“IT IS A GLORIOUS AND AWFUL THOUGHT,” wrote Henry Wilson in his diary on August 21, “that before the week is over the greatest action the world has ever heard of will have been fought.” As he wrote, the action had already begun. From August 20 to 24 the whole of the Western Front blazed with battle—in reality, four battles—known to history collectively as the Battle of the Frontiers. Beginning on the right in Lorraine where the fighting had been in progress since August 14, results were communicated all along the frontier so that the issue in Lorraine had effect on Ardennes and Ardennes on Sambre-and-Meuse (known as the Battle of Charleroi) and Charleroi on Mons.
By morning of August 20 in Lorraine the First Army of General Dubail and the Second Army of General de Castelnau had battered themselves to bruised and bloody punishment against the prepared defenses of the Germans at Sarrebourg and Morhange. Offensive à outrance found its limit too soon against the heavy artillery, barbed wire, and entrenched machine guns of the defense. In prescribing the tactics of assault, French Field Regulations had calculated that in a dash of 20 seconds the infantry line could cover 50 meters before the enemy infantry would have time to shoulder guns, take aim, and fire. All these “gymnastics so painfully practised at maneuvers,” as a French soldier said bitterly afterward, proved grim folly on the battlefield. With machine guns the enemy needed only 8 seconds to fire, not 20. The Field Regulations had also calculated that shrapnel fired by the 75s would “neutralize” the defensive by forcing the enemy to keep his head down and “fire into the blue.” Instead, as Ian Hamilton had warned from the Russo-Japanese War, an enemy under shrapnel fire if entrenched behind parapets could continue to fire through loopholes straight at the attacker.
Despite setbacks both French generals ordered an advance for August 20. Unsupported by artillery barrage their troops threw themselves against the German fortified line. Rupprecht’s counterattack, which OHL had not had the nerve to deny him, opened the same morning with murderous artillery fire that tore gaping holes in the French ranks. Foch’s XXth Corps of Castelnau’s army formed the spearhead of the attack. The advance faltered before the defenses of Morhange. The Bavarians, whose ardor Rupprecht had been so loath to repress, attacking in their turn, plunged forward into French territory where, as soon as someone raised the cry of “franc-tireurs!” they engaged in a frenzy of looting, shooting, and burning. In the ancient town of Nomeny in the valley of the Moselle between Metz and Nancy, fifty civilians were shot or bayoneted on August 20, and what remained of its houses, after half had been shattered by artillery, were burned by order of Colonel von Hannapel of the 8th Bavarian Regiment.
Heavily engaged along its entire front, Castelnau’s army was now strongly attacked on its left flank by a German detachment from the garrison of Metz. With his left giving way and all his reserves already thrown in, Castelnau realized all hope of advance was gone, and broke off battle. Defensive—the forbidden word, the forbidden idea—had to be recognized as the only choice. Whether he recognized, as Plan 17’s most passionate critic suggests he should have, that the duty of the French Army was not to attack but to defend French soil, is doubtful. He ordered a general retreat to the defensive line of the Grand Couronné because he had to. On his right Dubail’s First Army, in spite of severe casualties, was holding its ground and had even made an advance. When its right flank was uncovered by Castelnau’s retreat, Joffre ordered the First Army to retire in conformity with its neighbor. Dubail’s “repugnance” at having to give up territory taken after seven days of battle was strong, and his old antipathy to Castelnau was not softened by a withdrawal which he felt “the position of my army in no way required.”
Although the French did not yet know it, the slaughter at Morhange snuffed out the bright flame of the doctrine of the offensive. It died on a field in Lorraine where at the end of the day nothing was visible but corpses strewn in rows and sprawled in the awkward attitudes of sudden death as if the place had been swept by a malignant hurricane. It was one of those lessons, a survivor realized afterward, “by which God teaches the law to kings.” The power of the defense that was to transform the initial war of movement into a four-year war of position and eat up a generation of European lives revealed itself at Morhange. Foch, the spiritual father of Plan 17, the man who taught, “There is only one way of defending ourselves—to attack as soon as we are ready,” was there to see and experience it. For four more years of relentless, merciless, useless killing the belligerents beat their heads against it. In the end it was Foch who presided over victory. By then the lesson learned proved wrong for the next war.
On August 21 General de Castelnau heard that his son had been killed in the battle. To his staff who tried to express their sympathy, he said after a moment’s silence, in a phrase that was to become something of a slogan for France, “We will continue, gentlemen.”
Next day the thunder of Rupprecht’s heavy artillery, like the hoofs of an approaching stampede, sounded ceaselessly. Four thousand shells fell on Ste. Geneviève, near Nomeny, in a bombardment lasting seventy-five hours. Castelnau believed the situation so serious as possibly to require retreat behind the Grand Couronné, yielding Nancy. “I went to Nancy on the 21st,” Foch wrote afterward; “they wanted to evacuate it. I said the enemy is five days from Nancy and the XXth Corps is there. They won’t walk over the XXth without protest!” Now the metaphysics of the lecture hall became the “Attaquez!” of the battlefield. Foch argued that with the fortified line at their backs, the best defense was counterattack, and won his point. On August 22 he saw an opportunity. Between the French fortified zones of Toul and Epinal there was a natural gap called the Trouée de Charmes where the French had expected to canalize the German attack. Reconnaissance showed that Rupprecht by taking the offensive toward Charmes was exposing his flank to the Army of Nancy.
Rupprecht’s movement had been decided in another of the fateful telephone conversations with OHL. The success of the German left-wing armies in throwing back the French from Sarrebourg and Morhange had two results: it brought Rupprecht the Iron Cross, First and Second Class—a relatively harmless result—and it revived OHL’s vision of a decisive battle in Lorraine. Perhaps, after all, frontal attack could be mastered by German might. Perhaps Epinal and Toul would prove as vulnerable as Liège, and the Moselle no more a barrier than the Meuse. Perhaps, after all, the two armies of the left wing could succeed in breaking through the French fortified line and in cooperation with the right wing bring about a true Cannae—a double envelopment. As reported by Colonel Tappen, this was the prospect that shone before the eyes of OHL. Like the smile of a temptress, it overcame years of single, wedded devotion to the right wing.
While the idea was being breathlessly discussed by Moltke and his advisers, a call came through from General Krafft von Dellmensingen, Rupprecht’s Chief of Staff, who wanted to know whether the attack was to continue or come to a halt. It had always been assumed that once Rupprecht’s armies contained the initial French offensive and stabilized their front, they would halt, organize their defenses, and free all available forces to reinforce the right wing. An alternative known as Case 3, however, had been carefully provided which allowed for an attack across the Moselle, but only at the express order of OHL.
“We must definitely know how the operation is to continue,” Krafft demanded. “I assume Case 3 is in order.”
“No, no!” replied Colonel Tappen, the Chief of Operations. “Moltke hasn’t decided yet. If you hold the line for five minutes I may be able to give you the orders you want.” In less than five minutes he returned with a surprising answer, “Pursue direction Epinal.”
Krafft was “stunned.” “In those few minutes I felt that one of the most consequential decisions of the war had been made.”
“Pursue direction Epinal” meant offensive through the Trouée de Charmes. It meant committing the Sixth and Seventh Armies to frontal attack upon the French fortress line instead of keeping them available for reinforcement of the right wing. Rupprecht duly attacked with vigor next day, August 23. Foch counterattacked. In the days that followed, the German Sixth and Seventh Armies locked themselves in combat against the French First and Second Armies, backed by the guns of Belfort, Epinal, and Toul. While they strained, other battles were being fought.
Failure of the offensive in Lorraine did not daunt Joffre. Rather, he saw in Rupprecht’s violent counterattack deeply engaging the German left wing the right moment to unleash his own offensive against the German center. It was after learning of Castelnau’s retreat from Morhange that Joffre on the night of August 20 gave the signal for attack in the Ardennes, the central and basic maneuver of Plan 17. At the same time as the Fourth and Third Armies entered the Ardennes, he ordered the Fifth Army to take the offensive across the Sambre against the enemy’s “northern group”—GQG’s term for the German right wing. He gave the order even though he had just learned from Colonel Adelbert and Sir John French that support for this offensive from the Belgians and the British would not be forthcoming as expected. The Belgian Army—except for one division at Namur—had broken off contact, and the British Army, according to its commander, would not be ready for three or four days. Besides this change in circumstances, the battle in Lorraine had revealed dangerous errors in fighting performance. These had been recognized as early as August 16 when Joffre issued instructions to all army commanders on the necessity of learning “to await artillery support” and of preventing the troops from “hastily exposing themselves to the enemy’s fire.”
Nevertheless France was committed to Plan 17 as her only design for decisive victory, and Plan 17 demanded the offensive—now and no later. The only alternative would have been to change at once to defense of the frontiers. In terms of the training, the planning, the thinking, the spirit of the French military organism, this was unthinkable.
Moreover GQG was convinced that the French Armies would have numerical superiority in the center. The French Staff could not release itself from the grip of the theory that had dominated all its planning—that the Germans were bound to be thinned out in the center. In that belief Joffre gave the order for the general offensive in the Ardennes and on the Sambre for August 21.
The terrain of the Ardennes 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,” with muddy paths and a perpetual mist rising from the peat bogs. Much of it had since been cleared and cultivated; roads, villages, and two or three large towns had replaced Caesar’s terrors, but large sections were still covered with thick leafy woods where roads were few and ambush easy. French staff officers had examined the terrain on several tours before 1914 and knew its difficulties. In spite of their warnings the Ardennes was chosen as the place of breakthrough because here, at the center, German strength was expected to be least. The French had persuaded themselves of the feasibility of the ground on the theory that its very difficulty made it, as Joffre said, “rather favorable to the side which, like ourselves, had inferiority of heavy artillery but superiority of field guns.” Joffre’s memoirs, despite constant use of the pronoun “I,” were compiled and written by a staff of military collaborators, and represent a careful and virtually official version of the dominant thinking of the General Staff before and during 1914.
On August 20 GQG, assuming the reported enemy movements across the front to be German units heading for the Meuse, envisaged the Ardennes as relatively “depleted” of the enemy. As Joffre intended to make his attack a surprise, he forbade infantry reconnaissance which might make contact and cause skirmishes with the enemy before the main encounter. Surprise was indeed achieved—but the French took their share of it.
The bottom corner of the Ardennes meets France at the upper corner of Lorraine where the Briey iron region is located. The area had been occupied by the Prussian Army in 1870. The ore of Briey not having then been discovered, the region had not been included in that part of Lorraine annexed by Germany. The center of the iron region was Longwy on the banks of the Chiers, and the honor of taking Longwy had been reserved for the Crown Prince, commander of the German Fifth Army.
At thirty-two, the imperial scion was a narrow-chested, willowy creature with the face of a fox who did not at all resemble his five sturdy brothers whom the Empress at annual intervals had presented to her husband. William, the Crown Prince, gave an impression of physical frailty and, in the words of an American observer, “only ordinary mental calibre”—unlike his father. Like him a poseur, fond of striking attitudes, he suffered from the compulsory filial antagonism usual to the eldest sons of kings, and expressed it in the usual manner: political rivalry and private dissipation. He had made himself the patron and partisan of the most aggressive militarist opinion, and his photograph was sold in the Berlin shops carrying the inscription, “Only by relying on the sword can we gain the place in the sun that is our due but that is not voluntarily accorded to us.” Despite an upbringing intended to prepare him for military command, his training had not quite reached the adequate. It included colonelcy of the Death’s Head Hussars and a year’s service on the General Staff but had not included either a divisional or corps command. Nevertheless the Crown Prince felt that his experience with the Staff and on Staff rides in the last few years “gave me the theoretical grounding for command of large units.” His confidence would not have been shared by Schlieffen who deplored the appointment of young, inexperienced commanders. He feared they would be more interested to go dashing off on a “wilde Jagd nach dem Pour le Mérite”—a wild hunt after the highest honor—than to follow the strategic plan.
The role of the Crown Prince’s Fifth Army, together with the Fourth Army under the Duke of Württemberg, was to be the pivot of the right wing, moving slowly forward at the center as the right wing swung out and down in its great enveloping sweep. The Fourth Army was to advance through the northern Ardennes against Neufchâteau while the Fifth Army advanced through the southern Ardennes against Virton and the two French fortress towns, Longwy and Montmédy. The Crown Prince’s headquarters were at Thionville—called Diedenhofen by the Germans—where he dined on a manly soldier’s fare of cabbage soup, potatoes, and boiled beef with horseradish, eked out, as concession to a prince, by wild duck, salad, fruit, wine, coffee, and cigars. Surrounded by the “grave and gloomy” faces of the native population and envying the glory won at Liège and the progress of the right wing, the Crown Prince and his staff waited feverishly for action. At last marching orders came for August 19.
Opposite the Crown Prince’s Army was the French Third Army under General Ruffey. A lone apostle of heavy artillery, Ruffey was known, because of his eloquence on behalf of the big guns, as “le poète du canon.” He had dared not only to question the omnipotence of the 75s but also to propose the use of airplanes as an offensive arm and the creation of an airforce of 3,000 planes. The idea was not admired. “Tout ça, c’est du sport!” exclaimed General Foch in 1910. For use by the army, he had added, “l’avion c’est zéro!” Next year at maneuvers General Gallieni by using airplane reconnaissance captured a colonel of the Supreme War Council with all his staff. By 1914 the French Army was using airplanes, but General Ruffey was still regarded as having “too much imagination.” Besides, as he showed a disinclination to allow Staff officers to tell him what to do, he had made enemies at GQG before he ever entered the Ardennes. His headquarters were at Verdun, and his task was to throw the enemy back on Metz-Thionville and invest them there, retaking the Briey region in the course of his advance. While he folded back the enemy on the right of the German center his neighbor, the Fourth Army under General de Langle de Cary, would fold them back on the left. The two French armies would cleave their way through the middle and lop off the arm of the German right wing at the shoulder.
General de Langle, a veteran of 1870, had been retained in command despite his having reached the French age limit of sixty-four a month before the war. In appearance a sharp, alert bantam, alive with energy, he resembled Foch, and like him, always looked in photographs as if about to leap into action. General de Langle was ready, indeed aching, to leap now, and refused to be discouraged by disquieting news. His cavalry, in combat near Neufchâteau, had run into heavy opposition and had been forced to retire. A reconnaissance tour by a staff officer in an automobile had brought further warning. The officer had talked at Arlon to a worried official of the Luxembourg government who said the Germans were in the nearby forests “in strength.” On the way back the officer’s car was fired on but his reports to Fourth Army Headquarters were judged “pessimistic.” The mood was one of valor, not discretion. The moment had come to move fast, not hesitate. It was only after the battle that General de Langle remembered that he had disapproved of Joffre’s order to attack “without allowing me to take soundings first”; only afterward that he wrote, “GQG wanted surprise but it was we who were surprised.”
General Ruffey was more troubled than his neighbor. He took more seriously the reports brought in by Belgian peasants of Germans lodged among the woods and cornfields. When he told GQG his estimate of enemy strength opposing him, they paid no attention to him and did not, or so he was to claim, even read his reports.
Fog was thick from the ground up everywhere in the Ardennes on the morning of August 21. The German Fourth and Fifth Armies had been moving forward on the 19th and 20th, entrenching their positions as they advanced. A French attack was expected, although they did not know when or where. In the dense fog the French cavalry patrols sent ahead to scout the ground “might as well have been blindfolded.” The opposing armies, moving forward through the woods and between the hills, unable to see ahead more than a few paces, stumbled into each other before they knew what was in front of them. As soon as the first units established contact and commanders became aware that battle was erupting all around them, the Germans dug in. The French, whose officers in prewar training disdained to give the troops entrenching practice for fear of making them “sticky” and who carried as few picks and shovels as possible, threw themselves into attaque brusquée with the bayonet. They were mown down by machine guns. In some encounters the French 75s slaughtered German units who had likewise been taken by surprise.
On the first day the encounters were scattered and preliminary; on the 22nd the lower Ardennes was engulfed in full-scale battle. In separate combats at Virton and Tintigny and Rossignol and Neufchâteau guns roared and flared, men flung themselves at each other, the wounded fell, and the dead piled up. At Rossignol, Algerians of the French 3rd Colonial Division were surrounded by the VIth Corps of the Crown Prince’s Army and fought for six hours until the survivors were but a remnant. Their divisional commander, General Raffenel, and a brigade commander, General Rondoney, were both killed. In August 1914 general officers were casualties like ordinary soldiers.
At Virton the French VIth Corps under General Sarrail took a German corps in the flank with fire from its 75s. “The battlefield afterwards was an unbelievable spectacle,” reported a French officer dazed with horror. “Thousands of dead were still standing, supported as if by a flying buttress made of bodies lying in rows on top of each other in an ascending arc from the horizontal to an angle of 60°.” Officers from St. Cyr went into battle wearing white-plumed shakos and white gloves; it was considered “chic” to die in white gloves. An unidentified French sergeant kept a diary: “the guns recoil at each shot. Night is falling and they look like old men sticking out their tongues and spitting fire. Heaps of corpses, French and German, are lying every which way, rifles in hand. Rain is falling, shells are screaming and bursting—shells all the time. Artillery fire is the worst. I lay all night listening to the wounded groaning—some were German. The cannonading goes on. Whenever it stops we hear the wounded crying from all over the woods. Two or three men go mad every day.”
At Tintigny a German officer also kept a diary. “Nothing more terrible could be imagined,” he wrote. “We advanced much too fast—a civilian fired at us—he was immediately shot—we were ordered to attack the enemy flank in a forest of beeches—we lost our direction—the men were done for—the enemy opened fire—shells came down on us like hail.”
The Crown Prince, not to be outdone by Rupprecht whose victories at Sarrebourg and Morhange were now known, urged his forces to match “the prodigies of valor and sacrifice” of their comrades. He had moved his headquarters to Esch in Luxembourg just across the river from Longwy and followed the battle on huge maps pinned to the walls. The suspense was torture; telephone communications with Coblenz were awful; OHL was “much too far back”; the struggle was frightful, the losses terrible; Longwy is not yet taken, he said, but “we feel we have checked the enemy’s offensive”; French units were reported retreating in disorder, not in planned retreat.
This was so. At the last moment before the battle General Ruffey was enraged to discover that three reserve divisions, altogether about 50,000 men, which formed part of his army were no longer part of it. Joffre had sequestered them, in response to the threat of Rupprecht’s offensive, to form a special Army of Lorraine made up of these three divisions and four reserve divisions which he collected elsewhere. The Army of Lorraine under General Maunoury began to take form on August 21 between Verdun and Nancy to back up Castelnau’s army and protect the right flank of the advance through the Ardennes. It was one of the last minute rearrangements which proved the saving flexibility of the French Army but at the moment had a negative result. It cut into Ruffey’s strength and kept seven divisions immobile at a vital time. Ruffey always claimed afterward that if he had had the extra 50,000 men to whom he had already issued orders he could have won the Battle of Virton. At the time his anger proved too much for tact. When a staff officer from GQG came to his headquarters during the battle, Ruffey exploded: “You people at GQG never read the reports we send you. You are as ignorant as an oyster of all that the enemy has in his bag .… Tell the Generalissimo his operations are worse than 1870—he sees absolutely nothing—incapacity everywhere.” This was not a message to be welcomed upon Olympus where Joffre and his attendant deities were more inclined to lay the blame on the incapacity of commanders and troops—Ruffey among them.
On the same day, August 22, General de Langle was experiencing a commander’s most agonizing moments—waiting for news from the front. Chaining himself “in anguish” to his headquarters at Stenay on the Meuse, twenty miles from Sedan, he received bad reports coming hard upon each other. The instinct to rush to the scene of combat could only be checked by reminding himself that a general must not lose himself among his units but can only direct their movements at a distance. To maintain sangfroid before his staff and “that mastery of himself indispensable to a chief at critical moments” was as difficult.
As the day ended, the terrible casualties of the Colonial Corps became known. Another corps, through mishandling by its commander, as De Langle believed, was in retreat, endangering its neighbors. “Serious check at Tintigny; all troops engaged with unsatisfactory results,” he had to report to Joffre, adding that losses and disorganization of his units made it impossible to carry out his orders for August 23. Joffre simply refused to believe it. With serene complacence he reported to Messimy, even after receiving De Langle’s report, that the armies had been placed “where the enemy is most vulnerable and so as to assure ourselves of numerical superiority.” GQG’s work was done. Now it was up to the troops and their commanders “who have the advantage of that superiority.” He repeated the assurance to De Langle, insisting that as he had no more than three enemy corps in front of him, he must resume the offensive.
In fact the French Armies in the Ardennes enjoyed no superiority, but the reverse. The Crown Prince’s Army included, besides the three corps which the French had identified, two reserve corps with the same numerals as the active corps, as did the Duke of Württemberg’s Army. Together they massed a greater number of men and guns than the French Third and Fourth Armies.
Fighting continued during August 23, but by the end of the day it was known the French arrow had broken against its target. The enemy had not been “vulnerable” in the Ardennes after all. Despite the massive strength of his right wing his center had not been weak. The French had not “cut them in half.” With the cry of “En avant!” with waving sword, with all the ardor on which the French Army prided itself, officers led their companies to the attack—against an enemy who dug in and used his field guns. Field gray merging into the fog and shadows had beaten the too visiblepantalon rouge; steady, solid methodical training had beaten cran. Both French Armies in the Ardennes were in retreat, the Third falling back on Verdun and the Fourth on Stenay and Sedan. Briey’s iron ore was not regained and for four more years would serve to forge German munitions for the long war which, without that iron, Germany could not have fought.
As yet on the evening of August 23 Joffre did not realize the full extent of the defeat in the Ardennes. The offensive had been “momentarily checked,” he telegraphed to Messimy, but “I will make every effort to renew the offensive.”
The Crown Prince’s Army on that day passed Longwy, leaving its fortress to be taken by siege troops, and was advancing with orders to head off the French Third Army from Verdun. The Prince who less than a month ago had been cautioned by his father to obey his Chief of Staff in everything and “do as he tells you” was “deeply moved” on this day of triumph to receive a telegram from “Papa William” awarding him, like Rupprecht, the Iron Cross, First and Second Class. The telegram was handed around among the staff to be read by all. Soon the Prince would be handing out medals himself, in a “dazzling white tunic,” as an admirer describes him later in the war, walking between two lines of soldiers distributing Iron Crosses from a basket carried by an aide. By that time, an Austrian ally would report, the Iron Cross, Second Class, could only be avoided by committing suicide. Today the “hero of Longwy,” as he was soon to be acclaimed, had won glory equal to Rupprecht’s; and if, amid the adulation, the ghost of Schlieffen grumbled at “ordinary frontal victories” without envelopment or annihilation or muttered scornful references to a “wild hunt for medals,” no one heard him.
Meanwhile on the Sambre, Lanrezac’s Fifth Army had been ordered to attack across the river and, “resting on the fortress of Namur,” with its left passing by Charleroi, was to take as its objective the enemy “northern group.” One corps of the Fifth Army was to be held in the angle of the rivers to protect the line of the Meuse against a German attack from the east. Although Joffre had no authority to command the British, his order requested Sir John French “to cooperate in this action” by advancing “in the general direction of Soignies,” that is, across the Mons Canal. The canal is an extension of the Sambre which carries navigation to the Channel by way of the Scheldt. It formed part of a continuous waterway, made by the Sambre from Namur to Charleroi and by the canal from Charleroi to the Scheldt, which lay across the path of the German right wing.
According to the German timetable, von Kluck’s Army was to reach the water barrier by August 23, while Bülow’s Army, which would have to reduce Namur on the way, would reach it earlier and be across it at about the same time.
According to the British timetable laid down by Sir John French’s marching orders, the BEF would also reach the canal on the 23rd, the same day as the Germans. Neither army was yet aware of the coincidence. The heads of the British columns were scheduled to reach the line earlier, that is, by the night of the 22nd. On the 21st, the day Lanrezac was ordered to cross the Sambre, the BEF, which had been expected to “cooperate in the action,” was a full day’s march behind the French. Instead of fighting together as planned, the two armies, because of the late British start and poor liaison resulting from the unhappy relations of their commanders, were to fight two separate battles, Charleroi and Mons, while their headquarters were only thirty-five miles apart.
In General Lanrezac’s heart the doctrine of the offensive was already dead. He could not see the whole picture, so clear now, of three German armies converging upon his front but he could feel their presence. Hausen’s Third Army was coming at him from the east, Bülow’s Second Army from the north, and Kluck’s First Army was advancing against the half-size British Army on his left. He did not know their names or numbers but he knew they were there. He knew or deduced from reconnaissance that greater numbers were coming at him than he could dispose of. Evaluation of enemy strength is not an absolute, but a matter of piecing together scraps of reconnaissance and intelligence to form a picture, if possible a picture to fit preconceived theories or to suit the demands of a particular strategy. What a staff makes out of the available evidence depends upon the degree of optimism or pessimism prevailing among them, on what they want to believe or fear to believe, and sometimes upon the sensitivity or intuition of an individual.
To Lanrezac and to GQG the same reports of German strength west of the Meuse conveyed different pictures. GQG saw a weak German center in the Ardennes. Lanrezac saw a great wave rolling down with the Fifth Army directly in its path. GQG estimated German strength west of the Meuse at 17 or 18 divisions. Opposed they counted Lanrezac’s 13 divisions, a separate group of two reserve divisions, 5 British divisions, and 1 Belgian division at Namur, a total of 21 giving what they believed a comfortable superiority in numbers. Joffre’s plan was for this force to hold the Germans behind the Sambre until the French Third and Fourth Armies should break through the German center in the Ardennes and then for all together to advance northward and throw the Germans out of Belgium.
The British Staff, dominated in fact if not in rank by Henry Wilson, agreed with GQG’s estimate. In his diary for August 20, Wilson put down the same figure of 17 or 18 divisions for the Germans west of the Meuse, and happily concluded, “The more the better, as it will weaken their center.” Back in England, far from the front, Lord Kitchener felt anxiety and foreboding. On August 19 he telegraphed Sir John French that the German sweep north and west of the Meuse, about which he had warned him, “seems definitely to be developing.” He asked to be kept informed of all reports, and next day repeated the request. In truth, at that moment German strength west of the Meuse was not 17 or 18 divisions but 30: 7 active and 5 reserve corps, 5 cavalry divisions and other units. Von Hausen’s Army, which at this time had not yet crossed the Meuse but which formed part of the right wing, was to add another 4 corps or 8 divisions. While for the Battle of the Frontiers as a whole, German numerical superiority was one and a half to one, the right wing’s preponderance was nearer two to one.
The focus of this force was Lanrezac’s Army, and he knew it. He believed the British, after his disastrous interview with their commander, to be both unready and unreliable. He knew the Belgian defense to be cracking at Namur. One of the new corps assigned to him in the recent exchange of units which was to hold his left flank west of Charleroi had not yet come into position on August 21. If he attacked across the Sambre as ordered, he believed he would be outflanked by the German forces pouring down on his left who would then have nothing between them and Paris. The guiding principle of all that he had ever taught at St. Cyr and the Ecole Supérieure, the principle that trained the French Army, was to “attack the enemy wherever met.” He looked at it now, and saw the face of a skeleton.
Lanrezac hesitated. He wrote to Joffre that if he took the offensive north of the Sambre the Fifth Army “may be exposed to giving battle alone,” as the British would not be ready to act in liaison with him. If both were to act in unison the Fifth Army must wait until the 23rd or 24th. Joffre replied “I leave you absolute judge of the moment to begin your offensive.” The enemy was not so permissive.
Detachments of Bülow’s Army whose main force was already attacking Namur plunged down upon the Sambre on August 21 and forced crossings at two points between Namur and Charleroi. Troops of the Fifth Army had been told by Lanrezac that their own offensive waited upon “neighboring armies” and that in the meantime they were to oppose any German attempts to cross the river. Defensive preparations not being in the French military vocabulary, the Xth Corps which held this sector had not dug in or laid wire or otherwise organized the defenses of the south bank, but waited to hurl themselves bodily upon the enemy. “With bugles blowing, drums beating and flags flying,” but without artillery preparation, the French now dashed to the assault. After sharp combat they were driven back, and by nightfall the enemy remained in possession of Tamines and another village on the south side of the river.
Over the crack of musketry and crash of shells a deeper sound like that of a gigantic drum could be heard in the distance. The German siege guns had begun the bombardment of the forts of Namur. Dragged down from Liège, the 420s and 305s had been brought within range, cemented into emplacements, and were now pouring their two-ton shells on a second Belgian fortress. The shells came over with “a long singing scream,” wrote an Englishwoman who had led a volunteer ambulance corps to Namur. They seemed to be coming directly at the listener wherever he stood and to explode within a yard of him wherever they hit. The town cowered through two days of the terrible sound as destruction thundered out of the sky upon the forts around them. The same effects as at Liège of explosive gases, of concrete crumbled like plaster, of men in the underground chambers driven mad were repeated. Cut off from the rest of the Belgian Army, the garrison troops and the 4th Division felt themselves deserted. Commandant Duruy, Lanrezac’s liaison officer at Namur, returned to Fifth Army headquarters to say he did not think the forts would hold out another day without some evidence of French help. “They must see the French troops marching along with colors unfurled and a band playing. There must be a band,” he pleaded. Three French battalions—one regiment of some 3,000 men—were sent off that night and joined the defense of Namur next morning. The defense numbered 37,000. The German force engaged in the assault from August 21 to 24 ranged from 107,000 to 153,000 with 400 to 500 pieces of artillery.
On the night of August 21 Sir John French reported to Kitchener that he did not think there would be serious fighting before the 24th. “I think I know the situation thoroughly and I regard it as favorable to us,” he wrote. He did not know it as thoroughly as he thought. Next day, as British troops were marching up the road to Mons “in the general direction of Soignies,” cavalry patrols reported a German corps marching down the Brussels-Mons road, also making for Soignies. From their position they could be expected to reach the village that night. It seemed unlikely the enemy would wait for Sir John’s target date of the 24th. More alarming news was brought by a British aviator who reported another German corps marching down a road far enough to the west to outflank the British left. Envelopment. Suddenly, in startling clarity the menace loomed before British eyes—at least before the eyes of the Intelligence section. The “sweep” Kitchener eternally talked of was no longer an idea, but columns of living men. The staff commanders, under Henry Wilson’s influence, discounted it. Wedded, through Wilson, to French strategy they were no more inclined than GQG to accept an alarmist view of the German right wing. “The information you have acquired and conveyed to the Commander in Chief appears to be somewhat exaggerated,” they decided, and left marching orders unchanged.
They were conscious of treading on territory of past triumphs. Ten miles south of Mons they passed through Malplaquet on the border between France and Belgium and saw by the roadside the stone monument marking the spot where Marlborough had defeated the armies of Louis XIV and won immortality in a French folk song. Ahead of them between Mons and Brussels lay Waterloo. Returning to that victorious field, almost on the hundredth anniversary of the battle, they could not but feel confident.
As the heads of their columns neared Mons on the 22nd, part of a cavalry squadron scouting the road north of the canal saw a group of four horsemen riding toward them. They looked unfamiliar. At the same instant the strange riders saw the British, and halted. There was a kind of breathless pause before each realized he was looking at the enemy. The Uhlans turned to rejoin the rest of their squadron and galloped back, chased by the British, who caught up with them in the streets of Soignies. In a sharp skirmish the Uhlans were “hampered by their long lances and a good many threw them away.” The British killed three or four and left the somewhat restricted field victorious. Captain Hornby, leader of the squadron, was awarded the DSO as the first British officer to kill a German with the new pattern cavalry sword. The war had opened in correct style with the most encouraging results.
First contact having been made on the road to Soignies as expected, the staff commanders were given no cause to change their estimate of the enemy’s strength or position. German strength opposing the British was put by Wilson at one or possibly two corps and one cavalry division, which was inferior or at most equal to the BEF’s two corps and a cavalry division. Wilson’s forceful character, high spirits, and recognized familiarity with the ground and with the French carried greater persuasion than the reports of Intelligence officers—especially as Operations officers traditionally discount estimates by their brother bureau on the theory that Intelligence always assumes the worst. The death of Sir James Grierson, who among the British had been the closest student of German military theory and practice, gave Wilson’s theories, which were a duplicate of GQG’s, that much greater sway. Battle on the morrow was expected with confidence by the staff and corps commanders if not by Sir John French.
His mood was still murky; his hesitancy almost a replica of Lanrezac’s. When General Smith-Dorrien, just arrived in France to replace Grierson, came up on the 21st he was told to “give battle on the line of the Condé Canal.” When Smith-Dorrien asked if this meant offensive or defensive, he was told to “obey orders.” One factor worrying Sir John French was ignorance of Lanrezac’s plan of battle on his right flank and fear of a gap opening between them. He set off in a motorcar on the morning of the 22nd to confer with his unpleasing neighbor; but on being told en route that Lanrezac had gone forward to corps headquarters at Mettet where the Xth Corps was now in the heat of combat, he returned without meeting him. One piece of good news met him at Headquarters. The 4th Division, left behind in England at the start, had arrived in France and was on its way forward. The lengthening shadow of the German advance through Belgium and the withdrawal of the Belgian Army to Antwerp had decided Kitchener to send it over.
General von Kluck was more surprised than the British by the cavalry clash on the road at Soignies. Up to this moment—so effective were French and British security measures—he did not know the British were in front of him. He knew they had landed because he had read the news in a Belgian newspaper which published Kitchener’s official communiqué announcing the safe arrival of the BEF “on French soil.” This announcement on August 20 was the first England, the world, and the enemy knew of the landing. Kluck still thought they had landed at Ostend, Dunkirk, and Calais, chiefly because he wanted to think so, his intention being to “attack and disperse” the British along with the Belgians before meeting the French.
Now, as he moved down from Brussels, he had to worry about a Belgian sortie from Antwerp at his rear and a possible pounce upon his flank by the British, mysteriously deploying, so he thought, somewhere in Belgium to his right. He kept trying to edge his army westward in order to find and meet the British, but Bülow, in constant fear of a gap, kept issuing orders pulling him inward. Kluck protested. Bülow insisted. “Otherwise,” he said, “the First Army might get too far away and not be able to support the Second Army.” On discovering the British squarely in front of him at Soignies, Kluck again attempted a shift to the west in order to find the enemy flank. When again prevented by Bülow he protested furiously to OHL. OHL’s notion of British whereabouts was even dimmer than the Allies’ notion of the whereabouts of the German right wing. “It appears from here that no landings of great importance have taken place,” said OHL, and rejected Kluck’s proposal. Deprived of the opportunity to envelop the enemy and condemned to frontal attack, Kluck moved wrathfully on Mons. His orders for August 23 were to cross the canal, occupy the ground to the south, and force the enemy back into Maubeuge while cutting off his retreat from the west.
Bülow on that day, August 22, was having as much trouble with Hausen on his left as with Kluck on his right. As Kluck’s tendency was to get ahead, Hausen’s was to lag behind. With advance units of his army already engaged across the Sambre against Lanrezac’s Xth Corps, Bülow planned a battle of annihilation in a great joint attack by his own and Hausen’s Army. But on the 22nd Hausen was not ready. Bülow complained bitterly of “insufficient cooperation” from his neighbor. Hausen complained equally bitterly of “suffering” from Bülow’s constant demands for help. Deciding not to wait, Bülow threw three corps into a violent attack upon the line of the Sambre.
During that day and the next Bülow’s and Lanrezac’s Armies grappled each other in the Battle of Charleroi, Hausen’s Army joining in by the end of the first day. These were the same two days when the French Third and Fourth Armies were wrestling with disaster in the fog and forest of the Ardennes. Lanrezac was at Mettet to direct the battle, a process which consisted largely of agonized waiting for divisional and corps commanders to report back what was happening to them. They in turn found it hard enough to find out what was happening from units under heavy fire or gripped in combat in village streets or stumbling back exhausted and bleeding with hardly an officer left to make a report. Visual evidence reached Mettet before reports. A car carrying a wounded officer drove into the square where Lanrezac and his staff paced anxiously, too restless to remain indoors. The wounded man was recognized as General Boë, commander of a division of the Xth Corps. With a face the color of ashes and eyes of tragedy, he whispered slowly and painfully to Hely d’Oissel who ran to the car, “Tell him … tell the General … we held on … as long as we could.”
On the left of the Xth Corps, the IIIrd Corps in front of Charleroi reported “terrible” losses. The sprawling industrial town lying on both sides of the river having been penetrated by the Germans during the day, the French were fighting furiously to dislodge them. When the Germans attacked in dense formation—as was their habit before they learned better—they made perfect targets for the 75s. But the 75s, which could fire 15 times a minute, were supplied with shells at a rate sufficient for only 2.25 shots per minute. At Charleroi the “Turcos” of the two Algerian divisions, recruited by voluntary enlistment, fought as valiantly as had their fathers at Sedan. One battalion charged a German gun battery, bayoneting the gunners, and returned with two men unwounded out of the battalion’s complement of 1,030. Everywhere the French were enraged or demoralized, according to the circumstances in different sectors, by the shelling from batteries they usually could not see or get at. They felt helpless rage at the hawk-shaped German airplanes overhead which acted as artillery spotters and whose flight over their lines was invariably followed by a new burst of shells.
By evening Lanrezac had to report the Xth Corps “forced to fall back” having “suffered severely”; the IIIrd Corps “heavily engaged”; “heavy casualties” in officers; the XVIIIth Corps on the left intact but General Sordet’s Cavalry Corps on the far left “greatly exhausted” and also forced to fall back, leaving a gap between the Fifth Army and the British. It proved to be a gap of ten miles, wide enough for an enemy corps. Lanrezac’s anxiety was so acute as to move him to send word to Sir John French asking him to relieve pressure on the French by attacking Bülow’s right flank. Sir John replied he could not comply, but promised to hold the line of the Mons Canal for twenty-four hours.
During the night Lanrezac’s position became further imperiled when Hausen brought four fresh corps and 340 guns into action on the Meuse. He attacked during the night and gained bridgeheads across the river which were counterattacked by Franchet d’Esperey’s Ist Corps whose mission was to hold the Meuse along the right side of Lanrezac’s front. His was the only corps of the Fifth Army to entrench its position.
Hausen’s intention, in compliance with orders from OHL, was to attack southwest toward Givet where he expected to come in upon the rear of Lanrezac’s Army, which could then be caught between his and Bülow’s forces, and destroyed. Bülow, however, whose units in this sector had taken as severe punishment as they had given, was determined to mount a massive and terminal attack, and ordered Hausen to attack directly westward toward Mettet upon the body of the Fifth Army instead of southwestward across its line of retreat. Hausen complied. This was an error. It engaged Hausen all during August 23 in frontal attack against the strongly held positions and vigorous generalship of Franchet d’Esperey’s corps and it left Lanrezac’s line of retreat open—an opening through which the opportunity for a battle of annihilation was to slip away.
Through the hot clear hours of August 23 the summer sky was spattered with the greasy black puffs of bursting shells. The French had instantly dubbed them “marmites” after the cast-iron soup pot that sits on every French stove. “Il plut des marmites” (It rained shells) was all that one tired soldier could remember of the day. In some places the French were still attacking, trying to throw the Germans back across the Sambre; in others they were holding; in still others they were retreating in crippled, broken disorder. The roads were choked with long columns of Belgian refugees, coated with dust, weighted down with babies and bundles, pushing wheelbarrows, dully, tiredly, endlessly moving toward no goal or home or refuge but only away from the awful roar of guns to the north.
The refugee columns passed through Philippeville, twenty miles from Charleroi where Lanrezac had his headquarters that day. Standing in the square, with red-trousered legs apart and hands clasped behind his back, Lanrezac watched them somberly, saying nothing. Above his black tunic his dark face looked almost pale and his fleshy cheeks sunken. He felt “prey to extreme anxiety.” Enemy pressure was bending against him from all sides. No guidance came from GQG except to ask his opinion of the situation. Lanrezac felt acutely conscious of the gap made by the retreat of Sordet’s cavalry. At noon came the news, foreseen yet still incredible, that the Belgian 4th Division was evacuating Namur. The city dominating the confluence of Sambre and Meuse, as well as the forts on the heights behind it, would soon be in Bülow’s hands. No word came from General de Langle de Cary of the Fourth Army to whom Lanrezac had sent a message that morning asking for a maneuver to strengthen the sector where their forces joined.
Lanrezac’s staff was urging him to permit a counterattack by Franchet d’Esperey who reported a glittering opportunity. A German force in pursuit of the retreating Xth Corps was presenting its flank to him. Other ardent pleaders urged a counterattack on the far left by the XVIIIth Corps to relieve pressure on the British who on this day at Mons were engaged against the full force of von Kluck’s Army. To the disgust of the forward-minded, Lanrezac refused. He remained silent, gave no orders, waited. In the controversy which critics and partisans were to weave for years afterwards over the Battle of Charleroi, everyone pronounced his own version of what went on in the soul of General Lanrezac that afternoon. To some he appeared pusillanimous or paralyzed, to others as a man soberly measuring the chances in an obscure and perilous situation. Left without guidance from GQG, he had to make his own decision.
Late in the afternoon occurred the decisive incident of the day. Troops of Hausen’s Army enlarged a bridgehead across the Meuse at Onhaye south of Dinant. Franchet d’Esperey at once sent a brigade under General Mangin to deal with the danger which threatened to take the Fifth Army in the rear. At the same time word at last reached Lanrezac from General de Langle. It could not have been worse. Not only was the Fourth Army not successful in the Ardennes, as an earlier communiqué from GQG had implied, but it was being forced into retreat that would leave unguarded the stretch of the Meuse between Sedan and Lanrezac’s right flank. At once the presence of Hausen’s Saxons at Onhaye took on added threat. Lanrezac believed—“I was bound to believe”—that this force was the van of an army that would be given liberty of action by de Langle’s retreat and would be reinforced if not immediately thrown back. He did not yet know—because it had not happened yet—that General Mangin’s brigade in a brilliant charge with fixed bayonets would throw the Saxons out of Onhaye.
On top of this, word came that the IIIrd Corps in front of Charleroi had been attacked, had failed to hold its ground, and was falling back. Commandant Duruy arrived with news that the Germans had taken the northern forts of Namur and entered the city. Lanrezac returned to Corps Headquarters at Chimay where he “received confirmation of the check to the Fourth Army which since morning had been retiring in such a way as to leave the Fifth Army’s right completely uncovered.”
To Lanrezac the danger on his right “seemed acute.” The thought haunted him of that other disaster at the very place where de Langle’s Army was now giving way, “where 44 years ago our army was encircled by the Germans and forced to capitulate—that abominable disaster which made our defeat irretrievable—what a memory!”
To save France from another Sedan, the Fifth Army must be saved from destruction. It was now clear to him that the French Armies were in retreat along their whole line from the Vosges to the Sambre. As long as the armies existed the defeat was not irretrievable as it had been at Sedan; the fight could go on. But if the Fifth Army were to be destroyed, the whole line would be unhinged and total defeat follow. Counterattack, however bravely pressed and urgent the need, could not save the situation as a whole.
Lanrezac finally spoke. He gave the order for a general retreat. He knew he would be taken for a “catastrophard” who must be got rid of—as indeed he was. His own account tells that he said to one of his officers: “We have been beaten but the evil is reparable. As long as the Fifth Army lives, France is not lost.” Although the remark has the ring of memoirs written after the event, it may well have been spoken. Fateful moments tend to evoke grandeur of speech, especially in French.
Lanrezac made his decision, which he believed Joffre would disapprove, without consulting GQG. “Enemy threatens my right on the Meuse,” he reported, “Onhaye occupied, Givet threatened, Namur carried.” Because of this situation and “the delay of the Fourth Army,” he was ordering the retirement of the Fifth Army. With that message vanished the last French hope of defeating the ancient enemy in a short war. The last of the French offensives had failed. Joffre did disapprove—but not that night. In the befogged and bitter hours of Sunday night, August 23, when the whole French plan was collapsing, when no one could be certain what was happening from sector to sector, when the specter of another Sedan haunted minds other than Lanrezac’s, GQG neither questioned nor countermanded the Fifth Army’s retreat. By his silence Joffre ratified the decision; he did not forgive it.
Afterward the official account of the Battle of Charleroi was to state that General Lanrezac, “thinking himself menaced on his right, ordered a retreat instead of counterattacking.” That was when GQG, in need of a scapegoat for the failure of Plan 17, settled upon the commander of the Fifth Army. In the hour when he made his decision, however, no one at GQG suggested to General Lanrezac that he merely “thought” himself menaced on his right without actually being so, as the postwar phrase implied.
Far to the left, since early morning, the British and von Kluck’s Army had been locked in a duel over the sixty-foot width of the Mons Canal. The August sun broke through early morning mist and rain, bringing promise of great heat later in the day. Sunday church bells were ringing as usual as the people of the mining villages went to Mass in their black Sunday clothes. The canal, bordered by railroad sidings and industrial back yards, was black with slime and reeked of chemical refuse from furnaces and factories. In among small vegetable plots, pastures, and orchards the gray pointed slag heaps like witches’ hats stuck up everywhere, giving the landscape a bizarre, abnormal look. War seemed less incongruous here.
The British had taken up positions on either side of Mons. To the west the IInd Corps commanded by General Smith-Dorrien lined the fifteen-mile stretch of canal between Mons and Condé and filled in a salient formed just east of Mons where the canal makes a northward loop about two miles wide and a mile and a half deep. On the right of the IInd Corps General Haig’s Ist Corps held a diagonal front between Mons and the left wing of Lanrezac’s Army. The cavalry division commanded by General Allenby, future conqueror of Jerusalem, was held in reserve. Opposite Haig was the dividing line between Kluck’s and Bülow’s armies. Kluck was keeping as far to the west as he could, and thus Haig’s corps was not attacked in the fighting of August 23 that was to become known to history and to legend as the Battle of Mons.
Sir John French’s headquarters were at Le Cateau, 30 miles south of Mons. The 5 divisions he had to direct over a front of 25 miles—in contrast to Lanrezac’s 13 divisions over a front of 50 miles—hardly required him to be that far back. Sir John’s hesitant frame of mind may have dictated the choice. Worried by the reports of his air and cavalry reconnaissance, uncertain of his neighbor, uncomfortable about the zigzag line of the front they shared which opened multiple opportunities to the enemy, he was no more happy about undertaking an offensive than was Lanrezac.
On the night before the battle he summoned the senior staff officers of both corps and the cavalry division to Le Cateau and informed them that “owing to the retreat of the French Fifth Army,” the British offensive would not take place. Except for its Xth Corps, which was not adjacent to the British, the Fifth Army was not in retreat at this time, but Sir John French had to blame someone. The same comradely spirit had moved General Lanrezac a day earlier to blame his own failure to take the offensive on the nonappearance of the British. As Lanrezac had then ordered his corps to hold the line of the Sambre instead of attacking across it, Sir John French now issued orders to hold the line of the canal. Despite Henry Wilson who was still thinking in terms of the great offensive northward that was to throw the Germans out of Belgium, the possibility of a very different kind of movement was conveyed to the commanders. Recognizing it, General Smith-Dorrien at 2:30 A.M. ordered the bridges over the canal to be prepared for demolition. It was a sensible precaution of the kind excluded by the French and, because excluded, the cause of the terrible French casualty rate of August 1914. Five minutes before the battle opened, Smith-Dorrien issued a further order directing the bridges to be destroyed on divisional order “in the event of a retirement being necessary.”
At six in the morning when Sir John French gave his last instructions to corps commanders, his—or his staff’s—estimate of the enemy strength they were about to meet was still the same: one or at most two army corps plus cavalry. In fact, at that moment von Kluck had four corps and three cavalry divisions—160,000 men with 600 guns—within striking distance of the BEF whose strength was 70,000 men and 300 guns. Of von Kluck’s two reserve corps, one was two days’ march behind and one had been left behind to mask Antwerp.
At 9:00 A.M. the first German guns opened fire on the British positions, the attack falling first upon the salient made by the loop of the canal. The bridge at Nimy at the northernmost point of the salient was the focus of the attack. Lunging at it in their dense formation, the Germans offered “the most perfect targets” to the British riflemen who, well dug in and expertly trained, delivered fire of such rapidity and accuracy that the Germans believed they faced machine guns. After repeated assault waves were struck down, they brought up more strength and changed to open formations. The British, under orders to offer “stubborn resistance,” kept up their fire from the salient despite steadily growing casualties. From 10:30 on, the battle was extended along the straight section of the canal to the west as battery after battery of German guns, first of the IIIrd and then of the IVth Corps, were brought into action.
By three in the afternoon when the British regiments holding the salient had withstood shelling and infantry assault for six hours, the pressure on their dwindling numbers became too strong. After blowing up the bridge at Nimy they fell back, company by company, to a second line of defense that had been prepared two or three miles to the rear. As the yielding of the salient endangered the troops holding the straight section of the canal, these too were now ordered to withdraw, beginning about five in the evening. At Jemappes, where the loop joins the straight section, and at Mariette two miles to the west sudden peril loomed when it was found that the bridges could not be destroyed for lack of an exploder to fire the charges. A rush by the Germans across the canal in the midst of the retirement could convert orderly retreat to a rout and might even effect a breakthrough. No single Horatius could hold the bridge, but Captain Wright of the Royal Engineers swung himself hand over hand under the bridge at Mariette in an attempt to connect the charges. At Jemappes a corporal and a private worked at the same task for an hour and a half under continuous fire. They succeeded, and were awarded the V.C. and D.C.M.; but Captain Wright, though he made a second attempt in spite of being wounded, failed. He too won the V.C., and three weeks later was killed on the Aisne.
During the early evening the delicate process of disengagement was effected under sporadic fire with regiment by regiment covering the withdrawal of its neighbor until all had reached the villages and billets of the second line of defense. The Germans, who appeared to have suffered equally from the day’s fighting, made no serious effort to force the undemolished bridges nor showed any appetite for pursuit. On the contrary, through the dusk the retiring British troops could hear German bugles sounding “Cease fire,” then the inevitable singing, then silence across the canal.
Fortunately for the British von Kluck’s more than double superiority in numbers had not been made use of. Unable, because of Bülow’s hampering orders, to find the enemy flank and extend himself around it, Kluck had met the British head on with his two central corps, the IIIrd and IVth, and suffered the heavy losses consequent upon frontal attack. One German reserve captain of the IIIrd Corps found himself the only surviving officer of his company and the only surviving company commander of his battalion. “You are my sole support,” wailed the major. “The battalion is a mere wreck, my proud, beautiful battalion …” and the regiment is “shot down, smashed up—only a handful left.” The colonel of the regiment, who like everyone in war could judge the course of combat only by what was happening to his own unit, spent an anxious night, for as he said, “If the English have the slightest suspicion of our condition, and counterattack, they will simply run over us.”
Neither of von Kluck’s flanking corps, the IInd on his right and the IXth on his left, had been brought into the battle. Like the rest of the First Army they had marched 150 miles in 11 days and were strung out along the roads several hours’ march to the rear of the two corps in the center. If all had attacked together on August 23, history might have been different. Some time during the afternoon von Kluck, realizing his mistake, ordered the two central corps to hold the British until the flanking corps could be brought up for envelopment and a battle of annihilation. Before that time a drastic change of plan forced itself upon the British.
Henry Wilson was mentally still charging forward with medieval ardor in Plan 17, unaware that it was now about as applicable to the situation as the longbow. Like Joffre who could still insist upon the offensive six hours after receiving de Langle’s report of disaster in the Ardennes, Wilson, even after the line of the canal had to be given up, was eager for an offensive next day. He had made a “careful calculation” and concluded “that we had only one corps and one cavalry division (possibly two corps) opposite to us.” He “persuaded” Sir John French and Murray that this was so, “with the result that I was allowed to draft orders for an attack tomorrow.” At 8:00 P.M., just as his work was completed, it was nullified by a telegram from Joffre which informed the British that accumulated evidence now put the enemy force opposite them at three corps and two cavalry divisions. That was more persuasive than Wilson and at once put an end to any thought of attack. Worse news followed.
At 11:00 P.M. Lieutenant Spears arrived after a hurried drive from Fifth Army headquarters to bring the bitter word that General Lanrezac was breaking off battle and withdrawing the Fifth Army to a line in the rear of the BEF. Spears’ resentment and dismay at a decision taken without consulting and without informing the British was like that of Colonel Adelbert on learning of King Albert’s decision to withdraw to Antwerp. It still colors Spears’ account written seventeen years later.
Lanrezac’s retreat, leaving the BEF in the air, put them in instant peril. In anxious conference it was decided to draw back the troops at once as soon as orders could be drafted and delivered to the front. A delay that was to cost lives was due to the strange choice of location for Smith-Dorrien’s corps headquarters. They were in a modest private country house called rather grandly the Château de la Roche at Sars-la-Bruyère, a hamlet without telegraph or telephone communication on a back country road difficult enough to find in the daytime, much more so in the middle of the night. Even Marlborough and Wellington had not disdained more convenient if less gentlemanly headquarters on the main road, one in an abbey and the other in a tavern. Smith-Dorrien’s orders had to be delivered by car, and did not reach him until 3:00 A.M., whereas Haig’s Ist Corps, which had not been in the battle, received its orders by telegraph an hour earlier and was able to prepare its retreat and get under way before dawn.
By that time the two German flanking corps had been brought up, the attack was renewed, and the retreat of the IInd Corps, which had been under fire all day, began under fire again. In the confusion one battalion never received its orders, and fought until it was surrounded and almost all its men were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Only two officers and two hundred men got away.
So ended the first day of combat for the first British soldiers to fight a European enemy since the Crimea and the first to fight on European soil since Waterloo. It was a bitter disappointment: both for the Ist Corps which had marched forward through the heat and dust and now had to turn and march back almost without having fired a shot; even more for the IInd Corps which felt proud of its showing against a famed and formidable enemy, knew nothing of his superior numbers or of the Fifth Army’s withdrawal, and could not understand the order to retreat.
It was a “severe” disappointment to Henry Wilson who laid it all at the door of Kitchener and the Cabinet for having sent only four divisions instead of six. Had all six been present, he said with that marvelous incapacity to admit error that was to make him ultimately a Field Marshal, “this retreat would have been an advance and defeat would have been a victory.”
Wilson’s confidence and cheer began to wane, and Sir John French, mercurial at best, plunged into despondency. Though in France barely more than a week, the tensions, anxieties, and responsibility, combined with the iniquities of Lanrezac and culminating in frustration on the opening day of battle, soured him on his command. He ended his report to Kitchener next day with the ominous suggestion, indicating that he already had begun to think in terms of departure, “I think immediate attention should be directed to the defense of Havre.” Havre at the mouth of the Seine was nearly a hundred miles south of the original British landing base at Boulogne.
That was the Battle of Mons. As the opening British engagement of what was to become the Great War, it became endowed in retrospect with every quality of greatness and was given a place in the British pantheon equal to the battles of Hastings and Agincourt. Legends like that of the Angels of Mons settled upon it. All its men were valorous and all its dead heroes. The deeds of every named regiment were chronicled down to the last hour and bullet of the fight until Mons came to shine mistily through a haze of such gallantry and glory as to make it seem a victory. Unquestionably, at Mons the British fought bravely and well, better than some French units but no better than many others; no better than the Belgians at Haelen or the Turcos at Charleroi or General Mangin’s brigade at Onhaye or the enemy on various occasions. The battle, before the retreat began, lasted nine hours, engaged two divisions, or 35,000 British soldiers, cost a total of 1,600 British casualties, and held up the advance of von Kluck’s army by one day. During the Battle of the Frontiers, of which it was a part, 70 French divisions, or about 1,250,000 men, were in combat at different times and places over a period of four days. French casualties during those four days amounted to more than 140,000, or twice the number of the whole British Expeditionary Force in France at the time.
In the wake of Charleroi and Mons, Belgium lay coated with white dust from the shattered walls of its houses and pock-marked with the debris of battles. Muddied hay used by the soldiers as beds trailed in the streets along with abandoned packs and blood-stained bandages. “And over all lay a smell,” as Will Irwin wrote, “which I have never heard mentioned in any book on war—the smell of half a million unbathed men .… It lay for days over every town through which the Germans passed.” Mingled with it was the smell of blood and medicine and horse manure and dead bodies. The human dead were supposed to be buried by their own troops before midnight, but often there were too many and there was too little time, and even less for the dead horses whose bodies, lying unburied for a longer time, became bloated and putrid. Belgian peasants trying to clear their fields of the dead after the armies passed by could be seen bending on their spades like pictures by Millet.
Derelict among the bodies lay the fragments of Plan 17 and bright broken bits of the French Field Regulations: “… the French Army henceforth knows no law but the offensive … the offensive alone leads to positive results.”
Joffre, standing amid the tumbled debacle of all French hopes, with responsibility for the catastrophe resting finally upon him, with the frontiers of France breached, with every one of his armies in retreat or fighting desperately to hold a defensive line, remained magically unperturbed. By immediately casting the blame on the executors and absolving the planners, he was able to retain perfect and unblemished confidence in himself and in France—and in so doing, provide the essential and unique requirement in the calamitous days ahead.
On the morning of the 24th when, as he said, “There is no escaping the evidence of the facts,” he reported to Messimy that the army was “condemned to a defensive attitude” and must hold out, resting upon its fortified lines and, while trying to wear down the enemy, wait for a favorable occasion to resume the offensive. He set about at once arranging the lines of retreat and preparing a regrouping of his armies to form a mass capable of renewing the attack from a defensive line he expected to establish on the Somme. He had been encouraged by a recent telegram from Paléologue in St. Petersburg to hope that the Germans would at any moment have to withdraw forces from the Western Front to meet the Russian threat, and on the morrow of his own disaster Joffre waited anxiously for a sound of the Russian steam roller. All that came through was a sibylline telegram reporting that “grave strategic problems” were being settled in East Prussia with promise of “further offensive operations.”
Next to re-forming his lines, Joffre’s most urgent task was to find the cause for failure. Without hesitancy of any kind he found it in “grave shortcomings on the part of commanders.” A few had indeed crumbled under the awful responsibility of command. A general of artillery had to step into the place of the commander of the IIIrd Corps in front of Charleroi when that officer could nowhere be found during the most critical phase of the battle. In the Battle of the Ardennes a divisional general of the Vth Corps committed suicide. Human beings, like plans, prove fallible in the presence of those ingredients that are missing in maneuvers—danger, death, and live ammunition. But Joffre, who would admit no fallibility of plan, would permit none in men. Demanding the names of all generals who had shown weakness or incapacity, he enlarged the list of the limogéswith ruthless hand.
Acknowledging, like Henry Wilson, no error of theory or strategy, he could only ascribe the failure of the offensive, “in spite of the numerical superiority which I thought I had secured for our armies,” to a “lack of offensive spirit.” He might better have said “excess” than “lack.” At Morhange in Lorraine, at Rossignol in the Ardennes, at Tamines on the Sambre it was not too little but too much cran that caused the French failure. In a “Note for All Armies” issued the very day after the debacle, GQG amended “lack” to “false understanding” of the offensive spirit. The Field Regulations, it said, had been “poorly understood or badly applied.” Infantry attacks were launched at too great a distance and without artillery support, thus suffering losses from machine-gun fire that might have been avoided. Henceforth when ground was occupied, “it must be immediately organized. Entrenchments must be dug.” The “capital error” had been lack of coordination between artillery and infantry which it was an “absolute necessity” to rectify. The 75s must fire at maximum range. “Finally, we must copy the enemy in using airplanes to prepare artillery attacks.” Whatever else were French military faults, unwillingness to learn from experience was not one of them—at least not in the realm of tactics.
GQG was less quick to locate failure in its own realm of strategy, even when on August 24 the Deuxième Bureau made a startling disclosure: it had discovered that the enemy’s active corps were followed by reserve corps using the same corps number. This, the first evidence of reserve units being used in the front line, revealed how the Germans had managed to be equally strong on the right and center at once. It did not convey to Joffre a suspicion that Plan 17 might have had a fallible basis. He continued to believe it a good plan which had failed through poor execution. When called to testify after the war at a parliamentary inquiry into the cause of the catastrophe that opened France to invasion, he was asked his opinion of the prewar Staff theory that the stronger the German right wing, the better for France.
“But I still think so,” Joffre replied. “The proof is that our Battle of the Frontiers was planned just for that and if it had succeeded our way would have been open .… What is more, it would have succeeded if the Fourth and Fifth Armies had fought well. If they had it would have meant annihilation of the whole German advance.”
In the dark morning of August 1914 when the retreat began it was not the Fourth so much as the Fifth Army and its commander that he chiefly blamed. Although British malice, too, clustered about the head of General Lanrezac, an anonymous spokesman for the British Army ultimately declared that Lanrezac’s decision to retreat instead of counterattacking on August 23 spared “another Sedan.” Of Lanrezac’s earlier insistence on shifting the Fifth Army west of the Meuse to Charleroi, the same spokesman added, “There is no doubt that this change of plan saved the BEF and probably the French Armies also from annihilation.”
On August 24 all that was then clear was that the French Armies were in retreat and the enemy advancing with relentless force. The extent of the debacle was unknown to the public until August 25 when the Germans announced the capture of Namur with 5,000 prisoners. The news shocked an incredulous world. The Times of London had said Namur would withstand a siege of six months; it had fallen in four days. In accents of stunned understatement it was said in England that the fall of Namur “is generally recognized as a distinct disadvantage … and the chances of the war being brought to a speedy conclusion are considerably reduced.”
How far reduced, how distant the end, no one yet knew. No one could realize that for numbers engaged and for rate and number of losses suffered over a comparable period of combat, the greatest battle of the war had already been fought. No one could yet foresee its consequences: how the ultimate occupation of all Belgium and northern France would put the Germans in possession of the industrial power of both countries, of the manufactures of Liège, the coal of the Borinage, the iron ore of Lorraine, the factories of Lille, the rivers and railroads and agriculture, and how this occupation, feeding German ambition and fastening upon France the fixed resolve to fight to the last drop of recovery and reparation, would block all later attempts at compromise peace or “peace without victory” and would prolong the war for four more years.
All this is hindsight. On August 24 the Germans felt an immense surge of confidence. They saw only beaten armies ahead; the genius of Schlieffen had been proved; decisive victory seemed within German grasp. In France, President Poincaré wrote in his diary: “We must make up our minds both to retreat and to invasion. So much for the illusions of the last fortnight. Now the future of France depends on her powers of resistance.”
Elan had not been enough.