Published By Ben Hillidge
1914, The First Months of War. August-December 1914.
- The outbreak of war.
On 3 August 1914 Germany declared war on France and implemented the . The next day, 4 August 1914, the German army invaded neutral Belgium intent on advancing rapidly southward to capture Paris and defeat France. The same day Britain declared war on Germany under 1839 Treaty obligations to defend Belgium neutrality.
In the UK reserve and territorial forces were mobilised and the regular army put on a war footing. The first troops of British Expeditionary Force began arriving in France from 8 August 1914. The BEF was made up of 52 infantry battalions plus cavalry, artillery and support units. In comparison French and Belgium forces totalled 1228 battalions against a German force of 1077 battalions. This disparity gave rise to the phrase ‘The Old Contemptibles’ after a quote misattributed to the Kaiser about ‘Britain’s contemptible little army’.
By 20 August 1914 the BEF had reached its concentration area near to Maubegre, a town just south west of Mons, Belgium (GOOGLE MAP). Here they formed a defensive line along the west bank of the Mons-Conde Canal to the north and east of Mons. This put them in direct line with the German advance on Paris. To the north was the Belgian forces and to the south the French – both these had been heavily engaged since the declaration of war and had already suffered many casualties.
- Battle of Mons and The Retreat from Mons, 22 August – 3 September 1914
On the 22 August the Germans continued their offensive with full force. Over the course of the morning the enemy assault gained momentum and, despite equally fierce defence, British positions began to fall. By early afternoon the canal had been crossed and by mid afternoon the British troops were in retreat. To the British left and right French and Belgian forces had also begun to collapse. By evening it was clear to the British and French command that the situation was untenable and a general retreat was ordered to begin the next day – this was the ‘Great Retreat’ or ‘Retreat from Mons’. The BEF fell back southwards at first towards Cambrai but, as the German advance kept on, over the next 2 weeks they would withdraw all the way back towards Paris and take up position about 20+km east of the city.
- Battle of the Marne, 5 – 12 September 1914
The capture of Paris and the fall of France was a vital part of the and the Germans now seemed poised to deal the final blow. The defence and holding of Paris was essential, the city prepared for siege. A line was established on the southern side of the River Marne. On the 3 September, the German armies manoeuvred to encircle the city. A gap was formed between the German Second and Third Armies exposing their respective flanks. Two days later the French and BEF counter-attacked and, with encirclement threatened, the German command ordered a retreat. Over the next week, as the French and British advanced, the Germans withdrew eventually to defensive positions that would become the Western Front.
The Allied victory at the Marne was perhaps the most important battle of the war. The German advance had been halted and turned resulting in a failure of the Schlieffen Plan upon which Germany’s war strategy had so greatly depended. It marked the beginning of the great entrenchment of the Western Front which decided the tactics and strategies of the next 4 years of stalemate. It saw a change in the direction of the next German offensive.
Men on the Gates at the Battle of the Marne
Race to the Sea
Having failed to achieve the collapse of France under the Schlieffen Plan and the defeat at the Battle of the Marne, German attention now shifted northward. This next phase of the war is known as the ‘Race to the Sea’ as the Germans tried to advance on the Channel Ports and thereby isolate and cut off the BEF from its lines of communication.
Through September, October and into November the fighting moved ever northward through a succession of engagements as each army tried to out flank the other. The German army, attacking, trying to break through and advance on the coast: the British army, holding the line and counter attacking to drive the Germans back. Battles were fought at Albert, Artois, La Basse, Arras, Messines, Armentieres and finally at Ypres -places and names that track the line which became the ‘Western Front’.
Battle of Armentières, 13 October – 2 November 1914
As the ‘Race to the Sea’ moved northward the British Army moved to the Armentières area. Here they would set up a line from which to attack the German advance. The British III Corps arrived by train on 11 October and took up positions to the south and east of Armenrtieres. The offensive began on 13 October. Over the next days steady progress was made but the fighting was hard in difficult terrain. By 19 October the line had been advanced to west of Lille but the next day the Germans counter attacked in force. This attack was part of the First Ypres Offensive. The fighting would continue until 2 November. Neither side had succeeded, the effort was a stalemate with each side digging in and entrenching. Between 15-31 October British casualties were 5779 men
Men on the Gates at the Battle of Battle of Armentières
First Ypres, 19 October – 22 November 1914
First Ypres was a series of offensives by the German army between the 19 October and 22 November 1914 and focussed on the Belgium town of Ypres. The aim was to capture the town and secure the ‘Race to the Sea’. The offensive began at Langemark, to the north of Ypres, and followed an arc through Polygon Wood and to Messines to the south of Ypres. At each the fighting was hard and the defence desperate: the Germans very nearly broke through and were close to capturing the town.
This was the last major engagement of 1914. Weather conditions deteriorated. Rain and temperatures fell. Mud filled the defences. The armies slogged on. The two sides were exhausted and battle weary. By the end of November winter had arrived and the campaigning season was over. The mobile war was over the stalemate of the trenches had arrived. It was at this time that the Ypres Salient was established.
Men on the Gates at First Ypres
Battle of Givenchy. Festubert. 18-22 December 1914
The Battle of Givenchy was a series of small scale attacks carried out by the British to help relieve pressure on French forces at Arras. Givenchy is about 10kms east of Bethune. Zero hour was 3.40am 19 December 1914. The weather was freezing rain. Indian and Ghurka troops lead the assault and captured 300 meters of enemy line at Festubert. However, ammunition was short and the troops were became increasingly beleaguered. On 20 December the enemy launched strong counter attacks. Reinforcements were sent forward and the line was held. Casualties were heavy with no gains. Many men, particularly among the Indian troops, suffered from frost bite and trench foot.
Men on the Gates at Battle of Givenchy.
B&O 1914. The First Months of War. August-December 1914. TOP PAGE.