BATTLE OF THE MARNE, AND ADVANCE TO THE AISNE. Based on extracts from the Regimental Chronicles of The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Vol 24 1914-1915
When the Germans suddenly altered their plans and moved away towards the south-east, General Joffre saw his opportunity of striking a blow at the enemy's partially exposed flank by wheeling to the right and assuming a vigorous offensive. The 6th French Army, with its right on the River Marne, was ordered to wheel up and attack the enemy on the Ourcq, cross that river, and cut in on the flank of the 1st German Army. The British, filling the gap between the 6th and the 5th French Armies, also to wheel to the right, and join in the general offensive. This was put into execution on the morning of the 6th September, and by noon the Germans, realising the danger with which they were threatened, began to draw off and retreat northwards. On that evening, Sir John French says in his dispatch, the fronts and positions of the opposing armies were roughly as follows :
Allies : 6th French Army (Manoury) right on the Marne at Meaux, left towards Betz; British, on the line Dagny-Coulommiers-Maison; 5th French Army at Courtagon, right on Estemay. Conneau's Cavalry Corps between the right of the British and left of the French 5th Army.
Germans : IVth Reserve and IInd Corps east of the Ourcq and facing that river; 9th Cavalry Division west of Crecy; 2nd Cavalry Division north of Coulommiers; IVth Corps at Rebais; IIIrd and VIIth Corps south-west of Montmirail. All belonging to the 1st German Army (Von Kluck).
The 2nd German Army (Von Bulow, consisting of the IXth, Xth, Xth Reserve, and Guard Corps) was moving against the centre and right of the 5th French Army (d'Esperey) and the 9th French Army.
On the 7th September the 5th and 6th French armies pushed the enemy back towards both the Ourcq and Petit Morin rivers, and inflicted severe losses on him, while the British cavalry fought some successful combats, and portions of the infantry were heavily engaged.
On the 8th the Germans were still in retreat, but their rearguards resisted vigorously, and the British and two French armies were fighting all day.
Next day the passage of the Marne was forced, but not without difficulty, since the bridges had been destroyed, and the enemy offered stubborn resistance. The two French armies met with strenuous opposition from the reinforced enemy west of the Ourcq and near Montmirail, but after long and fierce fighting succeeded in driving him north with great loss.
On the 10th September the pursuit of the Germans was resumed at dawn, and the British Army, fighting its way forward, pushed the enemy beyond the Ourcq, and captured some two thousand prisoners, thirteen guns, and seven machine-guns, besides a great quantity of transport. The 5th and 6th French armies moved forward with little opposition, for the 1st and 2nd German armies, seeing their danger, were now in full retreat.
This concluded the period of fighting generally known as the battle of the Marne, in which, according to an official estimate, there had actually taken part: Germans, 1,056,000; Allies, 1,038,000. But the pursuit did not slacken, and on the 11th September the British Army crossed the Ourcq practically unopposed. That day the cavalry reached the Aisne, the 1st, 2nd, and 4th Infantry Brigades about Couvrelles and Cerseuil, and the 3rd and 5th Infantry Brigades south of Soissons. Advancing again on the 12th September, the Allied Armies soon found that the enemy was preparing to make a stand on the line of the Aisne River, and by the afternoon heavy fighting was in progress all along the line. At nightfall the opposing forces faced one another at varying distances apart along a general line running in front of Verdun and Reims, in rear of Soissons, and thence approximately north-west towards Amiens. The three British Army Corps were at Vauxcere, Missy and Vailly, and south-east of Soissons, respectively. Such was the situation on the eve of the long struggle known as the battle of the Aisne.
September 6th,—(Champlet to Pezarches, 3 miles.) Lumigny was the farthest point south reached by the 5th Brigade. The retirement is over now. Between the 24th August and the 5th September we have done 178 miles in 12 marches, and had one halt day. Not a very long distance, but very long hours under arms; hardly any sleep, and broiling hot weather. Never in my life have I felt anything like the degree of tiredness that I felt on this retreat. Everyone suffered in the same way. We often wondered if we should ever feel rested again, and whether it would not leave some permanent effect on us.The worst thing was the want of sleep; next came the heat of the sun and the thirst. I think that the extreme fatigue brought on a sort of unnatural thirst. Hunger I do not think one felt to any great extent. Once or twice I tried to eat some biscuit and bully beef at a halt on the march, but failed to manage more than a few mouthfuls. Apples helped us more than anything; and whenever we happened to halt anywhere near apple trees, I always ordered the apples to be picked and eaten.
More than half the men were reservists, who, in spite of some route marches, had not got into proper condition for marching, and, consequently, there were a good many sore feet. A few of these were so bad that they had to be sent to hospital, but the large majority of the sore-footed men stuck to it splendidly. We usually had no ambulances with us, so that even the men who fell down unconscious with sunstroke had to be got along on transport of some kind, or on artillery limbers. In spite of all this, the Regiment had only one man missing (eventually reported as a Prisoner of War) during the whole retreat. Whenever there was a halt, men dropped down and slept on the road, and one had to allow extra time at each halt to wake them up before we could get on the move again. Sometimes a company commander, going down his company to wake the men, would find at the end that some of the men whom he had awakened first had dropped asleep again.
The amount of sleep which I myself had in the six nights between the 22nd and 27th August was 13 1/4 hours; but between the 22nd August and 5th September I had managed to get just (50 hours—an average of 4 hours a night.
Though having to begin the war with a long retirement undoubtedly came as an unpleasant surprise, we did not feel any real depression or loss of confidence. Every day we expected to be the last of retiring, and we always imagined that we should turn round and advance on the following day. The retreat was certainly carried farther than we expected, but this only made it all the more pleasant when we did eventually turn round and chase the Germans.
In the morning we were ordered to be ready to move at anytime, but we did not actually move until 7 p.m. D Company was on outposts on the extreme edge of the woods round the Chateau of Lumigny. To the east there was some artillery and cavalry fighting, and small bodies of Germans were reported in the Foret de Crecy and the Foret de Malvoisine, to the north of us. The Germans apparently are now retiring in a north-easterly direction, and our turn has come to go after them, instead of retiring before them, which is indeed a change for the better. Why things have undergone a change we do not know clearly, but we have an idea that the change is due to the appearance of a considerable French force on our left (western) flank.
Our delay in moving seems to be due to the 3rd Division, who are on our left, not yet being up in line with us.
In the evening they appeared, and I came across the 4th Battalion of the 7th Fusiliers, who had been at one time in the 5th Brigade at Aldershot with us.
In the end orders to move came very hurriedly, and I had to collect D Company from their outposts in haste. We did not go far, but bivouacked in a damp field a little north-east of Pezarches.
September 7th.—(Pezarches to St. Simeon, 13 ½ miles.) We moved off at 8.45 a.m., but just short of Mauperthuis we had a long halt in a place made odorous by dead horses. From here we turned east, by Saints and Beautheil, and on through Chailly to St. Simeon, just beyond which place we bivouacked in a stubble field at about 7 p.m.
On this march we passed numerous old German bivouacs, in which the most conspicuous feature was the number of empty bottles. Evidently they issue wine as a ration, or else the troops help themselves. In all the villages through which we are passing now a lot of damage has been done to houses and furniture by German troops. Shops are often looted, and the French inhabitants complain bitterly of their conduct.
September 8th.—(St. Simeon to La Belle Idee, 11 ¾ miles.) Marched at 6.45 a.m., via Rebais, to a little short of La Tretoire, where we had a long wait. During this halt we were joined by our 2nd Reinforcement (80 men) under Higgins. They had come by train to Coulommiers, and marched from there. Higgins takes over command of C Company from Eden, who will now act as Senior Major.
Our halt was caused by a brisk engagement which the 4th (Guards') Brigade were having in crossing the river Petit Morin, where a German rearguard was putting up a pretty good fight in wooded country. The Worcestershire Regiment from our Brigade was sent up on the left of the 4th Brigade, and the Highland Light Infantry on the right. The former had a fight, and captured some prisoners and a machine-gun of the German Guards. And at about this time the 4th Brigade drove the Germans across the river.
The remainder of our Brigade—the Connaught Rangers and ourselves—then advanced by La Tretoire, crossed the little river, and turned westward to help the 3rd Division, who were attacking Orly. The Connaught Rangers, who were leading, drove someGermans in front of them, and the 3rd Division crossed the river about the same time, and occupied Orly.
While this was going on, one of our Companies (D) was sent up on to the wooded hill to the east of Orly, and came across Germans, who fired on them, in thick wood, killing one man. The Company, however, advanced, and killed 4 Germans (including an officer).
As the object of our advance — the capture of Orly — was achieved, General Haking ordered the recall of D Company, and we went on to our bivouac ground at La Belle Idee, where we arrived long after dark, having been blocked on the road by the 6th Infantry Brigade and a brigade of artillery.
Private Allen, who was killed, was the first man of the Regiment killed in action in the war. We buried him by the side of the La Tretoire-Orly road, close to the spot where he was killed.
(Unfortunately Allens body could not be found after the war and his name appears on the La Ferte Sous-Jouarre Memorial to the Missing who have no known grave.)
September 9th. — (La Belle Idee to Domptin, 9 miles.) Rouse at 6, but we did not actually move until 11.30 am. The supplywagons came up, and we were able to fill up with our rations before marching off. When we reached Pavant, we received unexpected orders that the 5th Brigade was to entrench a position on the south bank of the Marne. I do not know why this order was issued, but we had hardly begun to dig when we got other orders to resume our march. Crossing the Marne at Charly bridge, we bivouacked after dark at Domptin, in a place where water was so scarce that we could not water our animals. I believe that the 6th Brigade, who were doing advanced guard, had a little fighting, but the crossing of the Marne was certainly accomplished with very little difficulty as far as the 2nd Division was concerned.
September 10th.— (Domptin to Monne 12 miles.) Started at 4.20 a.m., (rouse 3.30am). When we had gone a few miles, near Bussiares, there was heavy firing from the 6th Brigade, who were in front of us as advanced guard. They had some German infantry crossing their front, and were getting round them. We (5th Brigade) were then ordered to advance on their right, and, in conjunction with the left of the 1st Division (Northamptonshire Regiment), to advance through Breuil and Cointicourt, and attack the ridge beyond. In this movement the Regiment was advanced guard to the Brigade, but there were only a few Germans, who retired, so we had nothing much to do. After getting on to the ridge, we came under some shell-fire (H.E. black shells from field guns).
September 11th.—(Monnes to Beugneux, 13 miles N.E.) Marched at 5 a.m., through Neuilly-St. Front, Nanteuil, and Oulchy-le-Chateau,to the small village of Beugneux, where we arrived about 1 p.m. A short day indeed, but it was not much of a rest for usj as we had to bivouac in a field on the windward side of a hill in pouring rain. Two Regiments of the Brigade got into billets in the village, but we were not lucky enough to be one of these.
September 12th.—(Beugneux to Vieil Arcy, 16 miles.) Marched at 5.30 a.m. to the chateau at Lime, where we had a long halt while the bridge over the Vesle at Courcelles (which had been broken) was made good for infantry to pass. We crossed it in the afternoon, following the Worcestershire, who went on to the high ground north of Courcelles. We went on past the Worcestershire, and just as we had got beyond Monthussart farm, some Germans came in sight, moving from the west, apparently being driven eastward by the 3rd Division, who had crossed the Vesle on our left. Our leading Company (D) at once opened fire on them, but they immediately put up white flags, and we took 107 prisoners including 7 officers. A little while afterwards 5 German cavalry men came galloping towards the right of our extended line, and A Company, opening fire, killed 1, wounded 1, and captured a third. By crossing the broken bridge at Courcelles, we had struck in on the German line of retreat. The infantry were Landwehr, the cavalry were Uhlans of the Guard.
After a long halt here, we were eventually ordered to march on to Vieil Arcy, arriving after dark, in pouring rain, and the darkness made the process of billeting rather slow, but eventually we all got into shelter.
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, 1914-15. Vol 24 : compiled and edited by Lieut.-Colonel A.F. Mockler-Ferryman, London : Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1916