What happened during the First World War? – September Part 1

This is Part 1 of 2 in highlighting key dates of the First World War in September. I have had to split up September as there was simply too much that happened during that month throughout the war, and the posts will still be incredibly long!

1914

1st – The Action at Néry took place on this day. The action was fought between the British and German armies during the retreat from Mons during the early stages of the First World War. The 1st Cavalry Brigade and L Battery, Royal Horse Artillery were stationed in and around the village and were preparing to leave to continue southwards when they were attacked by German artillery and cavalry at approximately 0530. Both the British and German cavalry fought dismounted. The British artillery of L Battery found itself with only one gun after the first few minutes of the attack but managed to keep up a steady rate of fire to support the cavalry for two and a half hours against a full German battery. Around 0800, British reinforcements arrived and counter-attacked the Germans, forcing them into a retreat. The German cavalry division was almost completely routed and was unable to return to combat for several days, having lost a significant number of casualties, weaponry and supplies. Three men of L Battery were awarded the Victoria Cross for their part in the battle and the battery was awarded the battle honour of Néry – being the only British unit to have this.

Saint Petersburg is renamed Petrograd, removing the words ‘Burg’ and ‘Sankt’ to become less Germanic.

5th – The British ship HMS Pathfinder is sunk by a German U-Boat off the coast of Scotland. At 1545, a torpedo was spotted, and evasive action was ordered. However, the manoeuvre did not happen in enough time and the torpedo struck beneath the bridge. The explosion is alleged to have set off bags filled with cordite causing a second explosion. The ship was broken in two and instantly began sinking, taking most of the crew down with her. It sank so quickly in fact, that there was no time to deploy lifeboats, the wreckage showing signs of the lifeboats in their original positions. Out of 268 personnel on board, there were just twenty known survivors.

The First Battle of the Marne begins on this day. The battle was the culmination of the Retreat from Mons and pursuit of the Franco-British armies to the eastern outskirts of Paris, with some elements of the German forces getting to within 10mi/15km of the French capital. Prior to this battle, Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, began to plan for a full retreat back to the Channel ports with an immediate evacuation back to Britain for its army. The military governor of Paris Joseph Gallieni, wanted a joint Franco-British offensive along the River Marne to halt the German advance and to protect Paris from falling. This is what happened on the 5th September, conducted by six French armies and the British Expeditionary Force.

By 9th September, the German 1st and 2nd Armies were at risk of encirclement, due to the effectiveness of the Franco-British counteroffensives and were ordered to retreat to the River Aisne. The retreat, and therefore pursuit, was slow but eventually ended after 40mi/65km when the Germans dug in on the heights on the River Aisne. This decision to retreat marked the end of the attempt to defeat France through the use of the Schlieffen Plan – an invasion from the North through Belgium and in the South over the common border in a pincer action to take Paris and force a French surrender.

7th – The Fanning Raid takes place. In the early hours of 7th, the German cruiser SMS Nürnberg approaching Fanning Island (a cable station in the Pacific Ocean) flying a French flag. This led the staff on the island to hoisting a British flag, but by the time the deception had been noticed, there were German sailors on the island. Shortly before they were taken prisoner, operators managed to send a message warning of what had happened. The Germans then severely damaged the station causing it to become inoperable. Communication was restored to the island two weeks after the incident.

9th – Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg – the German Chancellor – lays out Germany’s war aims:

  • France should cede some northern territory, such as the iron-ore mines at Briey and a coastal strip running from Dunkirk to Boulogne-sur-Mer, to Belgium or Germany.
  • France should pay a war indemnity of 10 billion German Marks, with further payments to cover veterans’ funds and to pay off all of Germany’s existing national debt. This would prevent French rearmament for the next couple decades, make the French economy dependent on Germany, and end trade between France and the British Empire.
  • France will partially disarm by demolishing its northern forts.
  • Belgium should be annexed to Germany or, preferably, become a vassal state, which should cede eastern parts and possibly Antwerp to Germany and give Germany military and naval bases.
  • Luxembourg should become a member state of the German Empire.
  • Buffer states would be created in territory carved out of the western Russian Empire, such as Poland, which would remain under German sovereignty.
  • Germany would create a Mitteleuropa economic association, ostensibly egalitarian but actually dominated by Germany. Members would be France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria-Hungary, the new buffer states, and possibly Italy, Sweden, and Norway.
  • The German colonial empire would be expanded. The German possessions in Africa would be enlarged to create a contiguous German colony across central Africa (Mittelafrika) at the expense of the French and Belgian colonies. Presumably to leave open future negotiations with Britain, no British colonies were to be taken, but Britain’s “intolerable hegemony” in world affairs was to end.
  • The Netherlands should be brought into a closer relationship to Germany while avoiding any appearance of coercion.

13th – Troops from South Africa begin invading German South-West Africa.

The First Battle of the Aisne begins on this day. The position that the Germans chose to face the Franco-British armies chasing them following the retreat was a formidable one. Between Compiègne and Berry-au-Bac, the River Aisne is about 100 ft/30m wide, ranging from 12–15 ft/3.7–4.6m deep. Low-lying ground extends a 1mi/1.6km on each side, rising abruptly to a line of steep cliffs 300–400 ft/91–122m high, then gently levelling to a plateau. The Germans settled on the higher northern side, behind a dense thicket that covered the front and slope. In dense fog on the night of 13 September, most of the British Expeditionary Force crossed the Aisne. The French Fifth Army crossed the Aisne at Berry-au-Bac and captured the eastern tip of Chemin des Dames.

It soon became clear that neither side could budge the other and since neither chose to retreat, the impasse hardened into stalemate, that would lock the antagonists into a relatively narrow strip for the next four years. On 14 September, Sir John French ordered the entire BEF to entrench, but few entrenching tools were available. Soldiers scouted nearby farms and villages for pickaxes, spades and other implements. Without training for stationary warfare, the troops merely dug shallow pits in the soil. These were at first intended only to afford cover against enemy observation and artillery fire. Soon the trenches were deepened to about seven feet. Other protective measures included camouflage and holes cut into trench walls then braced with timber.

The Race to the Sea then begins as a result of the trench warfare that came from the Battle of the Aisne. Over the course of three weeks, both sides gave up on frontal assaults and began attempts to envelop each other’s northern flanks, with various skirmishes along the way including The First Battle of Picardy and the First Battle of Albert. As a result, what we now know as the Western Front trench system of more than 400 mi/640km started to form. These trench lines ran from the channel town of Nieuwpoort, through Belgium, into Northern France, around Arras and through the Somme, past Reims, Verdun, Saint-Mihiel and Nancy; then turning towards the Swiss border.

14th – Erich von Falkenhayn replaces Helmuth von Moltke the Younger as German Chief of Staff, a role he remains in until 29th August 1916.

The Siege of Toma was an action designed as part of a wider offensive to seize islands in the South-West Pacific and destroy German wireless stations based on those islands. These stations were being used by the German fleet under Vice-Admiral Maximilian Von Spee to threat merchant shipping in the region. The Siege lasted for three days and was a bloodless event carried out by the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force. New Zealand provided a similar force for the occupation of German Samoa. Ultimately the German colonial government was forced to surrender after being surrounded, ending the last significant resistance in the territory.

20th – The Battle of Zanzibar happened on this day. The Battle of Zanzibar was an encounter between the German Kaiserliche Marine and the British Royal Navy. While taking on coal in German East Africa, the German cruiser SMS Königsberg learned that a British cruiser, HMS Pegasus, was in Zanzibar for repairs.   The Königsberg’s captain, decided to attack Pegasus while she was in port. Königsberg sailed past the HMS Helmuth at the entrance to Zanzibar harbour. Helmuth was unable to warn Pegasus of Königsberg’s approach, with the result being that when Konigsberg opened fire, she took Pegasus entirely by surprise. As a result, Pegasus suffered severe damage before she was even able to return fire. Königsberg’s guns out-ranged those on Pegasus, which was consequently unable to damage her opponent. The one-sided battle ended in a German victory, Pegasus sank later that day, having lost 38 crew.

24th – The Siege of Przemysl begins on this day and was the longest siege of the First World War. It was also a defeat for the Austro-Hungarians against the Russian attackers. The siege was briefly suspended on 11 October, due to an Austro-Hungarian offensive to try and improve their position. The siege resumed again on 9 November, and the Austro-Hungarian garrison surrendered on 22 March 1915, after holding out for a total of 133 days.  The siege caused a huge number of casualties for both sides – 20,000 dead and 117,000 captured (and wounded) for the Austro-Hungarians and 115,000 total casualties for the Russians.

28th – The Germans beseige Antwerp. German troops beseige a Belgian garrison, the Belgian Army and the British Royal Naval Division around the city of Antwerp, a deep sea fort, vital for both the Allies and the Germans for being able to resupply their troops. The Belgian forces conducted three operations from the city in September and October, which had the effect of interrupting German plans to send reinforcements to France. The Germans bombarded the city and its defences and even with the addition of the Royal Naval Division, the Belgians were fighting a losing battle to hold the city and the Germans started to encroach into the city. As the German advance began to compress the area where the Belgian Army was, a withdrawal was made along the coast. On the 9th, the rear guard left behind surrendered and by the 10th, the Germans occupied the city. The Belgian Army withdrew to the Yser River and dug in, to defend the last unoccupied sector of the country. Belgian troops from Antwerp withdrew to the Yser river, close to the French border and dug in, to begin the defence of the last unoccupied part of Belgium.

29th – Japan occupies the Marshall Islands.

1915

5th – Nicholas II removes Grand Duke Nicholas Nikoalayevich as Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Army, personally taking the position.

15th – The Third Battle of Artois begins and was fought by the French Tenth Army against the German 6th Army. The battle included the Battle of Loos by the British First Army. The offensive, meant to complement the Second Battle of Champagne, was the last attempt of 1915 by Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, to exploit an Allied numerical advantage over Germany. The objectives of the offensives in Artois and Champagne were to break through the German defences and restore a war of movement.

An artillery bombardment had begun on the 21st leading to the assault taking place at 1225 on the 25th. The attack occurred so much later than normal due to the morning mist. The French failed to breach the German second line of defence and a breakthrough was not achieved. Joffre sent some French troops to assist the British attacks at Loos but this action also yielded little in the way of results. On top of this, Foch was also ordered by Joffre to conserve infantry and ammunition to reinforce the offensive in Champagne; the use of ammunition during the Third Battle Artois had been so vast that the offensive was to be reduced. In very wet weather, the Tenth Army captured Vimy Ridge, except for the highest point, where German counter-attacks retook the ground. The Battle continued until 13th October but ended due to the autumn weather, exhaustion on all sides and inter-Allied problems.

25th – The Battle of Loos took place from 25th September – 8th October and was the biggest British attack of 1915. It was also the first time that the British used poison gas and the first time that the New Army units were utilised. Despite improved methods and strategy, more ammunition and better equipment, the attacks were largely contained by the Germans, except for local losses of ground. The British gas attack failed to inflict much damage on the defenders and the artillery bombardment was too short to destroy the barbed wire or machine gun nests. The Germans were still far better at perfecting their defence than the British were at planning offensives, resulting in a  British defeat.

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