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Race to the Sea

From Academic Kids

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Course of the "Race to the Sea" showing dates of encounters and highlighting the significant battles.
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The "End of the Line": the Western Front reaches the sea near Nieuwpoort, Belgium.

The Race to the Sea was the name given to a period of World War I from the end of the German advance into France in September of 1914 to the formation of a near-continuous front line from the Swiss border to the North Sea coast of Belgium in November. The title is a misnomer as the purpose of both sides was not to be the first to the sea but instead to out-flank the enemy. In the ensuing battles fought in Picardy, Artois and Flanders, neither side could gain the advantage and so, as repeated attempts to find the open flank were made, the line was extended until a natural obstacle denied the room to manoeuvre.

In fact, the eventual "finish line" of the race was 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 The Belgian and British forces had withdrawn to a line on the River Yser which flows into the North Sea at Nieuport.

The race is deemed to have begun late September, 1914 following 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 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 27th, in the midst 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 British Expeditionary Force (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 in order to shorten their supply route through Boulogne and Calais. The Germans reached Lille on October 13 and the British reached Balleuil on 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 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 Menin but were stopped by a superior German force. On October 21, King Albert of Belgium ordered the sea-locks at Nieuport to be opened, creating an impassable flooded marshland up to a mile wide as far south as Dixmude.

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.

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