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East Chinnock and World War 1
Part 4
by Jeremy Churchill
September 1914 - November 1914

With the defeat by the French (with British assistance) of the German Plan in early September 1914, the Germans retreated from the River Marne to the Aisne, where they dug in along the heights overlooking the Aisne valley. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) attacked the German positions at Venizel and Bourg-et-Comin, but, like the French Fifth and Sixth Armies (on either side of the British), could make no impression on the German defences – a story that was to become all too familiar over the subsequent four years.

The fighting along the heights over the Aisne continued until the end of September, with individual men of both sides digging themselves shallow pits (“foxholes”, in WW2 and later terminology) which were joined up over the succeeding days and weeks – the first time trenches appeared in 1914. However it was clear that neither side was strong enough to inflict a defeat on the other by frontal assault, and so both sides embarked on a series of outflanking manoeuvres, with each trying to get round the other’s defences to attack them from the side or from behind. This period is usually characterized as “The Race to the Sea”, as it appears from a map that both German and French/British forces were racing each other to the North Sea coastline.
The fighting took the form of whatever troops were available (usually cavalry detachments) being rushed into line to counter the equally hurried and opportunistic attacks of the enemy; often opposing troops would arrive at the same moment and fighting would swing back and forth while both sides struggled to overcome each other sufficiently to create an open flank. When mutual exhaustion, lack of reinforcements or lack of further supplies forced a temporary halt in hostilities, both sides dug in to what were intended to be only temporary positions; these formed the basis of the Western Front, which was to remain substantially unchanged for the next four years.

The BEF was transferred by train from the Aisne to northern France, where it moved into Belgium to support the Belgian army still fighting in Antwerp; Royal Marines had been landed at Ostend in late August and Winston Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty) arrived in early October to assist the Belgians’ defence. Antwerp fell to the Germans in mid-October and the Belgian army and various British forces retreated westwards along the coast. The British government was concerned about the threat to the Channel ports (Calais, Dunkirk, Ostend and Zeebrugge) of the German advance through Belgium and fed into Flanders all the forces available (including three divisions of the Indian Army, as well as the last of the Regular Army troops which could be brought back from posts around the Empire and, by the end of November, the first of the Territorial Army battalions). The fighting concentrated around the small Belgian town of Ypres and extended along the canals to the coast at Nieuport.

The British troops were positioned in a salient (a bulge in the line – the particular problem of a salient being that the troops holding it could be exposed not only to the fire of the enemy in front, but also to that of the enemy on either side or even behind) around Ypres and were to remain there until the end of the War. While fighting in this very small area never really stopped throughout the duration of the War, there were four distinct major battles; while the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) has come to exemplify for the British the futility and horror of the First World War, the First Battle (19th October to 22nd November, 1914) was in many ways the most desperate, and the first major battle for the entire BEF. The Germans threw everything they had at the British positions, the British responded in kind; at one point, even cooks, grooms and transport drivers found themselves in the front line with rifles. Some German units were composed of young and inexperienced reserves (including one Adolf Hitler), partly volunteers from German colleges and universities, the remainder were active soldiers and older members of the Landwehr and reserve. The Germans were, however, even with superior numbers and better artillery, unable to break through the British, French and Belgian troops and lost some 80,000 casualties in the attempt. Once again, exhaustion forced a cessation in the struggle, with stronger British defences (the 8th Division was deployed to the front on 13th November, providing much needed but only just sufficient reinforcement), heavy snowfall and hard frost ending large-scale fighting. Towards the coast, the position of the Belgian troops had been desperate enough that the decision had been made to open the sluice-gates and allow the North Sea to flood the land over a strip approximately 1.5 miles wide from Nieuport inland to Dixmude.

The temporary end of the fighting around Ypres sealed the last gap in what became the Western Front; a 460-mile long line (only 24 miles of which were held by the BEF at this time) of hurriedly-dug defences which were gradually linked together to become the trench system which controlled the nature of the fighting of the next three to four years.

The First Battle of Ypres is usually regarded as the death of the pre-1914 British Regular Army. This is an exaggeration, as Regulars continued to form the core of the BEF over the next four years and there were still many in overseas stations defending critical points of the Empire. However casualties were very high (estimates vary between 54,000 and 58,155 killed, wounded and “missing”, of some 269,000 British troops sent to France by the end of November 1914).

These numbers were small in comparison with French and German casualties (the BEF is considered to have lost a total of some 90,000 killed, wounded and “missing” in the 4½ months of fighting up to the end of 1914), Belgian casualties were approximately 50,000 (50% of their small army lost) while the Germans are thought to have lost 800,000 men, including 116,000 dead, in France and Belgium alone and French casualties are generally estimated to be of the order of 528,000 (265,000 of whom were killed).

However, the point for the British was that the Regulars were our ONLY trained soldiers; the Territorials needed six months training to even approach the proficiency of the Regular troops (and even then had no legal obligation to serve outside the UK) and the men and officers of Kitchener’s New Armies had little or no military experience at all. The total lack of experienced trainers and of equipment meant that it would be a long time before British troops could do anything significant to support their French allies; this factor goes a long way to explain the failed British attacks and high casualty figures of 1915 and 1916.

In the meanwhile, the facts were that the German Army had invaded and captured nearly all of Belgium, all of (always forgotten) Luxembourg and approximately 1/10th of France (including most of France’s coal and iron ore deposits and several important industrial areas (this, of course, ignores the German invasion of Russian territory in what is now Poland). Except for one tiny part of Alsace, German troops were everywhere on their enemies’ territory. Before the French and British could even think about winning the War, they had first to drive the Germans out. This was to form the basis of all French and British planning for the next four years and must be remembered when trying to understand the reasons behind what happened in that time.

The Race to the Sea

By Gsl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Of the East Chinnock men who were already serving with the Regular Army at the outbreak of war, Arthur Russ (413 New Buildings), of the 1st Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, and Walter Pike (of 441, Weston Street) serving in the 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (also part of the 11th Brigade) would have been in the thick of things, but both these managed to survive the fighting, as did Walter Russ (brother of Arthur) in the 1st Battalion, Coldstream Guards, and William Taylor (of The Rookery), serving with the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards.

Charles Andrews, Cyril Andrews, Gerald Dane, Percy Dane, and Arthur Shire, of East Chinnock had by this time volunteered as part of the 7th (Service) Battalion Somerset Light Infantry (61st Brigade, 20th (Light) Division of Kitchener’s first New Army and were discovering the delights of living in temporary hutted accommodation near Woking while training without uniforms, weapons or equipment in what was to prove a particularly cold and wet winter.

Fighting another kind of war altogether was Private Talbot Axe, son of Hannah, brother of Henry W & Sydney A, of 390, Old Hollows (now presumably incorporated into Nos. 389 & 391, The Hollow). He was serving in the Plymouth Division of the Royal Marine Light Infantry aboard HMS Goliath, Goliath being a Canopus-class pre-Dreadnought battleship (launched 1898). She covered the landings of the Marines at Ostend on 26th August 1914 and then went to the East Indies in September 1914 for convoy protection duties. She was diverted to East Africa in November 1914 – to take part in the operation against the German cruiser Königsberg in the Rufiji River (in what is now Tanzania).

Part 5
Dec 1914 - Jan 1915