The first battle of Picardy, 22-26 September 1914, was part of the Race to the Sea, the series of encounter battles that decided the location of the Western Front during the First World War. The war began with a period of manoeuvre warfare, exactly as had been expected before the fighting began, but that changed during the first battle of the Aisne. This saw the Germans retreat from the Marne to the Aisne where they took up a defensive position. A series of Allied attacks failed to force them back, and the line on the Aisne remained static for most of the war.
Both the French and German commanders-in-chief began to plan to turn their opponent’s northern flank. Joffre dissolved Castlenau’s Second Army at Nancy, and formed a new Second Army around Amiens, again commanded by Castlenau. The new German chief of the General Staff, Falkenhayn, moved Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Sixth Army around from the Lorraine front.
The French advance was opposed by parts of three German armies. To the south was the First Army (Kluck), with its right flank around the Oise. In the centre was the Seventh Army (Heeringen), no longer needed to plug a gap on the Aisne. To the north was the Sixth Army (Crown Prince Rupprecht), with orders to defend the German right flank and turn the French left. Von Bülow’s Second Army would take over around St. Quentin on 10 October, after the main battle was over.
The French Second army began to move north east from its point of assembly south of Amiens on 22 September. The next day the French Sixth Army began another attack along the Oise, heading north east along the north bank of the river. For the first two days of the fighting there were limited clashes between the two sides, but on 24 September a full scale battle developed along the entire front from Albert, just north of the Somme, down to Noyon on the Oise.
On 24 September the Germans attacked Castelnau’s right flank at Roye, while his army was advancing across the Somme. Their aim was to break a gap in the French line, cutting off the sizable forces further north. Castelnau was able to hold his ground, but his advance was stopped. The Germans then attacked the north of his line (battle of Albert), again hoping to isolate the French forces further north. Once again the attack was beaten off, but any hopes that the main part of the French Second Army would outflank the Germans would gone. Once again the focus of the fighting moved north, this time towards Arras, where two French corps under Maud’huy once again hoped to outflank the Germans (first battle of Artois).