ON THE WESTERN FRONT the fifteenth day brought an end to the period of concentration and preliminary attacks. The period of offensive battle began. The French right wing, opening the offensive into German-occupied Lorraine, took an old embattled path like so many in France and Belgium where, century after century, whatever the power that makes men fight brought legions tramping down the same roads, leveling the same villages. On the road east from Nancy the French passed a stone marker inscribed, “Here in the year 362 Jovinus defeated the Teutonic hordes.”
While on the far right the Army of General Pau renewed the offensive in Alsace, the First and Second Armies of Generals Dubail and de Castelnau marched through two natural corridors in Lorraine which determined the French line of attack. One led toward Sarrebourg, objective of Dubail’s Army; the other descending from the ring of hills around Nancy called the Grand Couronné, led via Château Salins into a valley terminating in the natural fortress of Morhange, objective of de Castelnau’s Army. The Germans had prepared the region against expected French attack with barbed wire, trenches, and gun emplacements. At both Sarrebourg and Morhange they had well-fortified positions from which they could only be dislodged by an attack of irresistible élan or bombardment by heavy artillery. The French counted on the first and scorned the second.
“Thank God we don’t have any!” replied a General Staff artillery officer in 1909 when questioned about 105 mm. heavy field artillery. “What gives the French Army its force is the lightness of its cannon.” In 1911 the War Council proposed to add 105s to the French Army, but the artillery men themselves, faithful to the famous French 75s, remained unalterably opposed. They despised the heavy field cannon as drags upon the mobility of the French offensive and regarded them, like machine guns, as defensive weapons. Messimy as War Minister and General Dubail, then on the General Staff, had forced through an appropriation for several batteries of 105s, but through changes of government and the continued contempt of the artillery corps, by 1914 only a few had been incorporated into the French Army.
On the German side the Lorraine front was held by the Sixth Army of Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, and by the Seventh Army of General von Heeringen which on August 9 was placed under Prince Rupprecht’s orders. Rupprecht’s mission was to hold as many French troops on his front as possible in order to keep them away from the main front opposite the German right wing. He was to accomplish this, according to Schlieffen’s strategy, by falling back and drawing the French forward into a “sack” where, having lengthened their line of communications, they could be engaged in battle while the decision took place elsewhere. The essence of the plan was to let the enemy in this sector come on as he showed every disposition to do and, while tempting him into a tactical victory, inflict upon him a strategic defeat.
Like the plan for East Prussia, this strategy involved psychological dangers. In the hour when the trumpets sounded, when his fellow commanders were advancing to victory, it required Rupprecht to accept obediently the necessity of withdrawal, not a pleasing prospect to a vigorous commander with an appetite for glory, especially not to one of semi-royal rank.
Erect and good-looking in a disciplined way, with straightforward eyes and a sensible mustache, Rupprecht had no touch about him of his capricious predecessors, the two King Ludwigs of Bavaria whose several and excessive passions, one for Lola Montez and the other for Richard Wagner, had caused one king to be deposed and the other to be declared mad. He came in fact from a less eccentric branch of the family which had provided the regent for the mad king, and as a direct descendant of Henrietta, daughter of Charles I of England, was legitimist Stuart heir to the English throne. In memory of King Charles, white roses decorated the palace of Bavaria every year on the anniversary of the regicide. Rupprecht had a more current Allied connection in the person of his wife’s sister Elizabeth who was married to King Albert of Belgium. The Bavarian Army, however, was thoroughly German. They were “barbarians,” reported General Dubail after the first days of battle, who before evacuating a town sacked the houses in which they had been billeted, ripped up the chairs and mattresses, scattered the contents of closets, tore down curtains, smashed and trampled furniture, ornaments, and utensils. These, however, were as yet only the habits of troops sullenly retiring. Lorraine was to see worse.
For the first four days of Dubail’s and Castelnau’s offensive, the Germans retired slowly according to plan, fighting only rearguard action against the French. Down the broad straight roads bordered with plane trees the French came in their blue coats and red trousers. At every rise in the road they could see great distances over the checkerboard of fields, one green with alfalfa, the next gold with ripe grain, another brown, already plowed for the next crop, others dotted with haystacks in neat rows. The 75s spoke with piercing shriek over the fields as the French entered the territory that had once been theirs. In the first combats against a not too determined German resistance the French were victorious, although the German heavy artillery, when used, tore terrible gaps in their lines. General Dubail on August 15 passed carts bringing back the wounded, pale and mangled, some with limbs blown off. He saw a battlefield of the previous day still strewn with corpses. On the 17th the XXth Corps of de Castelnau’s army, commanded by General Foch, took Château Salins and reached within striking distance of Morhange. On the 18th Dubail’s army took Sarrebourg. Confidence soared; offensive à outrance appeared to have triumphed; the troops exulted and saw themselves on the Rhine. At that moment Plan 17 began to crumble, had, indeed, been crumbling for many days.
On the front opposite Belgium, General Lanrezac had all this time been hammering at GQG for permission to face north into the oncoming German right instead of northeastward for the offensive into the Ardennes against the German center. He saw himself being enveloped by the German forces coming down west of the Meuse whose true strength he suspected, and he insisted on being allowed to shift a part of his army to the left bank of the Meuse into the angle with the Sambre where it could block the German path. Here he could hold a line along the Sambre, the river that rises in northern France and flows northeast through Belgium, edging the mining district of the Borinage, to join the Meuse at Namur. Along its banks rise cone-shaped slag heaps; coal barges ply its waters coming out of Charleroi, city of the kingly name that ever after 1914 would have for French ears a sound as mournful as Sedan.
Lanrezac bombarded GQG with reports from his own reconnaissance of German units and movements which indicated a mass pouring through on either side of Liège in hundreds of thousands, perhaps 700,000, “maybe even two million.” GQG insisted the figures must be wrong. Lanrezac argued that strong German forces would come down on his flank through Namur, Dinant, and Givet just at the time the Fifth Army would be entering the Ardennes. When his Chief of Staff, Hely d’Oissel, whose normally melancholy demeanor was growing daily more somber, came to GQG to plead his case, the officer who received him cried: “What, again! Is your Lanrezac still worrying about being flanked on his left? That won’t happen and”—he added, voicing GQG’s basic thesis—“if it does, why so much the better.”
Nevertheless, though determined to let nothing detract from the main offensive planned to start on August 15, GQG could not be entirely impervious to the mounting evidence of an enveloping maneuver by the German right wing. On August 12 Joffre permitted Lanrezac to move his left corps to Dinant. “High time,” Lanrezac muttered caustically, but the move no longer sufficed, he insisted; his whole army must be shifted westward. Joffre refused, insisting the Fifth Army must remain oriented eastward to perform its appointed role in the Ardennes. Always jealous of his authority, he told Lanrezac, “The responsibility of stopping the enveloping movement is not yours.” Exasperated, like all men of rapid mind at the blindness of others and accustomed to respect as a strategist, Lanrezac continued to hector GQG. Joffre grew irritated at his constant criticism and contentiousness. He conceived the whole duty of generals was to be lions in action and dogs in obedience, an ideal to which Lanrezac, with a mind of his own and an urgent sense of danger, found it impossible to conform. “My inquietude,” he wrote later, “increased from hour to hour.” On August 14, the last day before the opening of the offensive, he went in person to Vitry.
He found Joffre in his office buttressed by Generals Belin and Berthelot, his Chief and Assistant Chief of Staff. Belin, once known for his vivacity, was already showing the strain of overwork. Berthelot, quick and clever, like his opposite number, Henry Wilson, was an inveterate optimist who found it temperamentally difficult to anticipate trouble. He weighed 230 pounds and, having early conceded the victory of August heat over military dignity, worked in blouse and slippers. Lanrezac, whose dark Creole face was already sagging with worry, insisted the Germans would appear on his left just when he would be deep in the Ardennes where the difficult terrain made quick success unlikely and a turnabout impossible. The enemy would be left to complete his enveloping maneuver unopposed.
Speaking in what Poincaré called his “creamy tones,” Joffre told Lanrezac that his fears were “premature.” He added, “We have the impression the Germans have nothing ready there”—“there” meaning west of the Meuse. Belin and Berthelot repeated the assurance of “nothing ready there” and endeavored at once to soothe and encourage Lanrezac. He was urged to forget about envelopment and think only of the offensive. He left GQG, as he said, “with death in my soul.”
On his return to Fifth Army headquarters at Rethel on the edge of the Ardennes he found on his desk a report from GQG Intelligence which compounded his sense of doom. It estimated an enemy force across the Meuse of eight army corps and four to six cavalry divisions—in fact an underestimate. Lanrezac instantly sent an aide with a letter to Joffre calling his attention to these reports “coming from your own headquarters” and insisting that the movement of the Fifth Army to the region between Sambre and Meuse should be “studied and prepared from this moment.”
Meanwhile at Vitry another visitor arrived in deep anxiety to try to convince GQG of the danger on the left. When Joffre had refused to have Gallieni at Headquarters, Messimy had given him an office in the War Ministry where all reports were channeled to him. Although these did not include Intelligence reports from GQG which Joffre systematically refrained from sending to the government, Gallieni had gathered enough information to detect the outlines of the great flood pouring down upon France. It was the “terrible submersion” that Jaurès, foreseeing the use of reserves in the front line, had predicted. Gallieni told Messimy he must go to Vitry to make Joffre alter his plans, but Messimy who was nearly twenty years Joffre’s junior and stood in awe of him said Gallieni must go himself as one to whom Joffre owed much of his career and whom he could not ignore. That was underestimating Joffre who could ignore anyone he chose. When Gallieni arrived, Joffre gave him only a few minutes and passed him on to Belin and Berthelot. They repeated the assurances they had given Lanrezac. GQG had its mind “closed to the evidence” and refused to consider the German advance west of the Meuse a serious threat, Gallieni reported to Messimy on his return.
Yet that evening, under pressure of increasing evidence, GQG began to waver. Joffre, replying to Lanrezac’s last urgent message, agreed to “study” the proposed shift of the Fifth Army and to permit “preliminary arrangements” for the movement, although he still insisted that the menace to Lanrezac’s flank was “far from immediate and its certainty far from absolute.” By next morning, August 15, it had come much closer. GQG, with every nerve wound up for the great offensive, looked apprehensively to the left. A telephone call was put through to Lanrezac at 9:00 A.M.authorizing him to prepare the movement but not to execute it without direct order of the Commander in Chief. During the day reports reached GQG that 10,000 German cavalry had crossed the Meuse at Huy; then another report came that the enemy was attacking Dinant and had seized the citadel commanding the city from the high rock of the right bank; then a further report that they had forced a crossing but had been met by Lanrezac’s Ist Corps pouring down from the left bank who had driven them back across the bridge in fierce combat (in which one of the first casualties was a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant named Charles de Gaulle). This was the corps whose movement across the river had been authorized on August 12.
The menace on the left could no longer be minimized. At 7:00 P.M. Joffre’s direct order to move the Fifth Army into the angle of Sambre and Meuse was telephoned to Lanrezac, followed by his written order an hour later. GQG had succumbed—but not wholly. The order—Special Instruction No. 10—changed plans just far enough, it was felt, to meet the threat of envelopment but not so far as to give up the offensive of Plan 17. It acknowledged that the enemy “seems to be making his main effort by his right wing north of Givet”—as if Lanrezac needed to be told—and ordered the main body of the Fifth Army to move northwest “to operate together with the British and Belgian armies against the enemy forces to the north.” One corps of the Fifth Army was to remain facing northeast in support of the Fourth Army to whom the chief burden of carrying the offensive into the Ardennes was now transferred. In effect the order stretched out the Fifth Army to the west over a wider front than heretofore without added men to cover it.
Order No. 10 instructed the new spearhead, General de Langle de Cary, commander of the Fourth Army, to make ready for attack “in the general direction of Neufchâteau,” that is, into the heart of the Ardennes. To strengthen the fighting quality of his army, Joffre set in motion a complicated exchange of troops between the armies of de Castelnau, Lanrezac, and de Langle. As a result, two corps which had trained under Lanrezac were taken from him and replaced by others new to his command. Although the new units included the two highly valued divisions from North Africa which the Goeben had tried to halt, the extra movements and last-minute changes aggravated Lanrezac’s bitterness and despair.
While the rest of the French Army charged to the east, he saw himself left to guard France’s unprotected flank from the blow he believed was designed to kill her. He saw himself given the heaviest task—though GQG refused to recognize it as such—with the smallest means. His temper was not improved by the prospect of operating in common with two independent armies—the British and Belgian—whose commanders outranked him and were unknown to him. His men must execute in the August heat a march of eighty miles requiring five days, and even if they reached the line of the Sambre before the Germans did he feared it might be too late. By then the Germans would have reached it in too great strength to be stopped.
Where were the British who were supposed to be on his left? So far no one had laid eyes on them. Though he could have learned from GQG exactly where they were, Lanrezac no longer put any faith in GQG and suspected darkly that France was the victim of a perfidious British trick. Either the BEF was a myth or it was playing out a last cricket match before joining the war, and he refused to believe in its existence unless it was seen personally by one of his own officers. Daily scouting parties which included Lieutenant Spears, British liaison officer with the Fifth Army, were sent out to scour the countryside but failed to find any men in khaki, a strange functioning of liaison which Lieutenant Spears in a famous book leaves unexplained. The failure added to Lanrezac’s sense of peril. Anxieties pressed upon him. “My anguish,” he wrote, “rose to its peak.”
At the same time as he issued Order No. 10 Joffre asked Messimy to transfer three Territorial divisions from coast defense to fill the space between Maubeuge and the Channel. He was scraping the bottom of the barrel for a makeshift defense against the German right wing rather than subtract a single division from his cherished offensive. Not yet was he ready to acknowledge that the enemy’s will was being imposed on him. Not all the Lanrezacs, Gallienis, and reconnaissance reports in the world could shake GQG’s central conviction that the greater the German right wing, the more promising the prospects for the French seizure of initiative through the center.
The German march through Belgium, like the march of predator ants who periodically emerge from the South American jungle to carve a swath of death across the land, was cutting its way across field, road, village, and town, like the ants unstopped by rivers or any obstacle. Von Kluck’s Army poured through north of Liège and von Bülow’s south of the city, along the valley of the Meuse, toward Namur. “The Meuse is a precious necklace,” King Albert had said, “and Namur is its pearl.” Flowing through a broad canyon between rocky heights set back a space from the river on either side, the Meuse was a vacationland where in every other August, the traditional month of vacation, families picnicked, little boys swam, men fished from the banks under sun umbrellas, mothers sat in folding chairs knitting, little white sailboats tacked and skimmed, and the excursion boat ran from Namur to Dinant. Part of von Bülow’s army was now crossing the river at Huy halfway between Liège and Namur to advance along both banks upon the second of Belgium’s famed fortresses. Namur’s circle of forts, constructed in the same pattern as those of Liège was the last bastion before France. With confidence in the iron fist of the siege guns which had done their work so well at Liège and were now being dragged in von Bülow’s train toward their second assignment, the Germans expected to be through Namur in three days. On von Bülow’s left the Third Army commanded by General von Hausen was advancing upon Dinant so that the two armies were converging upon the angle of the Sambre and Meuse just as Lanrezac’s army was heading into it. While in the field Schlieffen’s strategy was unrolling on schedule, behind the front a jagged crack appeared in the design.
On August 16 OHL, which had remained in Berlin until the end of the concentration period, moved to Coblenz on the Rhine some eighty miles behind the center of the German front. Here Schlieffen had envisaged a Commander in Chief who would be no Napoleon on a white horse watching the battle from a hill but a “modern Alexander” who would direct it “from a house with roomy offices where telegraph, telephone and wireless signalling apparatus are at hand, while a fleet of autos and motorcycles ready to depart, wait for orders. Here in a comfortable chair by a large table the modern commander overlooks the whole battlefield on a map. From here he telephones inspiring words and here he receives the reports from army and corps commanders and from balloons and dirigibles which observe the enemy’s movements.”
Reality marred this happy picture. The modern Alexander turned out to be Moltke who by his own admission had never recovered from his harrowing experience with the Kaiser on the first night of war. The “inspiring words” he was supposed to telephone to commanders were never part of his equipment and even if they had been would have been lost in transmission. Nothing caused the Germans more trouble, where they were operating in hostile territory, than communications. Belgians cut telephone and telegraph wires; the powerful Eiffel Tower wireless station jammed the air waves so that messages came through so garbled they had to be repeated three or four times before sense could be made of them. OHL’s single receiving station became so clogged that messages took from eight to twelve hours to get through. This was one of the “frictions” the German General Staff, misled by the ease of communications in war games, had not planned for.
The wickedly unobliging resistance of the Belgians and visions of the Russian “steam roller” crashing through East Prussia further harassed OHL. Friction developed in the Staff. The cult of arrogance practiced by Prussian officers affected no one more painfully than themselves and their allies. General von Stein, Deputy Chief of Staff, though admittedly intelligent, conscientious, and hard-working, was described by the Austrian liaison officer at OHL as rude, tactless, disputatious, and given to the sneering, domineering manner known as the “Berlin Guards’ tone.” Colonel Bauer of the Operations Section hated his chief, Colonel Tappen, for his “biting tone” and “odious manner” toward subordinates. Officers complained because Moltke refused to allow champagne at mess and because fare at the Kaiser’s table was so meager it had to be supplemented with private sandwiches after dinner.
From the moment the French attack began in Lorraine, Moltke’s resolve to carry through Schlieffen’s total reliance upon the right wing began to slip. He and his staff expected the French to bring up their main forces on their left to meet the threat of the German right wing. As anxiously as Lanrezac sent out scouts looking for the British, OHL looked for evidence of strong French movements west of the Meuse, and up to August 17 found none. That vexing problem of war presented by the refusal of the enemy to behave as expected in his own best interest beset them. They concluded from the movement in Lorraine and the lack of movement on the west that the French were concentrating their main force for an offensive through Lorraine between Metz and the Vosges. They asked themselves if this did not require a readjustment of German strategy. If this were the main French attack could not the Germans, by a shift of forces to their own left wing, bring about a decisive battle in Lorraine before the right wing could accomplish it by envelopment? Could they not in fact accomplish a true Cannae, the double envelopment that Schlieffen had held in the back of his mind? Anxious discussions of this alluring prospect and even some preliminary shifting of the weight of gravity toward the left engaged OHL from August 14 to 17. On that date they decided that the French were not massing in Lorraine to the extent believed, and reverted to the original Schlieffen plan.
But once divinity of doctrine has been questioned there is no return to perfect faith. From then on, OHL was lured by opportunity on the left wing. Mentally, Moltke had opened his mind to an alternative strategy dependent on what the enemy would do. The passionate simplicity of Schlieffen’s design for total effort by one wing and rigid cleaving to plan regardless of enemy movements was broken. The plan that had appeared so faultless on paper cracked under pressure of the uncertainties, above all the emotions, of war. Having deprived himself of the comfort of a prearranged strategy, Moltke was thereafter tormented by indecisiveness whenever a decision was required. On August 16 Prince Rupprecht required one urgently.
He wanted permission to counterattack. His headquarters at Saint-Avold, a dreary, undistinguished town sunk in a hollow on the edge of the dingy mining district of the Saar, offered no princely amenities, no château for his lodging, not even a Grand Hotel. Westward stretched before him a land of easy rolling hills under wide open skies with no obstacles of importance before the Moselle, and, glowing on the horizon, the prize—Nancy, jewel of Lorraine.
Rupprecht argued that his given task to engage as many French troops as possible on his front could best be accomplished by attacking, a theory exactly contrary to the strategy of the “sack.” For three days, from August 16 to 18, discussion raged over the telephone wire, happily all in German territory, between Rupprecht’s headquarters and General Headquarters. Was the present French attack their main effort? They appeared to be doing nothing “serious” in Alsace or west of the Meuse. What did this indicate? Suppose the French refused to come forward and fall into the “sack”? Suppose Rupprecht continued to retire, would not a gap be opened up between him and the Fifth Army, his neighbor to the right, and would not the French attack through there? Might this not bring defeat to the right wing? Rupprecht and his Chief of Staff, General Krafft von Dellmensingen, contended that it would. They said their troops were impatiently awaiting the order to attack, that it was difficult to restrain them, that it would be shameful to force retreat upon troops “champing to go forward”; moreover, it was unwise to give up territory in Lorraine at the very outset of the war, even temporarily, unless absolutely forced to.
Fascinated yet frightened, OHL could not decide. A Staff major named Zollner was sent to Sixth Army Headquarters at Saint-Avoid to discuss it further in person. He said OHL was considering a change in the planned retirement but could not give up the sack maneuver completely. He returned with nothing settled. Hardly had he gone when an airplane reconnaissance report was received of local French movements backward toward the Grand Couronné which were “immediately interpreted” by the Sixth Army Staff as evidence that the enemy was not coming forward into the sack after all and therefore the best thing to do was to attack him as quickly as possible.
Matters were at a crisis. More telephone conversations ensued between Rupprecht and von Krafft at one end and von Stein and Tappen at the other. Another messenger from OHL, Major Dommes, arrived—this was on August 17—with news that made a counteroffensive appear more desirable than ever. He said OHL was now sure the French were transferring troops to their western wing and were not “tied” to Lorraine; he reported the success of the siege guns at Liège which made the French fortress line look less formidable; he said OHL now believed the English had not yet landed on the Continent and, if a decisive battle could be quickly fought here in Lorraine, they might never come at all. But of course, said Major Dommes, he was obliged by Moltke’s instructions to warn of all the hazards of a counteroffensive of which the chief and overwhelming one was that it would be a frontal attack—that anathema of German military doctrine—with envelopment impossible because of the mountains and the French fortresses.
Rupprecht retorted that there was less risk in attack than in further retreat, that he would take the enemy by surprise and might unbalance him, that he and his staff had considered all the risks and intended to master them. Working himself up with another eloquent ode to the offensive spirit of his gallant troops who must not be required to withdraw further, he announced he had made up his mind to attack unless he received a definite order from OHL prohibiting him. “Either let me attack,” he shouted, “or issue definite orders!”
Confounded by the Prince’s “forceful tone,” Dommes hurried away to OHL for further instructions. At Rupprecht’s headquarters “we waited, wondering if we would receive the prohibiting order.” They waited all morning of the 18th, and when no word had come by afternoon von Krafft telephoned to von Stein demanding to know if an order was to be expected. Once again all the advantages and all the misgivings were thrashed over. Out of patience, von Krafft asked for a Yes or No. “Oh, no, we won’t oblige you by forbidding an attack,” von Stein replied with something less than the authority of a modern Alexander. “You must take the responsibility. Make your decision as your conscience tells you.”
“It is already made. We attack!”
“Na!” answered von Stein, using a vernacular expression implying a shrug, “then strike and God be with you!”
Thus the sack maneuver was abandoned. The order was given for the Sixth and Seventh Armies to turn around and prepare for the counteroffensive.
Meanwhile the British, whom the Germans supposed not to have landed, were moving up toward their designated position on the left end of the French line. The continued rapturous greeting of the French populace sprang less from any deep love of the British, their antagonists for centuries, than from an almost hysterical thankfulness at the appearance of an ally in the struggle that was life or death for France. To the British soldiers, kissed, fed, and bedecked with flowers, it seemed like a celebration, a huge party of which they were unaccountably the heroes.
Their pugnacious Commander in Chief, Sir John French, disembarked on August 14 with Murray, Wilson, and Huguet who was now attached to the British command as liaison officer. They spent the night in Amiens and went to Paris next day to meet the President, Premier, and Minister of War. “Vive le Général French!” cried the delirious crowd of 20,000 who packed the square in front of the Gare du Nord and lined the streets. “’Eep, ’eep, ’ooray! Vive l’Angleterre! Vive la France!” All along the route to the British Embassy crowds, said to be greater than those who greeted Blériot when he flew the Channel, cheered and waved in happy welcome.
Poincaré was surprised to find his visitor a man of “quiet manner … not very military in appearance” with a drooping mustache whom one would take for a plodding engineer rather than the dashing cavalry commander of his reputation. He seemed slow and methodical without much élanand, despite his French son-in-law and a summer home in Normandy, able to speak few words of recognizable French. He proceeded to horrify Poincaré by announcing that his troops would not be ready to take the field for ten days, that is, until August 24. This was at a time when Lanrezac already feared that August 20 might be too late. “How we have been misled!” Poincaré wrote in his diary. “We thought them ready down to the last button and now they will not be at the rendezvous!”
In fact a puzzling change had come over the man whose most notable qualification for command, apart from seniority and the right friends, had been until now his military ardor. From the moment he landed in France Sir John French began to exhibit a preference for the “waiting attitude,” a curious reluctance to bring the BEF to action, a draining away of the will to fight. Whether the cause was Kitchener’s instructions with their emphasis on keeping the army in being and their caution against risking “losses and wastage,” or whether it was a sudden realization percolating into Sir John French’s consciousness that behind the BEF was no national body of trained reserves to take its place, or whether on reaching the Continent within a few miles of a formidable enemy and certain battle the weight of responsibility oppressed him, or whether all along beneath his bold words and manner the natural juices of courage had been invisibly drying up, or whether, fighting on foreign soil for someone else’s homeland, it was simply a feeling of limited liability, no one who has not been in the same position can judge.
What is certain is that from the start Sir John French’s meetings with his Allies left them variously disappointed, startled, or outraged. The immediate purpose for which the BEF had come to France—to prevent her being crushed by Germany—appeared to escape him, or at least he seemed to react to it with no sense of urgency. He appeared to think that his independence of command, which Kitchener had so stressed, meant he could “choose his own hours for fighting and his hours of resting,” as Poincaré put it, indifferent to the possibility that the Germans might overrun France in the meantime, making any further question of fighting obsolete. As the inescapable Clausewitz had pointed out, an allied army operating under independent command is undesirable, but if unavoidable it is at least essential that its commander “should not be the most prudent and cautious but the most enterprising.” During the next three weeks, the most critical of the war, the reason for Clausewitz’s italics was to become clear.
Next day, August 16, Sir John visited GQG at Vitry where Joffre discovered him to be “firmly attached to his own ideas” and “anxious not to compromise his army.” Sir John French in his turn was not impressed, owing perhaps to a British officer’s sensitivity to social background. The struggle to republicanize the French Army had produced an unfortunate proportion, from the British point of view, of officers who were not “gentlemen.” “Au fond, they are a low lot,” Sir John wrote to Kitchener some months later, “and one always has to remember the class these French generals mostly come from.” Indubitably the French generalissimo was the son of a tradesman.
On this occasion Joffre politely but urgently expressed his desire that the BEF should go into action on the Sambre along with Lanrezac on August 21. Contrary to what he had told Poincaré, Sir John French said he would do his best to meet this date. He requested that, as he was to hold the exposed end of the French line, Joffre should place Sordet’s cavalry and two reserve divisions “directly under my orders.” Joffre, needless to say, refused. Reporting the visit to Kitchener, Sir John French said he was “much impressed” by General Berthelot and the Staff, who were “deliberate, calm and confident” and exhibited a “total absence of fuss and confusion.” He expressed no opinion of Joffre beyond noting that he seemed to realize the value of a “waiting attitude,” a curious and self-revealing misjudgment.
The next visit was to Lanrezac. The taut temper at Fifth Army Headquarters appeared in Hely d’Oissel’s first greeting to Huguet when he drove up in a car with the long-sought British officers, on the morning of August 17: “At last you’re here. It’s not a moment too soon. If we are beaten, we’ll owe it to you.”
General Lanrezac appeared on the steps to greet his visitors whose appearance in the flesh did not dispel lingering suspicions that he was being tricked by officers without divisions. Nothing said in the ensuing half-hour did much to reassure him. Speaking no English and his vis-à-vis no useful French, the two generals retired to confer alone without interpreters, a procedure of such dubious value that to explain it as done out of a mania for secrecy, as suggested by Lieutenant Spears, seems hardly adequate. They emerged shortly to join their staffs, of whom several were bilingual, in the Operations Room. Sir John French peered at the map, put on his glasses, pointed to a spot on the Meuse, and attempted to ask in French whether General Lanrezac thought the Germans would cross the river at that point which bore the virtually unpronounceable name Huy. As the bridge at Huy was the only one between Liège and Namur and as von Bülow’s troops were crossing it as he spoke, Sir John French’s question was correct if superfluous. He stumbled first over the phrase “cross the river” and had to be prompted by Henry Wilson who supplied “traverser la fleuve,” but when he came to “à Huy,” he faltered again.
“What does he say? What does he say?” Lanrezac was asking restively.
“… à Hoy” Sir John French finally managed to bring out, pronouncing it as if he were hailing a ship.
It was explained to Lanrezac that the British Commander in Chief wished to know if he thought the Germans would cross the Meuse at Huy. “Tell the Marshal,” replied Lanrezac, “I think the Germans have come to the Meuse to fish.” His tone, which he might have applied to some particularly dim-witted question at one of his famous lectures, was not one customarily used toward the Field Marshal of a friendly army.
“What does he say? What does he say?” Sir John French, catching the tone if not the meaning, asked in his turn.
“He says they are going to cross the river, sir,” Wilson answered smoothly.
In the mood engendered by this exchange, misunderstandings flourished. Billets and lines of communication, an inevitable source of friction between neighboring armies, produced the first one. There was a more serious misunderstanding about the use of cavalry, each commander wanting the use of the other’s for strategic reconnaissance. Sordet’s tired and half-shoeless corps which Joffre had assigned to Lanrezac had just been pulled away again on a mission to make contact with the Belgians north of the Sambre in the hope of persuading them not to retreat to Antwerp. Lanrezac was in dire need—as were the British—of information about the enemy’s units and line of march. He wanted use of the fresh British cavalry division. Sir John French refused it. Having come to France with only four divisions instead of six, he wished to hold the cavalry back temporarily as reserve. Lanrezac understood him to say he intended employing it as mounted infantry in the line, a contemptible form of activity which the hero of Kimberley would as soon have used as a dry-fly fisherman would use live bait.
Most serious of all was the dispute over the date when the BEF would be ready for action. Although on the previous day he had told Joffre he would be ready by the 21st, Sir John French now reverted, either out of pure pique or from the uncertain state of his nerves, to what he had told Poincaré, that he would not be ready until the 24th. To Lanrezac it was the final affliction. Did the British General suppose the enemy would wait for him? he wondered, although not aloud. Obviously, as he had known from the start, the British were not to be relied on. The interview closed “with flushed faces.” Afterward Lanrezac informed Joffre that the British would not be ready “until the 24th at the earliest,” that their cavalry were to be used as mounted infantry and “cannot be counted on for any other purpose,” and raised the question of possible confusion with the British along the roads, “in the event of retirement.” The phrase produced a shock at GQG. Lanrezac, the “veritable lion” of admired aggressiveness, was already considering the possibility of retreat.
Sir John French also received a shock upon arriving at his headquarters, temporarily at Le Cateau, where he learned that the commander of his IInd Corps, his good friend General Grierson, had died suddenly that morning in the train near Amiens. French’s request to Kitchener for a particular general to replace Grierson—“please do as I ask you in this matter,” he wrote—was refused. Kitchener sent out General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien with whom French had never got on, both being opinionated men. Like Haig, Smith-Dorrien had no great respect for the Commander in Chief and tended to act on his own initiative. Sir John French took out his resentment of Kitchener’s choice in a heightened aversion to Smith-Dorrien and vented it, when all was over, in that sad and twisted document he entitled 1914 which a distinguished reviewer was to call “one of the most unfortunate books ever written.”
At Belgian Army Headquarters in Louvain on August 17, the day when Sir John French was meeting Lanrezac and Rupprecht was demanding permission to counterattack, Premier de Broqueville came to discuss with King Albert the question of removing the government from Brussels to Antwerp. Detachments of all arms of von Kluck’s army, outnumbering the Belgians four or five to one, were reported attacking the Belgian line at the river Gette 15 miles away; 8,000 troops of von Bülow’s army were reported crossing the bridge at Huy, 30 miles away, and heading for Namur. If Liège had fallen what could Namur do? The period of concentration was over, the main German advance was on its way, and as yet the armies of Belgium’s guarantors had not come. “We are alone,” the King said to De Broqueville. The Germans, he concluded, would probably overrun central Belgium and occupy Brussels and “the final issue of events is still uncertain.” It was true that the French cavalry was expected that day in the area of Namur. Joffre, when informing King Albert of their mission had assured him that in the best opinion of GQG the German units west of the Meuse were merely a “screen.” He had promised that further French divisions would soon arrive to cooperate with the Belgians against the enemy. King Albert did not think the Germans at the Gette and at Huy were a screen. The mournful decision for the government to leave the capital was taken. On August 18 the King also ordered a general retreat of the army from the Gette to the fortified camp of Antwerp and the removal of Headquarters from Louvain fifteen miles back to Malines.
The order produced “incredulous dismay” among the forward school of the Belgian General Staff and especially in the bosom of Colonel Adelbert, President Poincaré’s personal representative. Energetic and brilliantly qualified for the offensive in war, he was “less so” for diplomatic missions, ruefully admitted the French Minister to Belgium.
“You are not going to retreat before a mere cavalry screen?” exploded Colonel Adelbert. Astounded and angry, he accused the Belgians of “abandoning” the French without warning just at “the precise moment when the French cavalry corps had appeared north of the Sambre and Meuse.” The military consequences, he said, would be grave, the moral success to the Germans great, and Brussels would be uncovered to “raids by German cavalry.” This was his appreciation of the enemy strength that two days later was to take Brussels with over a quarter of a million men. However wrong his judgment and rude his tongue, Colonel Adelbert’s anguish, from the French point of view, was understandable. Retirement to Antwerp meant that the Belgian Army would withdraw from the flank of the Allied line and break off contact with the French on the eve of the great French offensive.
During the day of August 18 the King’s decision was changed several times in the agony of indecision between desire to save the Belgian Army from annihilation and reluctance to give up good positions just when French help might be arriving. Before the day was over the King’s dilemma was solved for him by Joffre’s Order No. 13 of that date which made it clear that the main French effort was to be made in another direction, leaving Belgium to guard the passage west of the Meuse with what assistance could be obtained from the Fifth Army and the British. King Albert hesitated no more. He reconfirmed the order for retreat to Antwerp, and that night the five Belgian divisions were disengaged from their positions on the Gette and withdrawn to the Antwerp camp, which they reached on August 20.
Joffre’s Order No. 13 was the “get ready” signal for the great offensive through the German center upon which all French hopes were set. It was addressed to the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Armies and communicated to the Belgians and British. It instructed the Third and Fourth Armies of Generals Ruffey and De Langle de Cary to prepare to attack through the Ardennes and left two alternatives open to the Fifth Army, depending upon final appreciation of German strength west of the Meuse. In one case Lanrezac was to attack northward across the Sambre “in complete liaison with the Belgian and British armies”; in the other case, supposing the enemy engaged “only a fraction of his right wing group” west of the Meuse, Lanrezac was to recross the river and support the main offensive through the Ardennes, “leaving to the Belgian and British armies the task of dealing with the German forces north of the Sambre and Meuse.”
It was an impossible instruction. It required Lanrezac’s army—not a unit but a heterogeneous mass of three corps and seven separate divisions stretched over an area thirty miles wide—which was then in motion on its way up to the Sambre, to face two ways and in the second alternative to return to the original deployment which Lanrezac had so painfully succeeded in turning it away from only three days ago. It could have paralyzed Lanrezac and left him stock-still, waiting for Joffre to choose one alternative or the other. Instead, the phrase “only a fraction of his right wing” sealed his loss of confidence in GQG. Ignoring the second alternative he pushed on to the Sambre. He would be in position by August 20, he informed Joffre, to counterattack any enemy forces attempting to cross the river between Namur and Charleroi and “to throw them back into the Sambre.”
Moving toward that rendezvous his battalions sang the “Sambre et Meuse,” a memorial of 1870 and favorite marching song of the French Army:
The regiment of Sambre and Meuse marched to the cry of Liberty!
Seeking the path of glory that leads to immortality.
The regiment of Sambre and Meuse died to the cry of Liberty!
Writing a page of glory that gave them immortality.
What dictated Order No. 13 was GQG’s fixed determination to carry through Plan 17, the bearer of all its hopes for victory by decisive battle. In August when the war was young the idea that it could be brought to a quick finish by decisive battle still prevailed. GQG firmly believed that however strong the German right wing, a French offensive through the German center would succeed in isolating and destroying it. That night Messimy, in “anguish” about the weakly defended frontier below the Sambre, telephoned to Joffre and was told the Generalissimo was asleep. His awe greater than his anguish, Messimy agreed that he should not be awakened. Berthelot said to him comfortingly, “If the Germans commit the imprudence of an enveloping maneuver through northern Belgium, so much the better! The more men they have on their right wing, the easier it will be for us to break through their center.”
On that day the German right wing was making its wheel through Belgium with von Kluck’s army on the outside advancing upon Brussels, von Bülow’s in the middle advancing upon Namur, and von Hausen’s on the inside advancing on Dinant. Namur, held by the Belgian 4th Division and garrison troops, stood alone, still generally regarded, despite what had happened at Liège, as an impregnable fortress. Even those who took heed of Liège thought Namur would at least hold out long enough to allow Lanrezac to cross the Sambre, make contact with its defenders, and pin his forces to the rim of Namur’s circle of forts. Commandant Duruy, a former military attaché in Brussels who was sent as liaison officer to Namur, gloomily reported to Lanrezac on August 19 that he did not believe the fortress could hold for long. Cut off from the rest of their army, the defenders were low in morale as well as in ammunition. Though his views were disputed by many, Duruy remained adamant in his pessimism.
On August 18 von Kluck’s leading troops reached the Gette where they found themselves foiled of the Belgian Army. The destruction of that army was von Kluck’s task. He had hoped to accomplish it by driving through between the Belgians and Antwerp and rounding them up before they could reach the safety of their base. He was too late. King Albert’s withdrawal saved his army and kept it in being to become a menace to von Kluck’s rear when later he turned south for the march on Paris. “They always managed to escape our grasp so that their army has not been decisively beaten nor forced away from Antwerp,” von Kluck was obliged to report to OHL.
He must shortly make his southward turn not only with the Belgians at his rear but with a new enemy, the British, in front of him. The Germans had worked it out that the logical place for the British to land would be at the ports nearest to the front in Belgium, and von Kluck’s cavalry reconnaissance, with that marvelous human capacity to see what you expect to see even if it is not there, duly reported the British to be disembarking at Ostend, Calais, and Dunkirk on August 13. This would have brought them across von Kluck’s front at almost any moment. In fact, of course, they were not there at all but were landing farther down the coast at Boulogne, Rouen, and Havre. The Ostend report, however, caused OHL to worry that as von Kluck made his southward turn his right might be attacked by the British, and if he swung his left to meet them a gap might be opened between his army and von Bülow’s. To prevent such danger OHL on August 17 put von Kluck, to his extreme annoyance, under the orders of von Bülow. How it was possible for OHL to act on a report that the British were landing at Ostend and on the same day to tell Rupprecht that the British had not yet landed and might not come at all is one of the curiosities of war which can only be explained by conjecture. Perhaps the staff officers at OHL who dealt with the left wing were a different group from those who dealt with the right wing, and failed to consult each other.
The commanders of the First and Second Armies were both within two years of seventy. Von Kluck, a strange, dark, fierce-looking man, hardly looked his age, in contrast to von Bülow with his white mustache and puffy face who looked more than his. Von Kluck, who had been wounded in the war of 1870 and acquired his ennobling “von” at the age of fifty, had been chosen before the war for the leading role in the march on Paris. His was the army that was supposed to be the hammerhead of the right wing, his that was to regulate the pace of the whole, his that had been given the greatest striking power with a density of 18,000 men per mile of front (about 10 per meter) compared to 13,000 for von Bülow and 3,300 for Rupprecht. But haunted by the specter of a gap, OHL thought that von Bülow in the center of the right wing would be in the best position to keep its three armies abreast of each other. Von Kluck, bitterly resenting the arrangement, promptly disputed von Bülow’s orders for each day’s march, causing such havoc, what with the garbled communications, that after ten days OHL was forced to rescind the order—whereupon a gap was indeed to open up, beyond recall.
The Belgians even more than von Bülow tried von Kluck’s temper. Their army by forcing the Germans to fight their way through delayed the schedule of march and by blowing up railroads and bridges disrupted the flow of ammunition, food, medicine, mail, and every other supply, causing the Germans a constant diversion of effort to keep open their lines to the rear. Civilians blocked roads and worst of all cut telephone and telegraph wires which dislocated communication not only between the German armies and OHL but also between army and army and corps and corps. This “extremely aggressive guerrilla warfare,” as von Kluck called it, and especially the sniping by franc-tireurs at German soldiers, exasperated him and his fellow commanders. From the moment his army entered Belgium he found it necessary to take, in his own words, “severe and inexorable reprisals” such as “the shooting of individuals and the burning of homes” against the “treacherous” attacks of the civil population. Burned villages and dead hostages marked the path of the First Army. On August 19 after the Germans had crossed the Gette and found the Belgian Army withdrawn during the night, they vented their fury on Aerschot, a small town between the Gette and Brussels, the first to suffer a mass execution. In Aerschot 150 civilians were shot. The numbers were to grow larger as the process was repeated, by von Bülow’s army at Ardennes and Tamines, by von Hausen’s in the culminating massacre of 664 at Dinant. The method was to assemble the inhabitants in the main square, women usually on one side and men on the other, select every tenth man or every second man or all on one side, according to the whim of the individual officer, march them to a nearby field or empty lot behind the railroad station and shoot them. In Belgium there are many towns whose cemeteries today have rows and rows of memorial stones inscribed with a name, the date 1914, and the legend, repeated over and over: “Fusillé par les Allemands” (Shot by the Germans). In many are newer and longer rows with the same legend and the date 1944.
General von Hausen, commanding the Third Army, found, like von Kluck, that the “perfidious” conduct of the Belgians in “multiplying obstacles” in his path called for reprisals “of the utmost rigor without an instant’s hesitation.” These were to include “the arrest as hostages of notables such as estate-owners, mayors, and priests, the burning of houses and farms and the execution of persons caught in acts of hostility.” Hausen’s army were Saxons whose name in Belgium became synonymous with “savage.” Hausen himself could not get over the “hostility of the Belgian people.” To discover “how we are hated” was a constant amazement to him. He complained bitterly of the attitude of the D’Eggremont family in whose luxurious château of forty rooms, with greenhouses, gardens, and stable for fifty horses, he was billeted for one night. The elderly Count went around “with his fists clenched in his pockets”; the two sons absented themselves from the dinner table; the father came late to dinner and refused to talk or even respond to questions, and continued in this unpleasant attitude in spite of Hausen’s gracious forbearance in ordering his military police not to confiscate the Chinese and Japanese weapons collected by Count D’Eggrernont during his diplomatic service in the Orient. It was a most distressing experience.
The German campaign of reprisals was not, except individually, a spontaneous answer to Belgian provocation. It had been prepared ahead of time, with usual German care for every contingency, and was designed to save time and men by cowing the Belgians quickly. Speed was essential. It was also essential to enter France with every available battalion; Belgian resistance which required troops to be left behind interfered with this objective. Proclamations were printed in advance. As soon as the Germans entered a town its walls became whitened, as if by a biblical plague, with a rash of posters plastered on every house warning the populace against acts of “hostility.” The punishment for civilians firing on soldiers was death, as it was for a variety of minor acts: “Any one approaching within 200 meters of an airplane or balloon post will be shot on the spot.” Owners of houses where hidden arms were discovered would be shot. Owners of homes where Belgian soldiers were found hidden would be sent to “perpetual” hard labor in Germany. Villages where acts of “hostility” were committed against German soldiers “will be burned.” If such an act took place “on the road between two villages, the same methods will be applied to the inhabitants of both.”
In summary the proclamations concluded: “For all acts of hostility the following principles will be applied: all punishments will be executed without mercy, the whole community will be regarded as responsible, hostages will be taken in large numbers.” This practice of the principle of collective responsibility, having been expressly outlawed by the Hague Convention, shocked the world of 1914 which had believed in human progress.
Von Kluck complained that somehow the methods employed “were slow in remedying the evil.” The Belgian populace continued to show the most implacable hostility. “These evil practices on the part of the population ate into the very vitals of our Army.” Reprisals grew more frequent and severe. The smoke of burning villages, the roads clogged with fleeing inhabitants, the mayors and burgomasters shot as hostages were reported to the world by the crowds of Allied, American, and other neutral correspondents who, barred from the front by Joffre and Kitchener, flocked to Belgium from the first day of war. A remarkable group of masters of vivid writing, the Americans included Richard Harding Davis for a syndicate of papers, Will Irwin for Collier’s, Irwin Cobb for the Saturday Evening Post, Harry Hansen for the Chicago Daily News, John T. McCutcheon for the Chicago Tribune, and others. Securing credentials from the German Army, they followed along with it. They wrote of the debris of sacked houses, the blackened villages in which no human was left but only a silent cat on a shattered doorstep, the streets strewn with broken bottles and broken windowpanes, the agonized lowing of cows with unmilked udders, the endless files of refugees with their bundles and wagons and carts and umbrellas for sleeping on rainy nights along the roadside, of the fields of grain bending over with ripeness and no one to reap them, of the questions asked over and over: “Have you seen the French? Where are the French? Where are the British?” A rag doll lying on the road with its head squashed flat by the wheel of a gun carriage seemed to one American correspondent a symbol of Belgium’s fate in the war.
On August 19 as the fusillade of shots cracked through Aerschot twenty-five miles away, Brussels was ominously quiet. The government had left the day before. Flags still decked the streets refracting the sun through their red and yellow fabric. The capital in its last hours seemed to have an extra bloom, yet to be growing quieter, almost wistful. Just before the end the first French were seen, a squadron of weary cavalry riding slowly down the Avenue de la Toison d’Or with horses’ heads drooping. A few hours later four motorcars filled with officers in strange khaki uniforms drove by. People stared and raised a feeble cheer: “Les Anglais!” Belgium’s Allies had come at last—too late to save her capital. On the 19th refugees continued to stream in from the east. The flags were being taken down; the populace had been warned; there was a menace in the air.
On August 20 Brussels was occupied. Squadrons of Uhlans moving with lances at the ready appeared suddenly in the streets. They were but the heralds of a grim parade, almost unbelievable in power and grandeur, that followed. It began at one o’clock with column after column of gray-green infantry, shaved and brushed with freshly shined boots and bayonets glinting in the sun and their ranks closed to eliminate the gaps left by the missing. The cavalry appeared in the same gray-green with black and white pennants fluttering from their lances like horsemen riding out of the Middle Ages. The phalanx of their innumerable hoofs clattering in close order seemed capable of trampling to death anything in their path. Heavy guns of the artillery thundered over the cobblestones. Drums pounded. Hoarse voices in chorus roared the victory song, “Heil dir im Siegeskranz,” to the tune of “God Save the King.” On and on, more and more, brigade after brigade, they came. Silent crowds watching the parade were stupefied by its immensity, its endlessness, its splendid perfection. The exhibition of equipment designed to awe the onlookers accomplished its object. Drawn by four horses, the kitchen wagons with fires lighted and chimneys smoking were no less astonishing than the trucks fitted out as cobblers’ shops with cobblers standing at their benches hammering at bootsoles, and soldiers whose boots were being repaired standing on the running boards.
The parade kept to one side of the boulevards so that staff officers in motorcars and messengers on bicycles could dash up and down the line of march. Cavalry officers provided a varied show, some smoking cigarettes with careless hauteur, some wearing monocles, some with rolls of fat at the back of their necks, some carrying English riding crops, all wearing expressions of studied scorn. Hour after hour the march of the conquerors continued, all through the afternoon and evening, all that night and into the next day. For three days and three nights the 320,000 men of von Kluck’s army tramped their way through Brussels. A German Governor-General took possession; the German flag was raised on the Town Hall; the clocks were put on German time; and an indemnity of 50,000,000 francs ($10,000,000) payable within ten days was imposed upon the capital and 450,000,000 francs ($90,000,000) upon the province of Brabant.
In Berlin, upon news of the fall of Brussels, bells rang out, shouts of pride and gladness were heard in the streets, the people were frantic with delight, strangers embraced, and “a fierce joy” reigned.
France on August 20 was not to be deterred from her offensive. Lanrezac had reached the Sambre, and the British were on a level with him. Sir John French after all his seesawing now assured Joffre he would be ready to go into action next day. But there was bad news from Lorraine. Rupprecht’s counteroffensive had begun with tremendous impact. Castelnau’s Second Army, unbalanced by the loss of the corps which Joffre had transferred to the Belgian front, was retreating, and Dubail reported being severely attacked. In Alsace, against greatly reduced German forces, General Pau had retaken Mulhouse and all the surrounding region, but now that Lanrezac’s move to the Sambre had pulled away strength from the central offensive Pau’s troops were needed to take their places in the line. In Joffre’s sore need the decision was taken to withdraw Pau’s forces: even Alsace, the greatest sacrifice, was to be laid on the altar of Plan 17. Although, like the iron mines of Briey, Alsace was expected to be regained with victory, General Pau’s despair speaks through the lines of his last proclamation to the people he had just liberated. “In the north the great battle begins which will decide the fate of France and with it that of Alsace. It is there that the Commander in Chief summons all the forces of the nation for the decisive attack. For us in deep chagrin it becomes necessary to leave Alsace, momentarily, to assure her final deliverance. It is a cruel necessity to which the Army of Alsace and its Commander have had pain in submitting and to which they would never have submitted except in the last extremity.” Afterward all that remained in French hands was a tiny wedge of territory around Thann where Joffre came in November and said simply, bringing tears to a silent crowd, “Je vous apporte le baiser de la France.” Final deliverance of the rest of Alsace was to wait four long years.
On the Sambre where Lanrezac was to take the offensive next day, “The 20th was an exciting day for the troops,” in the words of Lieutenant Spears. “There was crisis in the air. Not a man but felt that a great battle was at hand. The morale of the Fifth Army was extremely high .… They felt certain of success.” Their commander was less so. General d’Amade, commander of the group of three Territorial divisions which Joffre, as a last-minute gesture, had sent around to the left of the British, was also disquieted. In answer to a query he addressed to GQG, General Berthelot replied: “Reports on German forces in Belgium are greatly exaggerated. There is no reason to get excited. The dispositions taken at my orders are sufficient for the moment.”
At three o’clock that afternoon General de Langle de Cary of the Fourth Army reported enemy movements across his front and asked Joffre if he should not begin the offensive at once. At GQG the conviction reigned firmly that the greater the movements to the German right, the thinner its center. “I understand your impatience,” Joffre replied, “but in my opinion the time to attack is not yet .… The more the region [of the Ardennes] is depleted at the moment we pass to the offensive, the better the results to be anticipated from the advance of the Fourth Army supported by the Third. It is therefore, of the utmost importance that we allow the enemy to flow by us to the northwest without attacking him prematurely.”
At nine that night he judged the time had come, and issued the order to the Fourth Army to begin the offensive at once. It was the hour of élan. To Messimy, Joffre reported as night fell on August 20, “There is reason to await with confidence the development of operations.”