chemin des Dames

Subsequent to this battle was
> the actions on the Aisne Heights, 20 September 1914
I Corps: (Haig): 1st and 2nd Divisions plus 18th Brigade attached from 6th Division
II Corps: (Smith-Dorrien): 3rd Division
> the action of Chivy, 26 September 1914
I Corps: (Haig): 1st Division

Advance to the Aisne. 60-pounders on the Royal Garrison Artillery on the move (19th Brigade), 12 September 1914. Imperial War Museum image Q51496

Advance to the Aisne. 60-pounders on the Royal Garrison Artillery on the move (19th Brigade), 12 September 1914. Imperial War Museum image Q51496

On 13 September 1914 the lead elements of the British Expeditionary Force made an opposed crossing of  the River Aisne (and the Aisne canal which joins it at an angle), and reached the lower slopes below the German forces now digging in along the Chemin des Dames ridge.

Extract from map contained in British Official History of Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1914 volume I. British Divisions in red, French in blue, German in green

Extract from map contained in British Official History of Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1914 volume I. British Divisions in red, French in blue, German in green

Eyewitness account

Extracts from the personal diary of Captain C. J. Paterson of the 1st South Wales Borderers (3rd Infantry Brigade, 1st Division, I Corps). Paterson’s diary is, rather unusually, included with the battalion’s war diary and covers the period in September 1914 as the battalion advanced from the Marne to the slopes above the Aisne. The horrors of attacking up the slopes of folds towards the Chemin des Dames ridge and then of determined German counter attacks typifies the Aisne of 1914.

Monday 14th September, 1914

“As there is only one road by which the whole 1st Division can push on, it takes some time and we get orders not to move to 9am. At about 8 it is discovered that the bridges over the River Aisne have been so damaged that we cannot even move at 9, and as a matter of fact we move at 2pm. When we do move it is not for very long. We crossed the river with shells dropping around us. The Germans have destroyed most of the bridges and are shelling or trying to shell the ones they have left, hoping to catch us on them. However, we cross and line a ridge to the north of Bourg. The cavalry pushes out and we billet in Bourg. Find a very nice house in which a good dinner and to bed on the floor with Homfray. I refused to spend another night sitting up and say so plainly. Another mail arrives with several letters for me. Very nice. Orders to move at 5am.”

[Lieutenant Homfray was killed in action near Ypres on 11th November 1914 and is buried in Sanctuary Wood Cemetery].

Also from British Official History. The position of 1st Division during the Battle of the Aisne. It held the line from the Chemin des Dames east of Cerny (with the French on the right) down past Vendresse to Beaulne. The 3rd Infantry Brigade, which included the 1st South Wales Borderers, was on its left front.

Also from British Official History. The position of 1st Division during the Battle of the Aisne. It held the line from the Chemin des Dames east of Cerny (with the French on the right) down past Vendresse to Beaulne. The 3rd Infantry Brigade, which included the 1st South Wales Borderers, was on its left front.

Wednesday 16th September, 1914

“I have never spent and imagine that I can never spend a more ghastly and heart-tearing 48 hours than the last. Not a moment in which to write a word in my diary. We have been fighting hard ever since 8am on the 14th and have suffered much. At about 6am at Moulins we hear a good deal of firing going on and shells begin dropping about. We are then on the road moving north. The Queen’s have been re-directed to the north-east some little time before and we are head of the Brigade. The 2nd Brigade is already engaged and we are sent to the high ground to the left to assist them. As we go we get some six shrapnels at us but mercifully are not touched. We reached the shelter of the high ground which rises quickly and steeply from the plain and then we advance over the crest and take up our position in a wood, ready to move out when required. Shrapnel and rifle fire fairly heavy. The first casualty is my mare who was shot in the head. Nothing very bad at present and she is able to go on carrying my stuff. Though I do not ride her. The General and Staff and CO and I watched the fight in the neighbouring valley in front.

It is a high ridge opposite, i.e west of us, that we have got to go for and nasty work it will be. Jenkinson, the Brigade Major, is killed, poor fellow, and soon afterwards we begin to suffer in the wood, chiefly from ricochets. We get several men down with small wounds, and then as C Company goes to attack, Lieutenant M T Johnson of A shot through the body. We hope he is not mortally wounded, but feared he is. C, D, and A Companies go out, leaving B in support. Swarms of the Germans on the ridge, rather massed. Our guns opened on them at 1800 yards, and one can see a nasty sight through one’s glasses. Bunches of Germans blown to pieces.

We again suffered some casualties and eventually had to retire, or rather the Companies which have gone out have to come back to our ridge again. Here we stay firing and being fired at for some 8 hours and then another effort. Meanwhile our guns are having a huge duel. Not much success, and Germans are too numerous to really push back properly. Richards is hit in the arm and leg. Nothing very bad I fancy. Several men killed.

At dusk we are ordered to move up the valley towards the T of Troyon, which we did. As D Company was leading the wood a melanite shell burst at head of 1 Platoon. Poor young Vernon and a few men were knocked out. Vernon mercifully and miraculously not killed. On we go. It is now too late to be fired at by rifle fire and we go on well, but in the dark C and A Companies go ahead, and D lost touch. Most annoying.

On reaching the ridge at the head of the valley we find only B and D companies, and as we were looking for the others, shots rang out and we were soon at it again. Short and sharp. Germans withdrew.

I have a horror of a night firing. One is so very likely to kill one’s own men, and from wounds I have seen since, I am sure some of them were hit like that on this very occasion. The Brigadier and his staff came along and rode right past us, and in a few minutes they were fired on. General and Staff Captain of an Brigade Major, and one or two NCOs and men have got away, the rest were missing the next morning and have just been found by some of our search parties some distance ahead of our position. They have been fed by the Germans and looked after, but have been there for two days. We then spent the night in trenching our position, and at dawn a force of enemy was seen advancing. One of the officers called up to us that he wished to speak to an officer, but after the episode at Landrecies with the Guards, we weren’t having any of that. I have no doubt that they really did wish to surrender but they must do it properly as one man did this morning and march up with his hands above his head and no arms upon him. So we opened fire, and although we lost some men we wiped them out at 200 yards, and there they lie in front of us. Poor devils. Later on the enemy’s guns enfiladed us. We were told we were to hang on at all costs, and at all costs it had to be. We lost severely and it was a very bad business.”

Saturday 26th September, 1914

“The most ghastly day of my life and yet to one of the proudest because my Regiment did its job and held on against heavy odds. At 4.15am Germans attacked. Main attack apparently against my regiment, which is the left of our line. D and A Companies in the trenches. B and C hustled up to support, and soon the whole place alive with bullets. News comes that they are trying to work round our left. The CO asked the Welsh Regiment to deal with this, which it did. Poor D Company had to face the music more than anyone else.

Presently the news comes that the Germans are in a quarry in the middle of our line, i.e that our line was pierced. C Company drove them clean out. About 3pm, things began to quieten down, D and A companies had done their share of the work on the right and left. We were able to reorganise more or less, except for D Company’s far advanced trenches, and those we searched at night and found James wounded, Sills and Welby killed.

Total casualties. Killed Welby, Simonds, Coker, Sills and 86 men; wounded – Pritchard, James and Gwynn slightly, and 95 men; and missing 12. These 12 were of D Company, and apparently surrendered. May they be spared to reach England again and be tried by court martial and get what they deserve. Never has the 24th surrendered yet, and in spite of casualties the rest of the Regiment stuck to it and fought as Englishman and 24th men could fight.

[The 1st Battalion often called itself by its pre-1881 name of the “24th Foot”.]

We are now left with three Officers each in three companies, and only two in the fourth, instead of six in each. A sad, sad business, but everyone played up, and as the French say, “Qui perd, gagne”. We have lost men and officers, but have again won a name for doing what it is our duty to do and in this case we held a very important line without giving a yard.”

  • Second Lieutenant Charles Caldwell Sills, 20, has no known grave and is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. He joined the regiment after graduating from Sandhurst in September 1913.
  • 41 year-old Major Glynn Everard Earle Welby, officer commanding D Company, had been serving with the regiment since December 1893, and had seen service in the war in South Africa. He has no known grave and is also commemorated at La Ferté.
  • Lieutenant George Prescott Blackall-Simonds, Reserve of Officers, attached SWB. Saw service in South African War as a railway staff officer. He als has no known grave. Aged 33.
  • Second Lieutenant John Cadwallader Coker, 27, is buried in Vendresse British Cemetery. He joined the regiment in August 1908.
A view of Vendresse British Cemetery, looking down the slope towards the River Aisne. Vendresse church tower can be seen behind the cemetery. The wooded slopes make the Aisne today a pretty, gentle area that belies the horrors it witnesses in the Great War.

A view of Vendresse British Cemetery, looking down the slope towards the River Aisne. Vendresse church tower can be seen behind the cemetery. The wooded slopes make the Aisne today a pretty, gentle area that belies the horrors it witnesses in the Great War.

Soldiers of the 11th Regiment Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) rest at headquarters at Babonval during the Battle of the Aisne. 22nd-28th September 1914. Imperial War Museum image Q51148

Soldiers of the 11th Regiment Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) rest at headquarters at Babonval during the Battle of the Aisne. 22nd-28th September 1914. Imperial War Museum image Q51148

Links

Battles of the Western Front in France and Flanders

Gazetteer of the Western Front: Troyon

Books

.