The Race to the Sea is a name given to the period early in the First World War when the two sides were still engaged in mobile warfare on the Western Front. With the German advance stalled at the First Battle of the Marne, the opponents continually attempted to outflank each other through north-eastern France. This brought the forces to positions prepared under British Admiralty guidance, on the North Sea coast in Western Belgium. The nature of operations then changed to trench warfare, which is extremely-large-scale siege warfare. This produced a continuous front line of trench fortifications more than 320 kilometres long, which by the following spring extended from the coast to the Swiss border.
From the Aisne to the Yser
The Race to the Sea began in September 1914 in Champagne, at the end of the German advance into France, and ended at the North Sea in November of that year. In the battles fought in Picardy, Artois and Flanders, neither side could gain the advantage, and with repeated attempts to find the open flank, the line was extended until it reached the coast. The term "Race to the Sea" suggests that all the forces began in Champagne: in reality, significant German Army units arrived from Belgium, after the fall of Antwerp, and much of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived from England by way of the Channel coast of France. The movement towards the North Sea was the result of continual failed attempts at flanking manoeuvres.
The eventual "finish line" of the race was actually already occupied by two forces. The Belgian army, later reinforced by the British Royal Naval Division, had been holding out in Antwerp, which finally fell on October 10. The Belgian and British forces had withdrawn to a line on the River Yser (IJzer), which flows into the North Sea at Nieuwpoort.
The race began in late September 1914, after the end of the Battle of the Aisne, the unsuccessful Allied counter-offensive against the German forces halted during the preceding First Battle of the Marne. The route of the race was largely governed by the north-south railways available to each side, the French through Amiens and the Germans through Lille.
The race involved a number of battles, from the First Battle of the Aisne (13 to 28 September), the First Battle of Picardy (22 to 26 September), the Battle of Albert (25 to 29 September), the First Battle of Artois (27 September to 10 October), the Battle of La Bassée (10 October to 2 November), the Battle of Messines (1914) (12 October to 2 November), the Battle of Armentières (13 October to 2 November) and the Battle of the Yser (18 October to 30 November). The French Tenth Army began to assemble at Amiens from mid-September, and on September 25 began to push eastwards. The German Sixth Army had reached Bapaume on September 26 and advanced to Thiepval on the following day, in the middle of what was to become the Somme battlefield of 1916. The German aim was to drive westward to the English Channel, seizing the industrial and agricultural regions of Northern France, cutting off the supply route of the BEF and isolating Belgium. Meanwhile, six of the eleven German cavalry divisions would sweep through Flanders to the coast.
However, between October 1 and October 6 the German Sixth Army's offensive north of the Somme was halted by the French under the direction of General Ferdinand Foch. The German cavalry encountered the French XXI Corps near Lille and were likewise halted. The only gap remaining was in Flanders, with the Belgians on the Yser to the north and the French in Picardy to the south.
Attention now turned to Artois and Flanders, where the BEF had begun to redeploy to shorten their supply route through Boulogne and Calais. The Germans reached Lille on October 13 and the British reached Bailleul (Belle) the next day. The line formed in Artois was established by the Battle of La Bassée between October 12 and October 27: the British held Arras while the Germans were in Lens.
In Flanders, the British 7th Division had moved in to Ypres (Ieper) on October 14. The Germans had actually occupied the town with a small detachment on October 3, but were forced to withdraw. The British planned to advance along the road to Menen (Menin) but were stopped by a superior German force. On October 21, during the Battle of the Yser, King Albert of Belgium ordered the sea-locks at Nieuwpoort to be opened, creating an impassable flooded marshland up to a mile wide as far south as Diksmuide.
The German effort to achieve a breakthrough now concentrated at Ypres. In what was to become the First Battle of Ypres, the German attack began on October 21. Fighting would continue until late November but, while the British forces were dangerously stretched, no breakthrough came.
While the race to the sea was over when the offensive at Ypres ceased, the Western Front still contained gaps. In particular, no front was established in the Vosges Mountains until early 1915.
The implications seaward
While the BEF was following events to the Marne and returning northwards, there had been coordinated efforts by relatively small forces of the Belgian field and fortress armies, the French marines, the Royal Marines, the Naval Brigade (reserve sailors half retrained as infantry), the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) (mounted in armoured cars) and vessels of the Royal Navy. The aim was to screen the Belgian coast from German occupation, so denying the use of its harbours to U-boats and permitting access for supplies from Britain. Initially, the northern part of the German forces was tied up by the Belgian defence of Antwerp. The Royal Marines occupied ports such as Ostend, while the RNAS, in its armoured cars, provided a mobile screen to hinder German movements northwards from the main advance towards Paris. Following an extempore but careful fortification of the south-western extremity of Belgium by flooding, the Battle of the Yser provided an anchor onto which the future Western Front could be locked by the First Battle of Ypres.
The importance of the Belgian and French ports such as Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer in supplying the BEF was perceived at the time: to maintain a British army in France at all, the allies had to control the English Channel. To do so, particularly against U-boats, the Strait of Dover had to be controlled. Thus both its coasts had to be occupied by the Allies so that a barrage of vessels, mines and nets could be maintained there. In the event, the aim of retaining control of the French coast was achieved by coordination between naval and military forces of Belgium, France and the United Kingdom, and no French port was lost. The extent to which this requirement was understood before the event is not clear. It was perhaps so obvious, at the Admiralty at least, that it was not stated explicitly. Certainly, the U-boat threat was well appreciated, but the First Lord's account of the time and its events makes no mention of the need to stop the threat at the strait.
These considerations made crucial the BEF's return to the north before the fluid situation there had solidified into a line reaching the coast west of Dunkirk. On the whole, the main German forces involved in this aspect of the 'race' came from eastern Belgium, after having been tied up there by operations associated with the resistance of Antwerp. Thus, the Belgian army, in the prepared fortifications of Antwerp and on the Yser, in conjunction with the planning of the British Admiralty, played a key role in the progress of the war.
- Churchill, W.S. The World Crisis 1911–1918 London (1938) Chapter XII
- "World War I: The "Great War"". University of Tennessee: The Teaching Company. 2006. ISBN 1-59803-153-8. "This name, the 'Race to the Sea,' which has stuck, nonetheless is actually something of a misnomer; because it wasn't so much a race to the sea as a succession of attempts to turn the flank of the other side, until- ultimately, without a decision- the front simply reached the English Channel and the North Sea."
- http://www.historyofwar.org/period1900.html accessdate 2009-09-01
- This is seen in practice in Hist Opale, a French language site.
- Animation of the Race to the Sea French web site
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