Military history


The Shadow of Sedan

GENERAL DE CASTELNAU, Deputy Chief of the French General Staff, was visited at the War Office one day in 1913 by the Military Governor of Lille, General Lebas, who came to protest the General Staff’s decision to abandon Lille as a fortified city. Situated ten miles from the Belgian border and forty miles inland from the Channel, Lille lay close to the path that an invading army would take if it came by way of Flanders. In answer to General Lebas’ plea for its defense, General de Castelnau spread out a map and measured with a ruler the distance from the German border to Lille by way of Belgium. The normal density of troops required for a vigorous offensive, he reminded his caller, was five or six to a meter. If the Germans extended themselves as far west as Lille, De Castelnau pointed out, they would be stretched out two to a meter.

“We’ll cut them in half!” he declared. The German active Army, he explained, could dispose of twenty-five corps, about a million men, on the Western Front. “Here, figure it out for yourself,” he said, handing Lebas the ruler. “If they come as far as Lille,” he repeated with sardonic satisfaction, “so much the better for us.”

French strategy did not ignore the threat of envelopment by a German right wing. On the contrary, the French General Staff believed that the stronger the Germans made their right wing, the correspondingly weaker they would leave their center and left where the French Army planned to break through. French strategy turned its back to the Belgian frontier and its face to the Rhine. While the Germans were taking the long way around to fall upon the French flank, the French planned a two-pronged offensive that would smash through the German center and left on either side of the German fortified area at Metz and by victory there, sever the German right wing from its base, rendering it harmless. It was a bold plan born of an idea—an idea inherent in the recovery of France from the humiliation of Sedan.

Under the peace terms dictated by Germany at Versailles in 1871, France had suffered amputation, indemnity, and occupation. Even a triumphal march by the German Army down the Champs Elysées was among the terms imposed. It took place along a silent, black-draped avenue empty of onlookers. At Bordeaux, when the French Assembly ratified the peace terms, the deputies of Alsace-Lorraine walked from the hall in tears, leaving behind their protest: “We proclaim forever the right of Alsatians and Lorrainers to remain members of the French nation. We swear for ourselves, our constituents, our children and our children’s children to claim that right for all time, by every means, in the face of the usurper.”

The annexation, though opposed by Bismarck, who said it would be the Achilles’ heel of the new German Empire, was required by the elder Moltke and his Staff. They insisted, and convinced the Emperor, that the border provinces with Metz, Strasbourg, and the crest of the Vosges must be sliced off in order to put France geographically forever on the defensive. They added a crushing indemnity of five billion francs intended to hobble France for a generation, and lodged an army of occupation until it should be paid. With one enormous effort the French raised and paid off the sum within three years, and their recovery began.

The memory of Sedan remained, a stationary dark shadow on the French consciousness. “N’en parlez jamais; pensez-y toujours” (Never speak of it; think of it always) had counseled Gambetta. For more than forty years the thought of “Again” was the single most fundamental factor of French policy. In the early years after 1870, instinct and military weakness dictated a fortress strategy. France walled herself in behind a system of entrenched camps connected by forts. Two fortified lines, Belfort-Epinal and Toul-Verdun, guarded the eastern frontier, and one, Maubeuge-Valenciennes-Lille, guarded the western half of the Belgian frontier; the gaps between were intended to canalize the invasion forces.

Behind her wall, as Victor Hugo urged at his most vibrant: “France will have but one thought: to reconstitute her forces, gather her energy, nourish her sacred anger, raise her young generation to form an army of the whole people, to work without cease, to study the methods and skills of our enemies, to become again a great France, the France of 1792, the France of an idea with a sword. Then one day she will be irresistible. Then she will take back Alsace-Lorraine.”

Through returning prosperity and growing empire, through the perennial civil quarrels—royalism, Boulangism, clericalism, strikes, and the culminating, devastating Dreyfus Affair—the sacred anger still glowed, especially in the army. The one thing that held together all elements of the army, whether old guard or republican, Jesuit or Freemason, was the mystique d’Alsace. The eyes of all were fixed on the blue line of the Vosges. A captain of infantry confessed in 1912 that he used to lead the men of his company in secret patrols of two or three through the dark pines to the mountaintops where they could gaze down on Colmar. “On our return from those clandestine expeditions our columns reformed, choked and dumb with emotion.”

Originally neither German nor French, Alsace had been snatched back and forth between the two until, under Louis XIV, it was confirmed to France by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. After Germany annexed Alsace and part of Lorraine in 1870 Bismarck advised giving the inhabitants as much autonomy as possible and encouraging their particularism, for, he said, the more Alsatian they felt, the less they would feel French. His successors did not see the necessity. They took no account of the wishes of their new subjects, made no effort to win them over, administered the provinces as Reichsland, or “Imperial territory,” under German officials on virtually the same terms as their African colonies, and succeeded only in infuriating and alienating the population until in 1911 a constitution was granted them. By then it was too late. German rule exploded in the Zabern Affair in 1913 which began, after an exchange of insults between townspeople and garrison, when a German officer struck a crippled shoemaker with his saber. It ended in the complete and public exposure of German policy in the Reichsland, in a surge of anti-German feeling in world opinion, and in the simultaneous triumph of militarism in Berlin where the officer of Zabern became a hero, congratulated by the Crown Prince.

For Germany 1870 was not a final settlement. The German day in Europe which they thought had dawned when the German Empire was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was still postponed. France was not crushed; the French Empire was actually expanding in North Africa and Indo-China; the world of art and beauty and style still worshiped at the feet of Paris. Germans were still gnawed by envy of the country they had conquered. “As well off as God in France,” was a German saying. At the same time they considered France decadent in culture and enfeebled by democracy. “It is impossible for a country that has had forty-two war ministers in forty-three years to fight effectively,” announced Professor Hans Delbrück, Germany’s leading historian. Believing themselves superior in soul, in strength, in energy, industry, and national virtue, Germans felt they deserved the dominion of Europe. The work of Sedan must be completed.

Living in the shadow of that unfinished business, France, reviving in spirit and strength, grew weary of being eternally on guard, eternally exhorted by her leaders to defend herself. As the century turned, her spirit rebelled against thirty years of the defensive with its implied avowal of inferiority. France knew herself to be physically weaker than Germany. Her population was less, her birth rate lower. She needed some weapon that Germany lacked to give herself confidence in her survival. The “idea with a sword” fulfilled the need. Expressed by Bergson it was called élan vital, the all-conquering will. Belief in its power convinced France that the human spirit need not, after all, bow to the predestined forces of evolution which Schopenhauer and Hegel had declared to be irresistible. The spirit of France would be the equalizing factor. Her will to win, her élan,would enable France to defeat her enemy. Her genius was in her spirit, the spirit of la gloire, of 1792, of the incomparable “Marseillaise,” the spirit of General Margueritte’s heroic cavalry charge before Sedan when even Wilhelm I, watching the battle, could not forbear to cry, “Oh, les braves gens!”

Belief in the fervor of France, in the furor Gallicae, revived France’s faith in herself in the generation after 1870. It was that fervor, unfurling her banners, sounding her bugles, arming her soldiers, that would lead France to victory if the day of “Again” should come.

Translated into military terms Bergson’s élan vital became the doctrine of the offensive. In proportion as a defensive gave way to an offensive strategy, the attention paid to the Belgian frontier gradually gave way in favor of a progressive shift of gravity eastward toward the point where a French offensive could be launched to break through to the Rhine. For the Germans the roundabout road through Flanders led to Paris; for the French it led nowhere. They could only get to Berlin by the shortest way. The more the thinking of the French General Staff approached the offensive, the greater the forces it concentrated at the attacking point and the fewer it left to defend the Belgian frontier.

The doctrine of the offensive had its fount in the Ecole Supérieure de la Guerre, or War College, the ark of the army’s intellectual elite, whose director, General Ferdinand Foch, was the molder of French military theory of his time. Foch’s mind, like a heart, contained two valves: one pumped spirit into strategy; the other circulated common sense. On the one hand Foch preached a mystique of will expressed in his famous aphorisms, “The will to conquer is the first condition of victory,” or more succinctly, “Victoire c’est la volonté,” and, “A battle won is a battle in which one will not confess oneself beaten.”

In practice this was to become the famous order at the Marne to attack when the situation called for retreat. His officers of those days remember him bellowing, “Attack! Attack!” with furious, sweeping gestures while he dashed about in short rushes as if charged by an electric battery. Why, he was later asked, did he advance at the Marne when he was technically beaten? “Why? I don’t know. Because of my men, because I had a will. And then—God was there.”

Though a profound student of Clausewitz, Foch did not, like Clausewitz’s German successors, believe in a foolproof schedule of battle worked out in advance. Rather he taught the necessity of perpetual adaptability and improvisation to fit circumstances. “Regulations,” he would say, “are all very well for drill but in the hour of danger they are no more use … You have to learn to think.” To think meant to give room for freedom of initiative, for the imponderable to win over the material, for will to demonstrate its power over circumstance.

But the idea that morale alone could conquer, Foch warned, was an “infantile notion.” From his flights of metaphysics he would descend at once, in his lectures and his prewar books Les Principes de la Guerre and La Conduite de la Guerre, to the earth of tactics, the placing of advance guards, the necessity of sureté, or protection, the elements of firepower, the need for obedience and discipline. The realistic half of his teaching was summed up in another aphorism he made familiar during the war, “De quoi s’agit-il?” (What is the essence of the problem?)

Eloquent as he was on tactics, it was Foch’s mystique of will that captured the minds of his followers. Once in 1908 when Clemenceau was considering Foch, then a professor, for the post of Director of the War College, a private agent whom he sent to listen to the lectures reported back in bewilderment, “This officer teaches metaphysics so abstruse as to make idiots of his pupils.” Although Clemenceau appointed Foch in spite of it, there was, in one sense, truth in the report. Foch’s principles, not because they were too abstruse but because they were too attractive, laid a trap for France. They were taken up with particular enthusiasm by Colonel Grandmaison, “an ardent and brilliant officer” who was Director of the Troisième Bureau, or Bureau of Military Operations, and who in 1911 delivered two lectures at the War College which had a crystallizing effect.

Colonel Grandmaison grasped only the head and not the feet of Foch’s principles. Expounding their élan without their sureté, he expressed a military philosophy that electrified his audience. He waved before their dazzled eyes an “idea with a sword” which showed them how France could win. Its essence was the offensive à outrance, offensive to the limit. Only this could achieve Clausewitz’s decisive battle which “exploited to the finish is the essential act of war” and which “once engaged, must be pushed to the end, with no second thoughts, up to the extremes of human endurance.” Seizure of initiative is the sine qua non. Preconceived arrangements based on a dogmatic judgment of what the enemy will do are premature. Liberty of action is achieved only by imposing one’s will upon the enemy. “All command decisions must be inspired by the will to seize and retain the initiative.” The defensive is forgotten, abandoned, discarded; its only possible justification is an occasional “economizing of forces at certain points with a view to adding them to the attack.”

The effect on the General Staff was profound, and during the next two years was embodied in new Field Regulations for the conduct of war and in a new plan of campaign called Plan 17, which was adopted in May, 1913. Within a few months of Grandmaison’s lectures, the President of the Republic, M. Fallières, announced: “The offensive alone is suited to the temperament of French soldiers .… We are determined to march straight against the enemy without hesitation.”

The new Field Regulations, enacted by the government in October, 1913, as the fundamental document for the training and conduct of the French Army, opened with a flourish of trumpets: “The French Army, returning to its traditions, henceforth admits no law but the offensive.” Eight commandments followed, ringing with the clash of “decisive battle,” “offensive without hesitation,” “fierceness and tenacity,” “breaking the will of the adversary,” “ruthless and tireless pursuit.” With all the ardor of orthodoxy stamping out heresy, the Regulations stamped upon and discarded the defensive. “The offensive alone,” it proclaimed, “leads to positive results.” Its Seventh Commandment, italicized by the authors, stated: “Battles are beyond everything else struggles of morale. Defeat is inevitable as soon as the hope of conquering ceases to exist. Success comes not to him who has suffered the least but to him whose will is firmest and morale strongest.”

Nowhere in the eight commandments was there mention of matériel or firepower or what Foch called sureté. The teaching of the Regulations became epitomized in the favorite word of the French officer corps, le cran, nerve, or, less politely, guts. Like the youth who set out for the mountaintop under the banner marked “Excelsior!” the French Army marched to war in 1914 under a banner marked “Cran.”

Over the years, while French military philosophy had changed, French geography had not. The geographical facts of her frontiers remained what Germany had made them in 1870. Germany’s territorial demands, William I had explained to the protesting Empress Eugénie, “have no aim other than to push back the starting point from which French armies could in the future attack us.” They also pushed forward the starting point from which Germany could attack France. While French history and development after the turn of the century fixed her mind upon the offensive, her geography still required a strategy of the defensive.

In 1911, the same year as Colonel Grandmaison’s lectures, a last effort to commit France to a strategy of the defensive was made in the Supreme War Council by no less a personage than the Commander in Chief designate, General Michel. As Vice President of the Council, a post which carried with it the position of Commander in Chief in the event of war, General Michel was then the ranking officer in the army. In a report that precisely reflected Schlieffen’s thinking, he submitted his estimate of the probable German line of attack and his proposals for countering it. Because of the natural escarpments and French fortifications along the common border with Germany, he argued, the Germans could not hope to win a prompt decisive battle in Lorraine. Nor would the passage through Luxembourg and the near corner of Belgium east of the Meuse give them sufficient room for their favored strategy of envelopment. Only by taking advantage of “the whole of Belgium,” he said, could the Germans achieve that “immediate, brutal and decisive” offensive which they must launch upon France before the forces of her Allies could come into play. He pointed out that the Germans had long yearned for Belgium’s great port of Antwerp, and this gave them an additional reason for an attack through Flanders. He proposed to face the Germans along a line Verdun-Namur-Antwerp with a French army of a million men whose left wing—like Schlieffen’s right—should brush the Channel with its sleeve.

Not only was General Michel’s plan defensive in character; it also depended upon a proposal that was anathema to his fellow officers. To match the numbers he believed the Germans would send through Belgium, General Michel proposed to double French front-line effectives by attaching a regiment of reserves to every active regiment. Had he proposed to admit Mistinguette to the Immortals of the French Academy, he could hardly have raised more clamor and disgust.

“Les réserves, c’est zéro!” was the classic dogma of the French officer corps. Men who had finished their compulsory training under universal service and were between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-four were classed as reserves. Upon mobilization the youngest classes filled out the regular army units to war strength; the others were formed into reserve regiments, brigades, and divisions according to their local geographical districts. These were considered fit only for rear duty or for use as fortress troops, and incapable, because of their lack of trained officers and NCOs, of being attached to the fighting regiments. The regular army’s contempt for the reserves, in which it was joined by the parties of the right, was augmented by dislike of the principle of the “nation in arms.” To merge the reserves with the active divisions would be to put a drag on the army’s fighting thrust. Only the active army, they believed, could be depended upon to defend the country.

The left parties, on the other hand, with memories of General Boulanger on horseback, associated the army with coups d’état and believed in the principle of a “nation in arms” as the only safeguard of the Republic. They maintained that a few months’ training would fit any citizen for war, and violently opposed the increase of military service to three years. The army demanded this reform in 1913 not only to match an increase in the German Army but also because the more men who were in training at any one time, the less reliance needed to be placed on reserve units. After angry debate, with bitterly divisive effect on the country, the Three-Year Law was enacted in August, 1913.

Disdain of the reserves was augmented by the new doctrine of the offensive which, it was felt, could only be properly inculcated in active troops. To perform the irresistible onslaught of the attaque brusquée, symbolized by the bayonet charge, the essential quality was élan, and élan could not be expected of men settled in civilian life with family responsibilities. Reserves mixed with active troops would create “armies of decadence,” incapable of the will to conquer.

Similar sentiments were known to be held across the Rhine. The Kaiser was widely credited with the edict “No fathers of families at the front.” Among the French General Staff it was an article of faith that the Germans would not mix reserve units with active units, and this led to the belief that the Germans would not have enough men in the front line to do two things at once: send a strong right wing in a wide sweep through Belgium west of the Meuse and keep sufficient forces at their center and left to stop a French breakthrough to the Rhine.

When General Michel presented his plan, the Minister of War, Messimy, treated it “comme une insanité.” As chairman of the Supreme War Council he not only attempted to suppress it but at once consulted other members of the Council on the advisability of removing Michel.

Messimy, an exuberant, energetic, almost violent man with a thick neck, round head, bright peasant’s eyes behind spectacles, and a loud voice, was a former career officer. In 1899 as a thirty-year-old captain of Chasseurs, he had resigned from the army in protest against its refusal to reopen the Dreyfus case. In that heated time the officer corps insisted as a body that to admit the possibility of Dreyfus’s innocence after his conviction would be to destroy the army’s prestige and infallibility. Unable to put loyalty to the army above justice, Messimy determined upon a political career with the declared goal of “reconciling the army with the nation.” He swept into the War Ministry with a passion for improvement. Finding a number of generals “incapable not only of leading their troops but even of following them,” he adopted Theodore Roosevelt’s expedient of ordering all generals to conduct maneuvers on horseback. When this provoked protests that old so-and-so would be forced to retire from the army Messimy replied that that was indeed his object. He had been named War Minister on June 30, 1911, after a succession of four ministers in four months and the next day was met by the spring of the German gunboat Panther on Agadir precipitating the second Moroccan crisis. Expecting mobilization at any moment, Messimy discovered the generalissimo-designate, General Michel, to be “hesitant, indecisive and crushed by the weight of the duty that might at any moment devolve upon him.” In his present post Messimy believed he represented a “national danger.” Michel’s “insane” proposal provided the excuse to get rid of him.

Michel, however, refused to go without first having his plan presented to the Council whose members included the foremost generals of France: Gallieni, the great colonial; Pau, the one-armed veteran of 1870; Joffre, the silent engineer; Dubail, the pattern of gallantry, who wore his kepi cocked over one eye with the “chic exquis” of the Second Empire. All were to hold active commands in 1914 and two were to become Marshals of France. None gave Michel’s plan his support. One officer from the War Ministry who was present at the meeting said: “There is no use discussing it. General Michel is off his head.”

Whether or not this verdict represented the views of all present—Michel later claimed that General Dubail, for one, had originally agreed with him—Messimy, who made no secret of his hostility, carried the Council with him. A trick of fate arranged that Messimy should be a forceful character and Michel should not. To be right and overruled is not forgiven to persons in responsible positions, and Michel duly paid for his clairvoyance. Relieved of his command, he was appointed Military Governor of Paris where in a crucial hour in the coming test he was indeed to prove “hesitant and indecisive.”

Messimy having fervently stamped out Michel’s heresy of the defensive, did his best, as War Minister, to equip the army to fight a successful offensive but was in his turn frustrated in his most-cherished prospect—the need to reform the French uniform. The British had adopted khaki after the Boer War, and the Germans were about to make the change from Prussian blue to field-gray. But in 1912 French soldiers still wore the same blue coats, red kepi, and red trousers they had worn in 1830 when rifle fire carried only two hundred paces and when armies, fighting at these close quarters, had no need for concealment. Visiting the Balkan front in 1912, Messimy saw the advantages gained by the dull-colored Bulgarians and came home determined to make the French soldier less visible. His project to clothe him in gray-blue or gray-green raised a howl of protest. Army pride was as intransigent about giving up its red trousers as it was about adopting heavy guns. Army prestige was once again felt to be at stake. To clothe the French soldier in some muddy, inglorious color, declared the army’s champions, would be to realize the fondest hopes of Dreyfusards and Freemasons. To banish “all that is colorful, all that gives the soldier his vivid aspect,” wrote the Echo de Paris, “is to go contrary both to French taste and military function.” Messimy pointed out that the two might no longer be synonymous, but his opponents proved immmovable. At a parliamentary hearing a former War Minister, M. Etienne, spoke for France.

“Eliminate the red trousers?” he cried. “Never! Le pantalon rouge c’est la France!

“That blind and imbecile attachment to the most visible of all colors,” wrote Messimy afterward, “was to have cruel consequences.”

In the meantime, still in the midst of the Agadir crisis, he had to name a new prospective generalissimo in place of Michel. He planned to give added authority to the post by combining with it that of Chief of the General Staff and by abolishing the post of Chief of Staff to the War Ministry, currently held by General Dubail. Michel’s successor would have all the reins of power concentrated in his hands.

Messimy’s first choice was the austere and brilliant general in pince-nez, Gallieni, who refused it because, he explained, having been instrumental in Michel’s dismissal he felt scruples about replacing him. Furthermore he had only two years to go before retirement at sixty-four, and he believed the appointment of a “colonial” would be resented by the Metropolitan Army—“une question de bouton,” he said, tapping his insignia. General Pau, who was next in line, made it a condition that he be allowed to name generals of his own choice to the higher commands which, as he was known for his reactionary opinions, threatened to wake the barely slumbering feud between rightist army and republican nation. Respecting him for his honesty, the government refused his condition. Messimy consulted Gallieni, who suggested his former subordinate in Madagascar, “a cool and methodical worker with a lucid and precise mind.” Accordingly the post was offered to General Joseph-Jacques-Césaire Joffre, then aged fifty-nine, formerly chief of the Engineer Corps and presently Chief of the Services of the Rear.

Massive and paunchy in his baggy uniform, with a fleshy face adorned by a heavy, nearly white mustache and bushy eyebrows to match, with a clear youthful skin, calm blue eyes and a candid, tranquil gaze, Joffre looked like Santa Claus and gave an impression of benevolence and naïveté—two qualities not noticeably part of his character. He did not come of a gentleman’s family, was not a graduate of St. Cyr (but of the less aristocratic if more scientific Ecole Polytechnique), had not passed through the higher training of the War College. As an officer of the Engineer Corps, which dealt with such unromantic matters as fortifications and railways, he belonged to a branch of the service not drawn upon for the higher commands. He was the eldest of the eleven children of a petit bourgeois manufacturer of wine barrels in the French Pyrénées. His military career had been marked by quiet accomplishment and efficiency in each post he filled: as company commander in Formosa and Indo-China, as a major in the Sudan and Timbuktu, as staff officer in the Railway Section of the War Ministry, as lecturer at the Artillery School, as fortifications officer under Gallieni in Madagascar from 1900 to 1905, as general of a division in 1905, of a corps in 1908, and as Director of the Rear and member of the War Council since 1910.

He had no known clerical, monarchist, or other disturbing connections; he had been out of the country during the Dreyfus Affair; his reputation as a good republican was as smooth as his well-manicured hands; he was solid and utterly phlegmatic. His outstanding characteristic was a habitual silence that in other men would have seemed self-deprecatory but, worn like an aura over Joffre’s great, calm bulk, inspired confidence. He had still five years to go before retirement.

Joffre was conscious of one lack: he had had no training in the rarefied realms of staff work. On a hot July day when doors in the War Ministry on the Rue St. Dominique were left open, officers glancing out of their rooms saw General Pau holding Joffre by a button of his uniform. “Take it, cher ami,” he was saying. “We will give you Castelnau. He knows all about staff work—everything will go of itself.”

Castelnau, who was a graduate both of St. Cyr and of the War College, came, like D’Artagnan, from Gascony, which is said to produce men of hot blood and cold brain. He suffered from the disadvantage of family connections with a marquis, of associating with Jesuits, and of a personal Catholicism which he practiced so vigorously as to earn him during the war the name of le capucin botté, the Monk in Boots. He had, however, long experience on the General Staff. Joffre would have preferred Foch but knew Messimy to have an unexplained prejudice against him. As was his habit, he listened without comment to Pau’s advice, and promptly took it.

“Aye!” complained Messimy when Joffre asked for Castelnau as his Deputy Chief. “You will rouse a storm in the parties of the left and make yourself a lot of enemies.” However, with the assent of the President and Premier who “made a face” at the condition but agreed, both appointments were put through together. A fellow general, pursuing some personal intrigue, warned Joffre that Castelnau might displace him. “Get rid of me! Not Castelnau,” Joffre replied, unruffled. “I need him for six months; then I’ll give him a corps command.” As it proved, he found Castelnau invaluable, and when war came gave him command of an army instead of a corps.

Joffre’s supreme confidence in himself was expressed in the following year when his aide, Major Alexandre, asked him if he thought war was shortly to be expected.

“Certainly I think so,” Joffre replied. “I have always thought so. It will come. I shall fight it and I shall win. I have always succeeded in whatever I do—as in the Sudan. It will be that way again.”

“It will mean a Marshal’s baton for you,” his aide suggested with some awe at the vision.

“Yes.” Joffre acknowledged the prospect with laconic equanimity.

Under the aegis of this unassailable figure the General Staff from 1911 on threw itself into the task of revising the Field Regulations, retraining the troops in their spirit, and making a new plan of campaign to replace the now obsolete Plan 16. The staff’s guiding mind, Foch, was gone from the War College, promoted and shifted to the field and ultimately to Nancy where, as he said, the frontier of 1870 “cut like a scar across the breast of the country.” There, guarding the frontier, he commanded the XXth Corps which he was soon to make famous. He had left behind, however, a “chapel,” as cliques in the French Army were called, of his disciples who formed Joffre’s entourage. He had also left behind a strategic plan which became the framework of Plan 17. Completed in April, 1913, it was adopted without discussion or consultation, together with the new Field Regulations by the Supreme War Council in May. The next eight months were spent reorganizing the army on the basis of the plan and preparing all the instructions and orders for mobilization, transport, services of supply, areas and schedules of deployment and concentration. By February, 1914, it was ready to be distributed in sections to each of the generals of the five armies into which the French forces were divided, only that part of it which concerned him individually going to each one.

Its motivating idea, as expressed by Foch, was, “We must get to Berlin by going through Mainz,” that is, by crossing the Rhine at Mainz, 130 miles northeast of Nancy. That objective, however, was an idea only. Unlike the Schlieffen plan, Plan 17 contained no stated over-all objective and no explicit schedule of operations. It was not a plan of operations but a plan of deployment with directives for several possible lines of attack for each army, depending on circumstances, but without a given goal. Because it was in essence a plan of response, of riposte to a German attack, whose avenues the French could not be sure of in advance, it had of necessity to be, as Joffre said, “a posteriori and opportunist.” Its intention was inflexible: Attack! Otherwise its arrangements were flexible.

A brief general directive of five sentences, classified as secret, was all that was shown in common to the generals who were to carry out the plan, and they were not permitted to discuss it. It offered very little for discussion. Like the Field Regulations it opened with a flourish: “Whatever the circumstance, it is the Commander in Chief’s intention to advance with all forces united to the attack of the German armies.” The rest of the general directive stated merely that French action would consist of two major offensives, one to the left and one to the right of the German fortified area of Metz-Thionville. The one to the right or south of Metz would attack directly eastward across the old border of Lorraine, while a secondary operation in Alsace was designed to anchor the French right on the Rhine. The offensive to the left or north of Metz would attack either to the north or, in the event the enemy violated neutral territory, to the northeast through Luxembourg and the Belgian Ardennes, but this movement would be carried out “only by order of the Commander in Chief.” The general purpose, although this was nowhere stated, was to drive through to the Rhine, at the same time isolating and cutting off the invading German right wing from behind.

To this end Plan 17 deployed the five French armies along the frontier from Belfort in Alsace as far as Hirson, about a third of the way along the Franco-Belgian border. The remaining two-thirds of the Belgian frontier, from Hirson to the sea, was left undefended. It was along that stretch that General Michel had planned to defend France. Joffre found his plan in the office safe when he succeeded Michel. It concentrated the center of gravity of the French forces to this extreme left section of the line where Joffre left none. It was a plan of pure defense; it allowed for no seizing of initiative; it was, as Joffre decided after careful study, “foolishness.”

The French General Staff, though receiving many indications collected by the Deuxième Bureau, or Military Intelligence, pointing to a powerful German right-wing envelopment, believed the arguments against such a maneuver more telling than the evidence for it. They did not credit the sweep through Flanders, although, in fact, they had been told about it in a dramatic manner by an officer of the German General Staff who in 1904 betrayed to them an early version of the Schlieffen plan. In a series of three rendezvous with a French intelligence officer at Brussels, Paris, and Nice, the German appeared with his head swathed in bandages, revealing only a gray mustache and a pair of piercing eyes. The documents he handed over for a considerable sum revealed that the Germans planned to come through Belgium by way of Liège, Namur, Charleroi, and invade France along the valley of the Oise, by way of Guise, Noyon and Compiègne. The route was correct for 1914, for the documents were authentic. General Pendezac, then Chief of the French General Staff, believed the information “fitted perfectly with the present tendency of German strategy which teaches the necessity of wide envelopment,” but many of his colleagues were doubtful. They did not believe the Germans could mobilize enough men to maneuver on such a scale, and they suspected the information might be a feint designed to draw the French away from the area of the real attack. French planning was hampered by a variety of uncertainties, and the greatest of these was Belgium. To the logical French mind it seemed obvious that the Germans would bring England in against them if they violated Belgium and attacked Antwerp. Was it likely the Germans would deliberately do themselves this disservice? Rather, was it not “altogether likely” that, leaving Belgium unviolated, they would return to the elder Moltke’s plan of attacking Russia first before the slow Russian mobilization could be completed.

Attempting to fit Plan 17 to one of several hypotheses of German strategy, Joffre and Castelnau believed that the most likely one was a major enemy offensive across the plateau of Lorraine. They expected it to violate the corner of Belgium east of the Meuse. They calculated German strength on the Western Front, without use of reserves in the front line, at twenty-six corps. For this number to be extended in strength on the far side of the Meuse was “impossible,” decided Castelnau. “I was of the same opinion,” agreed Joffre.

Jean Jaurès, the great socialist leader, thought differently. Leading the fight against the Three-Year Law, he insisted in his speeches and in his book L’Armée nouvelle that the war of the future would be one of mass armies using every citizen, that this was what the Germans were preparing, that reservists of twenty-five to thirty-three were at their peak of stamina and more committed than younger men without responsibilities, that unless France used all her reservists in the front line she would be subjected to a terrible “submersion.”

Outside the chapel of Plan 17 there were still military critics who argued strongly for the defensive. Colonel Grouard, in his book La Guerre eventuelle, published in 1913, wrote: “It is above all the German offensive through Belgium on which we ought to fix our attention. As far as one can foresee the logical consequences of the opening of our campaign, we can say without hesitation that if we take the offensive at the outset we shall be beaten.” But if France prepared a riposte against the German right wing, “all the chances are in our favor.”

In 1913 the Deuxième Bureau collected enough information on the German use of reserves as active troops as to make it impossible for the French General Staff to be ignorant of this crucial factor. A critique by Moltke on German maneuvers of 1913 indicating that the reserves would be so used came into French possession. Major Melotte, Belgian military attaché in Berlin, noticed and reported the Germans calling up an unusual number of reserves in 1913 from which he concluded that they were forming a reserve corps for every active corps. But the authors of Plan 17 did not want to be convinced. They rejected evidence that argued in favor of their staying on the defensive because their hearts and hopes, as well as their training and strategy, were fixed on the offensive. They persuaded themselves that the Germans intended to use reserve units only to guard communication lines and “passive fronts” and as siege and occupation troops. They enabled themselves to reject defense of the Belgian frontier by insisting that if the Germans extended their right wing as far as Flanders, they would leave their center so thinned that the French, as Castelnau said, could “cut them in half.” A strong German right wing would give the French advantage of superior numbers against the German center and left. This was the meaning of Castelnau’s classic phrase, “So much the better for us!”

When General Lebas on that occasion left the Rue St. Dominique, he said to the deputy from Lille who had accompanied him, “I have two stars on my sleeve and he has three. How can I argue?”

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