Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

A Race to the Sea

"This England never did, nor never shall

Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror."

—Shakespeare (King John).

The German bid for Paris had failed. For the first time since the days of Napoleon a Prussian army had been turned and forced to retreat. From river to river they had been pushed back across thirty miles of French land so lately conquered, till, crossing the river Aisne, they destroyed the bridges, and entrenched themselves on the sloping ground of the farther side.

Behind their lines lay the richest coal and iron-ore district in France, and the Germans were well aware that the supply of munitions to their Allies must henceforth be stopped.

It was a perfect position chosen by the Germans for their stand. They were up some two miles from the banks of the river Aisne on the crest of the high ground beyond, and, hidden in trenches, they commanded the river crossings for a distance of fifteen miles. The Allies, facing them on the opposite side of the Aisne, did not realise the immense strength of their position, neither at this time could they even dimly see that the Germans were about to dictate to them a new form of battle by compelling them to accept trench warfare.

On 12th September the two great armies stood face to face—the deep unfordable river Aisne, swollen with recent rain, rolling between them. The bridges were down, and on the heights facing the Allies, stood a formidable foe commanding every possible crossing.

And then, as if some miracle had happened, two days later most of the soldiers were across the river and established in positions from which the Germans were unable to drive them. It is impossible to over-rate the wonderful work of the engineers, who, under heavy fire and soaked by a cold driving rain, managed in that short time to build nine bridges and restore five already destroyed!

To gain the height and drive off the Germans was now the main object of the Allies. It was an almost hopeless task. Though equally matched in numbers, the German position was wellnigh impregnable, and a "deadly fire mowed down the ever-advancing troops in merciless masses. Now gaining, now losing, courageous beyond all belief, attack after attack proved unavailing." Day after day the armies fought desperately. The Allies could not take the heights, the Germans could not drive back the Allies. To make matters worse, a steady downpour of rain churned the ground into a deep chalky mud which filled the eyes, ears, throats of the soldiers, plastering their clothes and mixing with their food.

And still

"The thundering line of battle stands,

And in the air Death moans and sings."

During one short week no less than 2000 men were dead or dying daily, so endless was the supply of machine-guns, so terrible the deadly German shell fire.

Gradually the attacks died down, degenerating into sullen tench warfare, until early in October the losses on the Aisne had amounted to nearly 13,000 men.

A new development was now at hand. It was 3rd October, and the deadlock on the Aisne still continued. But there was danger brewing in the North, and these men must be replaced by others. Very quietly one night, under cover of darkness, the British stole out of their trenches on the hill-side, crossed the Aisne once more, and made northwards before their departure and the arrival of others had been discovered. The retreat was masterly—a very "triumph of transport organisation."

A spell of beautiful autumn sunshine had followed the heavy September rains, and the sun shone out of a clear sky as the men marched or rode from the battlefields of the Aisne towards the French coast.

The object of this move was an attempt to join up the existing French line to the Belgian army, which was still holding out in Antwerp; and if this was successful, to push on and attack the German lines of communication which led back through Belgium into Germany. A whisper had grown to a rumour, and rumour to a certainty, that they were after the Channel ports.

After the occupation of Brussels, the King and his Government had retired inside Antwerp—held to be impregnable. Defences were strengthened, and here the last stand of the Belgians was to be made. Everything was at a standstill, docks and quays empty, the port deserted, the town isolated. News came of advancing Germans, of how Louvain—a peaceful city of students at the famous old University, one of the oldest and most illustrious centres of learning in Europe, with a famous library—had been captured. Then came the first Zeppelin raid, when for the first time in history a great civilised community was bombarded from the sky in the darkness of the night.

"Count Zeppelin," the Kaiser had said with triumph, "is the greatest genius of the century."

Meanwhile the great German siege guns were on their way to Antwerp, and by 27th September a bombardment of the southern forts had begun. All day long the great guns pounded the forts, and there was no rest for the Belgian garrison within the city.

"When victory comes to our armies, what will remain of hapless Belgium?" said the poor King as the siege continued.

Still, amid the thunder of the guns, the citizens felt the forts were impregnable, and eagerly looked for British help.


The Western Front, 1914. The Battle Line.

Now acute anxiety was felt in England for the condition of Antwerp, and a British naval division had been despatched. But it was too late to save the city. On 7th October, the great guns had drawn nearer, and the citizens knew that Antwerp was doomed. Every possible means of exit was thronged by frantic and agonised crowds carrying away their household goods. They crowded into steam yachts and pleasure boats, fishing smacks, and even rafts, to reach the coast. They crossed the Scheldt by the bridge of boats and fled to Holland in an agony of suffering and fear, while the great guns roared on behind them and shells whistled overhead.

On 9th October all was over—the great bombardment ceased, and the Germans gaily entered in, only to find that one of the proudest cities of Europe lay empty and desolate.

England received hundreds and thousands of Belgian refugees. "Haggard, grey-faced people of all classes of society, in all forms of raiment," poured into Folkestone to be fed and cared for during these early months of war.

And the King? During the next four years, while the Germans were in possession of his country, he lived near Ostend.

"No monarch of the great ages more nobly fulfilled the ideal of Kingship. He raised Belgium to the position of a Great Power, if moral dignity has any meaning in the world."

"We owe everything to the King," said a desolate refugee who had lost everything. "He has made of our farmers and tradesmen a nation of heroes. When the war is over, he will rule over a broken land and a very poor people, but for all that he will be one of the greatest Kings in the world."

"O tried and proved, whose record stands

Lettered in blood too deep to fade,

Take courage! here in our hands

Shall the avenging sword be stayed

Till you are healed of all your pain,

And come with Honour to your own again."

—Owen Seaman (1915).

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