LIKE A SWINGING SCYTHE the five German armies of the right wing and center cut into France from Belgium after the Battle of the Frontiers. A million Germans were in the invading force whose leading columns, shooting and burning, entered French territory on August 24. No breakthrough was made on the Lorraine front where the two armies of the left wing under Prince Rupprecht continued to struggle in prolonged battle against the furious resistance of Castelnau’s and Dubail’s armies.
Down the long white highways of northern France, cutting a swath seventy-five miles wide, the German right wing was on the march to Paris with Kluck’s Army on the extreme right seeking to envelop the Allied line. Joffre’s immediate problem was to halt the retreat of his own armies while at the same time shifting weight to the left to create a force strong enough to check the enemy’s enveloping movement and be “capable of resuming the offensive.” In the aftermath of catastrophe, “resume the offensive” was the dominant thought at GQG. Within twenty-four hours of the debacle, without taking time to assess what was officially called the “check” to the French Armies, or to rethink strategy in terms of the possible, Joffre issued on August 25 a new General Order, the second of the war. It proposed to create in the path of the German right wing a new Sixth Army formed of forces taken from the unbroken front in Lorraine. Transported by rail to Amiens, on the left of the British, it would, together with the BEF and the Fourth and Fifth French Armies, form the mass that was to resume the offensive. While the Sixth Army was forming, the three retreating French Armies were to try to maintain a continuous front and “arrest or at least delay the advance of the enemy by short and violent counterattacks” carried out by rearguards. As stated in General Order No. 2, Joffre expected the Sixth Army to be in position and ready to join in a renewed offensive by September 2, Sedan Day.
That date glittered too before the oncoming Germans who expected by then to accomplish Schlieffen’s goal: envelopment and destruction of the French Armies in a central mass in front of Paris. Throughout the next twelve days another Sedan was in the minds of both sides. They were twelve days in which world history wavered between two courses and the Germans came so close to victory that they reached out and touched it between the Aisne and the Marne.
“Fight in retreat, fight in retreat,” was the order dinned into every French regiment during these days. The necessity to hold off pursuit and gain time to regroup and reestablish a solid line gave an urgency to the fighting that had been missing from the offensive. It required rearguard actions that were almost suicidal. The Germans’ need to allow the French no time to regroup pushed them on with equal intensity.
In retreat the French fought with competence and emergency-learned skills that had not always been present during the opening battles in Belgium. No longer engaged in a vast and only vaguely understood offensive in mysterious forests on alien soil, they were back on their own soil, defending France. The land they were passing through was familiar, the inhabitants were French, the fields and barns and village streets were their own, and they fought now as the First and Second Armies were fighting for the Moselle and the Grand Couronné. Though defeated in the offensive, they were not a routed army; their line, though dangerously pierced, was not yet broken. On the left in the path of the main German advance the Fifth Army, escaping from disaster at Charleroi and the Sambre, was trying to regather cohesion in retreat. In the center, with their backs to the Meuse, the Third and Fourth Armies fought savage holding actions from Sedan to Verdun against the two armies of the German center, frustrating the enemy’s effort to surround them and, as the Crown Prince unhappily admitted, “recovering their freedom of movement.” Despite rearguard actions the German advance was too massive to be stopped. Still fighting, the French fell back; holding and delaying where they could but always falling back.
At one place after crossing the Meuse, a battalion of chasseurs à pied in General de Langle’s Fourth Army was ordered at nightfall to hold a bridge which dynamite charges had failed to blow up. They spent a night of “anguish and horror” watching the Saxons of von Hausen’s Army on the opposite bank “burning the town and shooting the inhabitants under our eyes. In the morning flames rose from the village. We could see people running in the streets, pursued by the soldiers. There were shots .… At a great distance we could see an endless movement of horsemen who seemed to be searching out our position: far away on the plain appeared dark masses marching.” The masses approached and soon along the winding road a German infantry battalion in columns of five came “marching steadily toward us. The road below was filled as far back as one could see with a swarm of troops—columns of infantry preceded by officers on horseback, artillery trains, transport, cavalry—almost a division, marching in perfect order.”
“Take aim!” The order was repeated down the line of chasseurs in low voices. Silently the men took their places. “Volley fire; aim at the infantry first, each man pick his target!” Company leaders gave the range. “Open fire!” Along the length of the river the fusillade crackled. Down among the Germans there was a sudden stupor. Their companies whirled and eddied; they fled. Horses struggled and reared in harness, wagons crashed. The road was covered with hundreds of corpses. At 8:45 the French ammunition was almost gone. Suddenly from behind on their left came a burst of rifle fire. The enemy had turned their flank. “To the rear, à la baïonnette!” Under the thrust of their bayonet charge, the Germans gave way; the French regiment cut its way through.
Hundreds of such combats were fought by rearguards while the armies fell back, attempting to keep a continuous front with each other and reach a line from which the offensive could be renewed. Alongside the soldiers, the civil population joined in the southward-moving mass, on foot and in every kind of conveyance from families in six-horse wagons to old men pushed in wheelbarrows and babies in perambulators. Crowding the roads, they added to the confusion. Staff cars could not get through, officers cursed, messages went undelivered. Jammed between marching groups, commercial trucks and municipal buses, mobilized for army service with their familiar markings painted over with military symbols, moved slowly, carrying the wounded men who lay in blood-soaked silence with shell-torn limbs and eyes filled with pain and the fear of death.
Each mile of the retreat was an agony of yielding further French territory to the enemy. In some places French soldiers marched past their own homes knowing the Germans would enter them next day. “We left Blombay on August 27,” wrote a cavalry captain with the Fifth Army. “Ten minutes later it was occupied by the Uhlans.” Units that had been in heavy combat marched in silence, out of step, without songs. Haggard men, parched and hungry, some bitter, muttered against their officers or whispered of treason. Every French position had been betrayed to the German artillery spotters, it was said in the Xth Corps of Lanrezac’s Army which had lost 5,000 men on the Sambre. “The men drag themselves along, their faces marked by a terrible exhaustion,” wrote an infantry captain in this corps. “They have just completed a two days’ march of 62 kilometers after a sharp rearguard action.” But that night they sleep, and in the morning “it is extraordinary how a few hours’ sleep revives them. They are new men.” They ask why they are retreating, and the captain makes a sharp speech in “a cold assured voice.” He tells them they will fight again “and show the Germans we have teeth and claws.”
The cavalry, once so shiny in polished boots and bright uniforms, now stained and muddy, sway in their saddles, dazed with fatigue. “The men’s heads hang with weariness,” writes an officer of Hussars with the 9th Cavalry Division. “They only half see where they are going; they live as if in a dream. At halts the famished and broken-down horses even before unsaddling, plunge at the hay and devour it voraciously. We no longer sleep; we march by night and face the enemy by day.” They learn the Germans have crossed the Meuse behind them, are gaining ground, setting villages in flames as they pass. “Rocroi is a mass of fire and the barns burning in the neighborhood light up the trees of the nearby woods.” At dawn the voice of the enemy’s cannon begins; “the Germans salute the sun with their shells.” Through the incessant crash and thunder the French hear the brave scream of their own 75s. They grip their positions, waiting for the artillery duel to end. A mounted orderly rides up with an order from the commander: retreat. They move on. “I contemplated the green fields and the herds of grazing sheep and I thought, ‘What a fortune we are abandoning!’ My men recovered their spirits. They found a system of trenches dug by the infantry which they examined with the greatest curiosity as if they were sights offered for the admiration of the tourist.”
On August 25 Germans belonging to the Duke of Württemberg’s Army penetrated Sedan and shelled Bazeilles, scene of the famous Battle of the Last Cartridge in 1870. The French of de Langle’s Fourth Army counterattacked to keep them from crossing the Meuse. “A hot artillery duel began,” wrote a German officer of the VIIIth Reserve Corps. “It was such a terrible fracas that the earth trembled. All the old bearded Territorials were crying.” Later he fought in a “terrible combat on wooded slopes as steep as roofs. Four assaults with the bayonet. We had to jump over piles of our own dead. We fell back on Sedan with heavy casualties and the loss of three flags.”
That night the French blew up all the railroad bridges in the area. Torn between the need to delay the enemy and the thought that tomorrow they might require bridges and railroads themselves for a return to the offensive, the French left destruction of communications to the latest possible moment, sometimes too late.
The greatest difficulty of all was the assignment of each unit, from army corps down to single regiments, each with its own supply train and auxiliaries of cavalry and artillery to its own roads and lines of communication. “Rather than yield a road to the transport wagons, the infantry mark time at the crossroads,” complained a supply officer. While falling back, the units had to reform and collect again around their flags, report their losses, receive replacements of men and officers from the depots of reserves in the rear. For one corps alone, the IVth of Ruffey’s Army, a total of 8,000 reserves, a quarter of its strength, were sent up to replace losses, company by company. Among the officers, devoted to the doctrine of élan, casualties from the rank of general down were severe. One of the causes of the debacle, in the opinion of Colonel Tanant, a staff officer with the Third Army, was that general officers would not direct operations from their proper place in the rear but led from the front; “they performed the function of corporals, not commanders.”
But now from bitter experience they had learned revised tactics. Now they entrenched. One regiment, shoveling all day in its shirt sleeves under the hot sun, dug trenches deep enough to shoot from standing up. Another, ordered to entrench and organize the defense of a woods, passed the night without incident and moved on again at four in the morning, “almost sorry to go without a fight … for by now we are seized with anger at this continual retreat.”
Yielding as little territory as possible, Joffre intended to make his stand as near as he could to the point of breakthrough. The line he laid down in General Order No. 2 was along the Somme, about fifty miles below the Mons Canal and the Sambre. Poincaré wondered whether there was not some self-deception lurking in Joffre’s optimism, and there were others who would have preferred a line farther back, allowing time to solidify a front. From the day after the debacle the men in Paris already saw Paris as the front, but Joffre’s mind had not traveled back to the capital and there was no one in France to question Joffre.
The government was in a frenzy; ministers, according to Poincaré, in a “state of consternation”; deputies, according to Messimy, in a “panic that painted a livid mask of fear upon their faces.” Removed from direct contact with the front, lacking eyewitness evidence, uninformed as to strategy, dependent on the “laconic and sibylline” communiqués of GQG and on rumor, supposition, and conflicting reports, they were responsible to the country and the people while without authority over the military conduct of the war. Underneath the rubbed and polished sentences of Joffre’s report Poincaré could make out the sharp edges of the truth—“a triple avowal of invasion, defeat and the loss of Alsace.” He felt his immediate duty was to tell the country the facts and prepare the people for the “terrible trials” that lay ahead. That the need to prepare Paris for a siege was even more immediate, he did not yet realize.
Early that morning the nakedness of the capital was made known to Messimy, as Minister of War. General Hirschauer of the Engineers, in charge of the defense works and Chief of Staff to General Michel, the Military Governor of Paris, came to see him at 6:00 A.M. This was several hours before Joffre’s telegram arrived, but Hirschauer had learned privately of the disaster at Charleroi and his mind took in the distance from the frontiers to the capital in a single stride. He told Messimy flatly that the defenses of the perimeter were not ready to be manned. Despite elaborate studies with every requirement foreseen, “the fortifications existed on paper but nothing had been done on the ground.” Originally the date given for the defense works to be usable was August 25, but such was the faith in the French offensive that it had been put off to September 15. Because of reluctance to begin the property destruction involved in felling trees and razing houses for fields of fire and in digging trenches, no definite order for these major measures had been given. Construction of gun emplacements and infantry posts, laying of barbed wire, cutting of timber for parapets, preparation of storage shelters for ammunition were not even half finished, provisioning of the city barely begun. As Military Governor and responsible for the defenses, General Michel, perhaps permanently discouraged by the rejection of his defensive plan in 1911, had been lackluster and ineffectual. His tenure of command which came into being with the outbreak of war had quickly floundered in anarchy and hesitancy. Confirmed in the poor opinion he had had of Michel in 1911, Messimy had called in General Hirschauer on August 13 with orders to make up the delays and complete the defenses in three weeks. Hirschauer now confessed the task was impossible.
“Palaver is the rule,” he said. “Every morning I lose three hours in reports and discussions which have no results. Every decision requires an arbitration. Even as Chief of Staff to the Governor, I cannot, as a simple general of brigade, give orders to the generals of division who command the sectors.”
As was his habit Messimy sent at once for Gallieni and was conferring with him when Joffre’s telegram came in. Its opening phrase blaming the failure on “our troops who have not shown in the field the offensive qualities expected of them,” depressed Messimy inordinately, but Gallieni looked for facts, distances, and place names.
“Briefly,” he said without sentiment, “you may expect the German armies to be before the walls of Paris in twelve days. Is Paris ready to withstand a siege?”
Forced to answer No, Messimy asked Gallieni to return later, intending in the meantime to obtain authority from the government to name him Military Governor in place of Michel. At that moment he was “stupefied” to learn from another visitor, General Ebener, GQG’s representative at the War Ministry, that Paris was to lose two reserve divisions, the 61st and 62nd, assigned to her defense. Joffre had ordered them north to reinforce a group of three Territorial divisions, the only French troops between the British and the sea where Kluck’s right-wing corps were sweeping down. Raging, Messimy protested that, as Paris belonged to the Zone of the Interior rather than the Zone of the Armies, the 61st and 62nd were under his command, not Joffre’s, and could not be removed from the Paris garrison without his permission and that of the Premier and the President of the Republic. The order was already “in execution” Ebener replied, adding in some embarrassment that he himself was to go north in command of the two divisions.
Messimy rushed off to the Elysée Palace to see Poincaré, who “exploded” on hearing the news but was equally helpless. To his question what troops were left, Messimy had to reply, one reserve cavalry division, three Territorial divisions, and no active units except a few cadres at the army depots in the area. To the two men it seemed that the government and capital of France were left without means of defense and unable to command any. Only one resource was left—Gallieni.
He was now again asked to supplant Michel as he, instead of Joffre, might have done in 1911. At the age of twenty-one, as a second lieutenant just out of St. Cyr, Gallieni had fought at Sedan and been held prisoner for some time in Germany, where he learned the language. He chose to make his further military career in the colonies where France was “growing soldiers.” Although the Staff College clique professed to regard colonial service as “le tourisme,” Gallieni’s fame as the conqueror of Madagascar brought him, like Lyautey of Morocco, to the top rank of the French Army. He kept a notebook in German, English, and Italian called Erinnerungen of my life di ragazzo, and never ceased studying, whether it was Russian or the development of heavy artillery or the comparative administrations of the colonial powers. He wore a pince-nez and a heavy gray mustache that was rather at odds with his elegant, autocratic figure. He carried himself like an officer on parade. Tall and spare, with a distant, untouchable, faintly stern air, he resembled no other French officer of his time. Poincaré described the impression he made: “straight, slender and upright with head erect and piercing eyes behind his glasses, he appeared to us as an imposing example of powerful humanity.”
At sixty-five, he was suffering from the prostatitis of which, after two operations, he was to die within two years. Bereaved by the death of his wife within the last month, and having renounced the highest post in the French Army three years earlier, he was beyond personal ambition, a man with little time left, as irritably impatient with the politics of the army as with the rivalries of politicians. In the last months before the war when, prior to his retirement in April, the intrigues of the cliques swirled around him, some to have him named Minister of War or Commander in Chief designate in place of Joffre, others to reduce his pension or remove his friends, his diary was filled with disgust for life, for “that miserable thing, politics,” for the “clan of arrivistes,” for unreadiness and inefficiency in the army and with no great admiration for Joffre. “When I was riding I passed him in the Bois today—on foot as usual .… How fat and heavy he is; he will hardly last out his three years.” Now in France’s gravest moment since 1870 he was being asked to take over a botched job, called to defend Paris without an army. He believed it was essential to hold the capital for moral effect as well as for its railroads, supplies, and industrial capacity. He knew well enough that Paris could not be defended from the inside like a fortress, but only by an army giving battle beyond the perimeter, an army that would have to come from Joffre—who had other plans.
“They do not want to defend Paris,” he said to Messimy that night when he was formally requested to become Military Governor. “In the eyes of our strategists Paris is a geographical expression—a town like any other. What do you give me to defend this immense place enclosing the heart and brain of France? A few Territorial divisions and one fine division from Africa. That is nothing but a drop in the ocean. If Paris is not to suffer the fate of Liège and Namur it must be covered for 100 kilometers around and to cover it requires an army. Give me an army of three active corps and I will agree to become Governor of Paris; on this condition, formal and explicit, you can count on me for its defense.”
Messimy thanked him so effusively, “shaking my hands several times and even kissing me,” that Gallieni felt assured “from the warmth of these demonstrations that the place I was succeeding to was not an enviable one.”
How he was to extract one active corps, much less three, from Joffre, Messimy did not know. The only active unit he could lay his hands on was the African division mentioned by Gallieni, the 45th Infantry from Algiers, which had been formed, apart from the regular mobilization orders, at the direct instance of the Ministry of War and was just disembarking in the south. Despite repeated telephonic demands for it from GQG, Messimy determined to hang on to this “fresh and splendid” division at all costs. He still needed five more. To force Joffre to supply them in order to satisfy Gallieni’s condition meant a direct clash of authority between the government and the Commander in Chief. Messimy trembled. On the solemn and unforgettable Mobilization Day he had sworn to himself “never to fall into the error committed by the War Ministry of 1870” whose interference, at the command of the Empress Eugénie, sent General MacMahon on the march to Sedan. He had carefully examined in company with Poincaré the Decrees of 1913 delimiting authority in wartime, and in all the ardor of the first day had voluntarily assured Joffre that he interpreted them as assigning the political conduct of war to the government and the military conduct to the Commander in Chief as his “absolute and exclusive domain.” Further, the decrees, as he read them, gave the Commander in Chief “extended powers” in the country as a whole and “absolute” power, civil as well as military, in the Zone of the Armies. “You are the master, we are your purveyors,” he had finished. Not surprisingly Joffre “without discussion” had agreed with him. Poincaré and Viviani’s neophyte Cabinet had obediently concurred.
Where was he now to find the authority he had forsworn? Searching almost until midnight back through the Decrees for a legal basis, Messimy grasped at a phrase charging the civil government “with the vital interests of the country.” To prevent the capital from falling to the enemy was surely a vital interest of the country, but what form should an order to Joffre take? Through the remainder of an agonized and sleepless night the Minister of War tried to nerve himself to compose an order to the Commander in Chief. After four hours of painful labor in the lonely stretch between 2:00 and 6:00 A.M., he achieved two sentences headed “Order” which instructed Joffre that if “victory does not crown our armies and they are forced to retreat, a minimum of three active corps in good condition must be sent to the entrenched camp of Paris. The receipt of this order is to be acknowledged.” Sent by telegram, it was also delivered by hand at eleven next morning, August 25, accompanied by a “personal and friendly” letter in which Messimy added, “the importance of this order will not escape you.”
By this time word of the defeat at the frontiers and the extent of the retreat was spreading through Paris. Ministers and deputies were clamoring for someone to blame as “responsible”; public opinion, they said, would demand it. In the antechambers of the Elysée mutterings against Joffre were heard: “… an idiot … incapable … fire him on the spot.” Messimy as War Minister was equally favored; “the lobbies are out for your skin,” his adjutant whispered. To affirm the “sacred union” of all parties and strengthen Viviani’s new and feeble ministry was a necessity in the crisis. Approaches were being made to France’s leading political figures to join the government. The oldest, most feared and respected, Clemenceau, the Tiger of France, although a bitter opponent of Poincaré, was the obvious first choice. Viviani found him in a “violent temper” and without desire to join a government he expected to be out of office in two weeks.
“No, no, don’t count on me,” he said. “In a fortnight you will be torn to ribbons, I am not going to have anything to do with it.” After this “paroxysm of passion” he burst into tears, embraced Viviani, but continued to decline to join him in office. A triumvirate made up of Briand, a former premier; Delcassé, the most distinguished and experienced Foreign Minister of the prewar period; and Millerand, a former Minister of War, was willing to join as a group but only on condition that Delcassé and Millerand be given their old portfolios at the expense of the present holders, Doumergue at the Foreign Office and Messimy at the War Office. With this uncomfortable bargain, known so far only to Poincaré, hanging in the air, the Cabinet met at ten o’clock that morning. In their minds ministers heard the sound of guns and saw broken, fleeing armies and spike-helmeted hordes marching south, but attempting to preserve dignity and calm, they followed the routine procedure of speaking in turn on departmental matters. As they reported on bank moratoriums, on disturbance to the judicial process by the call-up of magistrates, on Russian aims in Constantinople, Messimy’s agitation mounted. From an early pitch of enthusiasm he was nearing despair. After Hirschauer’s disclosures and with Gallieni’s twelve days ringing in his ears, he felt that “hours were worth centuries and minutes counted as years.” When discussion turned upon diplomacy in the Balkans and Poincaré brought up the subject of Albania, he exploded.
“To hell with Albania!” he shouted, striking the table a terrible blow. He denounced the pretense of calm as an “undignified farce,” and when begged by Poincaré to control himself, refused, saying, “I don’t know about your time but mine is too precious to waste.” He flung in the face of his colleagues Gallieni’s prediction that the Germans would be outside Paris by September 5. Everyone began talking at once, demands were made for Joffre’s removal, and Messimy was reproached for passing from “systematic optimism to dangerous pessimism.” One positive result gained was agreement to the appointment of Gallieni in place of Michel.
While Messimy returned to the Rue St. Dominique to remove Michel a second time from office, his own removal was being exacted by Millerand, Delcassé, and Briand. They claimed he was responsible for the false optimism of the communiqués; he was “overwrought and nervy,” and besides, his office was wanted for Millerand. A thick-set, taciturn man with an ironic manner, Millerand was a one-time socialist of undoubted ability and courage whose “untiring energy and sangfroid,” Poincaré felt, were badly needed. He saw Messimy becoming “gloomier and gloomier,” and since a War Minister who “foresees a great defeat” was not the most desirable colleague, the President agreed to sacrifice him. The ministerial rites would be performed gracefully: Messimy and Doumergue would be asked to resign and become Ministers without Portfolio; General Michel would be offered a mission to the Czar. These soothing arrangements were not accepted by their intended victims.
Michel stormed when asked by Messimy to resign, protested loudly and angrily and obstinately refused to go. Becoming equally excited, Messimy shouted at Michel that if he persisted in his refusal he would leave the room, not for his own office at the Invalides, but for the military prison of Cherche-Midi under guard. As their cries resounded from the room Viviani fortuitously arrived, calmed the disputants, and eventually persuaded Michel to give way.
Hardly was the official decree appointing Gallieni “Military Governor and Commandant of the Armies of Paris” signed next day when it became Messimy’s turn to storm when asked for his resignation by Poincaré and Viviani. “I refuse to yield my post to Millerand, I refuse to do you the pleasure of resigning, I refuse to become a Minister without Portfolio.” If they wanted to get rid of him after the “crushing labor” he had sustained in the last month, then the whole government would have to resign, and in that case, he said, “I have an officer’s rank in the Army and a Mobilization order in my pocket. I shall go to the front.” No persuasion availed. The government was forced to resign and was reconstituted next day. Millerand, Delcassé, Briand, Alexander Ribot, and two new socialist ministers replaced five former members, including Messimy. He departed as a major to join Dubail’s army and to serve at the front until 1918, rising to general of division.
His legacy to France, Gallieni, was left “Commander of the Armies of Paris” without an army. The three active corps which were to run like a red thread through the dark and tangled confusion of the next twelve days were not forthcoming from Joffre. The Generalissimo instantly detected in Messimy’s telegram “the menace of government interference in the conduct of operations.” When he was busy laying hold of every brigade he could find to resume battle on the Somme, the idea of sparing three active corps “in good condition” for the capital appealed to him as little as the idea of submitting to ministerial dictation. Having no intention of doing either, he ignored the War Minister’s order.
“Yes, I have the order here,” admitted his deputy, General Belin, rapping his safe, when visited next day by General Hirschauer who had been sent by Gallieni to demand an answer. “The government is taking a terrible responsibility to ask for three corps to defend Paris. It might be the origin of a disaster. What does Paris matter!” Millerand, too, arrived to be told by Joffre that there could be no useful defense of Paris except by the mobile army in the field which was now needed to the last man for the maneuver and the battle that would decide the fate of the country. The distress of the government, the threat to Paris, moved him not at all. The loss of the capital, he said, would not mean the end of the struggle.
In order to dam the open space in front of the German right wing, his immediate aim was to bring the new Sixth Army into position. Its nucleus was the Army of Lorraine, hastily scraped together only a few days before and thrown into the Battle of the Frontiers under General Maunoury, called out of retirement to command it. A svelte, delicate, small-boned veteran of sixty-seven, wounded as a lieutenant in 1870, Maunoury was a former Military Governor of Paris and member of the Supreme War Council of whom Joffre had said, “This is the complete soldier.” The Army of Lorraine consisted of the VIIth Corps, the same that had made the first dash into Alsace under the unfortunate General Bonneau, and the 55th and 56th reserve divisions taken from Ruffey’s Army, which were displaying, as the reserves did again and again, a dependable valor that was one of the elements to sustain France. On the day they received Joffre’s orders for transfer to the west, the 55th and 56th were engaged in a spirited battle to prevent passage of the Crown Prince’s Army between Verdun and Toul which proved one of the great feats of the retreat. Just when their firm stand was supporting the flank of a counteroffensive by Ruffey’s Army in the vital Briey basin, they were snatched from the field to shore up the failing front on the left.
They were railed to Amiens through Paris, where they were switched to the northern railways, already congested by the demands of the BEF. Although French railroad movements had not been polished by the best brains of the General Staff to the fanatic perfection of the German, the transfer was managed quickly, if not smoothly, by means of a French equivalent for German thoroughness called le système D, in which the “D” stands for se débrouiller, meaning “to muddle through” or “work it out somehow.” Maunoury’s troops were already detraining at Amiens on August 26, but it was not soon enough. The front was falling back faster than the new army could be got into position, and on the far end of the line von Kluck’s pursuit had already caught up with the British.
If there could have been an observer in a balloon high enough to have a view of the whole French frontier from the Vosges to Lille, he would have seen a rim of red, the pantalons rouges of 70 French divisions and near the left end, a tiny wedge of khaki, the four British divisions. On August 24 these were joined by the newly arrived 4th Division and 19th Brigade from England, making a total of five and a half British divisions. Now that the enveloping maneuver of the German right wing was at last clear, the British found themselves holding a place in the line more important than had been intended for them in Plan 17. They were not, however, holding the end of the line unsupported. Joffre had hurriedly sent Sordet’s tired Cavalry Corps to add to a group of three French Territorial divisions under General d’Amade in the space between the British and the sea. These were reinforced by the garrison division of Lille which on August 24 was declared an open city, and evacuated. (“If they get as far as Lille,” General de Castelnau had said not so long ago, “so much the better for us.”) If Joffre’s plan were to work, it was essential that the BEF hold the space between Lanrezac and the newly forming Sixth Army. Under General Order No. 2 Joffre intended the BEF to conform to the general pace of the retreat and, once they reached the Somme at St. Quentin, hold firm.
But that was not now the British intention. Sir John French, Murray, and even Wilson, the once enthusiastic progenitor of the plan, were horrified at the unexpected peril of their position. Not one or two but four German corps were advancing against them; Lanrezac’s Army was in full retreat, uncovering their right; the whole French offensive had collapsed. Under these shocks, following immediately upon first contact with the enemy, Sir John French gave way at once to the conviction that the campaign was lost. His one idea was to save the BEF in which were nearly all Britain’s trained soldiers and staff. He feared it was about to be enveloped either on his left or on his right, in the gap between him and Lanrezac. Taking justification in Kitchener’s order not to risk the army, he thought no further of the purpose that had brought him to France but only of extricating his forces from the danger zone. While his troops were retreating to Le Cateau, the Commander in Chief and Headquarters Staff, on August 25, moved twenty-six miles farther back to St. Quentin on the Somme.
With bitterness the British soldiers who felt proud of their fighting at Mons found themselves caught up in continued retreat. Such was their Commander’s anxiety to remove them from the danger of von Kluck’s enveloping arm that he gave them no rest. Under a blazing sun the soldiers, without proper food or sleep, shuffled along, hardly awake, and when halted fell asleep instantly, standing up. Smith-Dorrien’s Corps fought constant rearguard actions as the retreat from Mons began, and although Kluck’s pursuit kept them under heavy artillery fire, the Germans were unable to hold the British to a standstill.
Believing the British to be peculiarly battle-wise “from their experience of small wars,” German soldiers felt at a disadvantage, as if they had been Redcoats pitted against Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Men. They complained bitterly that the English “were up to all the tricks of the trade.” On the second day, as at Mons, they “again vanished without leaving a trace.”
Under pressure some of the British were forced onto unplanned lines of retreat. In an effort to get food to them, General “Wully” Robertson, the Quartermaster General, an unorthodox individual who had risen from private, ordered supplies to be dumped at crossroads. Some failed to be picked up, and German reports of these food dumps confirmed OHL in the impression of a foe in disorganized retreat.
When the British reached Le Cateau by the evening of August 25, the nearest corps of Lanrezac’s Army had fallen back to a position on a level with, but no further south than, the BEF. Sir John, however, regarding himself as betrayed by what he called Lanrezac’s “headlong” retreat, was in a mood to have nothing more to do with him. Lanrezac, rather than the enemy, seemed to him the cause of all that had gone wrong and, when reporting to Kitchener his troops’ unwillingness to retreat, he said, “I shall explain to them that the operations of our Allies are the cause of this.” He sent orders for the retreat to continue next day to St. Quentin and Noyon. At St. Quentin, seventy miles from the capital, the signposts begin giving the distance to Paris.
On the afternoon of August 25 when Smith-Dorrien arrived in Le Cateau a few hours ahead of his troops and went to look for the Commander in Chief, Sir John had already left, and only Sir Archibald Murray, his hard-working Chief of Staff, could be found. Usually calm, balanced, and reflective, the opposite of his Chief, Murray would have been an excellent complement for Sir John in an aggressive mood, but as he was by nature cautious and pessimistic, he acted as a stimulus to Sir John’s gloom. Now worn, harassed, and overworked, he could give Smith-Dorrien no news of Haig’s Corps which was expected to billet that night at Landrecies, twelve miles east of Le Cateau.
As Haig’s troops were entering Landrecies, they encountered on the road a body of troops who wore French uniforms and whose officer spoke in French when challenged. Suddenly the newcomers “without the slightest warning lowered their bayonets and charged.” They proved to be part of von Kluck’s IVth Corps who, like the British, were scheduled to billet that night at Landrecies. In the ensuing skirmish about two regiments and a gun battery were involved on each side, but Haig, in the tension and uncertainty of darkness, thought himself under “heavy attack” and telephoned Headquarters to “send help .… Situation very critical.”
Hearing such words from the cool Haig, Sir John French and his staff could not do otherwise than believe the Ist Corps to be in the greatest danger. Murray, who had rejoined GHQ at St. Quentin, suffered a collapse from the shock. He was sitting at a table studying a map when an aide brought him a telegram, and a moment later another officer noticed he had slumped forward in a faint. Sir John was equally affected. His uncertain temperament, wildly responsive to others, had long been influenced by that self-possessed and model officer who commanded the Ist Corps. In 1899 Haig had lent him £2,000 to meet his creditors, without which he would have had to leave the army. Now, when Haig called for help, Sir John French immediately saw envelopment, or worse—penetration by the enemy between the Ist and IInd Corps. Assuming the worst, GHQ sent orders altering Haig’s line of retreat for the following day with the result that Haig’s Corps was set on a line of march on the opposite side of the Oise from Smith-Dorrien’s Corps; direct contact was severed and not regained for the next seven days.
Besides accomplishing the splitting of the BEF, Haig’s excited and exaggerated estimate of the attack at Landrecies had an effect out of all proportion to its cause. It deepened the alarm of his old friend and impressionable Commander so that he became more intent than ever upon extricating the British Army at all hazards, and it made him that much more susceptible to the next blow. For, at this moment, as the harrowing night of August 25 paled toward dawn, he received another shock. Smith-Dorrien sent word that the IInd Corps was too closely beset by the enemy to get away and would have to make a stand and fight at Le Cateau. Appalled, the men at GHQ regarded him as as good as lost.
What had happened was that General Allenby, commander of the Cavalry Division on Smith-Dorrien’s flank, had discovered during the night that the high ground and ridges he would have to occupy to cover the next day’s retreat were held by the enemy. Unable to get in touch with GHQ, he went at 2:00 A.M. to consult Smith-Dorrien. Allenby warned him that the enemy was in a position to attack at the first sign of daylight and that unless the IInd Corps could move “at once and get away in the dark,” it would be forced into battle before it could start the day’s march. Smith-Dorrien called in his divisional commanders, who told him that some men were still coming in, many were milling around looking for their units, all were too weary to move before morning. They reported also that roads were clogged with transport and refugees and in some places washed out by the heavy storm. Silence fell in the little room. To move at once was impossible; to stay where they were and fight was a reversal of orders. As his field headquarters had no telephone communication with GHQ, the corps commander would have to decide for himself. Turning to Allenby, Smith-Dorrien asked if he would accept orders from him. Allenby said he would.
“Very well, gentlemen, we will fight,” Smith-Dorrien announced, adding that he would ask General Snow of the newly arrived 4th Division to act under him as well. His message embodying the decision was sent off by motorcar to GHQ, where it caused consternation at 5:00 A.M.
Henry Wilson, like the equally ebullient Messimy, had gone in one stride from verve and fervor to defeatism. When the offensive plan, of which on the British side he was the chief architect, collapsed, he collapsed with it, at least momentarily, and with significant effect on his Chief over whose slower mind he exerted considerable influence. Although his gift of optimism, wit, and laughter could not be long repressed and was the only thing to keep Staff spirits afloat in the next days, he was now convinced of coming calamity for which he may have felt responsible.
A messenger was sent off by motorcycle to summon Smith-Dorrien to the nearest telephone. “If you stand there and fight,” Wilson said to him, “there will be another Sedan.” He insisted from his position twenty-six miles away that the danger could not be so great as to require a stand because “troops fighting Haig cannot fight you.” Smith-Dorrien patiently explained the circumstances once more and added that in any event it was impossible to break away as the action had already begun and he could hear the guns firing as he spoke. “Good luck to you,” Wilson replied; “yours is the first cheerful voice I have heard in three days.”
For eleven hours on August 26 the IInd Corps and General Snow’s division and a half fought at Le Cateau a rearguard action such as the French Armies were fighting on this and every other day of the retreat. Von Kluck had given orders for that day to continue “pursuit of the beaten enemy.” As the most devoted disciple of Schlieffen’s precept to “brush the channel with his sleeve,” he was still pulling westward and, to complete the envelopment of the British, ordered his two right-wing corps to make forced marches in a southwestward direction. As a result they were never in action against the British at all on that day, but instead came up against “strong French hostile forces.” These were D’Amade’s Territorials and Sordet’s Cavalry whom Smith-Dorrien had informed of his predicament and who by their demonstrations barred the way around the British flank. The delay caused to the Germans, acknowledged Smith-Dorrien later, “and the brave front shown by these Territorials were of vital importance to us as otherwise it is almost certain we should have had another Corps against us on the 26th.”
On von Kluck’s left faulty intelligence or poor maneuvering kept another of his corps out of reach so that, although he disposed of superior numbers, he did not in fact have more than three infantry divisions in battle against Smith-Dorrien’s three at Le Cateau. He had, however, assembled the artillery of five divisions which opened fire at dawn. From shallow trenches hastily and inadequately dug by French civilians, including women, the British repelled German infantry assaults with their rapid and deadly rifle fire. Nevertheless the Germans, flinging wave after wave of men against them, advanced. In one sector they surrounded a company of Argylls who kept up their rifle fire, “bringing down man after man and counting their scores aloud” while the Germans “kept sounding the British ‘Cease Fire’ and gesturing to persuade the men to surrender but in vain,” until finally the group was rushed and overwhelmed. Other terrible holes were torn in the line. To disengage—the most difficult part of the battle—was yet to be done, and at 5:00 P.M. Smith-Dorrien judged the moment had come. It was then or never. Because of gaps and losses and infiltration by the enemy at certain points, the order to break off and retreat could not be got to all units at the same time. Some stayed in position for many hours longer, firing steadily until taken or until they got away in the dark. One unit, the Gordon Highlanders, never received its orders and, except for a few men who made their escape, ceased to exist as a battalion. Losses for that day alone in the three and a half divisions who fought at Le Cateau were over 8,000 men and 38 guns, more than twice as much as at Mons and equal to the 20 per cent casualty rate that the French suffered in August. Among the missing were some who spent the next four years in German prison camps.
Because of darkness, the fatigue of forced marches, their own heavy losses, and the confusing British habit of “slipping away unseen” in the darkness, the Germans did not immediately pursue. Kluck gave orders to halt until next day, when he expected the enveloping maneuver of his right-wing corps to take effect. For that day Smith-Dorrien’s decision to turn and face a superior enemy in a pitched battle had succeeded in preventing the planned envelopment and destruction of the BEF.
On reaching St. Quentin, Smith-Dorrien found GHQ had left there at midday while the battle for the life or annihilation of the BEF was still in progress and had moved to Noyon, twenty miles farther to the rear. Troops in the town were not encouraged to see the army’s chiefs depart in automobiles headed south while the guns were firing in the north. In that inevitable judgment of a countryman, “The truth is that on the 26th Lord French and his staff completely lost their heads.” Sir Douglas Haig, who had by now recovered his, queried, “No news of II Corps except sound of guns from direction of Le Cateau. Can I Corps be of any assistance?” GHQ was too paralyzed to give him any answer. Failing to hear from Headquarters, Haig tried to reach Smith-Dorrien directly, saying he could hear the sound of battle but, as a consequence of the separation of the two corps, “we could form no idea of how we could assist you.” By the time he sent the message the battle was over. Meanwhile GHQ had given up the IInd Corps for lost. Colonel Huguet, still attached as liaison officer, reflected their mood in a telegram he dispatched to Joffre at 8:00 P.M., “Battle lost by the English Army which appears to have lost cohesion.”
At 1:00 A.M. Smith-Dorrien, having been in combat for the last four of the six days he had been in France, reached Noyon and found everyone at GHQ in bed asleep. Routed out, Sir John French appeared in his nightshirt and, seeing Smith-Dorrien turn up alive with a report that the IInd Corps was not lost but saved, rebuked him for taking too cheerful a view of the situation. Having had a bad fright, Sir John now gave way to furious anger, the more easily as he had resented Smith-Dorrien’s appointment, in place of his own choice, from the beginning. The man did not even belong to the cavalry and had taken it upon himself at Le Cateau to override Staff orders. Although Sir John was forced to acknowledge in his official dispatch* that this had resulted in the “saving of the left wing,” he did not soon recover from his fright. The losses of Le Cateau seemed even higher than they were until several thousand of the missing men who had merged with the trudging lines of French refugees and followed the retreat, or had made their way through German lines to Antwerp, thence to England, and back to France, eventually rejoined the army. Total casualties for the BEF’s first five days in action proved to be just short of 15,000. They intensified the Commander in Chief’s anxiety to bring his army out of the fight, out of danger, out of France.
While the Battle of Le Cateau was in progress, Joffre summoned a meeting at St. Quentin of Sir John French, Lanrezac, and their staffs to explain the instructions of General Order No. 2. When he began with a polite inquiry as to the situation of the British Army, he evoked a tirade from Sir John who said that he had been violently attacked by superior numbers, that he was threatened by envelopment on his left, that his right was uncovered by Lanrezac’s headlong retreat, and that his troops were too exhausted to resume the offensive. Joffre, who believed above all in maintaining an appearance of calm before the Staff, was shocked by the Field Marshal’s “excited tone.” Lanrezac, after hearing Henry Wilson’s somewhat softened translation of his chief’s remarks, merely shrugged. Unable to issue an order, Joffre expressed the hope that the British Commander would conform to the plan contained in the new General Order of the day before.
Sir John looked blank and said he knew nothing of any such Order. Murray, suffering from his collapse of the night before, was absent. A variety of astonished and quizzical French gazes were turned on Wilson who explained that the Order had been received during the night but not yet “studied.” Joffre explained its provisions but with obviously failing confidence. Discussion faltered, pauses grew longer, the embarrassment became painful, and the meeting broke up without having achieved any agreement from the British for combined action. With an impression of the “fragility” of his left wing, Joffre returned to GQG where he was met by fresh news of weakness on all fronts, discouragement in every grade of the army, including the Staff, and finally, at the end of the day, by Huguet’s black telegram reporting the English Army as having “lost cohesion.”
Von Kluck was under the same impression. His orders for the 27th were to “cut off the British who were in full flight westwards,” and he reported to OHL that he was about to round up “all six” British divisions (only five were in France) and “if the English stand on the 27th the double envelopment may yet bring a great success.” This brilliant prospect, coming the day after the fall of Namur and coinciding with Bülow’s report that his opponent, the French Fifth Army, was also a “beaten enemy,” confirmed OHL in the impression of imminent victory. “The German Armies have entered France from Cambrai to the Vosges after a series of continually victorious combats,” announced OHL’s official communiqué on August 27. “The enemy, beaten all along the line, is in full retreat … and is not capable of offering serious resistance to the German advance.”
Amid the general enthusiasm von Kluck received his reward. When he rebelled furiously at an order of von Bülow’s to invest Maubeuge, which he claimed was von Bülow’s duty, and demanded to know if he was to remain subordinate, OHL on August 27 restored his independence. The attempt to keep the three armies of the right wing under one command, which had caused so much friction, was abandoned; but as the rest of the way to victory seemed easy, this did not appear important at the moment.
Von Bülow, however, was exceedingly annoyed. In the center of the right wing, he was constantly bedeviled by his neighbors’ refusal to keep in step. Already, he warned OHL, Hausen’s delays had caused a “regrettable gap” between the Third and Second Armies. Hausen himself, whose chief concern, second only to his reverence for titles, was a passionate attention to the amenities offered by each night’s billets, was equally annoyed. On August 27, his first night in France, no château was available for himself and the Crown Prince of Saxony who accompanied him. They had to sleep in the house of a sous-préfet which had been left in complete disorder; “even the beds had not been made!” The following night was worse: he had to endure quarters in the house of a M. Chopin, a peasant! The dinner was meager, the lodgings “not spacious,” and the staff had to accommodate itself in the nearby rectory whose curé had gone to war. His old mother, who looked like a witch, hung around and “wished us all at the devil.” Red streaks in the sky showed that Rocroi, through which his troops had just passed, was in flames. Happily the following night was spent in the beautifully furnished home of a wealthy French industrialist who was “absent.” Here the only discomfort suffered by Hausen was the sight of a wall covered by espaliered pear trees heavy with fruit that was “unfortunately not completely ripe.” However, he enjoyed a delightful reunion with Count Munster, Major Count Kilmansegg, Prince Schoenburg-Waldenburg of the Hussars, and Prince Max, Duke of Saxe, acting as Catholic chaplain, to whom Hausen was able to convey the gratifying news that he had just received by telephone the best wishes for success of the Third Army from his sister, the Princess Mathilda.
Hausen complained that his Saxons had been on the march for ten days through hostile country, in the heat and often in battle. Supplies were not keeping up with the advance, bread and meat were lacking, troops had to live off the local livestock, horses had not had enough fodder, and yet he had managed an average march of 23 kilometers a day. In fact, this was the least required of the German armies. Kluck’s Army on the rim of the wheel covered 30 kilometers or more a day and in some forced marches 40. He managed this by having the men sleep along the roadside instead of spreading out to left and right, and thus saved 6 or 7 kilometers a day. As German lines of communication stretched out and troops advanced farther from the railheads, food supplies often failed. Horses ate grain directly from unharvested fields and men marched a whole day on nothing but raw carrots and cabbages. As hot, as tired, and with feet as sore as their enemies, the Germans were increasingly hungry but on schedule.
Halfway between Brussels and Paris on August 28, von Kluck was gratified to receive a telegram from the Kaiser expressing “my imperial gratitude” for the First Army’s “decisive victories” and his congratulations upon its approach to the “heart of France.” That night by the light of bivouac fires regimental bands played the victory song “Heil dir im Siegeskranz” and, as one of Kluck’s officers wrote in his diary, “the sound was taken up by thousands of voices. Next morning we resumed our march in the hope of celebrating the anniversary of Sedan before Paris.”
On the same day a new and tempting idea presented itself to von Kluck which before the week was over was to leave its mark on history. Reconnaissance showed that the French Fifth Army, retreating in front of Bülow, was moving in a southwesterly direction which would bring it across his line of march. He saw a chance to “find the flank of this army … force it away from Paris and outflank it,” an objective that now seemed to him of more importance than cutting the British off from the coast. He proposed to Bülow that a “wheel inwards” should be made by their two armies. Before anything could be decided, an officer from OHL arrived with a new General Order to all seven armies.
Inspired by a “universal sense of victory,” according to the Crown Prince, OHL nevertheless had become aware of the transfer of French forces from Lorraine and now called for a “rapid advance to prevent assembly of fresh bodies of troops and to take from the country as much as possible of its means of continuing the struggle.” Kluck’s Army was to advance to the Seine southwest of Paris. Bülow’s was to move directly upon Paris. Hausen, the Duke of Württemberg, and the Crown Prince were to bring their armies down to the Marne east of Paris, to Château-Thierry, Epernay, and Vitry-le-François respectively. The breakthrough of the French fortress line by the Sixth and Seventh Armies under Prince Rupprecht was left a little vague but they were expected to cross the Moselle between Toul and Epinal, “if the enemy retires.” Speed was “urgently desirable” to leave France no time to regroup and organize resistance. With memories of 1870, OHL ordered “severe measures against the population to break any resistance of franc-tireurs as quickly as possible” and to prevent a “national rising.” Strong resistance by the enemy was expected on the Aisne and then, falling back, on the Marne. Here OHL, echoing Kluck’s newborn idea, concluded, “This may necessitate a wheel of the armies from a southwesterly to a southerly direction.”
Apart from this suggestion the Order of August 28 followed the original war plan. However, the German Armies who were to carry it out were no longer the same. They were diminished by five corps, the equivalent of a full field army. Kluck had left behind two reserve corps to invest Antwerp and hold Brussels and other parts of Belgium. Bülow and Hausen had each lost one corps to the Russian front: brigades and divisions equal to another had been left to invest Givet and Maubeuge. In order to cover the same ground as originally planned, with the First Army passing west of Paris, the right wing would have to be stretched more thinly or allow gaps to appear between its component armies. Already this was happening: on August 28 Hausen, pulled to his left by the Duke of Württemberg’s Army which was in serious combat south of Sedan and demanding “immediate assistance,” could not keep up with Bülow on his right and demanded instead that Bülow cover his right flank. The two corps which should have been at the junction of these two armies were on their way to Tannenberg.
OHL began on August 28 to feel its first twinges of concern. Moltke, Stein, and Tappen discussed anxiously whether to send reinforcements from Rupprecht’s armies to the right wing, but could not bring themselves to give up their attempt to smash through the French fortress line. The perfect Cannae that Schlieffen had dreamed of and renounced, the double envelopment by the left wing through Lorraine simultaneously with the right wing around Paris, now seemed possible of achievement. Rupprecht’s hammer blows fell on Epinal; his armies stood at the gates of Nancy and pounded on the walls of Toul. Since the reduction of Liège, fortified places had “lost their prestige,” as Colonel Tappen said, and every day seemed to be the one that would see Rupprecht break through. Destruction of the Belgian railways made a transfer of divisions impractical anyway, and OHL had convinced itself that a forcing of the Charmes Gap between Toul and Epinal was feasible and would obtain, in Tappen’s words, “encirclement of the enemy armies in grand style and in the event of success, an end to the war.” In consequence, the left wing under Rupprecht was retained in its full strength of twenty-six divisions, about equal to the diminished numbers of the three armies of the right wing. This was not the proportion Schlieffen had in mind when he muttered as he died, “Only make the right wing strong.”
Following the drama in Belgium, the eyes of the world were fixed on the course of the war between Brussels and Paris. The public was hardly aware that all this time a fiercer, longer, more sustained battle to force the eastern doors of France raged in Lorraine. Along eighty miles of front from Epinal to Nancy two German armies swayed against the armies of Castelnau and Dubail in locked and nearly static struggle.
On August 24, having massed 400 guns with additions brought from the arsenal at Metz, Rupprecht launched a series of murderous attacks. The French, now turning all their skills to the defense, had dug themselves in and prepared a variety of improvised and ingenious shelters against shellfire. Rupprecht’s attacks failed to dislodge Foch’s XXth Corps in front of Nancy but farther south succeeded in flinging a salient across the Mortagne, the last river before the gap at Charmes. At once the French saw the opportunity for a flank attack, this time with artillery preparation. Field guns were brought up during the night. On the morning of the 25th Castelnau’s order, “En avant! partout! à fond!” launched his troops on the offensive. The XXth Corps bounded down from the crest of the Grand Couronné and retook three towns and ten miles of territory. On the right Dubail’s Army gained an equal advance in a day of furious combat. General Maud’huy, divisional commander of the chasseurs alpins, reviewing his troops before the battle, had them sing the lionhearted chorus of “La Sidi Brahim,”
Marchons, marchons, marchons,
Contre les ennemis de la France!
The day ended with many scattered, crippled units not knowing whether they had taken Clezentaine, their given objective. General Maud’huy, on horseback, seeing a haggard, sweat-soaked company looking for their billets, flung out his arm in a gesture pointing forward, and called to them, “Chasseurs! Sleep in the village you have conquered!”
For three days of bloody and relentless combat the battle for the Trouée de Charmes and the Grand Couronné continued, reaching a pitch on August 27. Joffre on that day, surrounded by gloom and dismay elsewhere and hard put to find anything to praise, saluted the “courage and tenacity” of the First and Second Armies who, since the opening battles in Lorraine, had fought for two weeks without respite and with “stubborn and unbreakable confidence in victory.” They fought with every ounce of strength to hold the door closed against the enemy’s battering ram, knowing that if he broke through here the war would be over. They knew nothing of Cannae but they knew Sedan and encirclement.
The need to hold the fortress line was vital, but the situation on his left was even more fragile and forced Joffre to take from his eastern armies a principal element of their energy. That element was Foch, symbol of the “will to victory,” whom Joffre now needed to stiffen the failing front on the left.
A dangerous gap was widening between the Fourth and Fifth Armies and now extended to thirty miles. It was caused when General de Langle of the Fourth Army, unwilling to let the Germans cross the Meuse without a fight, gripped the high banks south of Sedan and held off the Duke of Württemberg’s Army in a fierce three-day struggle from August 26 to 28. His troops’ performance in the Battle of the Meuse, De Langle felt, avenged their defeat in the Ardennes. But their stand was made at the cost of losing contact with Lanrezac’s Army, whose retreat was continuing with its flank on the side of the Fourth Army uncovered. It was to hold this space that Joffre sent Foch, giving him command of a special army of three corps,* drawn partly from the Fourth Army and partly from the Third Army. On the day he received the order, Foch learned that his only son, Lieutenant Germain Foch, and his son-in-law, Captain Bécourt, had both been killed on the Meuse.
Farther west, in the area filled by Lanrezac and the British, Joffre still hoped to pin the front to the Somme, but like the foundations of a sand castle, it kept falling away. The British Commander in Chief would give no promise to stay in the line; his cooperation with Lanrezac was at a minimum; and Lanrezac himself, in whom Joffre was losing faith, seemed no more dependable. Although Joffre flung out generals by handfuls in August, he hesitated to dismiss one of Lanrezac’s repute. His Staff was still searching out individuals on whom to blame the failure of the offensive; “I have the heads of three generals in my brief case,” reported one Staff officer upon returning from a mission to the front. Lanrezac could not be disposed of so easily. Joffre believed the Fifth Army needed a more confident leader. Yet to remove its commander in the midst of retreat might endanger morale. To an aide he confessed that the problem had already given him two sleepless nights—the only occasion of the war known to have caused this grave disturbance.
Meanwhile the 61st and 62nd reserve divisions from Paris who were supposed to join the new Sixth Army had got lost; their commander, General Ebener, had been looking for them all day but nobody knew what had become of them. Fearing that the Sixth Army’s detraining area was about to be overrun, Joffre, in a desperate effort to gain time for it to come into position, ordered the Fifth Army to turn and counterattack. This required an offensive in a westerly direction between St. Quentin and Guise. Colonel Alexandre, Joffre’s liaison officer with the Fifth Army, conveyed the order verbally to Lanrezac’s headquarters, then at Marle some twenty-five miles east of St. Quentin. At the same time, in an effort to assuage the pique and invigorate the spirit of Sir John French, Joffre sent him a telegram expressing the gratitude of the French Army for the brave assistance of their British comrades. Hardly was it dispatched when he learned the British had evacuated St. Quentin, uncovering Lanrezac’s left just at the moment he was supposed to attack. According to another of Huguet’s missives of doom, the BEF was “beaten and incapable of serious effort” with three of its five divisions unable to take the field again until thoroughly rested and refitted, that is, “for some days or even a few weeks.” As Sir John French was reporting the same thing in almost the same words to Kitchener, Huguet cannot be blamed for reflecting the mood of the British chiefs rather than that of the troops or the facts. On top of his message came one from Colonel Alexandre saying Lanrezac was balking at the order to attack.
Although many of his officers responded with enthusiasm to the order, Lanrezac himself regarded it as “almost insane,” and said so. To face the Fifth Army west was to invite attack by the enemy on its open right flank. He believed it was necessary to disengage fully and fall further back to Laon before a firm line could be established and a counterattack made with any chance of success. An attack now in the direction ordered by Joffre required him to turn a semi-disorganized army halfway around in a complicated maneuver, dangerous in view of his position and of the menace on his right. His Chief of Operations, Commandant Schneider, attempted to explain the difficulty to Colonel Alexandre, who expressed astonishment.
“What!” said he, “why, what could be simpler? You are facing north; we ask you to face west to attack from St. Quentin.” With a gesture of his hand, five fingers spread out to represent the five corps, he described a right angle turn in the air.
“Don’t talk nonsense, mon colonel!” burst out Schneider, exasperated.
“Well, if you don’t want to do anything …” Colonel Alexandre said, finishing with a contemptuous shrug which caused Lanrezac who was present to lose his temper and explain at great length and no great tact his opinion of GQG’s strategy. By now his confidence in Joffre and GQG was on a par with theirs in him. Having on one wing an independent foreign general who refused to act jointly and on the other an unprotected flank (Foch’s detachment did not start forming until two days later, August 29), and being now called upon for a counter-offensive, Lanrezac was under severe stress. His was not a temperament that rose to it. Given a task so fateful for France, and lacking any confidence in Joffre’s judgment, he relieved his feelings in the bad temper and caustic abuse for which he had been known even in peacetime. He expounded upon his lack of respect for Joffre whom he called a “sapper,” a mere engineer.
“I found General Lanrezac surrounded by a number of officers,” reported a Staff officer from one of the corps who came to see him. “He seemed to be extremely displeased and expressed himself in violent language. He did not mince words in his criticism of GQG and our Allies. He was much irritated against the former and the British. The gist of what he was saying was that all he required was to be left alone, that he would retire as far as was necessary, that he would choose his own time and then he would boot the enemy back where he came from.” In Lanrezac’s own words, “I suffered an anxiety so awful I did not even try to dissimulate from the Staff.” To show anxiety before subordinates was bad enough; to compound the sin by public criticism of GQG and the Generalissimo numbered Lanrezac’s days of command.
Early next morning, August 28, Joffre himself appeared at Marle where he found Lanrezac haggard, bloodshot, and objecting with nervous gestures to the plan for a counter-offensive. When Lanrezac insisted again upon the risk of enemy attack from the right while his whole army was facing westward, Joffre suddenly fell into a violent fit of rage and shouted: “Do you wish to be relieved of your command? You must march without discussion. The fate of the campaign is in your hands.” This spectacular outburst reverberated as far as Paris, taking on added thunder as it traveled, so that by the time it reached President Poincaré’s diary next day it was recorded as Joffre’s threat to have Lanrezac shot if he hesitated or disobeyed orders to attack.
Convinced of the error of the plan, Lanrezac refused to move without a written order. Having calmed down, Joffre assented and signed an order drawn up at his dictation by Lanrezac’s Chief of Staff. In Joffre’s opinion, a commander knowing his orders and his duty could have no further cause for disquiet, and he might have said to Lanrezac what he was one day to say to Pétain when giving him orders to hold Verdun under the heaviest bombardment in history, “Eh bien, mon ami, maintenant vous êtes tranquille.”
Something less than tranquil, Lanrezac accepted his task but insisted he could not be ready before next morning. All day while the Fifth Army was being turned sideways in a complicated and intricate transfer of corps across each other’s fronts, GQG was constantly calling, telling them to “hurry” until Lanrezac in a fury ordered his staff not to answer the telephone.
On the same day the British chiefs were hurrying the BEF southward with such urgency that the soldiers were deprived of the rest they needed far more than they needed distance from the enemy. On that day, August 28, a day when von Kluck’s columns gave them no trouble, Sir John French and Wilson were in such anxiety to hasten the retreat that they ordered transport wagons to “throw overboard all ammunition and other impediments not absolutely required” and carry men instead. Discarding ammunition meant abandoning further battle. As the BEF was not fighting on British soil, its Commander was prepared to pull his forces out of the line regardless of the effect of withdrawal upon his ally. The French Army had lost the opening battle and was in a serious, even desperate, situation in which every division counted to prevent defeat. But it was neither broken through nor enveloped by the enemy; it was fighting hard, and Joffre was exhibiting every intention of fighting further. Nevertheless, Sir John French, succumbing to the belief that the danger was mortal, had determined that the BEF must be preserved from being involved in a French defeat.
Field commanders did not share the pessimism of Headquarters. Receiving an order that virtually rejected any further idea of fighting, they were dismayed. Haig’s Chief of Staff, General Gough, tore it up in anger. Smith-Dorrien, who regarded his situation as “excellent,” with the enemy “only in small parties and those keeping at a respectful distance,” countermanded the order to his own 3rd and 5th divisions. His message reached General Snow of the 4th division too late. Having received a direct order, addressed “To Snowball from Henry,” to “load up your lame ducks and hustle along,” he had already carried it out with “very damping effect” on the troops, who were made to think they must be in an extremity of danger and who lost their spare clothing and boots as well.
In dust, heat, and discouragement and fatigue beyond telling the British retreat continued. Trailing through St. Quentin, the tired remnants of two battalions gave up, piled up their arms in the railroad station, sat down in the Place de la Gare, and refused to go farther. They told Major Bridges whose cavalry had orders to hold off the Germans until St. Quentin was clear of troops, that their commanding officers had given the mayor a written promise to surrender in order to save the town further bombardment. Not caring to confront the battalion colonels whom he knew and who were senior to him, Bridges wished desperately for a band to rouse the two hundred or three hundred dispirited men lying about in the square. “Why not? There was a toy shop handy which provided my trumpeter and myself with a tin whistle and a drum and we marched round and round the fountain where the men were lying like the dead, playing the British Grenadiers and Tipperary and beating the drum like mad.” The men sat up, began to laugh, then cheer, then one by one stood up, fell in and “eventually we moved off slowly into the night to the music of our improvised band, now reinforced with a couple of mouth organs.”
Uncheered by fife or drum Sir John French, seeing only his own sector, was convinced that the Kaiser “in his rancor and hate, has really risked weakness in other parts of the field” in order to concentrate an overwhelming force “to destroy us.” He demanded that Kitchener send him the Sixth Division, and when Kitchener said it could not be spared until its place in England was taken by troops from India, he considered this refusal “most disappointing and injurious.” In fact for one moment after the shock of Mons, Kitchener had considered using the Sixth Division for a landing on the German flank in Belgium. The old idea, long advocated by Fisher and Esher, of using the BEF independently in Belgium instead of as an appendix to the French line, never ceased to haunt the British. Now it was tried, as it was to be again two months later at Antwerp, in miniature and in vain. Instead of the Sixth Division, three battalions of Royal Marines landed at Ostend on August 27 and 28 in an effort to draw off von Kluck’s forces. They were joined by 6,000 Belgians who had followed the French retreat after the fall of Namur and were now sent up to Ostend by sea in British ships but who proved to be in no condition to fight. By this time, the retreat in France having swept the front too far away, the operation had lost its meaning, and the marines were reëmbarked on August 31.
Before that happened Sir John French on August 28 evacuated his forward base at Amiens, which was now menaced by von Kluck’s westward sweep, and on the following day gave orders for moving the main British base back from Le Havre to St. Nazaire below the Normandy peninsula. In the same spirit as the order jettisoning ammunition, the move reflected the single urgent desire that now possessed him—to leave France. Partly sharing it, partly ashamed to share it, Henry Wilson, as described by a fellow officer, “walked slowly up and down the room, with that comical, whimsical expression on his face, habitual to him, clapping his hands softly together to keep time, as he chanted in a low tone, ‘We shall never get there, we shall never get there.’ As he passed me I said, ‘Where, Henri?’ And he chanted on, ‘To the sea, to the sea, to the sea.’”
* The dispatch reads, “The saving of the left wing of the army under my command on the morning of the 26th of August could never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity and determination had been present personally to conduct the operation.” Having evidently written or signed this report in one of the extreme swings of his unreliable temperament, Sir John reverted to antipathy, did not rest until he succeeded in having Smith-Dorrien recalled in 1915, and continued a malevolent vendetta against him publicly in the book he published after the war.
* Known as the Foch Detachment until September 5, when it became the Ninth Army.