The Race to the Sea

So it’s All Hallows Eve, but before you all can go celebrate this festivity (if you do so) we have one last update for you this month. Continuing with our First World War updates, I have taken on board the duty of doing a post about the Race to the Sea (Apologies to all the skillful modern historians who I hope not to insult with my lack of knowledge on the subject).

 In general terms, it is often understood that the Race to the Sea happened as a result of the first battle of Aisne, (13-28 September 1914) where the allies had been seeking the retreat of the German troops. Up to this point the Germans had been trying to put in action the Schlieffen plan, attacking France from the north and through Belgium. As we have previously cover in recent updates, this failed due to the resistance found in Paris and the allied effort at Marne. As with many historical events with names such as this one, the term was first used time after the First World War- and perhaps it is not the best way to describe what actually occurred. In a way, this name suggests the need to get to the sea by each side during the war. However, specialists on the subject had reiterated that getting to the coast was never really the intention of both the Germans nor the Allies. Regardless, this was the outcome of the events.

In summary, the Race to the Sea developed in a  series of encounters between the Oise and the Somme. During these confrontations both the French and German troops intended to outflank the northern wing of their enemies.Consequently several battles take place: the first battle of Picardy, then the battle of Albert, and finally first battle of Artois, which ended in a push towards the Atlantic coast of the north of France and Flanders. The conflict carried on, as the British troops pressed from the north, eventually clashing with the German army. And once again, we have a series of battles at Le Basse, Messines and Armentieres. Nevertheless, the advance towards the sea ended with the British Cavalry Corps meeting the 3rd cavalry division near Ypres. At this stage the fight was pretty much prolonged and continuous from the North sea to the Swiss border. Two last armed encounters are generally regarded to have determined the end of the Race to the Sea, which are the battle at Yser and the first battle of Ypres (October to November 1914).

Like I have stated previously, the objective of this movements was never meant to be ending at the coastal line. The whole point was outflanking the opponent to gain the tactical advantage, but failure on both sides produced this concatenated train of battles up to the edge of the channel. It has been suggested that the failure of these manoeuvers ultimately forced trench warfare. The Germans were the first to implement this tactic, defending themselves from the Allied offensive by digging up trenches. Through flanking and pushing the trenches started to expand, eventually reaching the coast. However, as the fight moved towards the sea, this created an opportunity, for both sides, to seize strategic ports along the Channel from where to launch their attacks. Nevertheless, this sort of stalemate fueled the need for a tiebreaker which could be seen as the precursor for some of the later, and perhaps better known, and tragic highlights of the Great War such as the Somme and Passchendaele.

The Race to the Sea could be regarded as yet another disaster or failure of Western European warfare in the early Twentieth Century. And certainly, we just need to have a quick look at the casualties reported during this time for all armies involved. By the end of the Battle of Ypres the total number of German casualties already accumulated to 800.000 men, which was one of Falkenhayn’s reasons to think that the war would not or could not be won on the Western front, but rather on the East. Numbers did not look great on the other side either. Just between the months of October and November the French army counted 125.000 casualties, and nearly 50.000 for the British troops at Ypres. Finally, it has to be considered that by this stage half of the Belgian army was gone…

..And so the trenches kept roaring…

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2 thoughts on “The Race to the Sea

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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