The Race to the Sea 1914 Part I

The Race to the Sea left both German and Allied forces exhausted. For the balance of 1914, both sides could do little more than replenish their losses and fortify the continuous lines that now covered the Western Front from the Swiss border to the English Channel. The elaborate trench systems that developed would not be breached until 1918.

Start Date: September 1914

End Date: November 1914

Series of battles in northern France and Belgium in the autumn of 1914. Following the Anglo-French counteroffensive of the First Battle of the Marne (September 5–12, 1914), stalemate emerged along the Aisne River Valley. Consequently, in the area from the Aisne north to the English Channel both Allied and German forces initiated a series of attempts to outflank the other.

This maneuvering, known as the Race to the Sea, was in fact a race to find an open flank on which to resume mobile operations with the intent of bringing the war to a decisive conclusion. From late September until mid-November, however, neither side was able to reach open territory in advance of the other. The result was a series of violent collisions that ended with Belgian, French, and British forces facing their German adversaries in static positions extending from the English Channel to the Swiss border.

On September 14 with the German defeat in the Battle of the Marne, General of Infantry Erich van Falkenhayn replaced Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke as chief of the German General Staff. Falkenhayn decided to revive the failed Schlieffen Plan by sending German forces around the French left flank on the Aisne. Simultaneously, French Army commander General of Division Joseph J. C. Joffre resolved to outflank the German right at Noyon. Consequently, in the second half of September, units of French general of division Noël de Castelnau’s Second Army collided with those of Bavarian crown prince Rupprecht’s German Sixth Army as both formations stretched to the northwest in an effort to find open territory.

Fighting intensified in early October as the two forces clashed around Arras, an important transportation hub in northeastern France. On October 1, two French infantry corps and one cavalry corps under General of Division Louis Ernest de Maud’huy began pushing toward Arras from the west. At the same time, units of the German Sixth Army were approaching the city from the east. Rupprecht intended to hold the French at Arras while wheeling forces to the north of the city, thereby outflanking the French wing. By the evening of October 4, Maud’huy’s force was in danger of being encircled. German units had occupied the city of Lens to the north, while French Territorial units south of Arras were giving way under heavy German pressure.

Both Castelnau and Maud’huy suggested retreat. Unwilling to concede Arras, Joffre quickly reorganized the French forces in the vicinity. Detaching Maud’huy’s force from the Second Army, Joffre designated it the Tenth Army and placed both formations under General of Division Ferdinand Foch. From October 5, Foch forbade retirement fromArras.

Despite heavy losses, French forces held their positions. By the evening of October 6, German pressure had diminished as Falkenhayn decided to cease attacks in the vicinity. Both he and Joffre subsequently turned their attention northward.

While Rupprecht’s German Sixth Army attempted to turn the Allied flank in northern France in late September, Falkenhayn had directed the III Reserve Corps, commanded by General of Infantry Hans von Beseler, to besiege the fortified Belgian port city of Antwerp. The capture of Antwerp and destruction of the Belgian Army, which was using the city as a base, would ensure the safety of German lines of communication west. It would also remove any impetus for the dispatch of British forces to Belgium. Falkenhayn hoped that this, combined with the operations of the Sixth Army to the south, would leave the Germans in control of French and Belgian territory from the Somme River north to the English Channel, enabling their forces to outflank the Anglo-French armies and march on Paris.

Beseler’s forces opened the siege of Antwerp on September 28. After subjecting the city to an intense artillery bombardment, on October 1 Beseler initiated infantry attacks. With only limited French and British assistance forthcoming, Antwerp capitulated on October 10. Most of the Belgian Army, however, escaped and retired behind the Yser River. This development presented a problem for Falkenhayn. In early October he had assembled in Belgium the Fourth Army under Colonel General Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg. Falkenhayn intended to send the Fourth Army south into France in an attempt to outflank the Allied left wing, but the presence of 53,000 Belgian troops at the Yser inhibited Albrecht’s freedom of movement.

Consequently, on October 18 the German Fourth Army attacked Belgian positions along the Yser. Although they were supported by French forces and British naval guns in the English Channel, the Belgians were slowly forced to give ground. In desperation, King Albert on October 27 ordered the locks at Nieuport opened, inundating the countryside. By October 31 the rising water level had created an impassable barrier for the Germans, thereby securing the Allied left flank.

By this point German and Allied efforts were concentrated around the Belgian town of Ypres. In early October the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had begun transferring from positions on the Aisne to northern France and Flanders. As elements of the BEF arrived in the area between La Bassée and Ypres, British commander Sir John French directed them to advance. By mid-October, however, they faced increasing resistance from German cavalry, which preceded the arrival of more substantial forces. By October 19, elements of Albrecht’s Fourth Army and Rupprecht’s Sixth Army had assembled and began advancing westward north and south of Ypres, respectively. The BEF was forced onto the defensive, but the timely arrival of French and Indian reinforcements prevented a German breakthrough.

By late October, Falkenhayn’s search for open ground was increasingly desperate. In an effort to resume mobile operations before the arrival of additional Allied troops, he quickly assembled a new force between the Fourth and Sixth Armies. It consisted of six divisions and more than 250 heavy guns formed into Army Group Fabeck, under General of Infantry Max von Fabeck. Falkenhayn directed Fabeck to punch through the fragile British line south of Ypres, resulting in the First Battle of Ypres (October 19–November 22).

British units at Ypres weathered fierce German attacks during October 29–31. On the afternoon of October 31, German forces nearly broke through at Gheluvelt. In early November, however, pressure on the BEF subsided, as French reinforcements launched counterattacks around Ypres and mounting German losses diminished the intensity of their offensive. Falkenhayn made a final effort on November 10–11. On November 11 the Prussian Guards managed to crack the British line south of Ypres, but the British were able to blunt it. By November 13 the fighting around Ypres had largely subsided, and the Race to the Sea was over.


The counter-attack on the Marne was indeed the end of the Schlieffen Plan; but it was also the beginning of Churchill’s ‘desperate and vain appeals against the decision of fate’ – appeals that on the Western Front would ultimately cost the lives of over half a million men of the British army.

On the Aisne, meanwhile, the armies began digging in. At first they dug simple, shallow rifle-pits, but as more and heavier artillery was brought up, the trenches were dug deeper and became more elaborate, the Germans generally with the advantage of the better ground. Both sides began ‘feeling for the flank’ again – trying to find the end of the opponent’s line, to force the defender to fall back so as not to be enveloped. At first it was local, the French on the left attacking with troops already in the line and the Germans likewise, before becoming more deliberate, with both Joffre and Falkenhayn trying to find ‘fresh’ troops for the task. For whatever the dashed hopes of the Schlieffen Plan, Moltke’s successor had first to make sure the situation did not, at the very least, get any worse. Surmising that the British, having been thoroughly blooded, would now reinforce the BEF, he thought it well to capture the Channel ports and cut their supply lines – except that the lines of communication did not run through the northern Channel ports. Besides, the Grosser Generalstab was still hankering after its Cannae: opportunities might be created from unexpected tactical success. After all, a fortnight earlier, General Paul von Hindenburg’s 8th Army had destroyed the better part of the Russian 2nd Army at Tannenberg, which for a while at least took the pressure off the Oberste Heeresleitung. For the time being, the flanks of both sides hung tantalizingly in the air, with 200 miles of open country to the west: perhaps there was still time to knock out France (and now the British) and then turn east with all the efficiency of the Prussian (and, they must hope, the French and Belgian) railway system to defeat the Russian bear?

During late September and early October there was a continuous series of battles in Picardy, Artois and Flanders, Joffre having matched the efficiency of the Eisenbahnamt by moving General Noel de Castelnau’s 2nd Army from Lorraine to Amiens, while Falkenhayn moved Crown Prince Rupprecht’s (Bavarian) 6th Army opposite him to St Quentin in a remarkable but little-known railway race (through Luxembourg). On 17 and 18 September the French attacked at Noyon; the Germans countered by attacking on the French flank towards Montdidier. On the twenty-second the French attacked north of Roye; and again the Germans countered by attacking on the flank. On 27 and 28 September Rupprecht struck near Albert, but Castelnau managed once more to halt them. With each attempt the line was prolonged west and north, in what would become known as ‘the Race for the Sea’, though the object was not so much reaching the coast as re-establishing a war of manoeuvre.

The search for the open flank now moved even further north, towards Arras. Two infantry corps and one of cavalry from Castelnau’s 2nd Army, under General Louis de Maud’huy, advanced up the River Scarpe towards Vimy. Rupprecht tried to outflank him and on 3 October sent his reserve corps north of Arras and the IV Cavalry Corps further north towards Lille. By the evening of the 4th Maud’huy was in serious danger of being cut off, having lost contact with his cavalry to the north, and a gap having opened on his southern flank. He told Joffre he would have to withdraw, and asked in which direction. Joffre, desperate to protect the industrial areas of Artois, ordered Maud’huy to hold his ground, and at once set about reorganizing the northern armies. Maud’huy’s detachment became yet another new army, the 10th (remarkable promotion for a man who in July had been commanding a brigade), and the 2nd and 10th, along with any other troops in the area, mainly Territorials, were grouped together under the command of Ferdinand Foch, as Joffre’s deputy. The front held; for the moment the crisis was over.

Sir John French, and Kitchener, watching this slow-motion race for the sea, had been getting anxious, and had decided that the BEF must shorten its lines of communication as soon as possible, not least by resuming its place on the left flank of the French, rather than remaining sandwiched between armies. It were better, in any case, that Calais, Boulogne, Dunkirk or Dieppe (perhaps even Ostend and Zeebrugge) replace St Nazaire as the port of entry – or ‘base’, as it was called in Field Service Regulations. Besides, if the Channel ports fell into German hands, the Channel itself would soon be full of mines and U-Boats. Churchill, as first lord of the Admiralty, was only too well aware of the threat, and was already preparing to send a Royal Marines Brigade and two more of the Royal Naval Division – reservist sailors not required for ships’ crews, half-retrained as infantry (among them, hastily commissioned, Rupert Brooke – ‘Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour, / And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping …’). With aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service and an improvised force of armoured cars, as well as his own (personally chosen) Yeomanry regiment, the Oxfordshire Hussars, they were to screen the northern ports – and later, at the beginning of October, would sprint to Antwerp to stiffen the resolve of the Belgian garrison.

On 29 September Sir John French sent a note to Joffre:

Ever since our position in the French line was altered by the advance of General Manoury’s 6th Army to the River Ourcq, I have been anxious to regain my original position on the left flank of the French Armies. On several occasions I have thought of suggesting this move, but the strategical and tactical situation from day to day has made the proposal inopportune. Now, however, that the position of affairs has become clearly defined, and that the immediate future can be forecasted with some confidence, I wish to press the proposal with all the power and insistence which are at my disposal. The moment for the execution of such a move appears to me to be singularly opportune.

The opportuneness lay in part with the imminent arrival of significant reinforcements, including the newly formed 7th and 8th Divisions (both almost exclusively regular) and the leading elements of the Indian Corps and the Indian Cavalry Corps (via Marseilles, as Churchill’s 1911 memorandum had suggested). ‘In other words,’ Sir John French explained, ‘my present force of six Divisions and two Cavalry Divisions will, within three or four weeks from now, be increased by four Divisions and two Cavalry Divisions, making a total British force of ten Divisions (five Corps) and four Cavalry Divisions.’

Joffre agreed at once, and the BEF began its move west.

At the same time, French began preparing to send an infantry and a cavalry division to Antwerp, but on 8 October King Albert was forced to abandon the city, leading the Belgian army west and south along the coast until they could take up a coherent line of defence on the River Yser. A week later, in yet another attempt to outflank the German line, the BEF crossed into Belgium, to Ypres, to attack east along the Menin Road. As they did so, the Duke (Albrecht) of Württemberg’s 4th Army, which had been railed from the Upper Aisne and reinforced by fresh troops from Germany, and from the siege of Antwerp after its surrender on 10 October, attacked the Belgians on the Yser. They were eventually halted when on the twenty-first the King ordered the sea-locks at Nieuport to be opened, flooding the surrounding country.

By now Sir John French had some 250,000 men at his command. Urged on by Foch, he went onto the offensive along the Menin Road on 21 October. His forces soon ran into trouble, however, the speed of the redeployment of Rupprecht’s Bavarians and Albrecht’s 6th Army taking both GQG and GHQ by surprise. A month’s hard – at times, desperate – fighting would follow. Many of the newly formed Cavalry Corps went into action for the first time – dismounted, the horses being sent to the rear and the men taking up their rifles to hold Messines Ridge south of Ypres. The first regiments of the Territorial Force would be blooded too (those that had volunteered in sufficient numbers for service overseas) – the London Scottish, the first Territorials to go into action, losing half their strength in the process. And the Germans would have their first sight of the turbans, pugarees and Gurkha pill-boxes of the Indian Corps. At Hollebeke on 31 October Sepoy Khudadad Khan of the Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchi Regiment won the first ever Indian VC, when it looked as if the Germans might break the line: ‘The British Officer in charge of the [machine-gun] detachment having been wounded,’ ran the citation, ‘and the other gun put out of action by a shell, Sepoy Khudadad, though himself wounded, remained working his gun until all the other five men of the gun detachment had been killed.’ He would later receive a Viceroy’s Commission as subedar.

That last day of October was indeed a desperate time, the moment when it looked as if the dyke would rupture, a day when individual soldiers in individual regiments made a difference. If there were to be an accolade of saver of that dyke it would almost certainly go to the 2nd Worcesters, the only troops left in front of Ypres that morning as the Germans managed to capture Gheluvelt, key to the Ypres–Menin gap and therefore to the open country beyond. The battalion had already been reduced to 400 (less than half its embarkation strength in August), and they would lose another 200 recapturing this vital ground. Major Edward Hankey, who had taken command a month before when the battalion’s lieutenant-colonel was promoted to command the brigade, led what remained of the Worcesters across 1,000 yards of open fields, under artillery fire, to drive the Germans from the grounds of the Chateau Gheluvelt, managing then to hold on against the inevitable counter-attacks just long enough for reinforcements to be cobbled together from the rest of the brigade to plug the hole.

On 11 November there was another crisis astride the Menin road, when the 1st and 4th Brigades of the Prussian Guard attacked, breaking through the defence line and getting to within 2 miles of Ypres. Only the bayonets of the 2nd Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and a scratch force of Grenadiers, Irish Guards and the Royal Munster Fusiliers were able to restore the situation – but at shattering cost, including the loss of the brigadier, Charles FitzClarence, who had won the VC at Mafeking.

The attack of the Prussian Guard, however, like that of the Garde Impériale at Waterloo, was the high-water mark of the German offensive at Ypres, and in the days that followed the fighting slackened. The BEF dug in – just as they had on the Aisne – but deep, and the Western Front began its consolidation into a continuous line of trenches that would eventually stretch from the North Sea coast to the Swiss frontier. But the fighting in October and November, on top of the August retreat and the counter-attack on the Marne, was the end of the old BEF – the four divisions that had marched up to Mons, and the fifth and sixth that had joined them thereafter. The casualties for the six weeks of the First Battle of Ypres, as it became known, were 58,155 (7,960 dead, 29,562 wounded, 17,873 missing, the remainder classified ‘sick’); the BEF had arrived in France with around 80,000 infantry, which by the end of October had increased to 130,000, and which on paper stood at about 150,000 by the close of First Ypres. On 30 November the officially recorded figure for casualties of all kinds since the beginning of hostilities was 86,237. Most of these were in the infantry, where the officers and NCOs led from the front. The conclusions hardly need spelling out. The 1915 edition of Debrett’s Peerage was delayed for many months until the editors had been able to revise the entries for almost every blue-blooded family in the kingdom.

Regulars from all over the empire would now be recalled and fed piecemeal into Flanders, reinforced in equally piecemeal fashion by the Territorials once the necessary legislation had been enacted, and then from the summer of 1915 by the men of Kitchener’s ‘New Armies’, the volunteers who were flocking in their many tens of thousands to answer the secretary for war’s famous poster-call ‘Your Country Needs YOU!’, until in January 1916 conscription was introduced.

Need so many – the core of the professional army – have died in those first two months? In his memoir of the BEF’s opening battles, Forty Days in 1914, Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, Henry Wilson’s successor-but-one as DMO (1916–18), writes plainly of the missed opportunities: ‘We have in the end gained complete victory [his book was published in 1919], but we could have gained it more quickly had our Governments been organized for war.’ This is the point at which, therefore, while recognizing that the BEF was standing (with the French) in the path of the greatest military juggernaut the world has ever seen, we must scotch any idea that what happened in the ‘Battle of the Frontiers’ was inevitable. Actions have consequences; and inaction has consequences too. Quoting the historian E. H. Carr is a perilous business, but in this he is worth the risk: ‘Nothing in history is inevitable, except in the formal sense that, for it to have happened otherwise, the antecedent causes would have had to be different.’

The futile encounter-battle on the Mons–Condé canal, the ensuing battle at Le Cateau and the subsequent retreat – these need not have happened if the BEF had concentrated at Amiens rather than Maubeuge, as both Sir John French and Kitchener had wanted at the 5 August war council (at which Churchill had suggested they should concentrate well to the rear of the French army to form a strategic reserve) – and as Lanrezac himself had suggested to Joffre as late as 15 August. On 21 September, Haig – whose handling of I Corps in the fighting at Ypres was to earn him considerable acclaim – wrote in unequivocal terms to the King’s assistant private secretary, Major Clive Wigram, whom he had known in India: ‘I am glad you already realize how wrong it was to have rushed the Army north to Mons by forced marches before our reservists had got their legs. GHQ had the wildest ideas at this time of the nature of the war and the rôle of the British Force.’

Had this alternative plan been adopted, though, would it have meant that the Germans would have been able to turn the flank of Lanrezac’s 5th Army?

No. From 20 August, when Moltke told Kluck that ‘a landing of British troops is reported at Boulogne: their advance from about Lille must be reckoned with’, both the OHL and Bülow, commanding (ineffectively) the 1st and 2nd Armies as an army group, were acutely conscious of the danger to the 1st Army’s (Kluck’s) flank. Two days later, the 1st Army halted for two critical hours to realign west in order to meet what Kluck believed was the BEF detraining at Tournai but turned out to be French Territorials. By 24 August – the date Sir John French had originally given to President Poincaré and Joffre before agreeing to bring it forward to the twenty-first – the BEF would have been ready at Amiens to take the offensive. Its divisions could then have been transported via the excellent French railway system the 50 miles to St Quentin, whence it would have posed too great a threat to the 1st Army’s right for Kluck to have risked trying to envelop Lanrezac’s 5th Army south of Maubeuge. In the meantime, Lanrezac would have had to shift for his own left flank; but this was, in essence, what he was doing anyway in the withdrawal on 22 August. Without the BEF on the Mons–Condé canal, Kluck would of course have had a free run south through Mons, but he could not have presented a flank to the fortress of Maubeuge without impunity, nor could he have made any real turning movement north of Le Cateau because of the Forêt de Mormal – and, anyway, Lanrezac was already taking precautions by withdrawing to the Sambre. Lanrezac’s position would have been little different from the actual situation on 26 August since the BEF had by then been driven away to the south and west, and the gap was opening up – except, of course, that Kluck’s 1st Army would have been in greater strength and better shape without the encounters with British rifle fire. From 27 August the course of events would, at worst, have been no different from actual events, the BEF retreating from St Quentin on the same line – but without the losses incurred at Mons and Le Cateau, with greater cohesion between its two corps, and perhaps with much better cooperation and contact with the French. Its subsequent performance in the Marne counter-offensive might then have been more spirited, with a chance of ‘bouncing’ the Aisne heights and preventing the Germans from consolidating.