The Battle of the Frontiers
Last week, we discussed the opening battle of the First World War between the German and Belgian Armies, namely the Battle of Liège. This battle was instructive for both armies who took part in it. The Germans learned just how costly it could be to charge entrenched enemy positions, even if those positions were manned by an outnumbered force of “chocolate soldiers.” The Belgians, meanwhile, learned just how powerful modern artillery had become, in the form of the massive siege howitzers the Germans brought to Liège which easily destroyed the fortresses which, just a generation before, were guaranteed to be impervious to any artillery then known in the world. Today, we are going to broaden our focus a bit to see how the French and British Armies prepared for the inevitable German thrusts into France via Belgium. The French, in particular, will be taught the same lesson the Germans had been taught at Liège regarding how costly attacks on an entrenched enemy could be, though on a far larger and deadlier scale.
Before we get into those, ahem, instructive battles, known collectively as “The Battle of the Frontiers,” let us introduce the leader of the French Army at this time, similar to our introduction of General von Moltke of the German Army. In just a bit, we’ll talk about the British leadership. The French commander-in-chief at this time was a very different kind of man than the German commander von Moltke, though there is just as much controversy as to his generalship in the historiography of the Great War. This was General Joseph Joffre, who in 1914 was 62 years old and had been commander-in-chief of the French Army for less than a year. Joffre is a great character, or at least his stereotypical portrayal is: he was well over six feet tall, weighed around 230 pounds, with a bushy white moustache and a doughy face that no one seemed to be able to read. He had taken the lead in devising Plan XVII, which was only finalized in February of 1914. His idea for Plan XVII, as noted last week, was to launch an offensive into Germany via Alsace-Lorraine (as well as along the center of the front via the Ardennes Forest), to keep one army in a defensive position along the eastern half of the border with Belgium, while holding back a reserve to counter whatever invasion of France the Germans took in the meantime. This was not necessarily a bad plan, but as we shall see in many ways it played right into the Germans’ hands.
The French high command, led by Joffre, saw the Belgian Army as little more than a wing of the larger French Army. They planned to essentially assume command of the Belgian Army and use it as part of their plan to invade Germany. The Belgians, of course, were not necessarily thrilled about this. They just wanted France and Great Britain to defend Belgium’s territorial integrity. But, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers. Unfortunately for the Belgians this all meant that French and British troops would not yet be on the way to defend Belgium itself, as the French Army in particular was mostly concerned with avenging their defeat in 1870 and reconquering the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. As a part of this larger strategy, Joffre told King Albert I of Belgium and his high command that the Belgian Army should maintain a defensive line at the city of Namur on the western bank of the River Meuse. But King Albert was more concerned about making sure the Belgian Army wasn’t cut off and destroyed by the massive German invasion than maintaining an unbroken line with the French, and so he ordered that should the Belgian Army be pushed back, they would retreat north to the vital port city of Antwerp. This would ensure that the Belgian Army would be able to at least defend some of their country, rather than have it be completely occupied by the Germans. But it also might leave the French left wing unprotected against the German flanking move. Confusions and disagreements like this are going to plague the Entente forces throughout the war, and especially in these next few critical weeks, a problem that the Germans did not face (at least not on the western front). But what was that old line supposedly said by Churchill during the Second World War? “The only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.”
The first French offensive of the war was launched on the morning of August 7, when elements of the French First Army, specifically VII Corps and the 8th Cavalry Division, marched into southern Alsace through the Vosges mountains. This was a special hand-picked assault force much like General Emmich’s brigades attacking Liège at that very moment; their job was to be the vanguard of the French liberation of their long-lost territories. After a small battle fought at the town Altkirch, in which the French assault force drove off the tiny German garrison at the cost of about 100 casualties, on August 8 the French marched into the city of Mulhouse in Alsace (birthplace of Alfred Dreyfus by the by). This small French force marched through the city in triumph, while people throughout the city cheered and waved, gifting their liberators chocolates and wine and blue, white, and red flowers, to celebrate their return to the bosom of France.
This glorious return, however, did not last too long. The very next day, August 8, the German garrison based out of the regional capital of Strasbourg, some 100 kilometers or about 60 miles to the north, attacked the French expeditionary force in Mulhouse. The battle raged on and off for 24 hours until, after the French were pushed back and nearly cut off, they withdrew back to France proper. As punishment for being defeated by a much larger and better supplied German force, the commanders of both the French VII Corps and 8th Cavalry Division were fired by General Joseph Joffre. This is going to become something of a habit of his.
Joffre then began to reorganize his forces along the right flank, peeling off a few divisions and corps to form a new “Army of Alsace” to launch a renewed offensive into Alsace-Lorraine. He also divided France, all without consulting with the government, into two zones: a Zone of the Rear and a Zone of the Armies. In the latter “Zone of the Armies” Joffre assumed for himself absolute dictatorial powers; no civilian leaders, not even the President of the Republic, were to be allowed in nor have any jurisdiction over the Zone of the Armies without Joffre’s explicit permission. Joffre did not exactly have the legal authority to do this, but given the stakes he believed such a move was justified and even necessary.
Meanwhile, to the North and West, an expedition of French cavalry under General Sordet was sent into Belgium to find out where exactly the Germans in that theatre of the war were, and in what strength. They were foiled in their mission to reconnoiter the German positions by a screen of German cavalry and light infantry, who blocked any attempt by the French horseman to get within sight of the main German Armies in Belgium. Now, if you were the leader of this scouting expedition, the fact that the Germans had such a large and effective screen might make you think that the German force in Belgium was similarly large, or at least that the Germans were highly concerned about hiding its true intentions. Instead, General Sordet simply reported that there was no sign of a significant German force sweeping through Belgium against the French left flank. What he should have said was that he had been unable to find such a force due to the German cavalry and light infantry screen. But the French high command, led by General Joffre, were perfectly satisfied with this report. Their plan to win the war had always been based around a strong push into Alsace Lorraine on their right wing, and to keep only a token force along the border with Belgium to defend against a meager German thrust there. So this non-report by General Sordet confirmed Joffre’s pre-conceived notions for what he expected from the Germans and how he expected to defeat them. The Belgian Army, commanded by King Albert I, who were taking the brunt of the German invasion through their country knew full well that this was no token force the Germans were sending, but Joffre and most of the rest of the French leadership were deaf to these concerns. But there was at least one man in the French military leadership who was growing increasingly worried about the German invasion of Belgium. That man was General Charles Lanrezac, the commander of the French Fifth Army.
Lanrezac was, similar to Joffre, 62 years old in 1914, and had been given command of the French Fifth Army back in February, replacing another French General named Gallieni whom we will have dealings with a bit down the road. The Fifth Army was posted to the far left wing of the French Armies, along the border with Belgium. It was thus General Lanrezac who would be tasked with facing the German invasion of France through Belgium, and it was Lanrezac who’s left was exposed to a German flanking move. He was known as being somewhat blunt, even rude, in his personal dealings, but he had a sharp military mind and was highly respected by the French General Staff, as well as commander-in-chief General Joffre. Lanrezac kept a close watch on the unfolding action between the Germans and the Belgians around Liège, and by August 7 he had determined that at least five or six German Army corps had passed through the town of Huy in Belgium. This meant that, at a minimum, an entire German Army of 180-200,000 men was barreling right towards Lanrezac, and so he sent a report to Joffre to this effect saying that he needed reinforcements. However Joffre decided that this report was quote “premature,” and that such a large German force in Belgium was quote, “out of proportion to the means at the enemy’s disposal.” On August 10, after further pestering from Lanrezac, the French high command simply concluded, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they were quote, “confirmed in the impression that the principal German maneuver would not take place in Belgium.” For the record, that force of five or six German corps was just the tip of the iceberg of the German invasion. Lanrezac had more or less confirmed the presence of at least 200,000 German soldiers in Belgium, when in fact the real numbers were closer to three quarters of a million. Nevertheless, Joffre refused to send any reinforcements to Lanrezac’s Fifth Army.
Lanrezac, however, had better first-hand information of German moves through Belgium, and was, frankly, probably a more astute general than Joffre, the latter of whom was largely blinded by his desire to send the bulk of French forces into Alsace-Lorraine rather than counter a German invasion through Belgium. However Joffre’s belief that the Germans could not be sending that large a force through Belgium was reinforced by the fact that, at this point, the forts around Liège had not yet fallen, and by the fact that on August 12 a Belgian cavalry division under General de Witte had utterly destroyed a attack by an entire German Cavalry Corps under General von Marwitz at the small town of Haelen in northern Belgium. It seemed, at this point, as though the Belgians were perfectly capable of holding off the Germans until the British arrived in sufficient numbers to help them, leaving the bulk of French forces free to invade Alsace-Lorraine. Lanrezac, knowing that he could not expect French reinforcements to protect his left flank, simply had to prepare his forces for what he knew was coming down the chute, and hope that the British would soon be on their way.
Great Britain, as we know, had declared war on Germany on midnight, August 5, 1914. In the days since then, the British Expeditionary Force or BEF had begun to assemble at several British ports to be sent across the English Channel and into France and Belgium. While the French and the Germans were preparing to throw millions of soldiers against each other, the British had assembled five infantry divisions and one cavalry division, ie about 80,000 men, to send into France and Belgium. Now, if you listened to the supplemental episode last week about the state of the armies in 1914, you know that the British were unique among the Great Powers as they had no system of conscription whatsoever, which meant that every soldier in the British Army was a highly well-trained professional volunteer. Indeed, of all the Great Powers, the British Army was probably the most professional and most cohesive, and in 1914 they would fight exceptionally well. But still…80,000 men being sent to fight literally hundreds of thousands of Germans in Belgium, a force that was backed up by millions more? No matter how professional this army was, there was basically no way they could hope to stop the German Armies opposing them. There only hope would be to link up with the French Armies, who numbered themselves in the millions, and form a unified front against the Germans.
In any case, British troops began the embarkation from British to French ports on August 9. Though the German Imperial Navy posed a potential threat to this crossing, the British Royal Navy had firmly secured the English Channel to ensure the crossing was done safely. Within the next few days the entire British Expeditionary Force had landed in France and was marching towards the front lines in Belgium. The British Secretary of State for War at this time was Lord Horatio Kitchener, one of the most if not the most famous and respected generals of his generation. For the record, I’m going to refer to the British position of “Secretary of State for War” as “Minister of War” for clarity’s sake. Also, interesting fact about Kitchener, he had actually fought with the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 as a volunteer when he was twenty years old. Less praiseworthy was Kitchener’s service in the Second Boer War, where he was one of the leading proponents of herding South African civilians into concentration camps where many thousands died of hunger and disease. In any case, he would not be commanding the BEF personally, but would run the war from London. Command of the BEF was left to Sir John French, who has a, shall I say, mixed reputation among historians today. French, and yes, I know it’s confusing that the British commander-in-chief is named French, was nearing his sixty-second birthday in 1914. He was a conservative, somewhat stuck up, and even curmudgeonly man. His background was as a cavalry commander, and cavalry commanders at this time had a well-earned reputation for not wanting to learn the lessons modern warfare was teaching and was about to teach in the First World War. He probably would have been a perfectly competent cavalry commander in an earlier era, but as commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French will show time and again a lack of vision, creativity, or ability to learn in his generalship. One other key thing to note about Sir John French, was that he famously hated the French. He did not think much of their bravery nor skill in battle nor of the wisdom of their leadership, and was extremely wary of risking his men on behalf of the French Army. Further, he did not exactly keep all of this a secret, and he may very well have caused a severe rift in the Franco-British alliance had it not been for his much more diplomatic aide Brigadier General Henry Wilson, who spoke French fluently (which Sir John French did not) and would not only serve as a translator but a mediator between the French and British leadership.
On August 11, Minister of War Kitchener and Sir John French held a council of war in London attended by several other British and French generals. The purpose of this meeting was ostensibly to formalize the plan that had already been agreed to years before: that after landing in various ports in France, the British Expeditionary Force would cover the left wing of the French Armies, with this British part of the line centered on the city of Maubeuge, which sits right in the middle of the Franco-Belgian border. This would leave more than a hundred kilometers northwest of Maubeuge completely undefended, but as mentioned before the French did not believe that a significant German invasion force would come through Belgium, and that this small a force would be unable to sweep around the western half of Belgium, meaning that the Franco-British lines would be completely safe from a German flanking move. This meeting was supposed to be a mere formality; but Lord Kitchener, who had only been made Britain’s Minister of War on August 5 (yes, the day Britain declared war on Germany), strenuously objected to this plan. Based on some admittedly vague reports coming out of Belgium, Kitchener believed that the Germans would be sending a massive invasion force through Belgium, vastly outnumbering the British Expeditionary Force. He further guessed, correctly, that this force would try to sweep through the western part of Belgium so as to smash into not just the French but the British left flank. Such a move would force the British Expeditionary Force to retreat towards Paris, or else risk becoming encircled and completely destroyed. He went so far as to pull out a map of Belgium and gesture with his arm just how wide a flanking move this German force could attempt. He thus proposed that the BEF be based not out of Maubeuge, on the very center of the Franco-Belgian border, but rather some 130km or 80 miles southwest at the French city of Amiens, which housed vital road networks the British would need should they have to pull back to the coast and withdraw from the Continent altogether.
The rest of the council, not just the French but the other British commanders present, were frankly shocked at this suggestion. The French were appalled that Kitchener was proposing leaving the French left wing virtually unguarded, while British General Henry Wilson later wrote that he believed this idea was nothing short of, quote, “cowardice.” But Kitchener then went on. He said that the entire French strategy for the war was far too aggressive and even dangerous. That a main attack into Alsace-Lorraine at the beginning of the war would leave the French vulnerable to a German invasion via Belgium, and that the French and British should create a purely defensive campaign at first so as to allow for more British soldiers to be recruited and giving the Russians time to mobilize and attack Germany from the east.
If the suggestion that the British should not deploy at the Belgian border but rather further back at Amiens dismayed the French, the suggestion that the entire French Army should adopt a purely defensive posture was downright insulting. Not only would this rob the French the opportunity to avenge their loss in 1870 and reenter Alsace-Lorraine in triumph, but the entire French Army doctrine at this period was built around the idea of élan, and that the first concern of the French soldier should be cran, the latter of these words translating roughly to “guts.” The French Army had been humiliated by the Germans in 1870, and was absolutely committed to not making the same mistakes they had made then. Rather than fight a defensive war as they had in 1870, the French doctrine was based on the “spirit of the offensive.” In October 1913 a new field manual for the French Army was introduced, which began with eight “commandments” that were to be taken to heart by every soldier. To get a sense of this, let’s take a look at the Seventh Commandment:
“Battles are beyond everything else struggles of morale. Defeat is inevitable as soon as the hope of conquering ceases to exist. Success comes not to him who has suffered the least but to him whose will is firmest and morale strongest.”
Now, obviously, this is a bit…much. I mean, inspiring your soldiers to be brave in battle is one thing, but saying that “battles are beyond everything else struggles of morale” is rather overstating the case, I think. And, as Barbara Tuchman quite wryly notes in her magnum opus “The Guns of August,” there was not a single mention in these eight commandments about manpower or firepower or supplies or logistics. The French had instilled in their soldiers and officers a belief that courage, will to win, in a word “guts” would overcome all obstacles. But as we shall soon enough see, these French guts would simply be ripped apart by German machine guns and artillery.
Now, back to the debate between Kitchener and, well, everyone else, I think that Kitchener was both right and wrong. He was absolutely spot on in his guess that the Germans would be sending a massive invasion force through Belgium, and that the planned deployment of the French and British Armies would leave them incredibly vulnerable to a German strike on their left flank. Further, his plan to adopt a defensive posture in the beginning stages of the war was probably a much sounder strategy than what had been agreed to by the French and British in years past. But his suggestion that the British Army be stationed way back in Amiens was, I think, folly. Having the British that far away from the Belgian border would leave them unable to help the French once the Germans began to push through Belgium and into France, and they would thus be able to only watch helplessly as the French Army was destroyed. Being stationed in Amiens would allow the British to then safely pull out of France without firing a shot or having a shot fired at them, but how would that help the British war plan in the long run, if France was completely overrun? In this plan, I think we can see Kitchener’s main concern: not to protect France, but to maintain the British Expeditionary Force at all costs. Kitchener was one of the very few people in power who correctly predicted that this war would probably last for years and require millions of soldiers to win. Therefore, these trained professionals of the BEF would be absolutely invaluable as the core around which he could build a mass conscript army. So, after the council of war on August 12 in which he was unable to convince anyone else to support his revised war plans, he gave Sir John French a final instruction before the latter left to lead the BEF in France: that because the quote, “numerical strength of the British force and its contingent reinforcement is strictly limited,” Sir John French must maintain quote, “the greatest care towards a minimum loss and wastage.” Kitchener went on to say to French that he had to quote, “distinctly understand that your command is an entirely independent one and that you will in no case come in any sense under the orders of any Allied general.”
Now, on the one hand, this makes perfect sense; the BEF, which comprised the majority of Britain’s land army, was less than a hundred thousand strong and was potentially at risk of being encircled by hundreds of thousands or even millions of German soldiers. However, it gave Sir John French the excuse that it’s pretty clear he had been looking for to ignore any French desire to coordinate their strategies, as Sir John French had zero confidence in France as an ally both politically and militarily.
Meanwhile, as the British began to assemble at Maubeuge, the French prepared to launch their first major offensive of the war. On the far right of the French line, near the border with Switzerland, was the newly formed Army of Alsace under General Pau, while just to his left were the First and Second Armies under Generals Dubail and de Castelnau respectively. Opposing them were the German Sixth Army under Rupprecht, the Crown Prince of Bavaria (don’t you love these names?), and the Seventh Army under General von Heeringen, who was officially subordinate to the Bavarian Crown Prince. On August 15, the three French Armies along the German border launched a mass offensive into Alsace-Lorraine, where just as with the smaller force a week earlier they were greeted as heroes and liberators. For four days the French advanced and pushed back the Germans who offered up only token resistance before falling back. This delighted the French generals leading this advance, and they envisioned themselves crossing the Rhine River in just a few weeks if not days. But this was all part of the German strategy. The German generals, including commander-in-chief General von Moltke, knew that the French would not be able to resist the urge to reconquer Alsace-Lorraine, so they used this to their advantage. The German Sixth and Seventh Armies were under standing orders to delay and harass the French offensive but to retire in good order once the fighting started to really heat up. In doing so, they would lure the French away from where the German planned their hammer blow through Belgium. If everything went according to plan, German troops would be marching through Paris while half the French Army was still bogged down in Alsace-Lorraine.
But on August 18, the plan changed. Rupprecht, commander of the German Sixth Army (and holding authority over the Seventh as well), requested from General von Moltke permission to counterattack the French. Now this was against the dictates of the Schlieffen Plan, which said that the French should be allowed to push into Alsace-Lorraine and thereby stretch their lines thin. But Rupprecht had a point. The French Armies in front of him were positively begging to be attacked; they were stretched out, outpacing their supplies, had virtually no heavy artillery, and were not even entrenched. If Rupprecht attacked them now he might be able to knock them out of the fight permanently. Now generals in the German high command and historians since have criticized Rupprecht for this suggestion. They accuse Rupprecht of not wanting to be remembered in this war as “the man who retreated,” and as Dan Carlin wryly noted in his podcast series on the First World War, “you don’t get a lot of medals for retreating.” The German high command, including Moltke, were not necessarily married to following the Schlieffen Plan to the letter and were open to new ideas as the situation on the ground developed, but still, this would mean that once the French recovered from this attack they would be better able to send reinforcements up to Belgium rather than be bogged down in Alsace-Lorraine. But Rupprecht was determined, and over the course of the three days from August 16-18 he steadily wore down Moltke with his increasingly insistent demands that he be allowed to attack. Finally, on August 18, Moltke relented.
On August 20 the French Armies, now precariously stationed in Alsace-Lorraine, began a multi-pronged offensive against the German defenses in the region. The Army of Alsace under General Pau would push east towards the Rhine River from the city of Mulhouse, captured a few days before; the French First Army under General Dubail would push northeast from the city of Sarrebourg, while the Second Army under General de Castelnau launched the main attack to seize the city of Morhange. Hundreds of thousands of French soldiers banged uselessly into a suddenly quite stiff German defense, as heavy artillery tore huge gaps in their ranks and machine guns raked back and forth across the French lines, killing hundreds in minutes. The French 75mm light field artillery was mostly out of range to do any damage to the German lines, and so unsupported French infantry were simply slaughtered. Then, just as the French began to reel back, the Germans launched a mass counter-attack of their own. The German heavy artillery, which had already done major damage to the French, now opened up with renewed vigor, killing and wounding thousands more. Then the German infantry charged the helpless French soldiers, with the Second Army under Castelnau getting particularly hard hit and forcing him to commit all of his reserves. Then, just as he was realizing that the attack was turning into a debacle, Castelnau’s Second Army was hit in the left flank by a German force based out of the city of Metz. At this, Castelnau knew the day was lost. He ordered a full retreat out of Lorraine and back across the French border. The French First Army and Army of Alsace soon followed. Now, General Dubail, commander of the French First Army, later said that he only fell back when he learned that Castelnau was retreating to prevent a gap opening up in the French lines, and that he otherwise could have pressed on. But, really, while his army was not as battered as Castelnau’s it had still been decisively defeated.
Now, the day was not without French successes; for example, the XXth Corps of the French Second Army under a one General Ferdinand Foch, whom we will have extensive dealings with throughout the show, managed to hold on to the vitally important city of Nancy and its all-important road network. But regardless, the glorious French return into Alsace-Lorraine was put on indefinite hold. I should also mention that the next day, August 21, General de Castelnau learned that his son had been killed in the battle. After learning this terrible news, Castelnau remained stoically silent for a few moments before turning to his staff and saying simply, “we will continue, gentlemen.” Ferdinand Foch, commander of the XXth Corps, will learn that his son-in-law and his only son were killed a few days later. Just a few weeks into the war, innumerable parents are already being forced to bury their children.
The debate over whether this German attack was sound strategy or not has raged for over a century. On the one hand, Crown Prince Rupprecht’s estimation of the French forces opposing him was spot on. He had correctly deduced that an attack on this large but disorganized force, unsupported by heavy artillery and out in the open, would result in a German victory, and that’s exactly what happened. Hard casualty numbers for this “Battle of Lorraine,” as the campaign of August 15-20 is known, are hard to come by. But certainly the Germans had inflicted thousands and thousands of casualties on the French, almost certainly far more than the Germans themselves sustained, while sending the French fleeing in panic. On the other hand, the German strategy had always been to lure these forces into Alsace-Lorraine to pull them away from the main German attack through Belgium. And as we shall see, these defeated French Armies will quickly reorganize and would play a crucial role in the coming weeks in halting the German offensive. The main prize of this attack on the French right wing was the city of Nancy, but as we know, General Foch had managed to prevent the city from falling to the Germans. So while scoring a significant tactical victory, strategically Rupprecht’s attack had gained almost nothing. Personally, I think a line from Peter Hart’s wonderful book “The Great War” is the most apt summary of the German decision to attack here. Quote, “short term tactical temptations overwhelmed long term good intentions.” In my estimation, this attack was almost certainly a mistake. Though at the time it probably seemed like it had paid off, it may very well have proved to be the undoing of the Schlieffen Plan’s promise of a six-week victory.
Yet despite the handicap the Germans may have unintentionally given themselves, the next few days saw even more stunning German successes. General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, was greatly disappointed in the failure of the offensive into Alsace-Lorraine, though he showed no signs of dismay. For all of Joffre’s faults, and we’re about to see them in full display, one of the most important things he brought to the table was an implacable ability to remain calm in the face of even the greatest disasters. In the next few days, the fate of the war, indeed the fate of France, will very much hang in the balance. Yet despite the incredible danger faced by France and the crushing responsibility weighing on Joffre’s shoulders, he refused to be flustered. At one point when one of his aides brought him news of yet another defeat, and appeared to Joffre to be inappropriately gloomy, he exclaimed, “What! Do you no longer believe in France? Go get some rest, you will see – everything will be alright.” This may have been overly optimistic, even foolishly naïve. But in the next few weeks, it will be exactly what France needs.
Yet part of the reason France will need this unrelenting calm and confidence is due to the decisions Joffre made just after learning of the defeat in Lorraine and subsequent retreat back into France proper. Joffre was confirmed in his belief that the main German offensive was to come in through Alsace-Lorraine, but the increasingly urgent (in his mind, panicked) reports from General Lanrezac about a massive German push through Belgium had started to penetrate his imperturbable exterior. Back on August, 14, Lanrezac had come personally to Joffre’s headquarters and once again insisted that a massive German force was going to sweep around the west of Belgium to hit him, that is Lanrezac and his Fifth Army, on the left flank. Joffre had replied, just as he had on August 7, that these worries were quote, “premature,” despite the fact that reports were coming in to Joffre that a German force of some eight corps and four to six cavalry divisions, perhaps 400-450,000 men, had crossed the Meuse river into western Belgium. This was, for the record, a significant under-estimation of the German force now barreling through Belgium. But Joffre all but dismissed this report. There was no way that many Germans were moving through tiny Belgium. Lanrezac, at this point, knew that he was not going to receive any reinforcements from Joffre, so he had now switched his requests from asking for reinforcements to a request that he be allowed to shift the Fifth Army northwest, so that he would be better able to defend against a German attack. In essence, this would mean that the Fifth Army’s left flank would no longer be facing the Germans but rather its front, which would give them at least some ability to fight back. Joffre, late on August 15, finally agreed, on the condition that Lanrezac coordinate his deployment with the British and the Belgians, and that he send one of his corps east to prepare for an offensive in the Ardennes.
The original French battle plan, Plan XVII, had called for the Fourth and Fifth Armies to attack through the Ardennes Forest while the First and Second Armies advanced into Alsace-Lorraine. By August 20, the attack into Alsace-Lorraine had failed, but Joffre convinced himself that if there was indeed a strong German force in Alsace-Lorraine (as he had predicted and now been confirmed), and if the German invasion through Belgium was both larger and pushing farther west than originally predicted (as had also been confirmed), that therefore the center of the German line between these two positions must be the weak point of the German Armies. If he launched an attack through there, he could punch through the German lines cutting them in half. This, if it worked, would be a smashing success and would force the Germans into a general retreat or risk being completely enveloped and destroyed. So, on August 21, the day after the massive French defeat in Alsace-Lorraine, Joffre ordered the Third and Fourth Armies to attack the German center in the Ardennes Forest.
There were two main problems with this plan by Joffre. First was the terrain. The Ardennes Forest, in the words of Barbara Tuchman, quote, “is not suitable for the offensive. It is wooded, hilly, and irregular, with the slope running generally uphill from the French side and with the declivities between the hills cut by many streams. Caesar, who took ten days to march across it, described the secret, dark forest as a ‘place full of terrors.’” Don’t you just love Tuchman’s prose? It sounds like she’s describing some dark fairy tale land here. Anyway, this wooded, hilly terrain was ideally suited for a defender and a nightmare for an attacker. This is, in fact, the same area that Nazi Germany would use as the main invasion rout of France in 1940, sending waves of Panzer divisions through the heavily wooded forest, which shocked the French and the British as it was believed that an armored force could not possibly attack through such terrain. In 1914, however, the French would have no tanks, only infantry and light field guns to attack through the land Caesar had called a “place full of terrors” 2,000 years before.
The second problem with this plan of Joffre’s was his estimation of the German forces that would be stationed in that area. He calculated that, since both the right and left wings of the German armies were clearly quite strong, that their center must be weak. This, in theory, makes sense. Except the Germans had an entirely different method of deploying their troops than the French did. Both the French and German Armies were roughly divided into two groups: the regular army and the reservists, the latter of whom were older, had long since completed their service in the regular army, and would only be put into uniform if a war broke out. The French, in general, placed their reservists behind the front lines in separate units to act as, well, a reserve, to reinforce units that suffered casualties and to garrison their own forts and, if necessary, occupied enemy territory. The Germans, on the other hand, completely integrated their reservists and their regular forces into combined units, which meant that the Germans had far more troops in the front lines than the French accounted for. Specifically, the French high command estimated that the Germans would be able to bring sixty-eight total divisions to bear on the Western Front at the beginning of the war, or about 1.2 to 1.4 million men. This was, interestingly, almost exactly the number of German divisions that Schlieffen had accounted for back in 1905. But by 1914, the Germans were able to bring eighty-eight divisions, or more like 1.5 to 1.7 million men, to the Western Front. Which meant that there were fully twenty more German divisions, or two full armies of a combined 350-400,000 men, on the Western Front than the French had accounted for. This miscalculation would very nearly cost the French everything in the next few days.
The attack began on August 22, when fourteen divisions of the French Fourth Army (about 160,000 men) advanced into the Ardennes forest in Luxembourg and south eastern Belgium, supported by one of Lanrezac’s corps peeled off to support this move from their west. Meanwhile the French Third Army under General Pierre Ruffey slightly to the east moved towards Metz, a city which in 1870 had been French but had been annexed into the German Empire in 1871. The commander of the French Fourth Army, General Fernand de Langle de Cary, believed that he would be facing just a few German divisions, scattered and which would be no match for the élan of his soldiers. Instead he would be facing the entire German Fourth Army under Duke Albrecht von Württemberg, which matched his own force man for man. The French Third Army, to the east, would similarly be fighting the entire German Fifth Army under German Crown Prince Wilhelm. Not only that, but the Germans were fully dug in, protected by trees on top of hills divided by rivers, and had a large force of heavy artillery, which the French could only answer with their light 75mm guns that had nowhere near the range of the German guns.
The resulting battle was, simply put, a massacre. As the French divisions approached the German defensive positions they were hit with thousands of huge 105 and 150mm shells, each of which could blow dozens of men to bits and send deadly shrapnel flying in every direction. At this, the French charged, only to run into walls of German machine gun and rifle fire which struck down dozens more men every instant. Captain Ignard of the First Colonial Infantry Regiment later remembered,
“the noise was deafening…I return to my company and give the command, ‘forward the seventh! Fix bayonets!’…we moved quickly, on the road near to us we can hear the bugles calling – it lifted the men – they were a superb sight. But the wood was thick and as the sections advanced at varying speeds, soon I could no longer see all of my company…The charge was hardly begun when it faltered under rapid fire at close range from the enemy sheltering behind earthworks…I barely had time to go a few steps before I got a bullet that hammered into the top of my left arm. The shoulder was shattered, my arm left hanging only by pieces of flesh. I fell half-fainting.”
This Regiment that Captain Ignard was part of was simply one component part of the 3rd Colonial Division, who began August 22 with 15,000 men. By the end of the day, this division had lost 10,500 men killed, wounded, or captured, about 2/3 or their total strength. Besides the fact that these French forces were not attacking an outnumbered and disorganized enemy but rather an entrenched force that was about the same size if not slightly larger, was the fact that the French had no heavy artillery support. The French 75mm cannons were outranged by German artillery who easily destroyed most of the French batteries that were set up. Even when the French did manage to set up a few batteries, their shells were completely ineffective against the German defenses. This is captured by another French officer present at this massacre, Captain Alphonse Grasset of the 103rd Infantry Regiment, who later wrote:
“My company was sustaining heavy losses. Evidently its action was hampering the enemy who concentrated the combined fire of his infantry, artillery and machine guns on us. We were surrounded by a heavy cloud which at times completely veiled the battlefield from our eyes. Little Bergeyre sprang up, shouted, ‘Vive la France!’ at the top of his voice and fell dead. Among the men lying on the ground one could no longer distinguish the living from the dead…the wounded offered a truly impressive sight. Sometimes they would stand up bloody and horrible looking, amidst bursts of gunfire. They ran aimlessly around arms stretched before them, eyes staring at the ground, turning round and round until, hit by fresh bullets, they would stop and fall heavily…One man was trying to replace his bloody dangling hand to his shattered wrist. Another ran from the line holding the bowels falling out of his belly and through his tattered clothes. Before long a bullet struck him down. We had no support from our artillery! And yet there were guns in our division and in the army corps, besides those destroyed on the road. Where were they? Why didn’t they arrive? We were alone!”
Even with artillery support, this attack was almost certain to end in failure. But sending waves and waves of infantry into this maw, failing to account for the reality of the German forces in front of them, and having no artillery support for this attack did not just doom it to failure. It was, in reality, criminal. Yet Joffre was unwilling to accept the reality of the situation. The next day, August 23, he reported to the French Minister of War that the Third and Fourth Armies were attacking, quote, “where the enemy is most vulnerable and so as to assure ourselves of numerical superiority.” He insisted that General Ruffey and General de Cary continue the attack, but a renewed offensive simply cost the French more men and further disorganized them. A French lieutenant, Jacques Cisterne, of the 300th Infantry Regiment, reported that his entire battalion dropped their rifles and packs and fled in panic after being hit with German light artillery. The commander of this battalion impotently shouted, “Treason!” at these men running away, but as Lieutenant Cisterne observed, quote, “it was all really the fault of our Colonel, who failed, through sheer short-sightedness, to take even the most elementary precautions.” This observation of Cisterne about his Colonel could easily be applied to Joseph Joffre.
By the end of August 23 the German Crown Prince Wilhelm, commander of the German Fifth Army and himself destined someday to be crowned Wilhelm III, could no longer resist attacking. He launched his army in a massive assault against the French Third Army opposing him, sending it fleeing in panic back to Verdun, allowing the German Fifth Army to occupy Longwy, which they would hold until almost the end of the war. Crown Prince Wilhelm was elated by this success, even more so when his father the Kaiser awarded him the Iron Cross First Class. Soon Crown Prince Wilhelm was handing out dozens of medals to his officers and soldiers. So many Iron Crosses (second-class, of course) were awarded by the German Crown Prince that an Austro-Hungarian attaché wryly noted that the only way to avoid getting one was to commit suicide.
Despite this bit of exaggerated self-congratulation by the German leadership, the success of the Germans in the Battle of the Ardennes was undeniable. By August 25, the French were in full retreat. In short, as Peter Hart writes, quote, “Overall it was evident that the Germans were more tactically astute, better equipped and far more skilled and drilled in the arts of war than their opponents. It was not that the French did not fight hard…but it was all for nothing.” This assessment is backed up by a French Lieutenant of the 33rd Infantry Regiment, whom you may have heard of, named Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle, who would in time be one of the greatest generals and leaders France ever produced in the next world war, wrote in 1914, quote, “In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire.”
In the next few days, the grim calculus of battle revealed just what this German fire had done to the French Army. In just four days of fighting, from August 22 to August 25, in just one sector of the front, the French Army had lost fully 75,000 men killed and perhaps as many as 200,000 wounded. That is to say, the French lost more men killed in action in just four days than the United States lost in the entirety of the Vietnam War. Not only that, but fully 10% of France’s total army officers fell in this battle. No one seems to want to give me firm numbers on German casualties, but a rough estimate of my own based on cross-referencing some other sources shows that the Germans suffered fewer than 10,000 men killed with maybe two to three times that number wounded. Those are, obviously, very soft numbers, and if anyone has a better source on this by all means send it my way, but it gives you a sense of just how lopsided this German victory was. But let us never forget that each of these hundreds of thousands of men slaughtered or maimed in less than 100 hours of hell on earth were real people, people with hopes, dreams, fears, and foibles. The amount of suffering crowded into just a few days is simply indescribable.
Joffre could no longer bury his head in the sand. What had just happened in the third week of August, 1914, was a military and human disaster of virtually unprecedented scale. How on earth could this horde of German legions be stopped now? How could France ever be saved? Before we go today, I’d like to give a quick shoutout to two new patrons of the podcast. First, patron Teresa, and second patron DJ. So, thank you very much to both Teresa and DJ for your help in making this show possible. Next week, we will watch as the British Army finally gets into the battle, and see if they can even slow down the tide of German forces that seem ready to conquer all of France.
Doughty, Robert. Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Meyer, G.J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1962.