Forgotten Battles is a new feature on Defence-in-Depth designed to bring long-lost battles back from the depths of history. Our authors have chosen these engagements because they believe that their significance has been overlooked or overshadowed by better-remembered battles in history. The significance of the chosen battles may have been strategic and influenced greatly a particular war or campaign or may be based on other factors, such as social or cultural impact or the way in which a battle shaped the thinking of future leaders.
In the aftermath of the battle of the Marne, the German armies had withdrawn to defensive positions along the Aisne River. This river, 50-65 meters wide in many places, offered the battered German army a strong defensive position. Moreover, the northern bank occupied by the Germans was the high ground, giving them good observation behind the Anglo-French lines. However, in several places, the French and British armies had been able to secure bridgeheads across the Aisne, which threatened the German defensive position.
In order to secure their position, the German 1st Army executed a large-scale ‘attack with limited objectives.’ On 30 October, troops of the 5th and 6th Infantry Divisions of the III Army Corps, supported by considerable heavy artillery from the 1st Army, attacked the French 69th Reserve Division around Vailly. Their objectives were to seize the heights around Vailly and in the process throw the French defenders back across the Aisne in this area of the front. The infantry assault began at 0830 after an intensive artillery preparation. Within 7 hours, the German troops had taken all their objectives.
As battles go on the Western Front during the First World War, this was a minor affair. However, the significance of this battle far outreached its minor tactical success of strengthening the 1st Army’s defensive position. Immediately, in stark contrast to the costly failures of the attacks of the German 4th and 6th Armies in Flanders and around Ypres, the 1st Army’s battle at Vailly secured its objectives quickly and with only limited (ca. 2,000) casualties. With hindsight, though, we can see two areas in which the battle as of lasting significance for the German army during the rest of the war.
The success of the III Army Corps’ operation at Vailly is significant for the experience it gave a number of personnel who were catapulted to important positions based, in part, on the success of the battle. The chief of staff of the III Army Corps was then-Oberst Hans von Seeckt. Seeckt played a central role in planning and executing the operation. Indeed, his performance in this battle and the III Army Corps’ later battle around Soissons in January 1915 led to his assignment as chief of staff of a newly formed 11th Army. This army was initially to lead a German breakthrough operation on the Western Front in 1915, but was diverted east in April to support the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians. In May, as chief of staff to August von Mackensen’s 11th Army, he planned and executed one of the war’s most successful breakthrough battles at Gorlice-Tarnow.
Seeckt was accompanied to the east by then-Oberst Richard von Berendt. Overshadowed by the self-publicity of Georg Bruchmüller, Berendt has been largely forgotten by history, but he was undoubtedly one of the most important German artillerists of the war. During the battle of Vailly, Berendt served as the artillery adviser to the 1st Army, and in this role shaped the artillery side of the battle. In the summer of 1915, he became the artillery adviser to Army Group Gallwitz and in the position played an important role in the destruction of the Russian army in Poland.
Finally, Seeckt’s operations officer was then-Major Georg Wetzell. While much of the III Army Corps’ staff went east to participate in the successful 1915 campaign against the Russians, Wetzell remained on the Western Front. When Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff formed the 3rd Oberste Heeresleitung in August 1916, Wetzell joined as operations officer and became Ludendorff’s right-hand man.
The battle at Vailly was not simply significant because it helped important individuals rise to prominence within the German army. The battle also offered important lessons about fighting in trench warfare. The 1st Army produced an after-action report – the first such report of a specific battle to be shared widely throughout the German army – in which the army highlighted what it felt to be important lessons for fighting in the new type of warfare now seen on the Western Front.
Unsurprisingly, the use of artillery dominated this report. Vailly was the first time that an army-level artillery adviser was used to coordinate the effects of field and heavy artillery. Indeed, the report went into considerable detail about how specific types of guns were used on specific targets: 10-cm cannon were best used in enfilade against specific distant enemy targets; heavy howitzers and 21-cm mortars were found to be of best use against enemy field fortifications; field guns proved to be of more limited utility in trench warfare. The artillery adviser controlled the various batteries available for the attack and made sure that they specific types of artillery were put to best use. He also was able to concentrate the fire of a larger number of batteries of various calibres than had yet been done in the war to date and controlled artillery from numerous army corps in support of the III Army Corps’ attack.
Targets for the artillery were chosen, in part, by the results of aerial reconnaissance. For the first time in the war for the German army, aircraft were used to photograph enemy emplacements and artillery. The results of these photographs were plotted on maps by artillerymen to calculate exact locations and ranges.
Artillery techniques were also highlighted in the after-action report. The III Army Corps made the first use of Feuerwelle, or fire periods, in the German army during the war. The artillery preparation was to take place in five periods over the night and early morning of 29/30 October. In the pauses between each of these periods, patrols were pushed forward to assess damage and to adjust artillery fire. Each wave of fire was different lengths of time from half an hour to an hour and a half, a conscious decision to keep defenders guessing about German intentions. The fifth wave was designed to be particularly intense to shock the enemy defenders prior to the infantry assault. Moreover, the III Army Corps developed an early form of Feuerwalze, or moving barrage. As the infantry advanced, German supporting fire was lifted forward to prearranged points on the battlefield. These barrages were also used to block off parts of the battlefield in an attempt to prevent enemy reinforcement. These new techniques gave the attacking infantry some protection from enemy infantry. Indeed, one post-war observer, Artur Bullrich, went so far as to write ‘Fire waves, rolling barrages, and box barrages were all born of the planning for battle of Vailly.’
The 1st Army’s after-action report went on to highlight what would be key aspects of attacks in trench warfare – the need for careful planning before any attack; the importance of very close infantry-artillery cooperation during the assault; and the importance of setting objectives realistic for the forces at hand. Although battle of Vailly would be quickly overshadowed by other, larger-scale battles, the success of the III Army Corps served as the model of a new type of battle for a new type of warfare and the lessons of the battle were quickly learned by the rest of the German army.
For more First World War research at the Defence Studies Department, see the First World War Research Group page.
For more on Vailly, see
Richard von Berendt, ‘Der General der Artillerie bei einem Armeeoberkommando,’ Artilleristische Rundschau (1928/29): 135-140.
Artur Bullrich, ‘Der Angriff auf Vailly am 30.Oktober 1914 als Ausgangspunkt entscheidender neuer Grundsätze der deutschen Kriegführung,’ Wissen und Wehr (1920): 257-270.
Bruce I. Gudmundsson, On Artillery (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993).