The Race For the Sea

By John Dudek 23 Sep 2014 0

The dirt begrimed British Regimental Sergeant Major stood near the edge of a tree line as he regarded the  battered remnants of his battle decimated, mud-caked platoon.  He permitted himself the smallest hint of smiles, one of fierce pride and soldierly affection to momentarily soften the hard edges of his lips and leathery face.  Putting this sentiment aside, he resumed his usual evil facial mask and said in a hoarse, angry whisper. ?Right you lot! Fix bayonets!  We'll give these Hun bastards a "mad minute" of rifle fire and then, go in with the bayonet.?  A "mad minute" was one minute of devastatingly effective and sustained rapid rifle fire, numbering between 20 and 30 aimed shots in one minute's duration.  This was a common practice native to all the professional soldiers of Great Britain's "Contemptible Army" as they now called themselves. The troops of the platoon fixed their long bayonets to the muzzles of their Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifles, before opening their web belt bandoliers of ammunition. This allowed for quick and easy access to the ten round clips of ammunition that lay within once the firing got started. The "Huns" the Sergeant spoke of were well over a thousand German soldiers, greatly superior in number to the outnumbered British who were still concealed by the autumn forest growth.  The Germans were now taking their ease and milling about in a large unorganized gaggle, covering several acres of semi open ground a few hundred yards away.  Some of them lighted small bits of kindling for cook fires, while others lit their pipes and passed around bottles of looted wine to their mates, before reclining upon the damp and chill November ground.  As the British sergeant major awaited the firing commands from his officer's standing nearby, a file of dismounted cavalry troopers from the 1st Royal Dragoons joined his unit; they too fixing bayonets to their rifles and, preparing to lend their aid.  The officer's hushed command of "Mad minute rifle fire, make ready!" was given. This hushed command was quietly echoed by British NCO's as hundreds of rifle rounds were chambered into their bolt action rifles.  "Take Aim!  FIRE!"  The tree line erupted in a flashing wall of rifle fire catching the resting Germans completely by surprise.  Dozens of them leapt to their feet only to be cut down by the hail of heavy and remorseless rifle fire now scything through their bullet shattered bivouac.  One man's cry of "Mein Gott!  Machine geweher!"  "My God! Machine guns!" captured the thoughts of most of the Germans there.  Given the intense and sweeping degree of the gunfire they were obviously under attack by dozens of machine guns. Few of the frantic Germans had the presence of mind to even look for their rifles; they were too busy just trying to stay alive while lying flat upon the bullet swept ground.  After one minute of rifle fire, the British officers shouted to their men as whistles blew.  "Right lads!  Charge!"  Hundreds of British infantrymen came screaming out of the woods, coming on at the Germans with cold steel.  For the thoroughly demoralized German troops, this was the last straw.  The ones who were still able to, sprang to their feet and fled to the rear as fast as their feet could carry them as the British soon retook a half mile of ground they'd so recently lost.

In the Autumn of 1914, during WWI's "Race For the Sea," the final gasp of mobile warfare between the warring Anglo-French Allies and German Central powers came with the Battle of Ypres, The Great War that began with the assassination of an Austro-Hungarian Grand Duke now spread throughout the far corners of the world, while encompassing most of the key players on the world stage.  Nowhere was the fighting more fierce and prolonged as that now taking place throughout France and Belgium.  Germany initially sought a quick, six week long lightning campaign designed to knock its chief military rival France out of the war, before turning upon its other foe Russia to destroy the Czar's armies before they could be fully mobilized.  Germany and its army gambled on the "Schlieffen Plan's" wide, turning movement of marching its troops through neutral Belgium to gain the French rear before surrounding and destroying the French armies and bring a quick end to the war in the west.  However, Germany did not take into account the Belgian army's fierce and prolonged resistance, nor the scorched earth policy that demolished most of that country's national railroads. Germany depended on the use of these railroads to keep their hard marching infantry columns supplied in the field.  Even more importantly, the Germans did not take into account Great Britain entering the war against them, and took their military capabilities on both land and sea far too lightly when they did so.  England had guaranteed Belgium's neutrality through the Treaty of London in 1839, and immediately committed it's small but highly professional army against the Germans. Although initially numbering only 80,000 men in two corps of six infantry divisions and five cavalry brigades, most historians agree that the most professional, well trained army to enter the fighting in Europe during the summer of 1914 was the British Army.  In comparison, Germany and France went to war in 1914 with million man armies.  By November of that same year the Germans called up or conscripted a grand total of 13.2 million reservists or new recruits, some 44% of all its entire adult military aged male population.  Things did not bode well for the Allied powers.  Germany's Schlieffen Plan invasion of Belgium was all too soon slowed through continued dogged, fierce and endless Belgian Army resistance, plus the wholesale self-destruction of Belgium's railroads.  Even worse still, the German General staff was forced to send several corps of its best troops to the eastern front to combat the attacking Russians who had mobilized their armies a lot faster than anyone gave them credit for.  This diversion of manpower badly weakened the key German right wing of their army and threw the Schlieffen Plan completely out of kilter. It forced them to make a much shallower turning movement through Belgium, rather than the wider one originally envisioned in the plan.  On 23 August, 1914, the hard marching German legions of General Alexander Von Kluck ran into the British Army under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French at the town of Mons, Belgium, for the first time.  In the fierce fighting that followed, the Germans took extremely heavy casualties from British rifle fire without achieving any of its military goals.  However, the British Expeditionary Force was forced to retreat the following day when it was discovered the French army on its right flank had withdrawn to the rear after heavy fighting with the Germans. The British Army withdrew in good order while fighting a series of successful rear guard, delaying actions during the "long retreat" to the Marne River over the next week.  Fighting took place at Le Cateau, Le Grand Fayt, Etreux, Cerizy, Nery, Crepy-en-Valois and Villery-Cotterets.  The fighting at Nery had the far reaching and disastrous strategic consequences of utterly routing the German 4th Cavalry division, making them unfit for further combat operations for several days.  This lack of the cavalry's intelligence gathering abilities left General Von Kluck completely unaware as to the presence of a new fresh French Army now located on his right flank.  In the First Battle of the Marne that followed, French and British attacks turned both German flanks, forcing them to stop their offensive operations and withdraw behind the River Aisne.  With neither side being able to make further headway, a long series of ever northward movement marches and flanking attempts were made by the French, German and British armies from 17 to 19 October through Picardy and Flanders. The bulk of all the Allied and German formations of troop were moving inexorably towards the North Sea coast.  The German General Staff hoped for a resumption of the Schlieffen plan's turning movements to outflank the Anglo French forces, except much farther to the north.  If nothing else, key French seaports like Dunkirk, Boulogne and Calais could be seized and used by the German Navy greatly cutting down the effectiveness of a British naval blockade only then being mounted for the first time.  Meanwhile, Field Marshal Sir John French hoped to retake the city of Brussels, capital of Belgium.   During the "Race for the Sea" that followed, the outnumbered French and British armies clashed with the Germans a number of times; fighting several inconclusive battles, but denying the Germans the strategic breakthrough into open country they so desperately sought.  At Amentieres (13 October-2 November) the German and British armies ran headlong into each other around the town of Ypres, Belgium.  From 19 October to 22 November 1914, the German and Anglo-French armies fought like three bulls squaring off and fighting for dominancy, butting heads all along the Ypres salient.  The Germans mounted many major attacks against the outnumbered British with ownership of the front lines changing hands a number of times in the days to come.  However, the British were finally forced to give up ground and fall back several hundred yards in order to put space between the two armies.

The first crisis for the British came in and around the town Gheluvelt on 29-31 October.   364 badly outnumbered British troops facing a significant disparity in odds, stormed into Gheluvelt, catching units of the 16th, 244th and 245th Bavarian Regiments, some 1,200 men strong, off duty and in the act of looting the town.  With but a fraction of their numbers, the remnants of the British Worcester Regiment attacked, routed, and drove the Germans from the town at a cost of 5 officers and 189 men.  This was but a momentary reprieve for the badly outnumbered and nearly exhausted troops of the badly battered British Expeditionary Force.  After finding and collecting remnants of British Borders and Scots Guards troops still holding out in strongpoints around the town, the British withdrew to a more defensible line 600 yards west of Gheluvelt and awaited the renewed German infantry attacks that were not long in coming.  At another threatened section of the badly depleted British line, heavy German artillery preparation artillery fires announced a coming fresh attack.  The resulting German infantry assault initially made good progress in bending but not breaking through the British lines.  Still, preparations were made for a possible British withdrawal should the Germans break through.

At around 1500 hours that day, Brigadier Edward S. Bulfin commanding an ad hoc battle group consisting of remnants of several battle shattered and greatly depleted British infantry units ordered a counter-attack.  Men of the 1st Northamptonshires and 2nd Royal Sussex regiments were ordered to execute a "mad minute" of sustained rapid rifle fire on the Germans before going in with bayonets fixed.  The 2nd Gordon Highlanders would be in reserve.  Bulfin expected 200 of their number but received only 84 men.  His one advantage was the British would be attacking from the concealment of a forest, so the Germans would not realize the British weakness in numbers until it was too late.  In the final moments before the British counterattack the 1st Royal Dragoons from the 6th Cavalry Brigade arrived to provide badly needed additional support.  In the attack that followed, the Germans were caught completely by surprise by the wall of heavy and sustained rifle fire ripping through their ranks, killing or wounding many dozens at a time.  Once again the German troops thought they were facing multiple batteries of heavy British machinegun fire rather than the rapid fire of Lee Enfield bolt action rifles.  The sight of British troops charging out of the nearby woods with bayonets fixed quickly caught the German's attention and put them to flight.  The successful attack was extremely costly to the British as was their overall attrition rate during the month long series of earlier battles.  The BEF faced the very real danger of complete annihilation in battles yet to come if things carried on this way.

In the nearly dozen pitched battles fought around the Ypres salient throughout October and November 1914, the 20th, 21st and 22nd Brigades were reduced respectively to 940, 750 and 800 effectives. The state of the battalions was no better. Of the 12 original battalion COs, four were dead, four wounded and four captured. Overall, of the 84 British infantry battalions 18 were at cadre strength (100 and below), 31 were very weak (100 to 200), 26 weak (200 to 300) and only nine were of medium strength (300 to 450). Pre war battalion strength was 1007!  When the Second Highland Scots Light Infantry Battalion was pulled out of the line, only 30 effective troops remained of its pre-war strength of 1,000 men.  There were no reserves of troops left.  The British Second Corps was so completely shattered in battle; its surviving troops were rolled into the 1st and 3rd. Corps. The British lines were stretched so thin that the Germans thought it was a ruse meant for them to deliberately attack, because of the large numbers of British reserve troops thought to be located to the immediate rear of the main lines.  At the same time the British were running out of artillery ammunition.  Pre-war production of shells was nowhere near high enough to sustain such continued heavy, sustained rate of artillery fire.  Sir John French was forced to restrict the use of 18-lb artillery ammunition to only 30 rounds a day per gun, and fifteen rounds for their 4.5 inch howitzers.


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