8: Battle of the Frontiers


With the Germans marching through Belgium the French begin their series of attacks that they think will end the war quickly. From Lorraine in the South, to the Ardennes Forest, to Belgium in the north the French ready three hammer blows against the Germans. Unfortunately the results do not live up to expectations.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 8. Last week the war began and German troops began making their way through Belgium. With the surrender of the fortress city of Liege the German troops were freed up on their move toward northern France. In the south the French army had made their first offensive attack and had taken the German city of Mulhouse, only to be repulsed back to their starting line a few days later. Joffre and the French army now planned to unleash their offensive on beginning on August 14th across the entire front. This week we will follow the course of this offensive as it ripples from south to north from Lorraine to the Ardennes and finally to Charleroi.

The French forces used in these attacks had been positioned by Plan XVII and Joffre planned to use them in massive attacks by the entire French army. Joffre had begun setting the stage for these attacks right from the beginning of the war and on August 6th he had even refused a request from the French Government to send aid to the Belgians fighting the Germans around Liege. He had insisted that he was moving forward with his planned attacks with his planned forces. To coordinate the battle Joffre had setup his headquarters at Vitry-le-Francois which was about halfway between Paris and Nancy. From these headquarters he was about equidistance from all 4 of his armies and this allowed him to quickly jump between them when necessary, which it would be in the next few weeks. Joffre and the French military high command maintained an area stretching back from the fighting front that was called the Zone of the Armies. In this zone Joffre and the military had complete control. Joffre believed that no military information should be given to newspapers or civilians and that included the political leadership. When the French president wished to tour the troops at the front he had to ask special permission from Joffre, which could be denied. It was due to this Zone of the Armies, and Joffre’s powers within it, that in the coming weeks the French public and political leadership had such small amounts of information about what was actually happening at the front.

Joffre planned to have three large attacks by the French armies along the front that he hoped would break through the German lines and win the war in one great thrust. He planned to begin these attacks in the south with the French First and Second armies moving into Lorraine and the continue it 7 days later with the Third and Fourth armies attacking into the Ardennes forest. On the same day the French fifth army would attack north from their position around Charleroi to attack the German troops in Belgium. Joffre believed that it would be the two northern attacks that would win the war and the Southern attacks were used as a way to distract the Germans and to tie down German troops in the area. We will begin with looking at the first attack which resulted in the Battle of Lorraine.

With the French plan to attack across the entire front a critical area was in Lorraine. The entirety of the French First and Second armies were dedicated to the attack which was a total of about 600,000 men. The First army was commanded by General Duvail and their objective was the city of Sarrebourg. The Second army was commanded by General de Castlenau and it would advance toward Morhange. These two cities were well defended with the Germans having put a lot of time and money into the fortifications in the area. The French were facing about 350,000 men of the German Sixth and Seventh armies under the command of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. It is an interesting note that these armies were comprised almost entirely of men from the German state of Bavaria. They had been ordered to stand on the defensive as the French attacked and to contain the attacks as best they could. In fact when the first French troops advanced on August 14th the Germans retreated in front of them. This slow, and very orderly, retreat of the Germans continued for 4 days as the French were drawn deeper and deeper into German territory. The German armies had the benefit of having one man, Rupprecht, in overall command while Dubail and the First army did not have frequent contact with Castlenau and his Second army.

The Germans continued their retreat until they reached the area around Morhange where they had prepared defensive positions. As the Germans had retreated Castlenau had become more and more cautious and concerned that the Germans were luring the French into a trap, he turned out to be correct. On August the 19th the French prepared to assault the area around Morhange with 320 battalions of French troops. It was an unfortunate coincidence for the French that the Germans also planned to attack in the same area on that day and had massed some 328 battalions of infantry that the French would run right into. It did not help the French cause that the Germans had long prepared Morhange for a defense against the French and on the plateau around Morhange they had massed 150mm howitzers, 77mm guns, and a large number of machine guns. This defensive firepower was immense and would create a curtain of fire when the French attempted to attack. When the French did attack Morhange they did so with over 40,000 troops in two columns. These men were met with a staggering amount of fire and whole divisions sustained massive casualties as the soldiers attempted to advance against the Germans. When the French had spent most of their strength in the attack the Germans then counter attacked against them to push them back from any gains that they had won during the hard fighting of August 19th. By the end of August the 20th the French had sustained 5,000 casualties around Morrhange and they were ordered to retreat back into France by Castlenau. Due to how intense the fighting had been the Germans were unable to directly pursue the French which allowed them to re-enter France in relatively good order.

The First army under the command of Duvail fared a bit better when they moved to attack Sarrebourg. The Germans had actually retreated from Sarrebourg in the days before August 19th and they had retreated a bit further east into prepared defensive positions that were not all that different than the ones found at Morhange. When the French attacked on August 20th they were met with the same withering fire as their fellow soldiers had experienced the day before. They attacked at Sarrebourg without proper artillery support, which was a mistake the French were to make several times in the early battles of the war. The First army would however fare better on the defensive than their neighbors to the north but when Castlenau had ordered the retreat of the Second Army Duvail was compelled to also order the retreat of his men so as not to be outflanked. When the First army began retreating the Germans launched an attack that would carry them all the way to France. The French would retreat into their prepared defensive positions around Trouee De Charmes with the Germans in pursuit.

The French tried again on August 22nd to move into Lorraine but they were quickly driven back and that would mark the end of the French attempts to advance into Lorraine in 1914. The French took a staggering number of casualties and their attacks completely failed, however the Germans had also taken many casualties and they made one strategic mistake due to the events of the battle. In a deviation from the plan the Crown Prince would request that he be allowed to attack the French positions, believing that he could easily overrun them. This idea began the slow degradation of the pre-war plan of the German military which put all of the focus of the attacks on the right wing moving through Belgium. This germ of an idea of breaking through in Lorraine and executing a double envelopment of the French forces was very attractive. If Rupprecht could break through he could meet the German troops moving through Belgium and completely surround the French armies in the field and cut them off from the rest of France. It was for this reason that Rupprecht was allowed to begin his attacks on the French positions. Over the next several days the Germans threw themselves at the French defenses and had similar results to that of the French a few days earlier, massive casualties to no real gain. When the Germans finally broke off their attack it would mark the end of the Battle of Lorraine. The lines established in August 1914 would remain in roughly the same locations for the rest of the war.

With the reports coming in about the strength of the German armies moving through Belgium and the apparent strength of the German armies in Lorraine Joffre believed that their center must be weak. The center of the German line was around the Ardennes forest in northeastern France. The strength of the German armies to the north and the south of this position convinced Joffre and other French leaders that they would have a numerical superiority if they went on the offensive in this region. The problem was that the Ardennes forest was made up of broken terrain that was covered in a heavily wooded forest. The French planners believed that the lack of heavy artillery in the French army would actually be an advantage in this sort of terrain. They believed the Germans would be weighed down by their artillery and that the French with less and lighter artillery would be able to move faster than their German counterparts. With all of these things in mind Joffre planned to begin the offensive on August 20th with the goals of pushing the Germans in the region all the way back to Metz. If the French would have been successful they would have been able to unhinge the right wing of the Germans and would have made it very risky for the troops now marching through Belgium to continue their advance.

To complete the attack the French planned to use their Third and Fourth armies. The Fourth army was originally planned to be kept in reserve but it was brought to the front for this attack. Combined these armies numbered around 350,000 and the two armies were commanded by very different generals. The Third army was commanded by General Pierre Ruffey who was known for this belief in the usage of airplanes in a reconnaissance role for the military. He also believed that the French needed more heavy artillery to deal with the advantage that Germany had in that area. General Fernand de Langle de Cary on the other hand bought into the French style of offensive at all costs and did not share Ruffey’s view on heavy artillery. Facing these two generals were Albrecht of Wurttemburg and Crown Prince Wilhelm who commanded the Fourth and Fifth german armies respectively. They had been given the task of safe guarding the left flank of the German troops to the north and their goal was to slowly pivot with the right wing to keep the line continuous. Since the beginning of the war they had been very slowly advancing through the Ardennes to keep pace with the troops to their right and they had taken the time to fortify positions as they moved forward as they expected a French attack. The German armies numbered around 375,000, you will notice that these armies were larger than the French armies that were attacking. The numerical superiority of the German forces became even more pronounced when, on the eve of the battle, Joffre removed 3 divisions, or around 50,000 men, from the Third Army. These troops were moved to Lorraine due to the fears of a German breakthrough in the area.

The attack began on the morning of August 21st and on that day there was a thick fog hanging over the Ardennes. This fog cut the visibility in the area drastically and resulted in the armies, who were advancing in opposite directions, sort of just stumbling into each other. Throughout the entire day on August 21st there were confused confrontations up and down the line as the two groups of men grappled with each other. On the next day, after the French had made contact with the Germans along the front, the real attacks began. The French troops advanced against prepared German positions and troops without proper artillery preparations. As I am sure you can guess by now these attacks once again went very poorly for the French. In their advance towards Rossingol the French Colonial Corps, which was the most experienced of all the French troops due to their experience in the colonies suffered over 11 thousand casualties. Their experience and their bravery in the face of German attacks mostly just served to get them surrounded as the troops to their left and right fell back. All throughout the 22nd of August the French attacked across the entire front without many gains, they did however rack up a lot of casualties. It wasn’t just the French who suffered the casualties with the Germans also leaving thousands of dead on the battlefield. By the end of the day some French units along the front were in retreat leaving other units, like the French Colonial Corps, unprotected and vulnerable. The French attacked again the next day with even less success.

By August 23rd both French armies were in retreat. The Third Army was falling back to the fortifications around Verdun and the Fourth army was retreating to Sedan. The French offensive on which Joffre placed so much hope had been defeated. Joffre however did not quite grasp just how defeated the French troops were. Late on August 23rd he believed that the offensive was just momentarily stopped and he is quoted as saying that “I will make every effort to renew the offensive.” Unfortunately it would be many years before the French troops would once again enter the Ardennes. The Fourth army would continue their retreat past Sedan and to the South as they were caught up in the retreat of the French troops from Charleroi. The Fifth army would retreat to Verdun, and Verdun is a story for a different day.

The final French battle that is considered part of the Battle of the Frontiers is the Battle of Charleroi. This is also sometimes called the Battle of the Sambre due to its proximity to the Sambre river but there is another battle in 1918 that is also called the Battle of the Sambre so to prevent any confusion I will just call it the Battle of Charleroi. This was the northernmost offensive by the French army and it was to be executed by the Fifth army in conjunction with the British Expeditionary force. The goal of this French attack was to throw the Germans out of Belgium which they had been moving through for the last few days. The French would be positioned, and would be attacking across the Meuse river which makes the border between France and Belgium. On their left would be the British who would attack at Mons and on their right was the Belgian fortifications around Namur. The Namur fortification complex was similar to what the Germans had encountered at Liege and over the next few days they would apply the lessons they had learned at Liege to quickly deal with the fortifications. The French planned to begin their attack on the 21st of August with the British scheduled to arrive on the 22nd and the main German force would reach the river on August the 23rd.

The French troops of the Fifth army were under the command of General Lanrezac who was known for his caustic manners and bad temper. He was however considered to be quite skilled by the French high command but was often at odds with Joffre. Right from the beginning of the war he was concerned about the security of his left flank, which would eventually be guarded by the British. He was getting intelligence reports from sources within Belgium that pointed to massive numbers of German troops approaching his army on the Belgian border and was concerned that the British would not arrive in time or that the British would not be able to stop them. These concerns were mostly ignored by the French high command under the idea that the more troops the Germans put in the north the better it was for the French offensives in the south. On August 1st Lanrezac wrote a letter to Joffre describing his concerns especially if his army was to be used in an attack which would make it impossible for him to maneuver to meet any German attacks on his flanks. Joffre did not even respond to this letter. The Fifth army that Lanrezac commanded numbered around 30,000 men and he was supported by the Fourth army on his right and the British on his left. At the original time that the attack was supposed to begin the British had not yet arrived so Lanrezac asked to be able to delay his offensive until the 23rd or 24th of August to allow the British to arrive and prepare for battle. This request was denied. The French would be faced by the Second and Third German armies which contained a combined 30 divisions. These troops were fresh off the victories on the Belgian frontier and were in very high spirits. On their right flank was General von Kluck and the German First army which would advance against the British at Mons.

Before the French could attack on August 21st the Germans began attempting to cross the Sambre river, which the French planned to cross the next day. The unexpected attack by the Germans left the French a bit flat footed as they were not prepared for defensive operations in the area. Since the French believed that they would soon be going on the offensive they had not dug any defensive trenches or deployed barbwire entanglements. The Germans were able to force 2 crossing points over the river which they were able to hold against strong French counterattacks throughout the day. While the attacks on the Sambre were underway the Germans were beginning their bombardment of Namur. Namur was a fortified city much like the one that Germans had encountered at Liege and much like at Liege the Germans had brought their Skoda and Krupp howitzers to pound the forts into submission. The defenders of Namur numbered about 37,000 men, augmented by 3,000 men sent by Lanrezac to help hold the fort, even with these reinforcements the troops at Namur were just a fraction of the number of Germans that were advancing toward them. Fortunately for the troops in Namur the city was not the main objective for the infantry now advancing past the Sambre, unfortunately, they were the primary target of the German howitzers.

The German plan revolved around Bulow and his Second army attacking across the Sambre directly at the French while Hausen and the Third Army attacked against the French right flank. On the 22nd, even after Bulow had forced his way across the River he was slowed in his attack due to Hausen not being ready to play his part. Even with these setbacks the Germans continued their attack over the next few days. Much like the French in the south the Germans were attacking with their men in close formations which saw them suffer great casualties due to French artillery and rifle fire. In the south these tactics had resulted in crippling casualties for the French without any real gains and a big reason it was different for the Germans was their superiority in artillery. The Germans had a lot more artillery than the French and this allowed them to pound the French positions throughout the entire battle. The constant bombardment caused casualties for the French due to their lack of defenses. By the evening of the 22nd the French were in retreat from the Sambre with their Tenth and Third Corps, who had taken the brunt of the German offensive suffering heavy casualties.

On the evening of the 22nd Hausen finally joined in the attack bringing with him his 4 German corps and their 340 artillery pieces. Hausen was positioned across the Meuse River from the French and his goal was to get behind the French manning the positions on the Sambre to cut off their retreat. On the night of the 22nd they were able to force two crossings across the Meuse. What he found facing him was the First Corps of the French army led by Franchet d’Esperey. Unlike the French troops on the Sambre those led by d’Esperey had entrenched their positions in preparation for the German assault. To compound the difficulties faced by the troops of Hausen it was decided to attack more to the West instead of to the southwest as originally planned. Instead of taking Hausen behind the French troops this Westward course led him right into the heart of d’Esperey’s positions. Throughout the 23rd Hausen’s men would attack these positions but they could not break through.

On the 23rd two pieces of bad news reached Lanrezac. At midday the news reached him that the Belgians were abandoning Namur. Namur held a critical point in the French line that connected the troops on the Sambre and those of d’Esperey on the right flank. With Namur gone there would be increasing pressure from the Germans. On the French left flank the cavalry Corps which had been minding the gap between the French and British at Mons was retreating causing a miles wide gap to develop that the Germans could move through. Even with all of these crises occurring Lanrezac’s generals urged him to counter attack either against the Germans in front of them or against the Germans attacking the British. Lanrezac spent the afternoon of the 23rd of August trying to determine the best course of action for his army when in the evening he was told of the failure of the Ardennes offensive to his south. In what was sure to be a heavy double whammy he was also told that Hausen’s men had forced a crossing on the Meuse further south from d’Esperey’s men which put the entire army in danger of being cut off from the rest of France. These two bits of news probably made up his mind that it was time to leave the battlefield in an attempt to save his army.

It is at least somewhat probable that if the Ardennes offensive would have succeeded Lanrezac would not have retreated. The Fourth army in the Ardennes, if they would have been advancing at the Germans instead of retreating from them, would have greatly compromised the flank and rear of the Germans on the Meuse. Without the threat to the Germans Lanrezac ordered a general retreat from the area. Lanrezac did not seek approval from Joffre partly because he assumed Joffre would not approve of the retreat. When Joffre found out about the order there is no record of him having any question or comment. The official account of the battle simply says that Lanrezac “thinking himself menaced on his right, ordered a retreat instead of counterattacking.”

The final of the French offensives had failed. Not only had the French on the banks of the Sambre failed to throw the Germans out of Belgium they were in fact in full retreat into France. This retreat took any hope of the French quickly winning the war on the offensive away and they could only hope to stem the tide of the German advance. A large amount of the blame for the failure of the French offensive, and for the resulting retreat across France, would be placed upon Lanrezac’s decision to retreat. Lanrezac had sacrificed his future in the French army by ordering the retreat, he would be relieved of his command by Joffre on the third of September. In reality it was the order to retreat that saved the Fifth army from annihilation, and quite possibly was the biggest reason that the French were able to stop the Germans a few weeks later on the banks of the Marne.

The French offensives were a failure. In the south the French had ended their attacks much where they began them. In the Center their attacks had been repulsed fully and they had even been thrown back from their starting lines. In the North the Fifth army was in full retreat. France would suffer over 200,000 casualties in the first Month of the war, with 140,000 of those coming in the last four days of the Battle of the Frontiers. To put that number in perspective, at least a little bit, the United States would suffer about 200,000 casualties in the entirety of the Vietnam war. Across the entire line the French were either holding their ground or in retreat and in the north of France that retreat would not end until the Battle of the Marne on September 6th. While the French were fighting the battle of Charleroi the British were on their left flank at Mons dealing with von Kluck’s first army which was advancing toward them. Next week we will catch up with the British Expeditionary Force and follow them from their arrival in France through the battle of Mons. We will also look at the Great Retreat as the British and French fall back all the way to the Marne river outside Paris.