At the Aisne Misery in First Allied Trenches; Germans Better Equipped

Special to The Great War Project

(12-13 September) At the River Aisne, the Germans have the high ground. The French and the British do not.

The Germans also have “entrenching tools,” the spade. The British and the French do not. This proves to be a strategic mistake. The Germans can dig holes in the ground. Initially the French and British cannot.

German trenches at the Aisne in France, September 1914

German trenches at the Aisne in France, September 1914

“Soldiers in a hole in the ground were very difficult to spot,” observes historian Norman Stone, “and were almost invulnerable except to heavy shelling.”

And that points to another shortcoming in the French and British ranks. Initially they lack the light mortar. The Germans have such a mortar. The light mortar “is able to throw a shell on a high trajectory,” writes Stone, “and thus place it behind fortifications or among trees where a flat-trajectory gun would not have touched the defenders.”

The Germans use these weapons very effectively to dig in at the Aisne (pronounced EN). They also deploy barbed wire, another new defensive weapon. The wire forces attacking forces to use hand-grenades, which require soldiers to get up close to throw, thus making the attackers more vulnerable.

When the two armies reach the Aisne, the French do not understand how the Germans disperse their forces and dig in.

The French attack, but their attacks “got nowhere.”

“As I feared,” writes one British soldier on these days a century ago, “we have let the Germans get clear away with very little loss.”

The lines are hardening into fixed positions. Trench warfare has arrived.

Writes another British soldier-diarist later: “I am deeply thankful that none of those who gazed across the Aisne….had the faintest glimmering of what was awaiting them. They were untroubled by visions of mud and soaking trenches…years of misery ahead.”

German trench diggers, World War One, date uncertain

German trench diggers, World War One, date uncertain

On the night of September 12th, the British start their river crossing. But the conditions are horrible. It is raining, the quickly-built bridges are unsteady. The soldiers do not eat for 24 hours.

The British position is in trouble, writes historian Max Hastings. “The Germans had positioned a formidable array of heavy guns and mortars beyond the ridge line,” Hastings writes. “From the heights their observers could watch every movement and pour down fire on the valley.’

The Battle of the Aisne is not shaping up well for the Anglo-French armies.

On this day, a century ago, British and French generals meet at France’s battlefield headquarters. It is astonishing just how much in the dark these generals are.

“There was a discussion,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “about how many days it would take before the German armies would be pushed back across the German border.” One British general said four weeks; a French general “thought it might be three.”

Another ventured: Victory would still come by Christmas.



  1. September 16, 2014 at 9:21 PM

    Pretty good post! It would be helpful if you included your sources at the end to aid those wishing to engage in further research. As an aside, the BEF infantry in the front lines at the Battle of Le Cateau were equipped with “grubbers,” and the 1st North Lancashire Battalion, 2nd Brigade, was equipped with “hand shovels” during the Battle of Aisne. (Gilbert, Adrian, Challenge of Battle: The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Osprey Publishing, 2014; 103, 169) It is not the complete absence of entrenching tools, but the subtly different inadequate supplies of, and poor quality, tools that was the issue. (Gilbert, 43, 95, 214)

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