12 January 1915 – Soissons

Lying on the southern bank of the Aisne River where the German advance stalled in September, the town of Soissons has already been hit hard by the war, and will continue to take hits until the end. The Vauxrot Distillery, seen in the background above, has already been struck and burned out by shells; its holed walls will disintegrate in the course of the conflict, leaving nothing but rubble. Just like the cathedrals in so many French towns, where they are generally the highest structures around, the church steeple in Soissons has already attracted more than its fair share of shelling, too.

It is the fifth successive day of terrible weather here in the middle of northern France, but freezing rain alone does not stop the war. On January 8th, an attack by light infantry and Moroccan troops won three lines of German trenches on the north side of the river, seizing Hill 132 so that the big guns can be rolled up to dominate the road to Laon. But two German corps under General Ewald von Luchow counterattacked on the 10th, and today the fighting reaches a climax in a driving rainstorm as they push the French back, from east to west, across the hilltop after a massed artillery barrage.

Casualties are high on both sides, but the attack is not what forces a French retreat. The Aisne River is swollen by the rains, raging above its banks and tearing at the temporary bridges erected across it to supply French units with food, ammunition, and reinforcements during their offensive, which is part of a series of actions collectively known as the First Battle of Champagne. By tomorrow morning, all but two of their pontoon bridges will be swept aside by the roiling water, forcing General Michel-Joseph Maunoury to order a retreat so that his Sixth Army is not cut off on the wrong side.

Hill 132

Hill 132, a spur of the plateau north of Soissons where the French wanted to place their heavy guns. Military maps refer to unnamed hills by their elevation in meters, so any number of land features can be known by the same numerical identifier

To prevent the Germans from detecting their retreat, the field guns on Hill 132 are retired one by one, their crews laboring to bring the weapons safely downhill where they can be limbered and rolled across the last pontoon bridge. The Germans are already within five hundred meters when the last battery commander orders his guns to move out; twenty artillery guns cannot be moved, and must be spiked instead. Of the 12,000 French soldiers who held the ground north of Soissons, only half are still alive and able to bear arms, but reinforcements are streaming into the two miles between the city and the village of Missy-sur-Aisne.

As the site of the last good bridge over the Aisne and a major railroad crossing, Soissons is a strategic target as well as a key rallying point. Luchow’s men attack the northern bridgehead at St. Paul on the 14th, but suffer heavy casualties from French artillery sited on the southern bank. After the assault fails, both sides resort to defensive entrenchment and barbed wire in this sector, where the war finally assumes the same character that it already has elsewhere. A bombardment of the town on the 16th forces the last civilians to evacuate, leaving their homes to be slowly destroyed by the endless shellfire.

In total, twelve thousand Frenchmen are dead or captured, and perhaps half as many Germans — a ratio that will continue throughout the First Battle of Champagne. Although Luchow claims a victory, that laurel truly belongs to the raging river which forced Maunaury’s retreat.

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The French General Staff surveys Hill 132 before German counterattacks against the flooded Aisne forced a retreat

For the allies, one of the key lessons from this battle is the need for artillery to support the attack in closer coordination with the infantry. But France is still short of the heavy guns necessary for sustained and effective bombardment of entrenched positions and concrete bunkers, while the large-caliber artillery that they do posses is cursed by a lower rate of fire, requiring longer barrages that alert the Germans to their impending assaults — and thus allow the defending commander to send in reinforcements. The days-long preparatory bombardments at Artois in May, at Vimy Ridge in September, and into 1916 are examples of French artillery planners trying to completely destroy enemy defenses prior to an infantry attack, giving up the element of surprise in the process.

These problems are exacerbated by the ongoing ammunition crisis. Most of the country’s iron mines and steelworks have been captured by the Germans. With prewar stocks of shells completely exhausted, slow production growth and quality control problems are creating disasters at the business end: gun tubes burst from underpowered charges; on one occasion during the first nine months of the war, ten of twelve guns in a single group are cracked and disabled by misfiring shells in a single day’s operations. During December, artillery crews were sometimes restricted to as few as three shells a day; the number rises to fourteen by April, but it is still nowhere near enough to destroy all the obstacles in the way of the infantry.

It will take until 1917 for the French artillery corps to understand that counterbattery fire — the suppression of German guns which take such a huge toll on French units crossing no man’s land and attacking German trenches — is the lifesaver, whereas total destruction of an enemy defensive position is neither possible nor wise. They have learned the wrong lesson from the Battle of Soissons, a town which by then has been turned into a midden heap through constant bombardment that utterly fails to dislodge their defense.

A postcard photo of the devastation in Soissons

A postcard photo of the devastation in Soissons. Note that soldiers have cleared the lane of rubble