Battle of the Ardennes, 20-25 August 1914

Battle of the Ardennes, 20-25 August 1914

Battle of the Ardennes, 20-25 August 1914

The Battle of the Ardennes, 20-25 August 1914 (First World War) was part of the larger Battle of the Frontiers of France. It was fought between two French and two German armies of roughly equal size – both sides committed eight Corps to the battle.

The two German armies (Fourth, under the Duke of Württemberg and Fifth under Prince Frederick William) formed the hinge of the great movement through Belgium. During the first few weeks of the war, these armies had remained largely in place, while the Fifth Army attacked the French frontier fortresses of Montmédy and Longwy. To the north the German First, Second and Third armies took part in the great advance across Belgium.

The French had two armies facing the Ardennes – the Third under General Pierre de Ruffey and the Fourth under General Fernande de Langle de Cary. Faced with the German advance through Belgium, General Joffre ordered these armies to advance north east through the Ardennes. The French did not expect to face any serious opposition during their advance. A prolonged cavalry sweep of the Ardennes (6-15 August), performed by Sordet’s Cavalry Corps, had found no Germans. In contrast, German aircraft had noticed French troops moving north and although these troops were actually from the French Fifth Army, the Germans had come to the conclusion that the French were about to advance into the Ardennes.

On 22 August the French advance ran unto the Germans. The advance guard of the Third Army was hit by a German artillery bombardment and shattered. The Third Army, with a gap in its centre, was forced to stop and fight just to maintain its position.

The Fourth Army also suffered heavy losses on 22 August. This army contained the Colonial Corps, the main regular element of the French army. These professional troops advanced ahead of their support until they were fighting alone. They then made a series of determined attacks on German positions that cost them dear. On 22 August the 3rd Colonial Division lost 11,000 of its 15,000 men.

With their offensive stalled and key elements of both armies badly mauled the French were forced to withdraw. On 24 August both armies pulled back to the line of the Meuse. The Third Army took up positions around Verdun, while the Fourth moved to Stenay and Sedan, before eventually being forced to pull back further south in a retreat that would only end with the Battle of the Marne.

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Belgium Edit

Belgian military planning was based on an assumption that other powers would eject an invader but the likelihood of a German invasion did not lead to France and Britain being seen as allies or for the Belgian government intending to do more than protect its independence. The Anglo-French Entente (1904) had led the Belgian government to think that the British attitude to Belgium and that it had come to be seen as a protectorate. A Belgian General Staff was formed in 1910 but the Chef d'État-Major Général de l'Armée, Lieutenant-Général Harry Jungbluth was retired on 30 June 1912 and only replaced in May 1914 by Lieutenant-General Chevalier Antonin de Selliers de Moranville, who began work on a contingency plan for the concentration of the army and met railway officials on 29 July. [1]

Belgian troops were to be massed in central Belgium, in front of the National redoubt of Belgium ready to face any border, while the Fortified Position of Liège and Fortified Position of Namur were left to secure the frontiers. On mobilisation, the King became Commander-in-Chief and chose where the army was to concentrate. Amid the disruption of the new rearmament plan the disorganised and poorly trained Belgian soldiers would benefit from a central position to delay contact with an invader but it would also need fortifications for defence, which were on the frontier. A school of thought wanted a return to a frontier deployment in line with French theories of the offensive. Belgian plans became a compromise in which the field army concentrated behind the Gete river with two divisions forward at Liège and Namur. [1]

Schlieffen–Moltke Plan Edit

Field marshal Alfred Graf von Schlieffen was Chief of the German General Staff (Oberste Heeresleitung "OHL") from 1891 until his retirement in 1906. [a] A student of Carl von Clausewitz, like other Prussian officers, he had been taught that "the heart of France lies between Paris and Brussels". [2] In 1839, the Treaty of London masterminded by the British diplomat Lord Palmerston was signed by France, Prussia, Russia, Austria and the United Kingdom creating the independent Kingdom of Belgium. France and Russia joined in a military alliance in 1892, which threatened Germany with the possibility of a war on two fronts. [3] German strategy gave priority to an offensive operation against France and a defensive against Russia. Planning would be determined by numerical inferiority, speed of mobilisation, concentration and the effect of modern weaponry. The Germans expected frontal attacks to be costly and protracted, leading to limited success, particularly after the French and Russians modernised the fortifications on their frontiers with Germany. To evade the fortified frontier with France, Schlieffen devised a plan that by 1898–99 envisioned German forces rapidly passing between Antwerp and Namur to take Paris from the north, thus delivering France a quick and decisive defeat. [4] The German left flank in occupied Alsace would tempt the French into attacking there, drawing the French forces away from Paris and the German right. [5]

In its 1906 version, the Schlieffen Plan would allocate six weeks and seven eighths of the Imperial German Army (a force of 1.5 million) to overwhelm France while the remaining force was to remain in East Prussia to contest the Russians. [6] Helmuth von Moltke the Younger succeeded Schlieffen in 1906 and was less certain that the French would conform to German assumptions. Moltke adapted the deployment and concentration plan to accommodate an attack in the centre or an enveloping attack from both flanks as variants to the plan, by adding divisions to the left flank opposite the French frontier, from the c. 1,700,000 men expected to be mobilised in the Westheer (western army). The main German force would still advance through Belgium and attack southwards into France, the French armies would be enveloped on the left and pressed back over the Meuse, Aisne, Somme, Oise, Marne and Seine, unable to withdraw into central France. The French would either be annihilated or the manoeuvre from the north would create conditions for victory in the centre or in Lorraine on the common border. [7] Moltke planned for a force of about 320,000 men to defend Alsace-Lorraine south of Metz, 400,000 men to invade France and Luxembourg through the Ardennes and 700,000 more troops to invade Belgium. [8]

Plan XVII Edit

After the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, France had been humiliated, forced to pay an indemnity of five billion francs and lost the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to the new German Empire, so as to permanently put France on the defensive. Though the French did indeed build an extensive amount of fortifications along their border with Germany, after 30 years plans turned offensive, thanks in no small part to Ferdinand Foch. France had a population and birth rate smaller than those of Germany and invented the concept of élan vital and decided on a strategy of "offensive to the limit", making the will to fight the cornerstone of French military planning. Colonel Louis Loyzeau de Grandmaison, took up Foch's doctrine and delivered two speeches before the École Militaire that set the foundations of Plan XVII, which was formally adopted in May 1913. [9] French strategists took account of the possibility of envelopment by the German right and calculated that the more powerful the German right, the weaker the center and left would be. The French decided to concentrate their forces on the Rhine, [b] planning to break the German left and center on either side of Metz, to cut off the German right and defeat the German armies in detail. [11]

Under Plan XVII, the French peacetime army was to form five field armies of about two million men, with groups of Reserve divisions attached to each army and a group of reserve divisions on the flanks. The armies were to concentrate opposite the German frontier around Épinal, Nancy and Verdun–Mezières, with an army in reserve around Ste. Ménéhould and Commercy. Since 1871, railway building had given the French General staff sixteen lines to the German frontier against thirteen available to the German army and the French could afford to wait until German intentions were clear. The French deployment was intended to be ready for a German offensive in Lorraine or through Belgium. The French expected that the Germans would use reserve troops but also assumed that a large German army would be mobilised on the border with Russia, leaving the western army with sufficient troops only to advance through Belgium, south of the Meuse and the Sambre rivers. French intelligence had obtained a 1905 map exercise by the German general staff, in which German troops had gone no further north than Namur and assumed that plans to besiege Belgian forts were a defensive measure against the Belgian army. [12]

A German attack from south-eastern Belgium towards Mézières and a possible offensive from Lorraine towards Verdun, Nancy and St. Dié was anticipated the plan was a development of Plan XVI and made more provision for the possibility of a German offensive through Belgium. The First, Second and Third armies were to concentrate between Épinal and Verdun opposite Alsace and Lorraine, the Fifth Army was to assemble from Montmédy to Sedan and Mézières and the Fourth Army was to be held back west of Verdun, ready to move east to attack the southern flank of a German invasion through Belgium or south against the northern flank of an attack through Lorraine. No formal provision was made for joint operations with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) but discreet arrangements had been made between the French and British general staffs during the Second Moroccan Crisis in 1911, the French had been told that six British divisions could be expected to operate around Maubeuge. [13]

Declarations of war Edit

At midnight on 31 July – 1 August, the German government sent an ultimatum to Russia and announced a state of "Kriegsgefahr" (threat of war) during the day the Turkish government ordered mobilisation and the London Stock Exchange closed. On 1 August, the British government ordered the mobilisation of the navy, the German government ordered general mobilisation and declared war on Russia. Hostilities commenced on the Polish frontier, the French government ordered general mobilisation and next day the German government sent an ultimatum to Belgium, demanding passage through Belgian territory and German troops crossed the frontier of Luxembourg. Military operations began on the French frontier, Libau was bombarded by the German light cruiser SMS Augsburg and the British government guaranteed naval protection for French coasts. On 3 August, the Belgian Government refused German demands and the British Government guaranteed military support to Belgium, should Germany invade. Germany declared war on France, the British government ordered general mobilisation and Italy declared neutrality. On 4 August, the British government sent an ultimatum to Germany which expired at midnight on 4–5 August, Central European Time. Belgium severed diplomatic relations with Germany and Germany declared war on Belgium. German troops crossed the Belgian frontier and attacked Liège. [14]

French offensive preparations Edit

French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre ordered an attack through the Ardennes forest in support of the French invasion of Lorraine. According to the pre-war French war strategy document, Plan XVII, German forces in the area were only expected to be light, with French light, rapid-firing artillery proving advantageous in a wooded terrain such as that found in the Ardennes. By 20 August, however, it was becoming clear - first to General Charles Lanrezac's French Fifth Army, and then to Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre - that a massive German presence was gathering in the area. That same day the Germans launched a counter-attack against the French advance into Lorraine. Even so, Joffre ordered an invasion of the Ardennes on 20 August for the following day.

Joffre issued instructions on 18 August but held back the Third and Fourth armies because air and cavalry reconnaissance found few German troops opposite the two armies, only a large force moving north-west 25–31 mi (40–50 km) away. On 19 August the Fourth army of General Fernand de Langle de Cary was ordered to occupy the bridges over the Semois but not to advance into Belgium until the German offensive began. A premature attack would advance into a trap rather than give time for the Germans to empty Luxembourg of troops before the French advanced. On 20 August the German armies in the south attacked the French First and Second armies and next day the Third and Fourth armies began their offensive. The Fourth Army crossed the Semois and advanced towards Neufchâteau and the Third Army of General Pierre Ruffey attacked towards Arlon, as a right flank guard for the Fourth army. South of Verdun, the Third army was renamed Army of Lorraine and was to watch for a German offensive from Metz, which left the remainder of the Third Army free to concentrate on the offensive into Belgium. The French armies invaded Belgium with nine infantry corps but ten German corps and six reserve brigades of the 4th and 5th armies lay between Metz and the north of Luxembourg. [15]

The German 4th Army under Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, and 5th Army of Crown Prince Wilhelm had moved slower than the 1st, 2nd and 3rd armies and the French offensive towards them was reported on 21 August. The French armies had few maps and were unaware of the size of the German force opposite, as the Third Army brushed aside small German detachments. On 22 August in the Third army area, the V Corps attacked dug-in German troops at Longwy at 5:00 a.m. in thick fog and heavy rain, with no artillery support. As the fog lifted, German artillery caught the French guns in the open and silenced them. A German counter-attack routed a French division and the corps was not rallied until the evening. To the north the IV Corps also advanced in fog and encountered German troops dug in near Virton and was forced back also with a division routed. On the southern Flank the VI Corps was pushed back a short distance. In the Fourth Army area the II Corps on the right flank managed to keep level with the Third Army to the south but was not able to advance further. The Colonial Corps on the left was defeated at the Battle of Rossignol, 9.3 mi (15 km) south of Neufchâteau, and had 11,646 casualties but the 5th Colonial Brigade on the left easily reached Neufchâteau before being repulsed with many casualties. Further north XII Corps advanced steadily but the XVII Corps beyond was outflanked and the 33rd Division lost most of its artillery. On the northern flank the XI and IX corps were not seriously engaged. [16]

Analysis Edit

Charbonneau explained that the defeat of the Colonial Corps was caused by faulty reconnaissance, the ineffectiveness of advanced guards in causing delay to advancing German units and that French offensive tactics neglected the importance of obtaining a superiority of fire, which had led to reckless attacks. The quality of the German opponents was not mentioned but German reconnaissance had been effective, communication between commanders and subordinates had not broken down, mutual support between neighbouring units had occurred and German artillery had provided continuous close fire support. [17] At Neufchâteau, the French colonial infantry had been out-gunned and outnumbered by German units, which had been able to engage all their forces quickly. The French XII Corps had a greater number of guns but was not able to overcome two German infantry battalions. German artillery had engaged the Colonial Brigade from close range but when in a hastily occupied defensive position, the French had nullified much of the German artillery-fire French troops caught in the open had been annihilated. Both sides had attempted to gain fire superiority before advancing and once this had been achieved by the Germans, they had been able to manoeuvre without severe casualties. [18]

The French commanders were ordered by Joffre to continue the offensive on 23 August as early as possible, since his strategy depended on the success of the Third and Fourth armies. Ruffey replied in the morning that the attack could not begin until his divisions had reorganised and in the early afternoon found that the Germans had forestalled another advance, by pushing the V Corps in the centre back for 5.0 mi (8 km), which led to the rest of the army falling back level. In the Fourth Army area, the 33rd Division of XVII Corps was routed and the rest of the corps had retired during the night of 22/23 August. The 5th Colonial Brigade withdrew from Neufchâteau before dawn on 23 August, exposing the right flank of XII Corps, which also fell back. By the end of 23 August, the survivors of the Third and Fourth armies were back to their jumping-off positions except for the XI and IX corps on the northern flank. [19]

Casualties Edit

At Rossignol German casualties were c. 1,318 and French casualties c. 11,277 men. [20] The French 4th Division had c. 1,195 casualties at Bellefontaine against c. 1,920 German casualties. At Neufchâteau the 5th Colonial Brigade had c. 3,600 casualties against units of the German XVIII Reserve Corps, which suffered c. 1,800 casualties. [21] At Bertrix the artillery of the 33rd Division was destroyed and c. 3,181 casualties incurred, against c. ⅓ the number of German casualties, which were noted as greater than all of the casualties in the Franco-Prussian War. [22] At Massin-Anloy, the French 22nd Division and 34th Division lost 2,240 men killed and the 34th Division was routed. German casualties in the 25th Division were c. 3,224, of whom 1,100 men were killed. [23] At Virton the French 8th Division was "destroyed" and the 3rd Division had c. 556 casualties German losses were c. 1,281 men. [24] In the fighting around Éthe and Bleid, the French 7th Division lost 5,324 men and the German 10th Division had c. 1,872 casualties. [25] At Longwy the French V Corps with the 9th and 10th divisions had c. 2,884 casualties and German units of the 26th Division had c. 1,242 casualties. [26] South of Longwy, German casualties in the 9th and 12th Reserve and 33rd divisions were c. 4,458 men against the French 12th 40th and 42nd divisions, of which the 40th Division was routed. [27] In 2009, Herwig recorded 19,218 casualties from 21 to 31 August>> in the 4th Army and 19,017 casualties in the 5th Army. Herwig also recorded 5,500 casualties in the French 8th Division at Virton and wrote that at Ethe, the 7th Division had been "stomped". At Ochamps the 20th Infantry Regiment lost 1,300 men (50 percent) and the 11th Infantry Regiment lost 2,700 of 3,300 men. The 5th Colonial Brigade lost 3,200 of 6,600 men. [28]


August 22, 1914: The bloodiest day in French military history

The Battle of the Frontiers, fought at the outset of World War I, doesn’t have the same historical notoriety as Verdun or Somme, but it saw in one day more French soldiers die than in any other day in history.

Exactly 100 years ago this Friday, 27,000 French soldiers died in less than 24 hours.

It remains France’s highest ever death toll in a single day, despite being followed by four years of brutal and bloody conflict.

As many French lives were lost on August 22, 1914, as during the entire Algerian War, fought between 1954 and 1962.

Jean-Michel Steg, a historian who has written extensively on this military catastrophe – which nevertheless stopped the German “Schlieffen Plan” in its tracks – says he is as “haunted” by the fateful date as he is perplexed as to why it has slipped from the national consciousness.

FRANCE 24: What exactly happened on August 22, 1914?

Jean-Michel Steg: The deadliest months of the war were the first ones, between August and October, 1914. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, an incredible number of soldiers were mobilized at the same time. Hundreds of thousands of troops from both sides were exposed to death that day.

France had five armies positioned from east to west, from Alsace and Lorraine to the Belgian border. For different reasons, all of these armies fought on that same day as part of 15 different assaults, with no coordination between them.

In each case, the French lost a lot of ground and left many of their wounded behind because they were not adequately trained in defensive warfare and because their artillery was badly exploited.

There were many painful lessons to be learned in static warfare that still had to be learned. Sadly, this inexperience would cost many lives.

The army also had a class of officers which, while being extremely courageous, were willing to sacrifice their lives – and those of their men – rather than withdraw strategically, as they should have done.

F24: The day’s fighting at the Belgian village of Rossignol stands out…

J-M S: A division of colonial infantry – made up mostly of men from Brittany and southern France, not of colonial troops – found itself in dire straits. Its commander, General Raffenel, had gone mad. He went off into the battle on his own and was soon killed. His subordinates didn’t know what to do and the men of the division, without orders, stayed where they were and were annihilated as they fought the German encirclement. It was a total disaster. Up to 7,000 men were killed in that small zone, and many more killed at Charleroi further north.

F24: Who bears the ultimate responsibility for this carnage?

J-M S: Tactically, the Germans had the upper hand. Both sides were engaged in chaotic face-to-face fighting. And while the credo of the French army was to attack, the Germans were quickly able to put up strong defensive positions. They would sit tight, observe the French dispositions and use their artillery to devastating effect, forcing the French to manoeuvre rapidly under fire.

The French army of the time also had a very rigid and strict hierarchy. Nothing could be done without sending runners for orders and this took a long time. The German army had a less centralised command structure, and junior officers were informed of battle plans and were given more autonomy to use their own initiative. Individual German units could therefore manoeuvre more quickly, giving them the distinct upper hand.

F24: A lot is said about civilian casualties at the beginning of the war.

J-M S: When the German army entered Belgium, atrocities against civilians were indeed committed. Several thousands were killed during the summer 1914 offensive. At Rossignol there was a feeling among the Germans that the civilian population had collaborated with the French and shot at German soldiers. This was not true. Nevertheless, the Germans herded scores of civilians into a field and kept them there without food for two days. They were then packed into cattle trucks to be sent east where they were killed. What happened next was a chilling precursor to what would happen in Poland in the Second World War. The civilians were initially to be held hostage to insure the cooperation of the local Belgian population. But when it was impossible to find locomotives to transport the cattle trucks, one officer decided to have them all shot.

F24: Why has this date in history been eclipsed by other battles, such as the Marne and Verdun?

J-M S: It’s shocking, but there isn’t really an answer to this question. Recently it’s been talked about in a France2 TV documentary titled “Apocalypse”, and French President François Hollande mentioned it when he spoke at Liège in Belgium to mark the centenary of the beginning of the war. I’m glad he did, because at the village of Rossignol itself, there is no memorial to the thousands of French soldiers who died there. I will be going there on August 22, with the grandson of one of the soldiers who fought and died there, to lay a wreath at the Orée du Bois cemetery where thousands of young Frenchmen are buried. It’s a terrible, haunted place and full of ghosts. I always leave there with a terrible feeling of anguish.

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1914 First Encounters and Battles of the Frontiers

Battle and Siege of Liège

The Battle and Siege of Liège (4 - 16 August 1914) was the first battle action on the Western Front, fought between the German Imperial Army and the Belgian Army. The historic Belgian city was located on high ground on the banks of the River Meuse. The city was surrounded by fortresses, built as defences to protect it because it was located on an important route into Belgium along the Meuse river valley between the Dutch border and the Ardennes forests. Twelve main forts encircled the city, being built below ground on a radius of approximately 4-6 miles from the city and with approximately 3 miles distance between each fort.

Six brigades from the German Second Army were sent to Liège capture the forts on 4 August. One German brigade succeeded in breaking through the line of forts. The Germans occupied the city on 7 August after attacks on it by a Zeppelin airship and artillery fire. From 12 - 16 August the shells from 11 huge howitzers, these being two German “Dicke Bertha” (Big Bertha”) guns made by Krupp and 9 Austrian “Schlanke Emma” (Skinny Emma”) guns made by Skoda, smashed the forts to pieces. Following the capitulation of the city the German Imperial troops marched south-westwards along the river Meuse valley to the fortified city of Namur.

French Attempts to Liberate Alsace

Within the first few days of the outbreak of hostilities between Germany and France, on 7 August the French crossed the border into German-occupied Alsace at the southern end of the Vosges mountains near Thann. Fighting took place on the Rhine plain of Alsace as the French attempted to capture Mulhouse and liberate the province of Alsace from its German occupation since 1871. In the Battle of Mulhouse (8 - 25 August 1914) this important industrial city on the Rhine river was entered and occupied two times by the French during August, but both times the German Seventh Army retook it.

Battles of the Frontiers

  • Lorraine
  • Ardennes
  • Namur
  • Charleroi
  • Mons, Belgium
  • Maubeuge-Le Cateau-St. Quentin

The Battles of the Frontiers (14 - 25 August 1914) took place on the French-German border in Alsace-Lorraine and the French-Belgian border in north-eastern France. As the seven Imperial German Armies advanced westwards, according to a carefully timetabled, meticulously programmed German plan for an invasion of France by the name of The Schlieffen Plan, they came up against defiant Belgian and French troops intent on defending every inch of their national soil.

In the event of an attack from Imperial Germany the directive of the French military plan for the defence of France, Plan XVII, was that the French armies would mount an offensive operation on the eastern border with Germany (this being the border with the German occupied provinces of Alsace and Lorraine) and the north-eastern Franco-Belgian border in the Ardennes region. On the declaration of war between Germany and France, the French Army was mobilized and advanced eastwards and north-eastwards to meet the German threat. The Battles of the Frontiers comprised four major battles:

  • Battle of Lorraine (14 - 25 August 1914)
  • Battle of the Ardennes (21 - 28 August 1914)
  • Battle of Charleroi (21 - 23 August 1914)
  • Battle of Mons (23 August 1914)

Battles of the Frontiers: Lorraine

On 14 August the French First and Second Armies crossed the Franco-German border into Lorraine and fought the Germans in the Battles of Morhange and Sarrebourg (14 - 20 August) and the Battle of Mortagne (14 - 25 August). As with Alsace, the province of Lorraine had been under German occupation since 1871 and the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. It was a matter of national pride to liberate this province, rich in coal and iron deposits and a hub of rail and road networks at the fortified city of Metz. Allowing the French to make some progress in their advance, and with the intent of drawing the French troop strength away from the German Armies successfully advancing through Belgium, the Germans then counter-attacked in Lorraine causing thousands of French casualties.

Battles of the Frontiers: Ardennes

From 21 August the French encountered the numerically superior German forces of the Fourth and Fifth Armies in the forests of the Ardennes region. The Germans had selected good defensive positions in the woods in their field grey uniforms. The Germans were armed with heavy artillery pieces and machine guns. The attacking French soldiers were not as well-equipped nor were they as well trained in the tactics of defence as the Germans. Added to this the French soldiers were dressed in dark blue jackets and red pantalon trousers, which served to highlight their positions both in wooded terrain and open countryside. The French attacks were cut down with heavy casualties. The French Fourth Army held up the Germans at the Battle of the Meuse (26 - 28 August). Although the French attacks had held up the German advance for a few days, by 28 August the French had been outnumbered and were compelled to withdraw to the towns of Verdun, Stenay and Sedan.

Germans Capture Namur

The situation in the Belgian area of the Sambre-Meuse rivers became critical in the third week of August as the German Second and Third Armies pushed on to the south-west along the Meuse river following the capture of Liège. The Belgian city of Namur lay at the junction of the Sambre and the Meuse rivers. It was also fortified with a ring of forts around it, but it could not hold out against the might of the huge German and Austrian siege howitzers. With support from only one regiment of French troops being able to reach the city, the Belgian forces defending Namur were compelled to leave. By 25 August Namur was occupied by German troops. With the withdrawal of the French Armies from the Ardennes region further south, the right flank of the Allied troops still in the Sambre-Meuse area was becoming dangerously exposed.

Battles of the Frontiers: Charleroi

The Battle of Charleroi (21 - 23 August 1914) was fought at the town of Charleroi between the French Fifth Army and the German Second and Third Armies. The French were moving north to the Sambre river and the Germans were continuing their advance to the south-west after the fall of Namur. The French Fifth Army could not hold on and a general withdrawal was ordered.

Battles of the Frontiers: Mons

The Battle of Mons (23 August 1914) was one of the major battles in the Battles of the Frontiers and was the first encounter between British and German forces on the Western Front. The British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) comprised four infantry divisions and one cavalry division of the British First Army, which had landed at the French coast from 16 August. The B.E.F. had advanced through northern France and Belgium to move in on the French Fifth Army's left flank on the Sambre river. Having reached the area of Mons on 22 August the B.E.F. encountered German patrols at Soignies, which were advancing ahead of the German First Army. The next day, 23 August, the German First Army launched an attack at a strength of over two to one against four British divisions with a cavalry division in reserve. The British managed to hold up the Germans, commanded by General von Kluck, inflicting heavy casualties by the superior rifle fire from the highly trained British soldiers. With the realization that the small British force was up against a much greater force in terms of German manpower and artillery, the British ordered a retreat from Mons. With orders to maintain contact with the French forces also retreating on their right flank, the British found themselves fighting a rearguard action during their withdrawal and fought the Battle of Le Cateau (26 August 1914).

French Counter-Attack at Guise

Following the fall of Charleroi and the British withdrawal from Mons, the French Fifth Army was also retreating south to the Oise river. The French made a counter-attack at the Battle of Guise (29 August 1914) in the area of St. Quentin and Guise to hold a line there north of the Oise river on 29 August. The position at Guise was, however, precarious and the order was given to withdraw. The French Fifth Army continued its retreat south across the river Oise, destroying the bridges behind it.

By the end of August the French and the German Armies had sustained some 300,000 casualties, including wounded or killed, on both sides. The German advance had successfully penetrated the French border in several places and was pressing on with its advance following on the heels of the French and British forces withdrawing in a south-easterly direction.


Charleroi and Mons

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 140th installment in the series.

August 20-25, 1914: Charleroi and Mons

After the inconclusive opening engagements of the Battle of the Frontiers earlier in the month, from August 21 to 23, 1914, the Allied armies of France and Britain ran headlong into reality at the Battles of Charleroi and Mons. These linked battles, sometimes referred to as a single engagement, showed beyond doubt that French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre, had seriously underestimated the size of the German forces invading northern France via Belgium, forcing him to make drastic revisions to his strategy. In the months to come, Allied troops would be locked in one long, desperate defensive struggle.

Battle of Charleroi

Following the failed offensive of the French First and Second Armies in the south, on August 20, Joffre ordered the Third Army under General Pierre Ruffey and Fourth Army under General Fernand de Langle de Cary to cross the Belgian frontier into the Ardennes region, where he expected them to find a weak spot in the center of the German line. Meanwhile, Fifth Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, would cross into Belgium near Maubeuge to attack the Germans on their western flank.

However, Joffre was sorely mistaken about German strength and dispositions. For one thing, the Germans were using reserve troops in their attack, and thus the French and British were badly outnumbered all along the line. The five German armies moving through Belgium had a combined strength of just over 1.1 million men, including 320,000 in First Army, 260,000 in Second Army, 180,000 in Third Army, 180,000 in Fourth Army, and 200,000 in Fifth Army. Opposing them were three French armies and the British Expeditionary Force forming near Maubeuge the French Third Army numbered 237,000 men, the Fourth Army 160,000, and the Fifth Army 299,000, while the BEF at this early stage had just 80,000 men, for a total of around 776,000 men in the Allied armies in this theatre.

In short, the German center—composed of Third Army under General Max von Hausen, Fourth Army under General Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, and Fifth Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of Kaiser Wilhelm II—was actually quite strong. Furthermore, the German right wing, composed of the German First Army under General Alexander von Kluck and the Second Army under General Karl von Bülow, was operating much further west than assumed in Joffre’s plan, meaning Lanrezac’s Fifth Army was in danger of being outflanked itself (see map below).

Thus, while Ruffey and Langle de Cary led the French Third and Fourth Armies into southeast Belgium, Lanrezac’s Fifth Army proceeded more cautiously, reflecting his skepticism about Joffre’s estimates of German forces. Writing off the fortress city of Namur as a lost cause, on August 22, Lanrezac tried to force the German Second Army under Bülow back across the Sambre River at Charleroi—but Bülow beat him to the punch, launching a preemptive attack and seizing two bridges across the Sambre. Wave after wave of German infantry gradually drove the French back from their positions along the Sambre amid incredibly fierce fighting, with bayonet charges and counter-charges often ending in hand-to-hand combat. Paul Drumont related an account by another soldier who fought at Charleroi:

We knew we were bound to be slaughtered… but in spite of that we rushed into the firing line like madmen, just hurled ourselves at the Germans to bayonet them, and when the bayonets broke from the violence of the shock we bit them, anywhere we could, tore out their eyes with our fingers, and kicked their legs to make them fall down. We were absolutely drunk with rage, and yet we knew that we were going to certain death.

The situation worsened on August 23, as the French center began to fall back and Lanrezac begged Joffre to allow Fifth Army to retreat before it was destroyed. He also asked for support from the British Expeditionary Force, which arrived west of Fifth Army on the evening of August 22, in the hopes that the British might be able to attack the German Second Army on its right flank (below, British troops wait to go into battle).

Battle of Mons

However, the BEF under Sir John French had its own problems to deal with, in the form of the German First Army under von Kluck, advancing south after occupying Brussels on August 20. Given the crushing German superiority in numbers, there was no doubt that the Allied forces would have to retreat eventually the only question was how long they could delay the German advance. In this situation, the best the BEF could do was dig in and protect the left flank of Lanrezac’s Fifth Army from the German First Army while Lanrezac tried to hold off the German Second and Third Armies on the right.

The British troops entrenched themselves behind a canal running west from Mons to nearby Condé, which the Germans would have to cross in a frontal assault. At dawn on the morning of August 23, the Germans opened battle with an artillery bombardment, followed by the first German infantry attacks at 9am, focusing on the key bridge across the canal. Once again, the Germans advanced in dense, orderly formations, making incredibly easy targets for the professional soldiers of the BEF, who could fire their rifles 15 times per minute. This led the Germans to believe the British were firing machine guns (in fact, the BEF was woefully underequipped with the new weapons).

One British officer, Arthur Corbett-Smith, described the carnage: “Miss? It’s impossible to miss… It is just slaughter. The oncoming ranks simply melt away… The attack still comes on. Though hundreds, thousands of the grey coats are mown down, as many more crowd forward to refill the ranks.” On the other side a German officer, Walter Bloem, recalled the advance towards the canal: “We had no sooner left the edge of the wood than a volley of bullets whistled past our noses and cracked into the trees behind. Five or six cries near me, five or six of my grey lads collapsed on the grass. Damn it. Here we were, advancing as if on parade ground…” Later, Bloem’s unit wisely dispensed with the parade ground tactics:

And so we went on, gradually working forward by rushes of a hundred, later fifty, and then about thirty yards towards the invisible enemy. At every rush a few more fell, but one could do nothing for them. Behind us the whole meadow was dotted with little grey heaps. The hundred and sixty men that left the wood with me had shrunk to less than a hundred… Wherever I looked, right or left, were dead or wounded, quivering in convulsions, groaning terribly, blood oozing from fresh wounds… The bullets hummed about me like a swarm of angry hornets. I felt death, my own death, very, very near me and yet it was all so strangely unreal.

Despite horrendous casualties, by the evening of August 23, the Germans had reached the canal and forced a crossing in several places, pushing British troops back from an exposed salient created by a curve in the canal. The British were suffering very heavy casualties themselves, including direct hits by German artillery, resulting in gruesome scenes like the one recorded by Corporal Bernard John Denore:

One man was in a very bad way, and kept shrieking out for somebody to bring a razor and cut his throat, and two others died almost immediately. I was going to move a bundle of hay when someone called out, "Look out, chum. There's a bloke in there." I saw a leg completely severed from its body, and suddenly felt very sick and tired. The German rifle-fire started again and an artillery-man to whom I was talking was shot dead. I was sick then.

Worse news arrived in the early morning of August 24, when, at around 2am, Sir John French learned that the French Fifth Army under Lanrezac was retreating south, with apparently no warning to the British, leaving the British right flank exposed to attack by the German Second Army.

Disaster in Lorraine and the Ardennes

The French retreat was the result of a chain reaction of events that began further east, where the French First and Second Armies were tossed out of Lorraine by the German Sixth and Seventh Armies, then cascaded to the Ardennes region of Belgium, where the French Third and Fourth Armies were mauled by the German Fourth and Fifth Armies.

Joffre had ordered the First Army under Dubail and Second Army under Castelnau to invade Lorraine on August 14, heading for the towns of Sarrebourg and Morhange, while the newly formed Army of Alsace under Pau advanced on Mulhouse to the south. However by August 19 the French invasion was beginning to stall and a dangerous gap had opened between the French First and Second Armies. On the other side Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the commander of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies, received permission (sort of) to mount a counterattack—a major departure from the Schlieffen Plan, which called for Germany’s southern forces to stage a fighting retreat in order to lure the French armies away from the line of fortresses protecting the Franco-German frontier.

On August 20, Castelnau’s Second Army attempted to resume the attack on Morhange, only to find their infantry subjected to a ferocious bombardment by German artillery, followed by a sweeping counterattack by the Bavarian infantry of the German Sixth Army. Meanwhile, Dubail’s First Army came under attack by the German Seventh Army at Sarrebourg, and by the end of the day both armies were in retreat. To the south Joffre also ordered the small Army of Alsace to retreat, even though it wasn’t threatened immediately (it faced only Army Detachment Gaede, a smaller force created by the German high command to guard the frontier) because he needed the troops for his northern offensive in the Ardennes.

Even after the French First and Second Armies began their retreat from Lorraine, Joffre was still intent on a thrust into southeast Belgium, because (as noted above) he believed there were only light forces holding the center of the German line. His sole concession to reality—detaching some forces from Third Army to create a new Army of Lorraine to guard against the German offensive in the south—just ended up weakening Third Army more.

On August 21, 1914, the French Third Army under Pierre Ruffey and the Fourth Army under Fernand de Langle de Cary began their invasion of the Ardennes region of southeast Belgium, encountering little resistance during the first day of the advance—but on the second day they ran smack into the German Fourth Army under Duke Albrecht of Württemberg and the Fifth Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm. The result was catastrophe, as the French armies—well equipped with 75mm field artillery, but sorely lacking in heavy guns—simply wilted under savage bombardment by German 150mm and 210mm guns, as well as 77mm field artillery, machine guns, and massed rifle fire.

August 22, 1914, would be remembered as the bloodiest day in French history, with 27,000 French soldiers killed and countless wounded. One anonymous French soldier, fighting in the south, later wrote home: “In regard to our losses, I may tell you that whole divisions have been wiped out. Certain regiments have not an officer left.” As at Charleroi, over the next few days fighting often ended in savage hand-to-hand combat. A German soldier, Julius Koettgen, described the fighting near Sedan in northern France:

Nobody can tell afterwards how many he has killed. You have gripped your opponent, who is sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger than yourself. In the light of the burning houses you observe that the white of his eyes has turned red his mouth is covered with a thick froth. With head uncovered, with disheveled hair, the uniform unbuttoned and mostly ragged, you stab, hew, scratch, bite, and strike about you like a wild animal… Onward! onward! new enemies are coming up… Again you use your dagger. Thank heaven! He is down. Saved! Still, you must have that dagger back! You pull it out of his chest. A jet of warm blood rushes out of the gaping wound and strikes your face. Human blood, warm human blood! You shake yourself, horror strikes you for only a few seconds. The next one approaches again you have to defend your skin. Again and again the mad murdering is repeated, all night long…

The Germans also suffered heavy casualties at the hands of retreating French troops, who fought fierce rearguard actions: Altogether, around 15,000 German soldiers were killed in the Battle of Ardennes, while 23,000 were wounded. Another German soldier, Dominik Richert, recalled the struggle to seize a bridge over the River Meurthe in eastern France:

Almost as soon as the first line showed itself at the edge of the woods, the French infantry opened sweeping rapid fire. The French artillery shelled the woods with shells and shrapnel… We ran like mad from place to place. Quite close to me a soldier had his arm torn off while another one had half of his throat cut open. He collapsed, gurgled once or twice, and then the blood shot from his mouth… As we moved further forward we all headed for the bridge, and the French poured down a hail of shrapnel, infantry, and machine-gun fire on it. Masses of the attackers were hit and fell to the ground.

The Great Retreat Begins

As the German offensive ground relentlessly forward, on August 23, the French Third and Fourth Armies under Ruffey and Langle de Cary had no choice but to retreat or be annihilated. The withdrawal of Fourth Army left the right flank of Lanrezac’s Fifth Army, still fighting Bülow’s Second Army at Charleroi, exposed to the German Third Army under Hausen, which attacked the Fifth Army’s I Corps under Franchet d’Esperey (later nicknamed “Desperate Frankie” by the British) along the River Meuse. D’Esperey managed to fight off the first German attack, but Lanrezac judged the situation untenable and gave the order for a fighting retreat.

The Fifth Army’s retreat would be a bone of contention between the French and British for years to come, as the French apparently fell back without giving any warning to their allies, leaving the right flank of the BEF exposed in turn. While it’s still not clear what happened, it’s certain that in the heat of battle confusion reigned and communication broke down, resulting in bad blood between the Allied commanders. Corbett-Smith account reflects the views of mid-ranking British officers even years afterwards: “Any record of feelings during those hours is blurred. But there was one thought which, I know, was uppermost in every man’s mind: ‘Where on earth are the French?’”

Whatever the reason for the French retreat, it left the British commander, Sir John French, no choice but to begin withdrawing as well. Now began one of the most dramatic episodes of the First World War, the Great Retreat, which saw all the French armies and the British Expeditionary Force falling back before advancing German forces, fighting a series of desperate rearguard actions, seeking to delay the enemy as much as possible in order to give the Allied generals time and space to regroup and formulate a new, defensive strategy. At Joffre’s headquarters there was no longer any thought of mounting a glorious offensive now the only object was to survive.

Ordinary British and French soldiers would remember the Great Retreat—with its endless forced marches under the blazing late August sun, sometimes in the rain, often with no food and no water, and no forage for horses—as one of the most physically trying parts of the war. One British soldier, Joe Cassells, described the retreat from Mons:

Of that fearful time, I have lost track of dates. I do not want to remember them. All I recollect is that, under a blazing August sun – our mouths caked, our tongues parched – day after day we dragged ourselves along, always fighting rear-guard actions, our feet bleeding, our backs breaking, our hearts sore. Our unmounted officers limped amongst us, blood oozing through their spats.

Another anonymous British soldier recalled a welcome interlude courtesy of Mother Nature:

The men had marched for the last three days almost incessantly, and without sufficient sleep… Dirty from digging, with a four days’ growth of beard, bathed in sweat, eyes half closed with want of sleep, ‘packs’ missing, lurching with the drunken torpor of fatigue… Then the heavens were kind, and it rained they turned faces to the clouds and let the drops fall on their features, unshaven, glazed with the sun, and clammy with sweat. They took off their hats and extended the palms of their hands. It was refreshing, invigorating, a tonic.

If there was any consolation, it was that the journey was equally exhausting for the pursuing German troops, urged on by officers to keep pace with the strict timetable dictated by the Schlieffen Plan, whose success hinged on not giving the French and British time to regroup. The scene described by Bloem, a captain in the German First Army, is strikingly similar to the picture painted in British memoirs:

We were all tired to death, and the column just trailed along anyhow. I sat on my war-horse like a bundle of wet washing no clear thought penetrated my addled brain, only memories of the past two appalling days, a mass of mental pictures insanely tangled together that revolved eternally inside it… the only impressions that remained in our dizzy brains were of streams of blood, of pale-faced corpses, of confused chaos, of aimless firing, of houses in smoke and flame, of ruins, of sopping clothes, of feverish thirst, and of limbs exhausted, heavy as lead.

The Burning of Louvain

As the French and British armies fell back, on August 24 and 25, the small Belgian Army under King Albert tried to distract the Germans with a daring raid from the fortified “National Redoubt” at Antwerp in the direction of Louvain (Leuven). But unfortunately, the raid accomplished little besides setting off panic among German occupation troops who then committed one of the most infamous atrocities of the war—the burning of Louvain.

German atrocities had already claimed the lives of thousands of Belgian civilians, who were shot in mass reprisals for supposed guerrilla warfare by “france-tireurs,” which turned out to be mostly figments of the German soldiers’ imagination. In this case, as Belgian forces approached Louvain, German soldiers marching through the city claimed that Belgian civil guardsmen dressed as civilians shot at them from the rooftops. Although this was highly improbable, it triggered an orgy of murder, looting, and arson that lasted five days, completely gutting the city (image below).

Hugh Gibson, the secretary of the U.S. embassy in Brussels, visited Louvain’s main street towards the end of the destruction:

The houses on both sides were either partially destroyed or smouldering. Soldiers were systematically removing what was to be found in the way of valuables, food, and wine, and then setting fire to the furniture and hangings. It was all most businesslike… Outside the [train] station was a crowd of several hundred people, mostly women and children, being herded on to trains by soldiers, to be run out of town.

The casualties included the city’s medieval library, which contained 300,000 priceless manuscripts, and was torched along with the rest of the city (photo showing the remains of the library below). In addition to the inestimable cultural loss, this was also a huge, self-inflicted propaganda defeat for Germany. Indeed, while the Germans committed hundreds of atrocities across Belgium, killing a total 5,521 Belgian civilians, the burning of the library at Louvain would stand out, along with the destruction of the cathedral of Rheims, as the crowning symbols of German barbarity, helping turn opinion in the United States and other neutral countries against the Germans.

Battles of Kraśnik and Gumbinnen

As the British and French fell back on the Western Front, the last week of August also saw the first major battles on the Eastern Front, as Russian and Austro-Hungarian forces clashed at the Battle of Kraśnik. While a victory for Austria-Hungary, Kraśnik was just the first in a series of huge battles in August and September that would ultimately see Hapsburg forces sent reeling back into Austria, forcing chief of the general staff Conrad to plead with his German colleagues for help.

Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, the German Eighth Army under Maximilian von Prittwitz faced encirclement by the Russian First Army under Paul von Rennenkampf and Second Army under Alexander Samsonov, advancing into East Prussia from the east and south in pincer fashion. The first serious German attempt to stop the Russians met with defeat at the Battle of Gumbinnen on August 20, prompting Prittwitz to order a hasty retreat to the River Vistula in order to avoid encirclement.

However, the German high command wasn’t willing to accept the loss of East Prussia so easily, and on August 22 Prittwitz was relieved of command, to be replaced by Paul von Hindenburg, an older officer called out of retirement, advised by Erich Ludendorff, the hero of Liège. The German high command also withdrew three army corps from the Western Front, although Ludendorff insisted he didn’t need them—further weakening the all-important thrust through Belgium.

Meanwhile, Prittwitz’s chief of staff, Max Hoffman, was already drawing up a daring plan, for which Hindenburg and Ludendorff later received the credit: the Eighth Army would use the East Prussian railroads to shift troops south against the invading Russian First Army, relying on East Prussia’s network of lakes and forests as a baffle to keep the Russian Second Army from coming to its rescue (map below).

With any luck, Eighth Army would not only be able to avoid encirclement but then defeat the Russian armies “in detail” (one at a time) without ever having to face their combined strength. On August 23 the first German troops, from the I Corps under Hermann von François, began the rail journey to the south, setting the stage for the Battle of Tannenberg.


10 Significant Battles Of The First World War

At the start of the First World War, Germany hoped to avoid fighting on two fronts by knocking out France before turning to Russia, France’s ally. The initial German offensive had some early success, but there were not enough reinforcements immediately available to sustain momentum. The French and British launched a counter-offensive at the Marne (6-10 September 1914) and after several days of bitter fighting the Germans retreated.

Germany’s failure to defeat the French and the British at the Marne also had important strategic implications. The Russians had mobilised more quickly than the Germans had anticipated and launched their first offensive within two weeks of the war’s outbreak. The Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914 ended in German victory, but the combination of German victory in the east and defeat in the west meant the war would not be quick, but protracted and extended across several fronts.

The Battle of the Marne also marked the end of mobile warfare on the Western Front. Following their retreat, the Germans re-engaged Allied forces on the Aisne, where fighting began to stagnate into trench warfare.

The opening months of the war caused profound shock due to the huge casualties caused by modern weapons. Losses on all fronts for the year 1914 topped five million, with a million men killed. This was a scale of violence unknown in any previous war. The terrible casualties sustained in open warfare meant that soldiers on all fronts had begun to protect themselves by digging trenches, which would dominate the Western Front until 1918.

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The Gallipoli campaign (25 April 1915 - 9 January 1916) was the land-based element of a strategy intended to allow Allied ships to pass through the Dardanelles, capture Constantinople (now Istanbul) and ultimately knock Ottoman Turkey out of the war. But Allied plans were based on the mistaken belief that the Ottomans could be easily overcome.

At dawn on 25 April 1915, Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in Ottoman Turkey. General Sir Ian Hamilton decided to make two landings, placing the British 29th Division at Cape Helles and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) north of Gaba Tepe in an area later dubbed Anzac Cove. Both landings were quickly contained by determined Ottoman troops and neither the British nor the Anzacs were able to advance.

Trench warfare quickly took hold, mirroring the fighting of the Western Front. Casualties mounted heavily and in the summer heat conditions rapidly deteriorated. Sickness was rampant, food quickly became inedible and there were vast swarms of black corpse flies. In August a new assault was launched north of Anzac Cove. This attack, along with a fresh landing at Suvla Bay, quickly failed and stalemate returned.

In December, it was decided to evacuate – first Anzac and Suvla, and then Helles in January 1916. Gallipoli became a defining moment in the history of both Australia and New Zealand, revealing characteristics that both countries have used to define their soldiers: endurance, determination, initiative and 'mateship'. For the Ottomans, it was a brief respite in the decline of their empire. But through the emergence of Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) as one of the campaign's leading figures, it also led to the foundation of modern Turkey.

The Battle of Jutland (31 May - 1 June 1916) was the largest naval battle of the First World War. It was the only time that the British and German fleets of 'dreadnought' battleships actually came to blows.

The German High Seas Fleet hoped to weaken the Royal Navy by launching an ambush on the British Grand Fleet in the North Sea. German Admiral Reinhard Scheer planned to lure out both Admiral Sir David Beatty’s Battlecruiser Force and Admiral Sir John Jellicoe's Grand Fleet. Scheer hoped to destroy Beatty’s force before Jellicoe’s arrived, but the British were warned by their codebreakers and put both forces to sea early.

Jutland was a confused and bloody action involving 250 ships and around 100,000 men. Initial encounters between Beatty’s force and the High Seas Fleet resulted in the loss of several ships. The Germans damaged Beatty’s flagship, HMS Lion, and sank HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary, both of which blew up when German shells penetrated their ammunition magazines.

Beatty withdrew until Jellicoe arrived with the main fleet. The Germans, now outgunned, turned for home. Although it failed to achieve the decisive victory each side hoped for, the battle confirmed British naval dominance and secured its control of shipping lanes, allowing Britain to implement the blockade that would contribute to German defeat in 1918.

The British lost 14 ships and over 6,000 men, but were ready for action again the next day. The Germans, who had lost 11 ships and over 2,500 men, avoided complete destruction but never again seriously challenged British control of the North Sea.

The Battle of Verdun (21 February - 18 December 1916) was the longest battle of the First World War. It was also one of the costliest. It began in February 1916 with a German attack on the fortified French town of Verdun, where bitter fighting would continue for most of the year.

The ten-hour opening bombardment saw an unprecedented concentration of firepower and although the French were forced back they did not break. In the summer, the Germans were forced to reduce their strength at Verdun after the British and Russians launched their own offensives elsewhere.

The French retook lost ground in the autumn and through careful management of their army, efficient logistics and the resilience of the troops fighting for their homeland, the French secured a defensive victory before the year’s end.

The Germans had lost over 430,000 men killed or wounded and the French approximately 550,000. The trauma of this loss not only affected French political and military decision-making during and after the war, it had a lasting effect on French national consciousness.

Verdun also had serious strategic implications for the rest of the war. The Allies had planned to defeat Germany through a series of large co-ordinated offensives, but the German attack at Verdun drastically reduced the number of French troops available. Britain and its Empire would have to lead the 'Big Push' on the Western Front.

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The Battle of the Somme (1 July - 18 November 1916) was a joint operation between British and French forces intended to achieve a decisive victory over the Germans on the Western Front. For many in Britain, the resulting battle remains the most painful and infamous episode of the First World War.

In December 1915, Allied commanders had met to discuss strategies for the upcoming year and agreed to launch a joint French and British attack in the region of the River Somme in the summer of 1916. Intense German pressure on the French at Verdun throughout 1916 made action on the Somme increasingly urgent and meant the British would take on the main role in the offensive.

They were faced with German defences that had been carefully laid out over many months. Despite a seven-day bombardment prior to the attack on 1 July, the British did not achieve the quick breakthrough their military leadership had planned for and the Somme became a deadlocked battle of attrition.

Over the next 141 days, the British advanced a maximum of seven miles. More than one million men from all sides were killed, wounded or captured. British casualties on the first day – numbering over 57,000, of which 19,240 were killed – make it the bloodiest day in British military history.

The Somme, like Verdun for the French, has a prominent place in British history and popular memory and has come to represent the loss and apparent futility of the war. But the Allied offensive on the Somme was a strategic necessity fought to meet the needs of an international alliance. British commanders learned difficult but important lessons on the Somme that would contribute to eventual Allied victory in 1918.

The Russian Army had suffered a series of crushing defeats in the first year of the war, but the Brusilov Offensive (4 June - 20 September 1916) would be the most successful Russian offensive – and one of the most successful breakthrough operations – of the First World War.

Named after the Russian commander Aleksei Brusilov who led it, the offensive used tactics that were to also prove successful on the Western Front. Brusilov used a short, sharp artillery bombardment and shock troops to exploit weak points, helping to return an element of surprise to the attack.

The offensive coincided with the British attack on the Somme and was part of the effort to relieve pressure not only on the French at Verdun, but on the Western Front as a whole. The Russian attack also drew Austro-Hungarian forces away from the Italian Front and put increased pressure on the already strained and increasingly demoralised Austro-Hungarian Army.

Germany was forced to redirect troops to the Eastern Front in support of its ally. This was part of an emerging pattern of Austria-Hungary’s growing dependence on Germany, which in turn would create a strain on German resources.

The Russians were never able to duplicate Brusilov's success. It was their last major offensive of the war and led to an overall weakening – both militarily and politically – of both Russia and Austria-Hungary. The war stoked political and social unrest, leading to revolution and eventually the total collapse of the Russian Army.

The Third Battle of Ypres (31 July - 10 November 1917) has come to symbolise the horrors associated with the war on the Western Front. It is frequently known by the name of the village where it culminated – Passchendaele.

The area surrounding the Belgian town of Ypres was a key battleground throughout the war. By 1917 British forces were suffering steady casualties there, holding a salient surrounded by higher ground. Sir Douglas Haig planned to break out of this poor position and, by capturing an important rail junction a few miles to the east, to undermine the whole German position in Flanders. If this succeeded he hoped to threaten the German submarine base at Bruges as the German U-boat campaign was threatening Britain with defeat.

A preliminary operation to seize the Messines Ridge was a dramatic success, but the Germans had reinforced their position by the time the main battle was launched on 31 July. Initial attacks failed due to over-ambitious plans and unseasonal rain. The drainage of the low-lying battlefield had been destroyed by the bombardment, creating muddy conditions that made movement difficult.

Drier conditions in September enabled British forces to make better progress during this phase of the offensive. This demoralised the Germans, who did not have an answer to the British 'bite and hold' tactics of taking limited portions of German positions and holding it against counter-attacks that cost the German Army further casualties.

This period encouraged Haig to continue the offensive in October. But the rain returned and conditions once again deteriorated. Although the Canadians finally captured Passchendaele ridge on 10 November, the vital railway still lay five miles away. The offensive was called off. Many soldiers felt utterly demoralised and the government's confidence in Haig hit a low point. Both sides had suffered heavy casualties, but the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had made no strategic gain.


The Ardennes 1914 Part II

The defeat of the French 4th Army by the German 4th Army in the Battle of the Frontiers spelled the failure of the French war plan. Combined with the Russian defeat at Tannenberg, the Entente strategy for simultaneous Russian and French attacks against Germany had also failed. French losses were far higher than German, and the resulting disparity in combat power meant that the French were not even able to hold the last significant terrain obstacle, the Meuse.

These victories were not accomplished by superior war planning or by operational excellence. The French had anticipated the German advance to the north of the Meuse and had devised an excellent means defeating it. The German advance through Belgium was hardly the thing of wonder that it has been made it out to be. That the French plan did not succeed, while the German plan did, had nothing to do with strategy, but was solely the product of German superiority at the tactical level.

There is a school of thought which maintains that the German ‘genius for war’ was the product of the excellence of the German Great General Staff, that is, German victories were due to superiority at the operational and particularly at the strategic levels. There is no evidence to be found for this proposition either in the Battle of the Frontiers as a whole or in the Ardennes on 22 August. The Chief of the General Staff, the younger Moltke, did nothing to give German planning operational coherence: the seven German armies acted virtually independently of each other. The German 5th Army attack plan for 22 August, written by a General Staff major general, left a corps-sized gap in the army centre that was not filled until late afternoon, and which nearly resulted in a French breakthrough, while the army right flank was hanging completely in the air. The 5th Army plan was not coordinated with the 4th Army. The 4th Army moved to the south on its own initiative at the last minute to cover the 5th Army right flank, in turn leaving the 4th Army’s own centre outnumbered and dangerously thin. Due to the 5th Army’s poorly thought-out attack, of the ten German corps in these two armies, two corps could only be brought into action late in the day and one not at all, while all the French corps were engaged. The only German senior officer to display sound operational ability in the Ardennes was the commander of the 4th Army, the Duke of Württemberg, a capable professional soldier but also the hereditary ruler of a German state and hardly the prototypical General Staff officer. But the real victors on 22 August in the Ardennes were the officers and soldiers of the divisions of the German 4th Army, which dealt the French 4th Army – the French main attack – the most stinging defeats in the entire Battle of the Frontiers.

The German Army in The Ardennes

The German army’s 1906 infantry regulation presented an effective tactical doctrine based on the need to gain fire superiority as well as on offensive action based on fire and movement. German training in this doctrine was realistic and thorough, and concluded every year by several weeks of live-fire gunnery exercises and tactical problems conducted at MTA. French doctrine did not include the concept of fire superiority and the French did not have adequate training areas. German doctrine and training also emphasised the meeting engagement and individual initiative at the tactical level the French, on the other hand, emphasised linear engagements tightly controlled at the division, corps and army levels.

The German army won the Battle of the Frontiers because of superior peacetime doctrine and training. German patrolling and reconnaissance were vastly superior to the French. In almost every instance, German reconnaissance provided excellent reports on French movements while blinding French cavalry reconnaissance. French air reconnaissance was largely ineffective in the forested Ardennes the French senior headquarters formed an entirely erroneous impression of German movements and intentions. On 22 August none of the French divisions had any idea that major German forces were in their immediate vicinity.

On 22 August the two French armies were advancing to the northeast, while the two German armies were attacking to the west. All of the subsequent battles were meeting engagements. German units moved quickly and deployed smoothly. French movements suffered from friction and their deployment was slow and uncertain. Once engaged the Germans smothered the French with rifle, MG and artillery fire and gained fire superiority. If the Germans were on the defence, this fire stopped the French attack. If attacking, the Germans then closed with and destroyed the French infantry by fire and movement. Widespread myths notwithstanding, there were no trenches, and the only barbed wire encountered was that which the Belgian farmers used to fence in their livestock.

German Infantry

Prior to the war there had been considerable concern that the nerves of the troops would not stand up to the terrors of modern combat. As Otto von Moser noted, these battles proved beyond a doubt that the German troops were equal to the task. To Moser’s observations it must be added that the French troops were often not equal to the requirements of the modern battlefield after a few hours of combat, most French units cracked. This was due to inadequacies in French training.

This was not to say that everything went flawlessly. In particular, the infantry often attacked without waiting for the fire support of MG and artillery to soften the enemy up. Losses were even higher than the most sobering peacetime projections: in Moser’s units more than a third of the officers and nearly a third of the enlisted men became casualties on 22 August. But French casualties were even higher. As The commander of the 25 ID, speaking of IR 116 and IR 117 at Anloy, said:

‘In spite of these (terrain) difficulties, in spite of the casualties and the intense enemy fire our troops worked their way forwards. As was characteristic of our men at this time, they got the bit in their teeth and pushed forward, which cost us a great many casualties … Nevertheless! Who would dare to criticise the wonderful aggressive spirit of our soldiers?’

In the battle the general was describing, the terrain was very close and the action was taking place at 400m range or less. Artillery support was practically impossible. Using fire and movement, the German troops pushed back the French, one terrain feature at a time. There were no ‘bayonet charges’. The German infantry simply kept on battering the French, undeterred by casualties.

The performance of the German infantry on 22 August 1914 was exceptional, the result of high morale, intelligent doctrine, effective training and excellent leadership.

German Artillery

The commander of the VI RK listed the common complaints about the performance of the German artillery.19 The infantry pushed quickly forward and the artillery was too slow to keep up. The German artillery was especially slow in occupying covered positions. The result was that the German artillery often fired into its own infantry. The French gun had a maximum effective range 2,000m greater than the German gun. The French artillery was better trained and more tactically proficient the French operated flexibly, by batteries, the Germans employed clumsy three-battery sections.

Most of these criticisms seem to have been coloured by experiences later in the Marne campaign. During the French withdrawal, their artillery was very effective as a rear-guard. During the battle of the Marne the French emptied their magazines, firing prodigious quantities of shells that smothered the German infantry.

But during the meeting engagements on 22 August in the Ardennes the German artillery was almost always superior to the French. If it was sometimes slow to get into action, the French artillery was slower. The Germans were usually able to fight combined-arms battles the French infantry was often destroyed before the French artillery got into action. The Germans frequently brought individual guns right into the skirmisher line, where they provided highly effective fire support at point-blank range the French never did so. The German light and heavy howitzers proved their worth.

Both the German and the French artillery soon discovered that frequently the terrain did not provide observation of enemy positions. Rather than do nothing, both artilleries employed unobserved area fire (Streufeuer) against suspected enemy locations.20 This was not provided for in either the French or German pre-war artillery doctrines, because it was felt to be ineffective and wasteful of ammunition. However, both sides used it from the first day of combat on, and to good effect.

German Cavalry

German doctrine emphasised that cavalry needed to be aggressive during the battle in developing opportunities to both participate in the battle as well as to operate against the enemy flank and rear. Doctrine also stated that cavalry was the arm best suited to conduct pursuit.

While the 3 KD and 6 KD had been very effective in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance roles before the battle, during the battle they accomplished nothing. The 3 KD commander decided that the terrain prevented the division from accomplishing anything and resigned himself to inactivity. 6 KD was used to guard the army left flank. Neither division conducted a pursuit, either on 22 or 23 August, although the Colonial Corps would seem to have offered a fine target for 3 KD and the right flank of the French VI CA an even better target for 6 KD.

It appears that the cavalry learned during the approach march that a mounted man presented a fine target and that even small groups of infantry were capable of blocking cavalry movement. By 22 August the senior cavalry commanders were thoroughly intimidated: they avoided serious contact and were unwilling to attempt to move large bodies of cavalry anywhere that they might be subject to small arms or artillery fire. Coupled with the unimaginative operations of the 5th Army headquarters, the timidity of the cavalry leaders cost the cavalry the opportunity to have made a major impact in the battle.

Command and Control

The German army discovered that modern means of communications were unreliable, an observation that would be repeated by practically every subsequent army. This included the telephones that connected army headquarters to OHL, which utilised the seemingly infallible civilian telephone net. As Crown Prince Wilhelm complained, the telephones became so overloaded with traffic that the command and control system at times broke down completely.21 Nevertheless, German reporting was good and with the exception of the breakdown between V AK and XIII AK German senior HQs kept each other informed.

Liebmann’s Evaluation of German Doctrine and Training

In his study of how German doctrine and training withstood the test of combat in 1914, Liebmann concluded that ‘In 1914, none of our enemies possessed a doctrine which was superior in combat to that of the German army, even though we must acknowledge that German doctrine had weaknesses’.

‘Foremost among these errors was a failure to recognise the effect of firepower, even though German doctrine was based on firepower … It must also be recognised that even the most conscientious preparation in peacetime does not insulate against similar errors.’

‘The German infantry proved itself to be superior to that of the enemy. Its high morale and discipline and its powerful offensive spirit, the product of its traditions and decades of training, allowed it in many cases to simply overrun the enemy infantry’. But Liebmann said that this superiority applied only to mobile warfare, and contended that attacks later in the war against a prepared enemy defence failed disastrously.

Liebmann said that conducting the firefight with thick skirmisher lines was effective and that the casualties incurred were acceptable as were forward bounds by individuals or by squads. Casualties only became serious when long lines bounded forward or entire fronts conducted assaults. And although the German army emphasised fire superiority, gaining and using it in actual practice proved difficult. A much more serious deficiency in German doctrine and training was the failure to recognise the difficulties in infantry–artillery cooperation. In German exercises the problem was glossed over. On the other hand, the German cavalry performed its reconnaissance function everywhere with distinction.

The French army In The Ardennes

French Training and Doctrine

Thomasson listed the reasons for the defeat of the French 3rd and 4th French Armies.23 Several commanders failed. The cohesion, training, and spirit of sacrifice of some divisions and corps was not adequate. But most important was the insufficient training of certain units and their leaders. They were unable to match the ‘brutal and rapid’ combat methods of the Germans, in particular the German practice of immediately engaging all available artillery. The Germans engaged their infantry ‘progressively and economically’, while the French were unable to ‘develop the battle methodically’. Dense French formations were too often caught in the open by effective German fire. When French commanders lost sight of their units, they also lost control.

French Command and Control

French reporting was abysmal. The terrific shock effect of German fire and movement was so severe that the French commanders could make no sense of what was happening to their units. At the lowest tactical levels, reporting ceased altogether: so many French battalion and regimental commanders were quickly killed, and movement of messengers on the front line was so difficult, that brigade and division commanders were cut off from their troops. The French senior commanders also recognised that bad news was unwelcome at the next higher headquarters. French commanders always understated the seriousness of the situation and tried to put their units in the best possible light. Their fear that the bearers of bad news would be punished and that the most senior leadership would protect their own positions by sacrificing subordinates as scapegoats was fully justified: Joffre relieved general officers wholesale.

Inaccurate reporting was fatal to top-down French command and control system, which depended on timely and accurate information to permit division, corps and army commanders to form a picture of the battlefield, then conduct manoeuvre and commit reserves. The corps and army commanders were utterly ignorant of the tactical situation and their attempts to manoeuvre were fruitless, even counter-productive. Reserves were committed at the wrong place, too late or not at all. On 22 and 23 August the French troops took matters into their own hands and retreated out of range of German weapons, movements that the senior officers attempted to stop without success.

French Lessons Not Learned

On 16 August GQG had issued tactical instructions to the armies, which 4th Army passed almost verbatim to its subordinate units.24 In attacking fortified positions, the order said, it was essential to wait for the artillery to provide fire support and prevent the infantry from attacking impulsively. The infantry attack was to be kept under the tight control of general officers (brigade commanders and up) and needed to be carefully prepared.

It is therefore no surprise that by 0930 on 23 August the French 3rd Army had already decided why it had been beaten on the previous day, in spite of the fact that there is no possibility that at this time the army HQ had any actual knowledge of what had occurred at the tactical level.25 The army bulletin said that the attacks had failed solely because they had not been prepared by artillery fire, not even by infantry fire. It was essential that the infantry attack be preceded by an artillery preparation and that the artillery be prepared to support the infantry. The infantry could not be allowed to conduct bayonet charges without fire support, as it had generally done on the previous day. This evaluation was based on preconceived ideas and peacetime training critiques, not combat experience. The army HQ also needed an explanation for the previous day’s defeat that did not implicate the army leadership.

On most of the 3rd Army front (IV CA and V CA sectors) the decisive part of the infantry battle was fought in the fog, when artillery support by either side was impossible. The French had not been beaten because they had launched ‘bayonet charges’, but rather in hours-long firefights.

Writing in 1937, the French 7 DI commander, General Trentinian, who had been relieved of his command in 1914, drew conclusions from this battle which are representative for those drawn by both the French army and society, and which show that, like Grasset, he was unable to arrive at objective and useful lessons learned.26 Like most French commentators, Trentinian blamed the defeat of the French offensive on the offensive à outrance, that is to say, on Grandmaison and like-minded young officers as well as GQG and Joffre. The distinguishing characteristic ofJoffre’s Plan XVII was that it immediately assumed the offensive. This offensive war plan required offensive tactics. A better plan, said Trentinian, would have been that of Michel and Pau, in which the French armies remained on the defensive from the English Channel to the Swiss border until they had determined what the German plan was. Then, the French would go on the offensive.

Trentinian fails to take into account that French strategy was based on the alliance with Russia. Between 1911 and 1913 the French succeeded in convincing the Russians to attack East Prussia on the 15th day of mobilisation with the forces then available, without waiting for the entire Russian army to deploy. The corollary to this Russian offensive was that the French would attack on the 15th day of mobilisation also. Only after this agreement was in place did the French replace the old defensive-offensive doctrine of Bonnal’s Plan XIV and XV with offensive strategy of Plan XVII. Had there been no such agreement, that is, had the French adopted Michel’s defensive strategy, then the Russians would have been free to follow their own interests, which were to attack the Austrians and stay on the defensive against the Germans. The Germans would then have been free of any distractions in the east, such as the command crisis on 21 August. Nor would Moltke have felt the necessity to send corps to the east, as he did on 24 August.

It is doubtful that French tactics were significantly influenced by Grandmaison’s so-called offensive à outrance. The tactical manual that implemented this doctrine was issued in 1913, far too late to have any serious effect on training. On 22 August 1914 the French attempted to employ the tactics embodied in the 1904 regulation. It was this regulation and the training that went with it in that failed in 1914, and not the offensive à outrance. There is no evidence of the offensive à outrance in the tactics employed by Trentinian’s own division on that day. In fact, Trentinian’s conclusions were pure Bonnal – he says that what the IV CA should have done was to establish a small security detachment (two battalions, a cavalry squadron and an artillery battery) between 7 DI and 8 DI, and 3rd Army should have established a similar detachment between IV CA and V CA. This was exactly the sort of dispersion of strength that Grandmaison was opposed to.

Trentinian was convinced that his corps was victorious on 22 August 1914: ‘After vain attacks against the French IV Corps, the German V Corps retreated.’ Trentinian’s description of 7 DI’s victory degenerates into pure fantasy. Since 7 ID was victorious, there was no need to critically examine the division’s actions, and Trentinian did not do so. Like Grasset, Trentinian had not taken the trouble to determine, or did not care, what were the mission or actions of the German V AK.

French Army Politics

Trentinian generally faults young General Staff officers at GQG, 3rd Army and IV CA for any mistakes that may have been made. He was particularly bitter because Joffre, whom he regarded as the cat’s paw of the General Staff, relieved over 100 general officers from their commands, including Trentinian himself. These reliefs for cause were ‘usually improper, sometimes justified’. We have arrived at the real centre of Trentinian’s complaint, which has to do with his career, which he thought had been unjustly and ignominiously cut short by arrogant upstart General Staff officers.

Trentinian was supported in this opinion by Percin, who said that Joffre conducted these reliefs at the instigation of young General Staff officers, who were eliminating officers that stood in their way, principally those promoted by the left-wing Minister of War, André.27

Indeed, the argument that Grandmaison’s offensive à outrance was responsible for the French defeats in the Battle of the Frontiers may have initially been motivated by French army politics. Percin repeats the charge that prior to the war there was a power struggle between General Michel, whose plans were comparable with those of the left-wing politician Juares, and the young Turks and Grandmaison: Michel lost. It would appear that Michel’s supporters got revenge by blaming the French defeats in the Battle of the Frontiers on Grandmaison.

French strategy in 1939 and 1940 was determined in large part by the conclusions it drew from the Battle of the Frontiers. The most important of these was that the French army would never allow itself again to engage in meeting engagements or a mobile battle with the Germany army, and in particular not in the Ardennes. The critics of the offensive à outrance received full satisfaction: French strategy in 1939–40 would be based on linear defence.

The construction of the Maginot Line made this strategy perfectly evident it advertised that the French would never attack from Lorraine towards the Rhineland. Since Belgium was again neutral after 1936, the French could not attack Germany through this avenue of approach either. In September 1939 the Germans were free to mass their entire army against the Poles and quickly destroy them without interference in the west, which the Germans defended only with second-rate divisions.

When the Germans attacked in 1940, mindful of the Battle of the Frontiers in the Ardennes in 1914, the French refused to engage the Germans in a mobile battle, conceded the Ardennes and held the obvious line in northern Belgium and on the Meuse River. The German 1914 intelligence estimate said that the French army was not strong enough to form a defensive line all the way to the English Channel, and if they did so, they would have to dangerously weaken their centre.28 The same calculation applied in 1940. Erich von Manstein based his famous Sichelschnitt plan for launching the main German attack through the Ardennes on the fact that the French would be weak in the Ardennes. French defensive strategy in 1939–40, drawing on erroneous lessons learned from the Battle of the Frontiers, was passive and predictable.29

Doctrine, Training, Combat and Military History

In modern armies, changes in military technology must be accommodated by changes in tactical doctrine, which then must be taught to the officers and men. In an early 20th-century mass army this was no small undertaking.

The German army mastered this process to a degree not equalled by any other modern army. It drew the correct conclusions from the weaponry revolution occasioned in the mid-1880s by the discovery of high explosives and smokeless powder, the effects of which became evident in the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars. It codified the concepts of fire superiority and fire and manoeuvre in the 1906 infantry regulation and practiced these tactics at the MTA, and in a broad range of map exercises for the officers. No other army shared the German army’s passion for tactical excellence.

The German army did not allow doctrine to be shaped by irrational considerations their doctrine came from careful observation of the military situation and training was effective and thorough. The French, on the other hand, followed all sorts of false paths, such as red trousers or the notion that racial characteristics and past glory, not good training, were the paramount factors in combat.

The superiority of the German system was evident by the third week of the First World War. The German army more than compensated for its inferior numbers by the fact that, unit for unit, it generated far more combat power than its enemies. In a mobile battle, contact with a German unit was fatal the surviving Entente units were thrown in headlong flight. The German army had reached a military pinnacle – it knew how to fight outnumbered and win.

Once a military culture has established itself, it develops its own momentum and becomes Truppenpraxis – the habitual, instinctive way that an army operates. The German army’s culture gave it superiority in the war’s initial mobile battles and allowed it to innovate and remain superior to Entente units when the fronts solidified into trench warfare. Indeed, the German army maintained its passion for tactical excellence – and military superiority – for the rest of the century. The power of the German model was so great that even the American army, which had adopted a defective system of Truppenpraxis from the British and French in the First World War, when faced with the Cold War problem of fighting outnumbered, converted to some degree in the 1980s to the German system.

It would have been unthinkable for the French to acknowledge that the German system was superior, nor did they. Instead of rationally analysing the Battle of the Frontiers to determine the causes of their defeat, the French invented much more comfortable fictions of German trenches and the offensive à outrance, which allowed them to retain their fundamental sense of innate superiority: the Battle of the Frontiers was an aberration. Having corrected the errors of the offensive à outrance, the French imagined that their natural superiority could and did reassert itself. Unfortunately for the French, it was their system that was at fault, as later defeats in the First World War and the 1917 mutiny demonstrated. During the inter-war period, in an era of increasing mechanization and mobility, the French adopted a doctrine of static defence. The French myths concerning the Battle of the Frontiers prevented them from recognizing the advantages of German offensive manoeuvre and virtually doomed them to defeat in 1940.

These same French myths had a baleful influence on American and British military history, which uncritically accepted the French fantasies concerning the Battle of the Frontiers. It was never considered necessary to check the French story against German sources. This was reinforced by an Anglo-Saxon weakness for armchair generalship – little maps and big arrows – which is nowhere more evident than in discussions of the Marne Campaign. The result is a recipe for ill-founded but persistent myth.


Lost Opportunity: The Battle Of The Ardennes 22 August 1914 Simon J. House.

Synopsis: On 22 August 1914, on a World War I battlefield some 100 kilometers wide stretching from Luxembourg to the River Meuse, two French and two German armies clashed in a series of encounters known collectively as the Battle of the Ardennes. On that day, 27,000 young French soldiers died--the bloodiest day in the military history of France (most of them in the Ardennes) and yet it is almost unknown to English-speaking readers.

There has never been an operational study of the Battle of the Ardennes in any language: at best, a single chapter in a history of greater scope at least a monograph of an individual tactical encounter within the overall battle. "Lost Opportunity: The Battle Of The Ardennes 22 August 1914" by military historian Simon J. House fills a glaring gap in the study of the opening phase of the First World War--the Battles of the Frontiers--and provides fresh insight into both French and German plans for the prosecution of what was supposed to be a short war.

At the center of "Lost Opportunities" lies a mystery: in a key encounter battle, one French Army corps led by a future Minister of War--General Pierre Roques--outnumbered its immediate opposition by nearly six to one and yet dismally failed to capitalize on that superiority. The question is how, and why. Intriguingly, there is a six-hour gap in the war diaries of all General Roques' units it smacks of a cover-up. By a thorough investigation of German sources, and through the discovery of three vital messages buried in the French archives, it is now possible to piece together what happened during those missing hours and show how Roques threw away an opportunity to break the German line and advance unopposed deep into the hinterland beyond. The chimera of a clean break and exploitation that was to haunt the Allied High Command for the next four years in the trenches of the Western Front, was a brief and tantalizing opportunity for General Roques.

The final part of "Lost Opportunities" seeks to answer the question 'why?' The history of both French and German prewar preparation reveals the political, economic and cultural differences that shaped the two opposing national armies. Those differences, in turn, predicated the behavior of General Roques and his men, as well as that of his German opponent. With a clear understanding of those differences, the reader may now understand how the French lost their best opportunity not only to stymie the Schlieffen Plan, but to change the course of the rest of the war.

Critique: An impressively informative, expertly researched, remarkably well documented, accessibly organized and presented study, "Lost Opportunity: The Battle Of The Ardennes 22 August 1914" is a substantial, significant, and welcome contribution to the growing body of World War I literature that is unreservedly recommended for the personal reading lists of dedicated military history buffs, as well as academic library World War I History collections and supplemental studies lists. Of special note and also very highly recommended is the accompanying "Lost Opportunity: The Battle Of The Ardennes 22 August 1914: Map Book" (9781911096429) containing 50 newly commissioned color maps.


This Day In Histroy: The Battles of the Frontiers Continued (1914)

On this day in history, two of the so-called battles of the Frontiers were fought between the French and the Germans. When war, was declared between Germany and France and later Britain, the allies went on the offensive in August 1914. French troops crossed the border in Alsace-Lorraine, which had once been part of France. A series of battles were fought between France and Germany, with the French achieving some notable success such as the capture of several large towns and cities . The Germans then invaded France through Belgium and this transformed the situation on the western front. They swiftly occupied most of Belgium and they advanced into France. This forced many French divisions which had been stationed on the eastern border with Germany to retreat. This came to be known as the Great Retreat.

This period saw the series of battles known as the Battles of the Frontiers. The first battle occured in Alsace- Lorraine and was a German victory. On this date in history, two of the so-called battle of the Frontiers was fought. Two battles were fought on the same day. One at Charleoi and the other in the foothills of the Ardennes near the Belgian border. The fourth battle of the Frontiers was the battle at Mons, that took place some days later. They was mostly a battle between the BEF and the Imperial German army.

These battles were all defeats for the allies. The French were convinced that their bravey would carry the day. their generals ordered wave upon waves on infantry charges and these resulted in high casualties and the Germans usually stood firm. The French were forced to retreat from both the battlefield at Charleroi and the Ardennes.

The British fought with the advancing Germans at the Battle of Mons here they attempted to hold a defensive line at a canal. However, the British were like the French defeated. The battles of the Frontiers were a series of bloody defeats for the allies and it looked that they would face defeat. The Russian invasion of East Prussia would provide them with some relief and the Germans had to withdraw some forces from the western front to the east. By the end of August, the British and the French had been forced by the Germans to a very miles of Paris.

However, the British and the French were able to retrieve the situation at the battle of the Marne. The situation was critical for Paris. The governor of Paris was ordered to prepare the defences of the city. Parisians dug trenches and defences were built. Thousands of Parisians began to stream out of the city as refugees. If Paris was to fall to the Germans&rsquo, then their victory was almost certain. Indeed the BEF commander asked London for permission to evacuate his troops from France, so perilous was the situation. However, inspired by Field Marshal Foch the French were able to defeat the Germans at the Marne.

French soldiers in August 1914

They secured a victory by cleverly using automobiles (including taxis) to drive troops to the front. This was the first time that the automobile had been used in a major battle and they proved decisive.


The Guns of August is Not Worth Reading

The Guns of August is a popular book from the 1960s that discusses the beginnings of the First World War and ends about a month into the conflict. Her book is still widely read and considered to be a classic of First World War studies that has stood the test of time. I heavily disagree.

I could simply link to a couple of posts on r/AskHistorians that talk about Tuchman and her shortcomings, and why her books haven’t really stood the test of time. I’ve noticed in doing so however, that accusations of “professional jealousy” are often thrown around – which isn’t a very productive counter-argument to the criticisms of Tuchman’s work. Instead, this post will be based on contemporary academic reviews of her work about the shortcomings that were seen in the 1960s, not just today. These shortcomings have only multiplied as the field of First World War studies has changed since then. I will also note ways in which her argumentation that may have held up in the 1960s does not hold up today.

This is also not to say that every historian in the 1960s was discontent with her work – but there is a sizable amount of critical reviews to draw from, and even the positive ones can tell us some of how the field has changed since the 1960s and why Guns of August should just be avoided in its entirety.

Ulrich Trumpener, of the State University of Iowa wrote:

In terms of sheer narrative power, The Guns of August is an admirable work. As a scholarly contribution to the history of World War I it is less satisfactory. Though Mrs. Tuchman has gathered (and effectively quotes from) a sizable stock of sources, her story is only partially based on the best available evidence. Numerous inaccuracies and over-simplifications, notably in the discussion of prewar developments and Mediterranean affairs, must be ascribed to insufficient familiarity with the relevant monograph literature. Moreover, for the events after August 1, 1914, a wider utilization of primary evidence would have been desirable. For example, neither the Russian and Italian document collections published since 1918 nor the captured German government viles, a valuable new source, seem to have been consulted.

The book’s usefulness is further impaired by a blatantly one-sided treatment of Imperial Germany. Authentic information about its faults and misdeeds is mixed in- discriminately with half-truths, innuendoes, and absurd generalizations, transforming the Germans of 1914 into a nation of barbarians. In Mrs. Tuchman's pages, the German people are invariably unpleasant, hysterical, or outright brutish (the garbling of evidence is particularly noticeable here), and the armies, marching like "predatory ants" across Belgium (p. 213), soon reveal the "beast beneath the German skin" (p. 314).

[…]The story of 1914 becomes even more lop- sided as a result of Mrs. Tuchman's decision to pay only fleeting attention to the Dual Monarchy and Serbia. To this reviewer it is not at all clear how the affairs of these two countries-and Balkan problems in gen- eral-divide themselves "naturally" from the rest of the war (p. viii) […] Mrs. Tuchman's personality profiles of the leading figures on both sides are skilfully written, though some are debatable (e.g., that of Sir John French) and a few plainly misleading (e.g., that of Admiral G. A. von Müller)

So safe to say this is a fairly scathing review of the book at its time of publication, and it echoes much of what Historians today say about the work. That it’s prose is widely regarded as excellent isn’t in doubt, it’s the content and argumentation contained within and that even for 1962 the sourcing was not the best.

A more positive review by Oron J. Hale in the Virginia Quarterly Review said this in the summer of 1962

From the literary sources which she has used emerge some of the overtones of revulsion and disillusionment which came over thinking people as they sensed that a century of hope was turning into a century of despair. There is also the intellectual woman's scorn for statesmen and generals who appeared in this chapter of world history, when violence rather than reason governed human affairs. In Mrs. Tuchman's book the statesmen invariably dither and the generals blunder and butcher.

So from this we can glean some of Tuchman’s argumentation. “violence rather than reason” and “generals blunder and butcher” are the two key phrases. These are both threads of First World War interpretation that aren’t really taken up much these days. Her interpretation of the July Crisis then is one where countries didn’t utilize any logic or reason and “slithered” into war. While there is still debate over the July Crisis, it’s not really fair to criticize leadership in this manner. There was logic involved, just not the logic that Tuchman would personally prefer. Leadership in, for example Austria-Hungary, wanted a war. They made conscious decisions to bring about a war with Serbia, damn the consequences.

Secondly, she picks up the “butchers and bunglers” school of thought regarding Generals. Safe to say this myth is dead. General-Officers weren’t mindless “donkeys” leading “lions” to the slaughter. There were sophisticated tactics (in all eras of the war) and change as the nature of the war shifted, they weren’t mindlessly throwing men into the meatgrinder simply to move a drinks cabinet “6 inches closer to Berlin”. The reality is that during a war on the scale of the First World War there will be an enormous number of casualties. Some Generals were better than others, but the “butchers and bunglers” school of thought is just not a fair critique.

Further on in his review he states

But what disturbs a student of the history of World War I, even more, is the fragmented treatment of the outbreak of war and the events of the first thirty days. The war originated in the Balkans with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by fanatical Bosnian Serb nationalists, and from a local crisis grew into a general European war through the reckless diplomatic and military actions of Austrian and Russian authorities […] All this is excluded with consequent distortion.

Even those who enjoyed the book felt that there was a major shortcoming: The focus on the Western Front. The critical Balkan and Eastern Fronts are excluded, and as Hale rightfully states, the picture is distorted. More modern authors of the July Crisis and early parts of the war – Holger Herwig, Christopher Clark, and T.G. Otte, for example, have placed that region back at the center of the narrative, even if they have disagreements in various parts of interpretation. It was noticed then and the absence is felt even more keenly today.

John W. Oliver of the University of Pittsburgh opened his review with

Never had the nations of western Europe plotted so carefully, so methodically, the destruction of their enemies as they had on the eve of World War I.

Oliver's point here is that everything was so strictly laid out. You won't really find the "war by timetables" stuff creep up anymore, and it ignores how often that things didn't run exactly, or were confused, etc. Yes, things were laid out in various plans and such, but the war wasn't run by these plans. A major example is that of the "Schlieffen Plan". Some scholars argue it didn't even exist, others paint as more of a "Schlieffen-Moltke Plan", and others stick to it being the brain-child of Schlieffen. But the "plan", as it existed, was more nebulous from what I've gathered, than a strict set of timetables. Plan XVII, France's plan of concentration, was centred around reacting to the moves of the Germans (some French moves were wrong because of faulty reconnaissance once the war began).

Harold J. Gordon wrote for Military Affairs, Autumn 1962

It is difficult to believe that anyone today could write such an account of the coming of the war as is presented here, or that anyone could confine himself to the sources cited in the notes. The presentation is superficial, anecdotal, and follows the general lines of the Allied propaganda of the war years. Forty years of historical research are ignored as are the hundreds of thousands of documents that have been published by the governments of Europe. Albertini, Fay, Gooch, Langer, and Schmitt, among others, might never have written a line for all the impact they have had here.

Another reviewer identifying that Tuchman was not really drawing on anything new, but instead was relying on old tropes. Gordon seems to be, in general, a bigger “supporter” of the Germans and some of what he says in this review doesn’t hold up today – such as

[…] the author's passion. ate dedication to the Allied cause results in uncritical acceptance of wartime atrocity propaganda and in attacks upon the Germans for policies that were certainly no tougher than those applied by the English against the Boers or, later, against the Irish.

This is problematic in a couple of ways. Firstly, he is engaging in “atrocity/genocide olympics” where he compares how “harsh” the atrocities in Belgium were to other nations and places, as if that washes the hands of the Germans clean. Secondly, and frankly, most importantly, this conclusion does not hold up. John Horne and Alan Kramer settled the debate about the “Rape of Belgium” once and for all in their book German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial. No more can the cry of “it’s just propaganda!” be sounded, there were certainly incidents that were fabricated for propaganda purposes. But the reality was bad enough.

Gordon noted the characterization of the Germans that Trumpener had noted

The impression given is that the war was half the result of the fecklessness of the Kaiser and half the result of the unbelievably vicious character of the German people, who forced the war upon an innocent and peace-loving civilized world.

No matter where you fall in the debates about the July Crisis, this interpretation isn’t one you really find today. No historian worth their salt is going to portray the European powers was “innocent” or “peace-loving”. Some nations may have worked harder towards peace in July 1914 than others, but that doesn’t make them “peace-loving” on the whole. Tuchman is entirely out of step with the historiography.

Samuel J. Herwitz’s positive review in The American Historical Review, July 1962 stated

She is most effective in etching (and damning with their own words) many of the dramatis personae whose ingenuousness would have made them brilliant stock characters in a stage farce. Unfortunately, they were real figures in life, little fitted to cope with the enormous power and responsibility vested in them. Most graphically portrayed are the befuddlement and delirium, the dust and smell of battle, the heroism and weariness, both unto death, of the troops, and the incredible lightheartedness and stupidity of so many of the leaders.

Again, this demonstrates that she was writing of a school of thought that really isn’t touted anymore. She treats Leadership as a set of stupid “Donkeys” who were “little fitted to cope with the enormous power and responsibility”. They’re not treated by her as human beings who were looking at the situations based on their own experiences and cultural contexts, but instead as bumbling fools. That is not what you want in a history book. There are criticsms to be made of various decisions made, but it needs to be done thoughtfully and understanding that they weren't stupid, but rather had a very different view of the world.

I’ll end with Donald Armstrong’s positive review of the book in World Affairs, Summer 1962

The story she tells proves again "with how little wisdom the world is governed." In August 1914, the evidence piles up to show with how little wisdom war plans are made and wars are fought. Of course these things are plain as day with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, and without the fog and friction of war and the problems of logistics which rarely are stated or understood in the writing of history.

This illustrates again that Tuchman harps on how “stupid” everyone involved the war in 1914 was, at least he concedes we only see it as stupid with hindsight, but she still complies enough evidence, to some reviewers at least, to demonstrate her case.

In the end, The Guns of August is a book that made a splash in the 1960s. It’s my opinion that it resonated so much during that time because of one of its overarching theses, that of two large competing power-blocks whom were at the edge of a conflict – and due to things like arms races they made the plunge, “stupidly”, to war. Tuchman, in her writing, was reflecting the zeitgeist of the Cold War. That Cold War narrative resonated with people because it reminded them so much of what could easily happen with much more disastrous consequence.

In the year 2020 this narrative is not nearly as relevant as it was in 1962. Her arguments no longer really hold up, and many of them were even criticized by historians then. Guns of August isn’t really worth your time to learn about the First World War.

Reviews used in this post

Armstrong, Donald. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” World Affairs, Summer 1962, Vol. 125, No. 2. 112-113.

Gordon, Harold J. Jr. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” Military Affairs, Autumn 1962, Vol. 26. No. 3. 140.

Hurwitz, Samuel J. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” The American Historical Review, Jul. 1962, Vol. 67, No. 4. 1014-1015.

Hale, Oron J. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” *The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1962, Vol. 30, No. 3 520-523.

Oliver, John W. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,”, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Jul. 1962, Vol. 342. 168-169

Trumpener, Ulrich. “The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman,” The Journal of Modern History, Mar. 1963, Vol. 35, No. 1. 94-95.

Works Referenced/Recommended Reading These provide a fairly varied account of the war, and demonstrate some of the current divergences in thinking.

Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers. 2012.

Herwig, Holger. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary. 1997.

Herwig, Holger. The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World. 2011.

Horne, John & Alan Kramer. German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial. 2001.

House, Johnathan. Lost Opportunity: The Battle Of The Ardennes 22 August 1914. 2017.

Otte, T.G. July Crisis: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. 2015.

Sheffield, Gary. Forgotten Victory. 2001.

Showalter, Dennis, Joseph P. Robinson & Janet A. Robinson. The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914. 2019.

Showalter, Dennis. Instrument of War. 2016.

Strachan, Hew. The First World War Volume 1: To Arms!, 2003.

Strachan, Hew. The First World War. 2005.

Todman, Daniel. The Great War: Myth and Memory. 2005.

I feel like it falls into the same category as older works like Gibbons, where the books themselves became important milestones in the field of history and are worth reading not for learning about their contents but rather about how the field changed because of them.

What makes The Guns of August a milestone? How did it change the field?

Ah the classic depiction of WW1 as a bunch of generals spending hundreds of thousands of lives to move the front a few yards and declare victory.

WW1 occurred at a time when the various defensive tactics developed by both sides far exceeded the capabilities of the offensive forces to both create and exploit openings in the front. People depict the generals as stupid and ill informed, but the actual way the battles developed was natural to the only method they had to fight.

It is important to note that during the early stages of the war the western front was incredibly mobile (the eastern front was notably mobile as well throughout the war, but most people focus on the western front so that is what I will discuss). The Germans successfully took substantial parts of Belgium and France in the opening months of the war.

This brings up a somewhat related point, which was that WW1 being the first truly modern war also involved a dramatic change to how fronts formed. Prior to WW1 most conflicts were centered around large concentrated armies following each other and seeking to find good engagements. While the broader foraging, scouting, and skirmishing forces of those armies could stretch out over miles, they did not form a cohesive front. This was simply because armies were just too small to do so, and you had to concentrate lots of soldiers in a small area to fight an effective battle. You see this throughout the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, and the 1871 Franco-Prussian War. However, in WW1 military tactics had to fundamentally change with the growing availability of the machine gun, long range artillery, and bolt action rifles.

Back to my main argument, once the First Battle of the Marne had ended the fronts consolidated. While there were several major battles, most of the war settled into a stalemate due to how the trenches had developed. By mid 1915 the trench system was not a single line of fortifications, but rather several layered and mostly independent sections of trenches, communication lines, small gauge rail roads, and bunkers forming several distinct layers. Each layer had a section of ground untouched in front of it. Thus whenever an assault by one side of the war took a line of trenches, they would both have to consolidate and move supplies and troops across the old and still very open and exposed no-man's land, but would have to face an entirely new and well defended line of fortifications. There were several times when armies successfully took several lines of trenches, but the defense in depth prevented any breakthroughs. This was most noticeable with the Battle of the Somme, where despite popular depictions several British preparatory operations, most notably the tunneling and mining operations, created large gaps in the German front that were exploited. However, between German counter attacks and the effectiveness of the new German defensive lines the British and French were unable to advance more than 6km.

Now, to some this presents evidence of the futility of these tactics, that so little ground was gained at such cost, but they fail to consider the alternative. Most casualties in battles on the Western Front occurred in the jockeying over the stretches of line that were taken, if either army had not pushed to take those lines then they would have slowly been pushed back mile by mile, the counter attacks were necessary to preserve the stability of their positions. And despite popular depictions, by the Battle of the Somme soldiers were not just walking slowly across open fields, quick movement and advances had long since been accepted as standard. The bloodbaths were mostly a result of how military technology had developed.

Today most military offensive tactics are built off creating openings in enemy lines and exploiting them to disrupt and disorient the enemy and create additional opening. Ideally this would end in encirclement and surrender, as seen famously by the German Kesselschlacht (Kettle Battle) in WW2, American forces in the first Gulf War and 2003 invasion, and many American and Chinese Operations during the Korean War. If your force is unable to create those openings in the first place then you will be unable to defeat a modern enemy effectively. Most operations on the Western front, notably the Battle of Ypres and the 1918 Spring Offensive had this goal, but were unable to overcome the sheer inertia and defensive strength of modern weapons (though the 1918 Spring Offensive came close). Other major battles, most notably the battle of Verdun, were attempts to find other methods of winning, with the goal of Verdun being to bleed French forces dry and force a surrender since outright victory was seen as untenable.

The generals of WW1 were not stupid. They understood the tactical reality of the Western front very well. Tactics developed quickly, and new technology was used constantly to take the strain off their soldiers. But the overall technological development in the war failed to shift the dynamic and led to the war of attrition being the only possible end result.


The war in the west, 1914

For the smooth working of their plan for the invasion of France, the Germans had preliminarily to reduce the ring fortress of Liège, which commanded the route prescribed for their 1st and 2nd armies and which was the foremost stronghold of the Belgian defenses. German troops crossed the frontier into Belgium on the morning of August 4. Thanks to the resolution of a middle-aged staff officer, Erich Ludendorff, a German brigade occupied the town of Liège itself in the night of August 5–6 and the citadel on August 7, but the surrounding forts held out stubbornly until the Germans brought their heavy howitzers into action against them on August 12. These 420-millimetre siege guns proved too formidable for the forts, which one by one succumbed. The vanguard of the German invasion was already pressing the Belgian field army between the Gete River and Brussels, when the last of the Liège forts fell on August 16. The Belgians then withdrew northward to the entrenched camp of Antwerp. On August 20 the German 1st Army entered Brussels while the 2nd Army appeared before Namur, the one remaining fortress barring the Meuse route into France.

The initial clashes between the French and German armies along the Franco-German and Franco-Belgian frontiers are collectively known as the Battle of the Frontiers. This group of engagements, which lasted from August 14 until the beginning of the First Battle of the Marne on September 6, was to be the largest battle of the war and was perhaps the largest battle in human history up to that time, given the fact that a total of more than two million troops were involved.

The planned French thrust into Lorraine, totaling 19 divisions, started on August 14 but was shattered by the German 6th and 7th armies in the Battle of Morhange-Sarrebourg (August 20–22). Yet this abortive French offensive had an indirect effect on the German plan. For when the French attack in Lorraine developed, Moltke was tempted momentarily to postpone the right-wing sweep and instead to seek a victory in Lorraine. This fleeting impulse led him to divert to Lorraine the six newly formed Ersatz divisions that had been intended to increase the weight of his right wing. This was the first of several impromptu decisions by Moltke that were to fatally impair the execution of the Schlieffen Plan.

Meanwhile, the German imperial princes who commanded armies on the Germans’ left (southern) wing in Lorraine were proving unwilling to forfeit their opportunity for personal glory. Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria on August 20 ordered his 6th Army to counterattack instead of continuing to fall back before the French advance as planned, and Crown Prince William of Germany ordered his 5th Army to do the same. The strategic result of these unplanned German offensives was merely to throw the French back onto a fortified barrier that both restored and augmented their power of resistance. Thus, the French were soon afterward enabled to dispatch troops to reinforce their left flank—a redistribution of strength that was to have far-reaching results in the decisive Battle of the Marne.

While this seesaw campaign in Lorraine was taking place, more decisive events were occurring to the northwest. The German attack on Liège had awakened Joffre to the reality of a German advance through Belgium, but not to its strength or to the wideness of its sweep. In preparing a counterattack against the German advance through Belgium, Joffre envisaged a pincer movement, with the French 3rd and 4th armies on the right and the 5th, supported by the BEF, on the left, to trap the Germans in the Meuse–Ardennes area south of Liège. The fundamental flaw in this new French plan was that the Germans had deployed about 50 percent more troops than the French had estimated, and for a vaster enveloping movement. Consequently, while the right-hand claw of the French pincer (23 divisions) collided with the German 5th and 4th armies (20 divisions) in the Ardennes and was thrown back, the left-hand claw (13 French and four British divisions) found itself nearly trapped between the German 1st and 2nd armies, with a total of 30 divisions, on the one hand, and the 3rd, on the other. As the French 5th Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, was checked in its offensive south of the Sambre River by a German attack on August 21, the British, who reached Mons on August 22, at first agreed to stand there to cover Lanrezac’s left but on August 23 news of the fall of Namur and of the German 3rd Army’s presence near Dinant induced Lanrezac to wisely order a general retreat and on August 24 the British began their retreat from Mons, just in time to escape envelopment by the German 1st Army’s westward march around their unprotected left flank.

At last Joffre realized the truth and the utter collapse of Plan XVII. Resolution was his greatest asset, and with imperturbable coolness he formed a new plan out of the wreckage. Joffre decided to swing the Allied centre and left back southwestward from the Belgian frontier to a line pivoted on the French fortress of Verdun and at the same time to withdraw some strength from the right wing so as to be able to station a newly created 6th Army on the extreme left, north of Paris. This plan might, in turn, have collapsed if the Germans had not themselves departed from Schlieffen’s original plan due to a combination of Moltke’s indecisiveness, poor communications between his headquarters and the field army commanders of the German right wing, and Moltke’s resulting confusion about the developing tactical situation. In the first place, the German right wing was weakened by the subtraction of 11 divisions four were detached to watch Antwerp and to invest French fortresses near the Belgian frontier, instead of using reserve and Ersatz troops for this as earlier intended, and seven more regular divisions were transferred to check the Russian advance into East Prussia (see below). In the second place, Alexander von Kluck, in command of the 1st Army, did in fact wheel inward north of Paris rather than southwest of the city.

Kluck’s change of direction meant the inevitable abandonment of the original wide sweep around the far (western) side of Paris. Now the flank of this wheeling German line would pass the near side of Paris and across the face of the Paris defenses into the valley of the Marne River. The premature inward wheel of Kluck’s 1st Army before Paris had been reached thus exposed the German extreme right wing to a flank attack and a possible counter-envelopment. On September 4 Moltke decided to abandon the original Schlieffen Plan and substituted a new one: the German 4th and 5th armies should drive southeastward from the Ardennes into French Lorraine west of Verdun and then converge with the southwestward advance of the 6th and 7th armies from Alsace against the Toul–Épinal line of fortifications, so as to envelop the whole French right wing the 1st and 2nd armies, in the Marne valley, should stand guard, meanwhile, against any French countermove from the vicinity of Paris. But such an Allied countermove had already begun before the new German plan could be put into effect.


Watch the video: 1914-09 Battle of Ardennes - August 21 - 23 1914