First Champagne | 20 Dec 1914

It’s the busiest day in the West in quite some time; Petain’s mob is still wading towards Carency, the First Battle of Champagne is about to get underway, and the Germans are eager not to let the Allies have things all their own way.


So let’s start with them. Yesterday the Indian Corps went in and then went out again. An unintended consequence of launching a general offensive is that it’s caused the Germans to concentrate some reserves in the general vicinity of Flanders. Now they recognise that the Indian Corps hasn’t been out of the line in a while and may well be vulnerable to a counter-attack. They’ve also been preparing a rather nasty surprise for their opponents. Despite the Biblical rains, and the high water table, they’ve still managed to carry out some limited mining operations, aided by the narrow No Man’s Land in this sector. After a thorough bombardment, they explode ten 50kg mines underneath the Indians.

The effect is devastating. Already being forced to occupy flooded trenches and breastworks, many of the defenders are buried alive. Others are completely trapped by the mud, and their fate is to slowly flounder, sink and drown in the glutinous soup. The surviving exhausted, cold, often leaderless sepoys fall back in disarray, and who can blame them?

Well, just hold that thought a moment. By the end of the day, Givenchy is in a perilously small salient, and the Germans are pushing strongly forward to renew the attack tomorrow.

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First Champagne

Bite and hold First Champagne may be, but it’s more a case of “nibble and cling”. The largest gain is about two-thirds of a mile, in front of Perthes; but the poilus are stopped short of the village by weather and the early sunset. Elsewhere, it’s the same old story; one trench at most. A few hundred yards here, fifty there. Uncut barbed wire almost everywhere. Stiff resistance, heavy casualties. First Champagne is already doomed to become First Champagne, if you take my meaning.


Yeah, just guess what happened here. The mood of the French Army is beginning to seriously deteriorate. It won’t be long before the word on every poilu’s lips is not elan, but cafard. Cafard is one of those words that’s very hard to properly translate. The best short definition I can come up with is “a particular kind of depression affecting trench-dwellers”. It’s something we’ll be investigating further as the war wears on.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Artois (First Artois)
Battle of Champagne (First Champagne)

Further Reading

No Daily Telegraph on Sundays. In its place, yesterday’s “News of the Week” editorial from The Spectator, which often has some very interesting analysis of events.

Unsurprisingly, they’re talking the raids on Scarborough, Hartlepool, and Whitby. There’s a small soupcon of outrage, but mostly they’re the voice of reason, arguing against pinning unfair blame on the Navy. They then predict a rush to the colours, which is a reasonable supposition – but the official recruiting figures are rather more equivocal. December 1914 actually saw a 50,000 decrease on November’s recruitment numbers. January then had a mild 40,000 spike (and surely at least some of them have their own reasons) but after that, the number of volunteers goes into a sustained decline and eventually finishes with conscription.

They’ve also been taken in by the propaganda regarding the situation on the Western Front. Sometimes before, they’ve been able to see through the bullshit; but this time they’re pleased about “good gains” in Belgium and near Belfort both, which are entirely in their own imagination. I do find it fascinating how far-reaching the military control of information is. (They’ve got way smarter at it in the last hundred years, but if you don’t think they’re still exercising considerable control over information about today’s wars, I have a nice bridge I’d like to sell you.)

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