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WWI: How Northumberland Fusiliers thwarted Germans

Northumberland Fusiliers after the taking of a village near St Eloi, 27th Mar 1916. Picture: National Archive

Northumberland Fusiliers after the taking of a village near St Eloi, 27th Mar 1916. Picture: National Archive

  • by Janice Gillie
 

Ten days after Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, the first of thousands of Northumberland Fusiliers landed in France.

By the end of the year they had taken part in seven major battles, including the Battle of the Marne, described in the official history of the war as “one of the decisive battles of the world”. And by the end of the war they had lost over 16,000 men, won 67 battle honours and five Victoria Crosses.

The fusiliers were among the troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who thwarted Germany’s relentless march on Paris in the early days of the war and pushed them back across the Marne on September 9, 1914.

In 1935 a party of 47 Northumberland Fusiliers Reserves 50th (Northumberland) Division, led by Lt Col. W F Campbell, visited France to study the Fusiliers’ role in the battles of the Marne and the Aisne in 1914; to learn how effective the 1914 training manuals that were relied upon had actually been; to analyse the day-to-day events of the Battle of Marne, September 5-8 and the Battle of Aisne, September 13-15.

An article in the Newcastle Chronicle described the trip to France as ‘one of the most interesting exercises British officers have ever been called upon to undertake”.

“After 17 years a British Army Headquarters, with a general in charge is to be established on the battlefields of France again – at a spot where thousands of men from the north east were killed, and which holds memories for the many who came back at the end of the War.”

For two days the party re-lived the battles of the Marne and Aisne and the tactics employed by the British Army.”

The documents they took with them, written by senior army personnel, described the battles in detail, pulling no punches about what when wrong and why. They may have been wise after the event, but the observations made about the tactics and manoeuvres used did acknowledge how warfare had changed between 1914 and 1935.

Perhaps some of the harshest criticism was aimed at the French cavalry described as being “rather despised” and “most of whom at that stage of the war were dressed and equipped suitably for Waterloo.”

Despite the Battle of the Marne proving an early victory for the allies “tactically it was not fought to a finish, but strategically its results were far reaching, so that it must be regarded as one of the decisive battle of the world”. Why was it regarded as such? Because the end of the battle also ended “all hopes of the rapid knock-out blow on which Germany had counted for winning the war in the west”.

Lt Col Campbell concludes of the battle of the Marne: “One is left with the impression that a great tactical victory might have been won: if the French Sixth Army had been composed of active formations; if Foch had not disobeyed his orders; if the Commander of the French Fifth Army and the BEF had appreciated the altered situation and the opportunities offered for energetic and determined action.”

As it was the troops, including Northumberland Fusiliers, did not have time to enjoy their victory, they pushed on towards the German lines albeit slower than latter day observers thought they should have done.

For the Fusiliers their next engagement was the battle of Aisne less than a week later, with unfortunately not such a good outcome for the allies - a pattern of small territorial gains and losses that epitomised World War 1.

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The Battle of Marne was fought over five days in early September 1914.

The Germans were caught off guard on September 5, 1914, by an unexpected attack from the allies.

However, they did not take full advantage of that surprise and Lt Col, W F Campbell’s, (General Staff, Northumberland Fusiliers) observations of how the battle progressed shows a reluctant admiration for the determination of one of the leader of the German Army, von Kluck, who was in charge of the German First, marching towards the Lower Seine.

“The battle of the Marne started during the afternoon of September 5, when the Sixth French Army came into contact with von Kluck’s flank guard.

“Von Kluck is to be congratulated on his fine tactical handling of the situation. At the beginning of the battle he was in an extremely awkward position, but he acted with commendable rapidity and resolution.

“One cannot help contrasting during the same period the somewhat apathetic movement of the Allies, who were without doubt suffering from the “retreat complex!”, the result of withdrawing at any rate as far as the BEF was concerned for over 200 miles in 13 days during which period they were always tired and frequently hungry.

“There is little doubt that more might have been accomplished, and tired as the men were, I am certain that they would have responded, if their leaders had risen superior to the occasion.”

Lt Col concludes: ”The Allies were within measurable distance of a great tactical success.”

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Officers leading their men into battle during the Great War did so according to the 1914 training manual.

Communications, via cable and telephone, were used to greater effect by the Germans in 1914.

Both sides were now using aircraft to check out each other’s whereabouts and movements changing warfare for ever; and improved guns, particularly machine guns called for a new way of fighting 20th century wars.

In his observations of the Battles of the Marne and Aisne, made in 1935, Lt Col. Campbell said: “No method of co-ordinating the operation of the various arms in a fire plan was envisaged in 1914.

“The importance of a carefully prepared fire plan today is due to the necessity for overcoming the stopping power of the machine gun, of which far greater numbers are available than in 1914, and the consequent increased power of the defence.

“The importance of employing the maximum number of guns for vital tasks was not realised and the 1914 regulations did not appreciate the value of concentrated artillery fire.

“It is by concentration of fire power rather than men at the decisive point that successful attack is made possible.”

He concluded that the troops’ failure at Aisne was due to “faulty tactical teaching of 1914,in regard to the attack.”

 

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