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Period January, 1915—March, 1915


By Paul Van Dyke, D.D.

Professor of Modern European History, Princeton University

This preface does not attempt to present a history of the war from Sept. 1, 1914, to Jan. 1, 1915, but the writer seeks to give under appropriate headings such an intelligible recital of the chief events of this period as may help the reader to arrange and understand the valuable collection of documents and essays bearing upon those events, which he will find in this volume.-P. V.


Military Affairs-The Western Front

HE 1st of September saw the German arms in the west apparently in the full tide of sweeping and overwhelming success. The allied armies, driven out of their advanced position beyond the northern border of France by the pressure of overwhelming masses of German troops, had fallen back in ten days of continuous retreating until they held an indented curved line running in a northeasterly direction whose northern limit rested upon Verdun and whose southern end rested upon Paris. So rapid had been the French retreat and so striking the German victories that it is little to be wondered at that Berlin expected the anniversary of Sedan to bring them news of a more terrible Sedan-the destruction of the French Army and the complete collapse of the French defense. But the French Army and the small expeditionary force of England, probably not over one-tenth of the total number of troops in line, felt differently. In spite of the terrible strain of their long retreat, even the men in the ranks were confident that General Joffre, the Commander in Chief, was only falling back to find the best place to fight.

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Across the line of this rapid advance two sluggish rivers wind in slow meanders from east to west, the Marne and the Aisne, and each of them in this month of September was to give its name to a battle greater than any that history had known before. General Joffre had determined to make his great fight along the line of the Marne. There ten days before he had ordered his reserves to muster, and in the beginning of September, with his plans perfectly worked out and his army in entire order, he stood watching for the chance to strike his foe.

It came in the early days of September when the German right wing, neglecting Paris, which they would hardly have cared to assault in the presence of the French Army, moved in toward their own left and attempted to cut the French Army in two at the centre, swing the right half of it back against Switzerland, and force it to surrender. This dangerous manoeuvre of the invader exposed his right flank to the English Army, which he despised because he thought it too beaten to be dangerous. It also compelled him to defend a part of his rear against the new army which had been

mustered in Paris and was now sent north to attack the German right. Therefore, on the morning of the 6th of September, Joffre ordered the whole French line to advance to the attack in a battle which the Generals on both sides described in their addresses to the men as the turning point of the war. In the next three days the right flank of the German Army was heavily defeated, the joints of their line were pierced on the flanks of their next two armies toward the northeast, and on the 10th of September the whole German line was driven backward in a rapid retreat which was only saved from becoming a rout by the discipline of the men and the skill of the commanders.

They fell back to the line of the Aisne, which flows parallel to the Marne at a distance of from twenty to thirty miles, according to the meanderings of the stream. On the northern bank, about two miles back from the river, the Germans made their stand in trenches, prepared during their advance, extending along a line of hills which rises to the height of from 200 to 400 feet above the valley.

When the allied armies caught up they forced the passage of the Aisne and made a desperate attempt, which lasted for nearly a week, to drive the German Army from its position. The successful defensive battle of the Aisne was the German answer to the successful offensive battle of the Marne.

Even while this was going on, in the middle of September, General Joffre had planned to shift his attack by extending his left wing and outflanking the Germans in the direction of the English Channel and the North Sea. This movement developed into the third battle, or, rather, great series of battles, which also has taken the name of a river, the Yser.

So far as this plan included the hope of freeing Flanders from the German invaders, it broke down when, on Oct. 9, Antwerp surrendered after eleven days' bombardment. A remnant of the Belgian Army marched out of the city to the west and reached the allied lines, of which they held the extreme end resting upon the sea. The German line swung round

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its right wing behind them and conquered almost without resistance nearly all of Belgium.

It was now the Allies' turn, having failed in an attempt to outflank the German line and so compel its retirement, to stand and resist an assault which the Germans made with great masses of troops in an attempt to break through the extreme left flank of the allied line. The menaced portion of the line extended almost due north and south from the banks of the River Somme, near Albert, to Nieuport at the mouth of the River Yser on the North Sea. This line is something like eighty miles long and runs through a flat country the centre of which is occupied by a very thick manufacturing and mining population, and the northern part runs out into marshy fens, cut by numberless canals, ending in broad sand dunes.

The Germans could not hope to outflank this line, for it rested on the sea. Apparently their object was to force it back far enough to capture Calais, which is only twenty miles from the English coast, bring up batteries of great guns and establish there an armed harbor defended by mine fields from which they could the more easily attack and harass England. There is no space even to sug. gest in detail the long and complicated series of battles in which, from Oct. 17 to Nov. 17, the Germans strove to break the line from the Somme to the sea in several places. It suffices to say that, although they several times indented the allied line and drove back the troops defending it, they were never able to break through in such numbers as to hold their gain; still less to attack the broken line on the flanks and so compel a general retirement.

On the northern end, the Belgians in the early part of the contest driven back from their bank of the Yser, clung with desperate courage to a railroad embankment which ran across the flats, dammed the mouth of the river, opened the canals, and flooded the country they had been forced to yield. The Germans, when the water rose above the muzzles of their field guns, were forced to retreat.

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