One week after II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) attacked the German 6th Army in the fields of Flanders ten miles to the west, this morning the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers meets the dawn in their hasty defenses. Encountering only scattered rifle fire and snipers yesterday, they took the town of Herlies, extending the allied lines towards the occupied French industrial center of Lille.
Shortly after first light today, though, the first German artillery rounds begin to fall on their positions. Joined by the 5th Battalion, the Fusiliers will spend the entire day under fire, taking five dozen casualties. This battle is the closing act in the badly-named ‘Race to the Sea,’ a final series of maneuvers that brings the Western Front to a close — and inaugurates an emerging German strategy to destroy the allies through attrition.
As there is no loss of prestige in giving up occupied territory for tactical or strategic advantage, Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht has traded space for time. (Russia is alone among European powers in shamelessly employing this tactic within their own territory.) The town that 4th Battalion occupies today has been surveyed and sited in advance — ‘preregistered’ — for his field artillery, which searches out the men of London in their houses and dugouts.
The Battle of La Bassée is taking place to the south of a German offensive against the last defenders of Belgium, who are now entrenched along the Yser River. French units fill gaps all along the line; so do cavalry units fighting dismounted in the emerging stalemate.
The shape of the Western Front is being determined by the politics of the alliance: Britain is at war for the independence of Belgium. By keeping land communications open to the last five percent of the once-neutral nation that is still nominally ‘free’ under martial law, the alliance preserves an important psychological rationale for denying the Kaiser a separate peace with any of Belgium’s partners.
The unit war diary of the 4th Battalion reports that the units on both flanks attack today, but the British artillery is underpowered and unable to support them. Meanwhile, the French Territorial (reserve) unit on their left attacks with superb fire support from their 75 millimeter field guns, gaining ground. German counterattacks are repulsed all along the line of battle.
But the shelling remains constant. The next day’s entry reports “Good deal of shelling all day, some casualties.” On the 20th, their war diary reads: “Very heavily shelled all day…The village of Herlies was smashed to pieces by heavy shells.” Finally, the unit relocates outside the village in the dead of night, and just in time, for on the 21st “The village of Herlies was smashed to pieces by heavy shells.”
After withdrawing another half-mile north towards Aubers, the diary entry for the 22nd reads: “In trenches under moderate shellfire. No casualties.” British war histories note that the fighting on this day seems just like the fighting on the Aisne River a month ago, where trench warfare broke out on the Western Front.
We are used to thinking of trench warfare as the human meat grinder of this conflict, but of the original 37,000 men in II Corps, 10,000 were killed or wounded in August,and another 10,000 were casualties in September, yet just 5,000 casualties have been incurred to this point in October. Even though life under constant bombardment is maddening enough to produce the first cases of “shell shock,” the trenches themselves are clearly preserving life, not destroying it.
The original BEF — and its irreplaceable corps of veterans — is still being annihilated at a slow, steady rate, however. Replacements are coming on a regular basis thanks to massive recruiting drives in the United Kingdom, but less than half the original officers and men are still serving under the colors, and with them dies much of the institutional memory that has brought the men of London this far.