On reaching the Aisne on 13 September, Major Tom Bridges and the 4th Dragon Guards seized the bridge over the river at Bourg in a dramatic cavalry charge that caught the defenders by surprise. But the regiment suffered several casualties, including the popular machine gun officer Lieutenant Pat Fitzgerald. The MO, Arthur Osburn, was particularly affected by Fitzgerald’s death, as just five weeks earlier he had attended Fitzgerald’s wedding and given the toast to the future happiness of bride and bridegroom.
The remainder of the BEF had an even harder time crossing the river, which was now firmly defended by the Germans. Lieutenant George Roupell of the East Surreys was ferried over the river on a raft, and swiftly came under sustained artillery fire. The objective was the dominating spur of Chivres, half-a-mile from the river, but the Surreys’ initial advance was repulsed with heavy casualties.
The battle proper resumed the following day. In mist and driving rain, the BEF tried to gain the crest, while the Germans did all they could to throw the British back into the Aisne. As the mist cleared, the advancing British were cut down by concealed German machine-guns. John Lucy described the German fire: ‘A machine gun raked the whole line, a weak and feeble line now, and shot accurately home into it. Some of the lying men flapped about, others, shot through the head, jerked their faces forward rapidly and lay still. I trembled with fear and horror. This was a holocaust.’
The attack by two companies of the Rifles had been a disaster; half the men had become casualties, which included all nine officers of the two companies. Although Lucy had survived without a scratch, tragedy had struck: his beloved brother Denis – who had joined up with him – was killed in the attack.
The assault on the Chemin des Dames has been called a soldiers’ battle in the manner of Inkerman; the rough, wooden terrain made any form of close command impossible and small groups of British soldiers fought it out with their German counterparts. The troops of the newly formed German Seventh Army had been ordered to counter-attack at every opportunity, and they did so with the customary zeal of the German Army.
All the while, German 15cm and 21cm howitzers pounded the British positions, to which there was little effective reply. The German guns concentrated their efforts in trying to knock out the pontoon bridges, but throughout the battle the Royal Engineer detachments calmly rebuilt the river-crossings in the midst of this heavy fire. Haig’s I Corps made the strongest impression on the German line, but as light began to fade on the evening of the 14th so did any chance of an Allied breakthrough on the Aisne. The advance has lasted just a week.