Another work from the prodigious pen of Jerry Murland, following on the heels of his "Retreat and reaguard" which followed the fortunes of the British Expeditionary Force in its withdrawal from Mons to the River Marne in 1914, "Battle on the Aisne 1914" picks up the story from there. Just as in the case of the fighting of late August and early September 1914, this period receives great attention in the British Official History yet aside from coverage in memoirs and regimental or divisional histories has received surprisingly little since. But just like waiting for buses, two come along at once and it was only in May 2012 that Paul Kendall's admirable "Aisne 1914: the dawn of trench warfare" covered, quite literally, the same ground. Both are typical of the modern scholarly genre, drawing upon a wide range of primary and secondary sources to assess the battle from strategic, high command level down to the experience of the Tommy and the bullets.
The valley of the River Aisne and the heights on the north bank, the Chemin des Dames ridge, is a pretty place today: quiet, wooded slopes; some small villages. For the most part its importance is as a Franco-German battlefield, for the BEF was here for only two short periods in the war, both unhappy and costly. Stand on the ridge today and it is easy to appreciate why the German armies chose to halt their withdrawal from the Marne here and to dig in, for it dominates the river valley below. Walk up the slope from Troyon to the sugar factory at Cerny and imagine coming under fire from the ridge above and from the spurs of hills on either side - a frightening prospect indeed. The story of the 1914 battle is one of a series of bitter British efforts to gain the ridge, hampered by the slopes, by the difficulty of finding locations for its artillery and by an increasingly stretched logistic chain behind it. The casualties were great, the experience of making frontal assaults against a determined and dug-in enemy just the start of a nightmare. The losses of officers and men of the regular army, some of whom were recently arrived drafts from the reserves making good the casualties from previous weeks, would leave a serious deficiency for quite some months - and not just in the lower echelons, for on the Aisne numerous unit commanders met their end or would otherwise play no further part.
The author's narrative is clear, easy to read and engaging. I do not think that students of the battle will find much that is genuinely new here in terms of the basic facts, but the stories, quotes and anecdotes bring life to the proceedings and reveal weaknesses in British structure, tactics and command. There are a number of simple and clear maps to help navigate what for some readers will be new territory (which, by the way, is well worth a visit) and a good selection of photographs by way of illustration.
Well worth a read.
on 14 April 2013
This book is a continuation of Jerry Murland's previous work on Mons and the Great Retreat. As such the opening introduction is a clear review of 'events so far'. The Battle of the Aisne is a fascinating and dramatic passage of arms but Murland takes care to point out that the BEF was a very minor player in the bigger picture. Having said that this book tracks the BEF in a story that includes moments of dramatic excitement that match fiction. Whether it is a whole brigades teetering across single plank bridges above the swirling Aisne, or the desperate struggles of the sappers to create pontoon bridges, there is plenty to stir the blood.
The book does not fail to address the failure of Sir John French and GHQ to spur the BEF forward with sufficient urgency in the advance from the Marne. In truth French did not understand the situation, failing to have any real inkling opportunities that may - or may not - have briefly existed to seize the Chemin de Dames heights before the Germans had brought up reserves and consolidated their defensive grip - and the door was slammed shut in the faces of the BEF. The confused fighting raging on the spurs running down from the main ridge gave copious opportunities for German flanking fire and the overall superiority of their artillery caused heavy British casualties. Some of the fighting was savage with both sides occasionally transgressing the accepted rules of war in 'white flag' incidents. Then as the front line froze in aspic, so trench warfare began to make its appearance. Everything was new, everything had to be learnt from scratch. The advent of the 'Jack Johnsons' and 'Black Marias' - large shells crashing down on the lines certainly caused much comment. It was impossible to imagine that such things would have to be endured for years....
Murland also includes useful chapters reviewing the challenges faced and advances made by both the Royal Artillery and Royal Flying Corps. They were already making cutting edge advances in photo reconnaissance and wireless artillery observation above the Aisne in September 1914. Advances which gave an inkling of the future - at least when there were sufficient guns, shells, trained gunners aircraft and air crew!
If Murland has a fault as an author it is in his enthusiasm to present the material he has amassed. Sometimes one feels a bit overwhelmed with detail - although at other times a relatively obscure fact, or diversion into the story of a long forgotten individual, shines a light that makes it all worthwhile. Fair enough: but at times I would like to see more of his evident analytical skills in summing up the overall situation. As ever I enjoyed the personal accounts which are skilfully woven into the text and particularly liked the battle-cry of the Northamptonshires counter-attacking on 17 September, "Come on the Cobblers!"
The maps are adequate, although - as is so often the case - economies inflicted by publishers have had an impact in the amount of detail that can be presented. I found the selection of pictures excellent.
on 1 January 2014
JERRY Murland's excellent book Battle on the Aisne 1914 recounts a seldom-remembered episode the British Army's experience in the early months of the First World War.
The book brings to life the experiences of British Tommies as they attempted to gain a foothold on the northern bank of the River Aisne and dispel German forces on the Chemin des Dames ridge which offered unobstructed views of the valley below.
Murland has weaved together extracts from memoirs, unit war diaries and secondary literature to form a gripping narrative which is both detailed and accessible.
The book's introduction provides the all-important context of the attacks on the ridge.
It explains how in September 1914, the German Army's attempt to swiftly knock France out of the war failed when its forces were halted barely 30 miles from Paris on the River Marne.
The Germans, with their supply lines stretched to the limit, pulled back to the wooded slopes on the Chemin des Dames ridge which overlooked the Aisne valley and which provided a perfect defensive position.
Murland tells the story of largely unsuccessful British attempts to force their way through the German positions of increasingly well-prepared trenches and machine gun posts.
Murland astutely - and rightly - places these attacks in the context of the early stages of trench warfare which came to symbolise the Western Front and the Great War.
But when the British attacks began in mid-September the permanence of trench warfare which characterised the war's later years was far from the minds of the men who hastily dug their positions on the Aisne, Murland points out.
For those serving in the British line `the prospect of an advance to victory was always at the back of their minds, as was the possibility of the war being over by Christmas', he writes.
The book is broken up into easily digested chapters dedicated to each of the six British divisions which fought on the ridge as well as chapters on prisoners of war and the birth of trench warfare.
Murland has also dedicated sections to artillery fire plans, aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting. These are rightfully placed in the context of what historians now refer to as the British Army's `learning curve' during the war.
The Battle of the Aisne is bookended - and until now overshadowed - by the more well-known Battles of Mons and the First Battle of Ypres.
But this concise yet highly informative book has gone a long way to redressing this and will hopefully arouse more interest in a largely unknown battle during the war's first months.
Such interest would be highly justified.