Military history



A single error in the original assembly of the armies can hardly ever be rectified during the entire course of the campaign.


TWO ARMIES CLOSED ON EACH OTHER ON THE PLAIN OF ALSACE in the heat of early September. One had advanced out of the west through the Belfort Gap, a broad swath of land where the Vosges Mountains of France fail to meet the Jura Mountains of Switzerland; the other, out of the northeast and across the Rhine. They met somewhere between Cernay (Sennheim) and Mulhouse (Mülhausen) along the edge of the southern Vosges Mountains. One took up an attacking position on “a large plain” west of the Rhine; the other debouched on “a rising ground of considerable height” in the Vosges. Both “fell to work with their spades” and built strong entrenchments. Both were about fifty thousand men strong.1 One was commanded by Julius Caesar, the other by the German chieftain Ariovistus.

Precisely 1,972 years later, such a battle was repeated. The troops pouring out of the Belfort Gap in 1914 were French and those out of the northeast, German. French forces consisted of VII Army Corps and 8th Cavalry Division (CD) of Yvon Dubail’s First Army; German forces, of Baden XIV and XV army corps as well as XIV Army Reserve Corps of Josias von Heeringen’s Seventh Army. Both were rushing headlong toward the villages of Altkirch and Thann as well as Mulhouse, a textile town known as “the city of a hundred flues,” some of which belonged to the family of Alfred Dreyfus. Upper Alsace was devoid of major fortifications, for it had no pride of place in either side’s concentration plan.

WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION of the Rhenish Palatinate—the left bank of the river Rhine bordered by France to the west and Baden to the south—no area of the historic wars between France and Germany so agitated the public as the two ancient lands of Alsace and Lorraine. They had been part of the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation since the Treaty of Meersen in 870, but eight hundred years later, in the words of the Elder Helmuth von Moltke, Louis XIV “severed” them “like a sound limb from the living body of Germany.”2 That same Moltke brought the “Old Reichsland” back into Germany in 1871. He was moved in doing so not only by national passion but also by military necessity: The two provinces formed a triangle with the apex, formed by the confluence of the Ill and Rhine rivers, a veritable dagger pointing at the heart of Germany; and the Vosges Mountains and the Plain of Alsace accorded France a perfect sallying point for a future revenge attack on the new Reich.

Annexation brought with it a return to old Germanic names. Alsace reverted to Elsaß, Lorraine to Lothringen, Sarrebourg to Saarburg, Strasbourg to Straßburg, and Thionville to Diedenhofen. The Vosges were once more the Vogesen. Many villages exchanged the French endings of -vihrand -viler for the ancient German -weier and -weiler, respectively. Lorraine remained French culturally and linguistically, while Alsace retained its Aleman roots. Many French Alsatians migrated to France. Villages were torn apart by the new border. Roads were studded with sentry gates; the ridge of the Vosges, with border posts. The German administration—Prussian military—impressed the local population with neither its charm nor its grace. In the petty bickering leading up to the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871, two decisions were made that were to impact the course of events in 1914: Fortress and Territoire de Belfort remained with France (in exchange for a German victory parade through Paris), and the new Franco-German border was drawn along the crest of the Vosges rather than farther west at the eastern edge of the Plateau of Lorraine. Belfort in 1914 would anchor the French extreme right flank; the Vosges heights would provide France access to the major passes through the mountains.

ON 7 AUGUST, the French landed the first blow in the south. Chief of the General Staff Joseph Joffre’s General Instruction No. 1 of 8 August, as detailed in the previous chapter, had made clear that he primarily wanted to “jab” in Alsace with his First Army, to “fix” the German left wing, and, if possible, to draw enemy units to the south while he delivered the main blow against the German center via a two-pronged offensive on each side of the Metz-Thionville defenses.3 But Joffre could not resist the temptation to arouse the nation’s passion for war by an early coup de théâtre in Alsace. He selected Louis Bonneau, Alsatian-born, to lead French forces against Mulhouse, destroy the Rhine bridges, and then march north against Colmar and Strasbourg. A cautious man, Bonneau’s one claim to fame was that at a general maneuver, he had delivered a blistering public attack on a divisional commander—Ferdinand Foch.4 At 5 AM* on 7 August, Bonneau led VII Corps out of the Belfort Gap on what he termed a “delicate and hazardous” undertaking.5 He directed Louis Curé’s 14th Infantry Division (ID) to attack Altkirch and Paul Superbie’s 41st ID, Thann—two villages close to the Swiss border. The infantrymen were conspicuous in their bright blue jackets, shining red trousers, and képi, led by officers in white gloves clutching drawn swords. Louis Aubier’s flanking 8th CD was resplendent in dark bluejackets, red breeches with blue seams, and brass helmets streaming long back plumes.6 Cadets from the Saint-Cyr Military Academy deployed in full-dress uniforms with white plumed casoar. Bonneau’s troops advanced haltingly against virtually no opposition. Then in a spirited bayonet charge, they drove the small German garrison out of Altkirch. Bonneau sent news of the victory to Paris, where it evoked wild celebrations.

Joffre, while pleased with the public fervor over the seizure of Altkirch, was infuriated by Bonneau’s failure to quickly follow up the initial victory. He ordered VII Corps to move at once against Mulhouse.7 It did so slowly. The city fell to Bonneau without opposition at 3 PM on 8 August, the covering German 58th Infantry Brigade (IB) having withdrawn. Bonneau paraded his troops through Mulhouse’s main square for two hours, displaying the German border posts they had ripped out of the ground the previous morning. Joffre now hailed the soldiers of VII Corps as “pioneers in the great work of revenge.”8 French Alsatians welcomed the troops with cheers of “Vive la France!” and hearty renditions of “La Marseillaise” as well as the “Sambre et Meuse.”* They also took advantage of the opportunity to turn against their German brothers. The latter responded by passing on French troop formations and strengths to General von Heeringen at Strasbourg.

Within twenty-four hours of Bonneau’s strike on Mulhouse, Heeringen overthrew his entire deployment plan and moved to dislodge the French from Mulhouse. He ordered Bertold von Deimling’s XV Corps at Strasbourg and Ernst von Hoiningen-Huene’s XIV Corps at Breisach to retake the city; Richard von Schubert’s XIV Reserve Corps was to continue to mobilize along the Rhine bridges. To assure success, Heeringen secured the temporary addition of Oskar von Xylander’s Bavarian I Army Corps for the operation. His plan was to turn the French left flank and to throw Bonneau’s VII Army Corps against the Swiss border. XIV Corps, fifty-eight battalions strong, straddled the Rhine River. Due to their close proximity to Mulhouse, Hoiningen-Huene’s corps forwent rail transport and instead headed on foot across the Rhine Valley.9 For forty hours, the troops marched over fields of clover and grain, past vineyards and orchards, through hawthorn hedges and forests under a blazing forty-degree-Celsius sun.10 En route, they sharpened bayonets. Most adhered to Hoiningen-Huene’s orders to restrict their beer intake and not to purchase hard liquor.

Debouching from the mosquito-infested bogs of the Forest of Harth at 3 PM on 9 August, Hoiningen-Huene’s units attacked French positions around Mulhouse. The orderly advance quickly disintegrated into a series of bloody frontal assaults. The fighting in heavily wooded and vineyard-studded terrain was bitter and at close quarters. Heat, exhaustion, and lack of water took their toll. Men dropped off to rest in roadside ditches. Others had to be carried forward on trucks and carts. Infantry companies straggled. Field kitchens (“goulash cannons”) fell behind. By nightfall, vicious street fighting ensued at the small village of Rixheim, just east of Mulhouse. In their baptism of fire, many companies blindly fired off ten to sixteen thousand rounds. In the darkness, soldiers mistakenly fired on one another. A semblance of order was finally restored by having the men sing the patriotic song “Die Wacht AM Rhein,” as a means of identification. In the melee, 112th Infantry Regiment (IR) suffered 41 dead, 163 wounded, and 223 missing.11

The fighting at Mulhouse was even more disorderly and just as deadly. At Napoleon Island on the Rhône-Rhine Canal, the French fired at the Baden Landwehr (reserves) from raised platforms across ripe grain fields, inflicting “severe losses.” Confusion reigned at battalion and regimental levels. Orders were either not received or ignored. To avoid the withering French machine-gun fire, the men of 2d Battalion, 169th IR, took refuge in a gravel pit. When the battalion commander, Major Otto Teschner, ordered a frontal attack, only his officers and “a few men” obeyed; the rest beat a hasty retreat to the shelter of the pit—and beyond. Teschner stemmed the flood back to the canal only by threatening to shoot shirkers and by striking at least one on the head with his dagger.12

There were similar scenes of disorderly retreat elsewhere. When Major Maas, commanding 1st Battalion, 169th IR, dispatched Lother Hauger to reconnoiter Banzenheim, the officer encountered several companies streaming back from the front. “They told me that they had been beaten and wanted to [go back] across the Rhine.” The nineteen-year-old Hauger rose to the occasion. “I took the next available horse, had the Rhine bridge closed and gave the order not to let anyone across.”13 He received a regimental citation for valor and later the Iron Cross, Second Class.14

The German losses may have been severe, but Bonneau was shaken by the massive enemy response to his invasion and ordered a general retreat later that night. He did not stop until VII Corps was safely under the shelter of Belfort’s guns. War Minister Adolphe Messimy threatened to court-martial and execute any commander found to be lacking the requisite offensive spirit.15 By 13 August, Mulhouse and the surrounding area were back in German hands. It was now the turn of the returning German Alsatians to take revenge on their French brothers. “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!” was sung well into the night. Martial law was proclaimed, and residents suspected of having aided the French were evicted. But worse was to come. Numerous commanders—at the company, battalion, and regimental levels—reported that their men had been fired on by civilians. The nightmarish specter of 1870, when French irregulars had taken up arms against the invading German troops, had raised its ugly head: francs-tireurs!* Although all Baden formations had been read the “rules of war” on 4 August, a General Corps Order of 11 August stated: “Soldiers or civilians offering even the least resistance are to be shot at once.” At Baldersheim, armed civilians operating out of houses flying the Red Cross flag were hanged.16 At Didenheim and Niedermorschweier, Hoiningen-Huene’s units took mayors and priests hostage and threatened to execute armed civilians and burn down the homes of those who sheltered them.17

The persistent encounter with suspected or real francs-tireurs prompted General Hans Gaede, deputy commander of XIV Corps, to issue a special decree defining just who constituted a franc-tireur. The decree was as sweeping as it was draconian. Any citizens of “France, England, Belgium, Russia and Japan” not in uniform and who in any way disrupted German military operations, communications, or supply were to be regarded as Franktireure. If caught in the act, they were “to be killed at once, naturally in self-defense.” If not caught red-handed, they were still to be executed, but only by emergency courts-martial requiring one officer. Residents of the “Reichsland” who were caught with arms were to be summarily executed; those merely suspected of such actions, handed over to formal courts-martial.18 Without question, the war in the west had turned ugly in its first days.

The first of four engagements in the so-called Battle of the Frontiers had not gone well for France. Joffre, who had earlier heralded Bonneau’s seizure of Mulhouse, now allowed no news of its recapture by the Germans or of the number of casualties to be released. He relieved Bonneau, the hero of yesterday, of command—the first of many so-called limogés, so named because War Minister Messimy assigned them to rear duty at the army depot of Limoges, some four hundred kilometers away from the political nerve center of Paris. Within a week, Joffre would also sack Louis Aubier, commanding 8th CD in Alsace.

The Battle of Mulhouse had been fought for the wrong reason—national prestige—and at the wrong place—the southernmost flank of both armies. Joffre’s General Instruction No. 1 had made clear that he simply wanted to tie down enemy units to the south while he delivered his main blow against the Germans around the Metz-Thionville defenses. His German counterpart, Helmuth von Moltke, likewise had instructed the commanders on his left flank merely to “attract and to tie down” as many French forces “as possible” in the area between the Upper Moselle and Meurthe rivers to prevent the French from transporting them to their left wing, where the main German attack would be delivered through Belgium. Beyond that, they were to secure Alsace and Baden against invasion.19

But as Carl von Clausewitz made abundantly clear in Vom Kriege, “war is the realm of uncertainty.” A host of “intangibles” such as interaction, friction, moral factors, and the “fog of uncertainty” at all times interacted with what he called “primordial violence” or “slaughter” and the “passions of the people” to prolong war, to escalate conflict, and to bedevil the best-laid plans of staff officers. Thus it was with regard to Alsace-Lorraine in 1914.

BAVARIAN CROWN PRINCE RUPPRECHT and the staff of German Sixth Army departed Munich-Laim by train at 9:50 PM on 7 August and arrived at their headquarters at Saint-Avold, a dreary industrial hamlet some forty kilometers east of Metz, at precisely 7:47 AM on 9 August.20 It was hot, the air sullen. Sixth Army was composed of I Corps (Oskar von Xylander), II Corps (Karl von Martini), III Corps (Ludwig von Gebsattel), and I Reserve Corps (Karl von Fasbender)—183 infantry battalions, 28 cavalry squadrons, and 81 artillery batteries; roughly 220,000 men in all. The next night, Rupprecht, at age forty-five, also assumed command of Heeringen’s Seventh Army and Rudolf von Frommel’s III Cavalry Corps. Prewar plans for his forces to be augmented by Italian Third Army—two cavalry divisions at Strasbourg and three infantry corps on the Upper Rhine, possibly to storm Belfort by the seventeenth day of mobilization (M+17)—had died when Italy declared its neutrality on 2 August. Sixth Army was thus thinly spread out: about 2,960 men per kilometer of front as opposed to 11,100 for First Army, on the right wing. According to the operational plan (“Thoughts About the Operations of Sixth and Seventh Armies”) that Moltke had submitted to Sixth Army and that Rupprecht’s chief of staff, Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen, had refined on 6 August before leaving Munich, the Bavarians were to tie down French forces in Lorraine and thereby “gain time” for the war to be decided on the right flank of the German advance.21


Rupprecht was born to King Ludwig III of Bavaria (crowned 1913) in Munich on 18 May 1869. He studied law and attended the War Academy. Most contemporaries described him as being regal, even handsome, with kind eyes and a smart mustache, but hardly martial. Once having chosen a military career, he advanced quickly: command of a regiment in 1899, of a brigade the following year, and of a division in 1903. He was given I Army Corps in 1906 and six years later, Fourth Army Inspectorate. Under the German federal system, it was natural that as head of the second most important kingdom in the empire he would command Bavarian forces in the war. Constituted as Sixth Army, Rupprecht’s men fought as a unified Bavarian force for the first (and last) time in Lorraine.

The Bavarian units, tired by the long rail journey from Munich, took advantage of their role as occupiers in what soon became a familiar pattern. At Blâmont, east of Lunéville, on 10 August, Captain Otto von Berchem, a staff officer of Xylander’s I Corps, reported that troops of 3d IB had looted local wine cellars. “The result was a most unpleasant drunken matins.” Fueled by the free red wine, the Bavarians shot off their rifles throughout the town, and in the bacchanalia also turned the guns on one another. Berchem’s observations were seconded by Sergeant Joseph Müller of 4th Chevauleger Regiment, who admitted having taken part in the “liberation” of the wine cellars.22 The Bavarians also reported countless incidents of civilians firing at them with hunting pieces. Lieutenant Colonel Eugen von Frauenholz, the future Bavarian military historian, noted some residents of Blâmont shooting at soldiers and horses from treetops and church steeples as they marched through the town.23 The 3d IB reacted to similar occurrences at Nonhigny and Montreux that same day by burning down both villages.24 It was a new and unexpected type of warfare, Frauenholz conceded.

Confusion reigned at Rupprecht’s headquarters. Bonneau’s theatrical charge into Mulhouse, in Krafft von Dellmensingen’s acid words, “had indeed drawn onto itself a good deal—the entire Seventh Army!”25 Both Sixth and Seventh armies scrambled furiously to get back on their original deployment schedules. Moreover, the overall situation remained unclear. Frommel’s cavalry had not managed to penetrate the French forward screen, and aerial reconnaissance had detected little fresh enemy movement. During a skirmish among elements of Bavarian 59th IB and 65th IB and French 15th ID and 16th ID as well as 2d CD of Joseph de Castelli’s VIII Corps at Lagarde (Gerden) along the Marne-Rhine Canal on 11 August, the Germans discovered a valuable document on the body of a fallen French general: A report from Édouard de Castelnau’s Second Army staff that six French army corps were being concentrated in the sixty-kilometer-wide Trouée de Charmes between Toul and Épinal.26 Krafft von Dellmensingen quickly calculated that this meant that the enemy had placed nine of its twenty-one active army corps (43 percent) on the southern flank.27 Sixth and Seventh armies were more than fulfilling the role of tying down as many French units as possible in the south accorded them in Moltke’s Westaufmarsch. Still, French intentions remained unclear.

Papa Joffre would soon provide clarity. From the Grand quartier général (GQG), situated in a schoolhouse at Vitry-le-François, a sleepy little town on the Marne River halfway between Paris and Nancy, Joffre on 11 August decided to launch a major offensive into Alsace-Lorraine north of the Vosges three days later in accordance with his Instruction générale No. 1.28 He anchored the extreme right wing on a new Army of Alsace, composed of Frédéric Vautier’s VII Corps, Albert Soyer’s 44th ID from the Army of the Alps, four reserve divisions, Aubier’s 8th CD, and five battalions of Chasseurs alpins from First Army—three army corps in all under Paul-Marie Pau, a veteran of 1870 brought out of retirement.29 Pau was charged with defending the vast stretch of frontier from the Swiss border north to the Col de la Schlucht, west of Munster (Münster) on the Fecht River. North of Pau, Joffre ordered Dubail’s First Army and de Castelnau’s Second Army to advance out of the Charmes Gap just south of the major German fortifications between Metz and Thionville. Dubail’s four corps would spearhead the attack. First, they would storm several valleys in the Vosges south of Mount Donon; thereafter, they were to seize Sarre bourg (Saarburg), sixty kilometers east of Nancy, and then hurl the enemy eastward into Lower Alsace and the region around Strasbourg. Three corps of Castelnau’s Second Army were to screen Dubail’s attack by advancing toward Dieuze (Duß) and Château-Salins, with two corps on First Army’s left moving against Morhange (Mörchingen), some forty-five kilometers northeast of Nancy. Joffre placed the rest of Castelnau’s forces on the left to guard against a possible German counterattack from Fortress Metz. Most importantly, the Army of Alsace was to secure the eastern flank of the attack by marching north without delay.

Joffre was, in fact, playing straight into Moltke’s hands. He continued to believe that the main German offensive by regular army corps was being launched into Lorraine against his own center, and hence he moved to counter this threat. All the while, he ignored evidence from his own intelligence branch, the Deuxième Bureau, that significant German units were advancing into Belgium.

Simple in conception, Joffre’s attack30 was fraught with danger—quite apart from the still-unconfirmed German thrust into central Belgium. The farther French forces advanced out of the Vosges passes and the Trouée de Charmes, the broader their fronts became: eventually, eighty kilometers for First Army and seventy for Second Army. Dubail’s dual objectives of Sarrebourg and Donon necessitated splitting his forces and thus exposing his flanks to German counterattack. Finally, the terrain was rugged, studded with hills, valleys, rivers, and ravines.

Joffre’s second invasion of Alsace-Lorraine was based on the wishful thinking inherent in his deployment plan. Accordingly, the strong German defensive line between Metz and Thionville—the so-called Moselstellung—simply had to be a screen for Moltke’s major troop concentration in the Ardennes and in German Lorraine. In fact, only five regular divisions manned the Moselstellung, giving the French a three-to-one advantage in the region. But in Alsace-Lorraine, where Joffre suspected no more than six German corps facing the twenty divisions of his own First and Second armies, Crown Prince Rupprecht in fact commanded eight army corps of twenty-four divisions.

General de Castelnau, a cultured nobleman and able strategist, already before the war had feared a possible German concentration in Lorraine and advised Joffre against an offensive into the area.31 He preferred instead to stand on the defensive in well-prepared positions in front of Nancy. He repeated his concerns in August 1914. Joffre brusquely rejected this defensive mentality. No major enemy formations, he assured Castelnau, faced Second Army.32 And when news arrived from St. Petersburg on 13 August that the Russian steamroller would move into East Prussia the next day, Joffre gave the order to attack. “I count on you absolutely for the success of this operation,” he admonished Dubail and First Army. “It must succeed and you must devote all your energy to it.”33

At Saint-Avold, Rupprecht and Krafft von Dellmensingen, like Joffre, were chomping at the bit to go on the offensive. Both feared that the purely defensive role assigned to them by the Army Supreme Command (Oberste-Heeresleitung, or OHL) would negatively affect the morale of their troops; any form of retreat would be disastrous. Hence, they began to toy with options. Krafft’s first plan was to advance to the line of the Upper Moselle and Meurthe rivers and thereby threaten the flank of the French center. On 11 August, he had dispatched Major Rudolf von Xylander of his staff to Seventh Army to urge greater speed on Heeringen and the two corps of Sixth Army that still had not reached Strasbourg from Mulhouse. Xylander found Heeringen’s General Headquarters to be in a state of “panic” due to the hurried shift up north, and because the former Prussian war minister had given Krafft’s plan the “cold shoulder.”34 One day later, Rupprecht received his first official instructions from the OHL: It was not “interested” in a joint advance by Sixth and Seventh armies “across” the Upper Moselle and the Meurthe; at best, it would sanction an advance “against” the two rivers under favorable conditions.35 As a sop to the Bavarians, the OHL agreed that they could reduce Fort Manonviller in French Lorraine.

Frustrated in his offensive design, Krafft von Dellmensingen turned to a second option: If the Bavarians had to remain on the defensive and if Joffre truly had ranged substantial forces against them, then why not entice the French into advancing into an artificially created “sack” somewhere between Metz and Strasbourg? In other words, show the French that the Bavarians were withdrawing in the face of superior forces, lure them into the sack, and then cut them to pieces from three sides—Fifth Army and Fortress Metz from the west, Sixth Army from the east, and Seventh Army from the south.36 A “small Cannae” (the German obsession) might thus be achieved at an unexpected sector of the front.

As if on cue, the German military attaché at Bern, Switzerland, reported that Joffre had indeed amassed “12–15” or even “15–18 army corps” against Rupprecht’s two armies—that is, perhaps as much as two-thirds of the French army!37 Option two was now on the table. Moltke’s deputy chief of staff, Hermann von Stein, was enthusiastic and ordered Sixth Army to withdraw behind the Saar River north of Saarbrücken. To Rupprecht, the plan seemed too “artificial,” an obvious pandering to what he called the southern defensive posture of the “Old Schlieffen” Plan of 1905.38Still, it was now up to Joffre to take the bait, charge into the sack, and place his head into its noose.

On 13 August, French ambassador to Russia Maurice Paléologue informed Paris that the Russians would launch their much-anticipated offensive against the Germans in East Prussia at dawn the next morning. It was the news Joffre had been waiting for. On the morning of the fourteenth, he sent the armies on the right wing—roughly four hundred battalions and sixteen hundred guns, almost one-third of the chief of staff’s effective strength—into Germany. Bands struck up “La Marseillaise.” Soldiers in the lead formations tore down the striped posts that marked the Reichsland’s boundary with France.39 Ahead of them lay lush green fields of alfalfa and golden strips of cereal crops—and beyond that the industrial Saar region and eventually the Rhine Valley. On the left flank of First Army, César Alix’s XIII Corps headed for Cirey and Castelli’s VIII Corps, for Blâmont. On Dubail’s left, Castelnau directed Louis Taverna’s XVI Corps to advance from Lunéville to Elfringen, Louis Espinasse’s XV Corps from Serres to Monhofen, and Ferdinand Foch’s XX Corps from Lunéville to Kambrich. Overall, the French force formed a gigantic wedge aimed straight at Sarrebourg and the left wing of Rupprecht’s Sixth Army.

Progress was good. For four days, Joffre’s troops advanced methodically.40 German Sixth Army relied mainly on long-range artillery fire from its 1,068 guns and on brief but violent rear guard actions to slow the French advance. Frédéric Bourdériat’s 13th ID of Émile-Edmond Legrand-Girarde’s XXI Corps seized Mount Donon while Alix’s XIII Corps and Castelli’s VIII Corps drove Xylander’s Bavarian I Corps behind the Marne-Rhine Canal, advancing to within twelve kilometers of Sarrebourg. The Germans everywhere were withdrawing, burning villages as they abandoned them. Only an ill-conceived attack on Cirey by Gustave Silhol’s 26th ID just before 7 PM sounded a sour note. As the 26th swept across a flat field, German artillery and machine guns cut it to ribbons.41 Joffre formed a new cavalry corps under General Louis Conneau by combining Dubail’s 6th CD with Castelnau’s 10th CD in hopes of breaking through the German positions the next day.

The attack resumed on 15 August. It quickly turned into a bloody slogging match as the first rain* of the campaign soaked the fields and turned the Lorraine clay into beige-gray ooze. By 9 AM, Castelnau’s Second Army reported a thousand casualties. Classic infantry charges with flags unfurled, bugles blaring, and drums beating, the caustic commander of Second Army lectured Joffre, had to be supported by “heavy firing by artillery” prior to the attack. Thereafter, the troops needed to establish step-by-step field defenses such as “extensive trenches, shelter against shrapnel, helmets for riflemen, etc.” Both infantry and artillery, Castelnau tartly noted, “have been sorely tested.”42 German heavy artillery kept the lighter French 75s out of range, and the infantry dug in. At General von Stein’s urging, Moltke rushed six Ersatz divisions originally assigned to the right wing in Belgium to Alsace-Lorraine. Superstitious Alsatian peasants noted that thirty storks had prematurely headed south out of the Rhine Valley—a bad omen.

Still, the French advance continued over the next two days in dreary cloud and rain. The Germans poured lethal artillery fire into the advancing French forces in the Seille lowland from their commanding positions on the Côte de Delme and from their double fortresses of Morhange-Dieuze. They used forest cover to conceal the whereabouts of their machine-gun nests. The result was slaughter for the French. Charles de Gaulle, a lieutenant in 1914, later acknowledged that “on a tactical plane,” German firepower had “made nonsense” of Joffre’s theories of the offensive à outrance. “Morally, the illusions behind which the soldiers had taken refuge were swept away in a trice.”43 Yet at this early stage in the war, Joffre was unwilling to concede that French tactical doctrine and the inadequacy of its artillery had become apparent.44

But Joffre was no fool. He kept a tight rein on the advance, limiting it to roughly five kilometers per day. He refused to take the German bait—that is, to stick his head into the sack prepared for the French between Metz and Strasbourg. He constantly admonished Dubail and Castelnau to maintain contact on their flanks.45 He urged Pau’s Army of Alsace, fronted by only German reserve and Landwehr units around Colmar, to march north at greater speed. On 17 August, Foch’s XX Corps, strengthened by long-service white Troupes Coloniales, advanced from the Donnelay-Juvelize ridge and took Château-Salins; the next day, Espinasse’s XV Corps occupied Dieuze. That same day, Louis de Maud’huy’s 16th ID of Castelli’s VIII Corps, having beaten back Ludwig von Hetzel’s Bavarian 2d Division, moved into an abandoned Sarrebourg, while Foch’s XX Corps advanced against Martini’s Bavarian II Corps on the fortified heights of Morhange. But Conneau’s cavalry corps could not get across the Saar River due to heavy enemy artillery fire. Rupprecht’s Sixth Army continued to retreat in an easterly direction, leaving behind guns, wagons, field kitchens, knapsacks, and rifles as well as its dead and wounded. It also left behind a burning Sarrebourg, having doused its stores of ammunition and supplies with gasoline and set them on fire.

As an interesting footnote in history, the war diary of 2d Battalion, Baden 112th IR, recorded on 18 August: “Lt. Goering 8C brings in 3 prisoners of [French] IR 85.”46 The twenty-one-year-old Hermann Goering of 8th Company, future head of the German Luftwaffe and successor-designate to Adolf Hitler, received the Iron Cross, Second Class, for his frontline service in Lorraine.47

Joffre, no doubt buoyed by his successes, but also fearing that the enemy was preparing a trap for his armies east of Sarrebourg, ordered Second Army to shift the direction of its attack to the north, up the valley of the Saar River.48 As a result, the two French armies lost contact with each other. Pau’s Army of Alsace continued to cling to the security of the Vosges Mountains between Mulhouse and Colmar. Unknown to the Germans, on 16 August, Joffre withheld African XIX Corps from Dubail’s First Army and transferred Arthur Poline’s XVII Corps to Charles Lanrezac’s Fifth Army north at Rethel-Mézières. Two days later, he sent Pierre Dubois’s IX Corps to Fernand de Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army at Sainte-Menehould. Obviously, a French withdrawal of forces to the north had begun. Moltke, for his part, made no move to shift forces from his left to his right wing. On 20 August, Joffre informed War Minister Messimy, “Overall, the situation appears to me to be favorable.”49

German hopes of trapping the French in a sack east of the Metz-Nancy line died just as quickly as they had been raised. Already on 16 August, Lieutenant Colonel Gerhard Tappen, chief of operations of the OHL, informed Rupprecht that the Bern reports concerning French heavy concentrations in the Charmes Gap had been grossly overstated and that the German withdrawal accordingly was advancing at far too fast a pace.50 Moreover, the stiff resistance mounted against Dubail and Castelnau by Sixth Army undoubtedly had frustrated the overall sack design. While the Bavarian crown prince had been more than willing to let the French storm across the Rhine into the Black Forest in order to surround and annihilate them elsewhere,51 Moltke’s headquarters refused to concede German soil for a theoretical small Cannae.

In the south, Vautier’s VII Corps had advanced on Mulhouse almost as slowly as it had earlier under Bonneau. Once again, the fighting was vicious and the losses severe. Once again, there had been little or no reconnaissance, with the result that the two opposing armies unexpectedly ran head-on into each other. The so-called Second Battle of Mulhouse was in full swing by 10 AM on 19 August. It was at its most ferocious in the suburb of Dornach. The French commanded the heights and mercilessly poured machine-gun fire into the massed German infantry columns, cutting the Landser down “like a scythe does stalks of grain.” Panic quickly set in. Poorly trained Baden Landwehr units yet again fired wildly—thirty-five thousand rounds by one company alone—and occasionally at Württemberg troops, whose blue pants they mistook for French blue capes in the smoke and confusion of battle. Colonel Koch, commanding the hard-hit 40th IR, spent much of his time trying to stanch the flow of Landwehr companies streaming back to the Rhône-Rhine Canal.52 Three times he rallied his men; three times their charge was bloodily repelled.

Communications from the company to the regimental level totally broke down. Major Leist, commanding 1st Battalion, 40th IR, recorded: “There can be no talk of a connection with the Regiment; not a single regimental order was passed down during the entire battle.”53 Thus, the general order to retire to the Eichenwald at 4 PM did not reach all units, and more than five hundred German soldiers had no choice but to surrender to the French. Sergeant Otto Breinlinger, 11th Reserve Infantry Regiment (RIR), sadly wrote home that after Mulhouse and Dornach, his 10th Company had shrunk from 250 to 16 men.54 Dominik Richert, a German-Alsatian farmer, was appalled at the sight of the battlefields. “Some of the dead looked horrible. Some lay on their faces, others on their backs. Blood, claw-like hands, glazed over eyes, distorted faces. Many grotesquely clutched rifles in their hands, others had their hands full of dirt and grass which they had torn out in their death pangs.”55 For most men of Hoiningen-Huene’s Baden XIV Corps, there was but one thought: back to the Rhine.

Paul Gläser, a noncommissioned officer with 2d Company, 40th IR, informed his parents that his vocabulary simply was inadequate to describe the brutal street fighting at Dornach. The regiment was fired on from countless windows as it withdrew. “Certainly, more than 100 bullets whistled about my head, from behind, from left and from right of me.” Storming one house in search of francs-tireurs, Gläser found four French soldiers in civilian clothes and a “young wench” who loaded rifles for them. “We finished them off with a triple salvo.”56 At a higher level in the chain of command, General Gaede informed Grand Duke Friedrich II of Baden that civilians had yet again fired on his men “in vile and despicable fashion.” Revenge would be swift. “If we get Dornach back, not a single house must be allowed to stand.”57

At their new headquarters in a “miserable school house” at Hellimer, Rupprecht and Krafft turned their thoughts to mounting a powerful counterattack.58 The latest intelligence reports suggested that Joffre had marshaled seven and one-half corps as well as three cavalry divisions against Sixth Army and XV and XIV corps of Seventh Army, which had finally marched up from their ill-conceived detour to Mulhouse and linked up with Rupprecht’s left flank. Krafft suggested launching the counterattack on 18 August, the anniversary of the Battle of Gravelotte in 1870.59 He dispatched Major von Xylander on a “diplomatic mission” to Heeringen’s Seventh Army to garner support for the plan. Once again, the Prussian turned a “cold shoulder” to the Bavarian initiative. Krafft was livid. “The great Heeringen, the former Prussian War Minister, will accommodate the Bavarian Crown Prince only grudgingly.”60 And when the crown prince and his chief of staff relayed their decision to the OHL, Moltke and his staff reacted with what the Bavarians sarcastically called “a most oracle-like”61 directive: Stick to the original Aufmarschplan. To mollify Bavarian royal feelings, Moltke dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm von Dommes, chief of the Political Section of the General Staff, to Hellimer.

Dommes’s mission was the first of several such confusing encounters over the ensuing days. He had come, Dommes informed the Bavarians, not with specific directives but only with general talking points. Moltke and Tappen by now had dropped the idea of luring the French into the vaunted sack between the Saar and Nied rivers. They also had ruled out any major offensive against the Trouée de Charmes. On the basis of this apparent return to the original deployment plan, Dommes suggested that Sixth and Seventh armies fall back to defensive positions between Metz and the Lower Nied River to prevent Joffre’s First and Second armies from attacking the flank of German Fifth Army near Verdun. “6. and 7. Armies should not engage in adventures. Stand firm! Task: secure the army’s left flank.”62 But neither Rupprecht nor Krafft von Dellmensingen was willing to accept a prolonged passive stance by the Bavarian army on the Nied, as this would seriously impair its “offensive spirit” and cause the men to lose faith in their leaders.63 Krafft pressed his case for the offensive, “the first great battle of the war.” It would be risky, “but it must be attempted.” He closed the meeting on a harsh note. “One either lets me do as I want or one gives me concrete orders.”64 Dommes possessed no such orders from Moltke. Rupprecht noted that Dommes was so “nervous” during the talks that he left “helmet and sword” behind upon departing Hellimer.65

Just to be on the safe side, Krafft on 18 August telephoned the OHL to make known his intentions to attack. Deputy Chief of Staff von Stein cagily replied: “No, I will not prevent you from doing this by ordering a stop to it. You will have to bear the responsibility. Make your decision as your conscience dictates.” Krafft did not hesitate for a moment. “It has been made.”66 Both he and Rupprecht would later be accused of having placed Bavarian dynastic interests above German national strategy.

The charge does not sit well. For, while refusing to issue Rupprecht direct orders, the OHL continued to second-guess his intentions. “One assumes here,” Bavarian military plenipotentiary Karl von Wenninger reported from the OHL, “that the Crown Pr[ince] will solve his task offensively, but at the same time one hopes—albeit in silence—that [his] commander’s nerves will allow him to draw the enemy onto Saarburg in order then to crush him between two fronts.”67 The Younger Moltke’s copying of his great-uncle’s loose command style was beginning to show cracks. While it had been relatively easy for the Elder Moltke to decentralize command and to have divisions and even corps “march to the sound of the guns” (Auftragstaktik) over relatively narrow fronts in 1870, the Younger Moltke was beginning to realize that this was not the case with what amounted to small army groups of four to five hundred thousand men extended over more than a hundred kilometers of front.

Dawn on 20 August broke gray and foggy, prohibiting aerial reconnaissance by either side. At 4:30 AM, a blood-red sun—“the sun of Austerlitz,”* Rupprecht and Krafft giddily noted—broke through the mist. For a sixth day, Joffre’s armies in Lorraine renewed the attack. Conneau’s cavalry corps debouched into the rear of German Sixth Army to roll up its flank. On this day, however, the French were met by a withering hail of artillery fire—and by a spirited counterattack.68 In fact, like the classical charges of Athenians and Spartans, Romans and Carthaginians, the two forces, quite unaware of the fact, had each mounted separate attacks that morning and crashed head-on along a hundred-kilometer-wide front.

The men of Bavarian Sixth Army had leaped out of their defensive positions at 3:30 AM “with flags unfurled” and pressed their concentrated attack all along the line. The battle almost immediately disintegrated into a series of isolated and uncoordinated engagements. Clumps of soldiers rushed wildly across the hills and valleys of the Vosges, and through the fences and hedges of its quaint villages. Foch’s XX Corps alone made progress at Morhange. At one point, his forces stormed two lines of German trenches—only to discover that they were being “held” by field-gray straw figures.69 Foch had undertaken this deep penetration of the enemy lines against Castelnau’s express orders, and in the process had exposed the left flank of Second Army’s two center corps. Bavarian Sixth Army counterattacked that exposed flank of Castelli’s VIII Corps with wave after wave of infantry supported by heavy artillery. Enfilading machine-gun fire from Gebsattel’s III Corps caused what Foch called “gruesome” losses for his XX Corps. In the heated melee, it was often difficult to distinguish friend from foe. Near Bisping, for example, Bavarian 1st IB was nearly annihilated by a withering barrage of artillery shells from its own 9th Field Artillery Regiment.70 “Unfortunately,” Krafft noted in his diary, he had not been able “to move” Heeringen’s Seventh Army “to attack before 11 AM.”71 In Paris, President Raymond Poincaré quietly marked his fifty-fourth birthday.

In fact, Carl von Clausewitz’s “fog of uncertainty” had bedeviled the French at Morhange. On the evening of 19 August, two contradictory orders were issued: While Castelnau instructed Foch to hold the line where he stood, Foch ordered his troops to renew the attack the next morning. Foch informed Castelnau of his decision forty-five minutes before that attack, set for 6 AM on 20 August, and the commander of Second Army replied by repeating his earlier order to stand pat and to guard against a possible German counteroffensive—by telephone as well as by sending a staff officer to XX Corps. Foch in his memoirs claimed that he received no instruction on the night of the nineteenth and that Castelnau’s order to halt on the morning of the twentieth reached him too late, for the Germans had preempted his own attack by launching their offensive around 5 AM(French time). Joffre was content to note in his report to Paris only that XX Corps had “advanced perhaps a little too quickly.”72 He was not about to cashier one of his most energetic corps commanders.

A disaster ensued for the French—despite the fact that they had captured the war diary of a fallen German officer detailing Rupprecht’s plan of attack. German heavy artillery arrayed on the Morhange Ridge and ranged by means of pre selected aiming points decimated first French artillery and then the enemy infantry marching through the valleys below it. By late afternoon, as the broiling heat of the first two weeks of the campaign returned, Castelnau had lost not only his son in battle but much of his field artillery as well. Espinasse’s XV Corps and Taverna’s XVI Corps were in full retreat. French 68th ID and 70th ID had been severely mauled. Foch’s XX Corps had taken a bad knock. In the words of one officer, “a sublime chaos, infantrymen, gunners with their clumsy wagons, combat supplies, regimental stores, brilliant motor cars of our brilliant staffs all meeting, criss-crossing, not knowing what to do or where to go.”73 Still seething over Foch’s unauthorized advance, Castelnau had no choice but to order a retreat to the original starting line of the offensive on 14 August—the Meurthe River and the Grand Couronné de Nancy, the long chain of fortified ridges that shielded the city against attack. Believing the situation to be “very grave” and his army desperately in need of at least forty-eight hours’ rest, he entertained thoughts of further withdrawals behind the Upper Moselle and perhaps as far as Toul and Épinal. Joffre refused even to consider the suggestion. “Speak no more of retiring beyond the Moselle.”74 Instead, he rushed 64th RID and 74th RID to buttress Second Army and halted the shunting of Dubois’s IX Corps to the north, already in progress. And he sent a number of “defensive-minded” brigade and division commanders into “retirement” at Limoges.

Castelnau’s retreat also sealed the fate of Dubail’s advance. Initially, and without contacting Castelnau, the fiery Dubail was determined to continue the attack. General de Maud’huy’s 16th ID was engaged in bitter house-to-house fighting in Sarrebourg. A relief attempt by Léon Bajolle’s 15th ID was repulsed with heavy losses by Xylander’s Bavarian I Corps. Maud’huy had no choice but to abandon Sarrebourg. He did so with a defiant last gesture: Amid a storm of shrapnel, he and his staff stood at attention at the southern end of the city while 16th Division’s massed bands played the “Marche Lorraine” as the troops marched out of Sarrebourg.75

It was heroic, but it was not war. Late in the day, a telephone call from Joffre apprised Dubail that Second Army’s retreat threatened to turn into a rout. Foch’s XX Corps alone remained combat-effective and was doing its best to cover the hasty withdrawal of Espinasse’s XV Corps and Taverna’s XVI Corps. Still, its 39th ID and 11th ID took a terrible pounding and were driven back from one defensive position to another. Dubail was left no option but to withdraw VIII and XIII corps to cover Castelnau’s exposed flanks. Pau’s Army of Alsace still was nowhere in sight.

French losses on 20 August were appalling: Bavarian III Corps registered thirteen hundred enemy prisoners of war; Bavarian II Corps, eight hundred; and Bavarian I Corps, nineteen hundred. Special burial details took care of twelve hundred dead poilus.76 The Great Retreat in the south was in full swing by the evening of 20 August. The French army admitted five thousand casualties; historians have put that figure at ten thousand. Friedrich von Graevenitz, Württemberg’s plenipotentiary to the OHL, reported “total victory” against “at least nine active corps,” and the capture of fourteen thousand prisoners of war and thirteen artillery batteries.77 Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had been roused from bed by his senior military entourage to receive the news, celebrated “the greatest victory in the history of warfare.”78

At daybreak on 21 August, the gunners of Sixth Army showered Castelnau’s battered formations with another withering artillery barrage. As the early-morning mists evaporated, Foch’s 39th ID was hurled back north of Château-Salins, and his 11th ID likewise was forced to retreat. As Rupprecht’s Bavarians began a sweep around Castelnau’s Second Army, the previously shattered XV Corps and XVI Corps disintegrated. By 10 AM, the little “monk in boots” ordered the first general retreat of the day. As his officers in vain tried to rally the troops to defend scattered hills and ridges, the German pursuit continued. Some four thousand shells pulverized the small town of Sainte-Geneviève over seventy-five hours. Castelnau’s men, morally and physically shaken, abandoned carts and wagons, guns and horses. At 6 PM, the commander ordered another general retreat—under cover of darkness. Dubail’s First Army, with its western flank left in the air by Castelnau’s precipitous retreat, was forced to fall back to the line of the Meurthe River. He never forgave Castelnau.

Despite Joffre’s attempts to isolate the zone des armées from the home front, word of the disaster that had befallen Espinasse’s XV Corps at Morhange spread fast. The endless wagons filled with the wounded bore witness to what had taken place. On 24 August, Le Matin at Paris reported:

Companies, battalions passed in indescribable disorder. Mixed in with the soldiers were women carrying children on their arms … girls in their Sunday best, old people, carrying or dragging a bizarre mixture of objects. Entire regiments were falling back in disorder. One had the impression that discipline had completely collapsed.79

At the front near Rambervillers, northeast of Épinal, Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux was amazed by the seemingly endless columns of French refugees: “the peasant carrying his little bundle; the worker with a few old clothes; small farmers, shopkeepers and their cases, finally the bourgeois, dragging along a dog or a trunk.” He was shocked by what came next: “whole trains” bringing back the two thousand wounded at Rambervillers. “Their limbs shot off, their heads a pulpy mess; all these bandages, spattered with blood mingle with the civilian population.”80 Marcel Papillon with 356th RIR wrote home of the “awful weather—cold with a fine rain” that plagued the men for four days as they fell back to the Grand Couronné de Nancy. “War is sad,” he allowed, especially on the local population living amid the mounds of gray corpses (des grises). “I saw villages burned up by bombardments. It is cruel. The infantry of French XX Corps has suffered very heavy losses.”81 Not even the canteens offering vin ordinaire at the exorbitant rate of three francs per bottle offered relief.

Through it all, Joffre at Vitry-le-François maintained his clockwork regimen of eating regularly and well, sleeping undisturbed and long, and weeding out what he considered to be “weak” or “defensive” commanders. Minister of War Messimy tried to put the best spin on the debacle in the Vosges: “The day before yesterday, a success; today, a defeat. C’est la guerre.” Joffre dismissed the comment as “lapidary.”82

THE VIOLENT ENGAGEMENT AROUND Sarrebourg shocked even its victor in terms of the human toll.83 Annual staff rides and field maneuvers had not prepared commanders for the true face of battle. On 21 August, Crown Prince Rupprecht inspected the previous days’ battlefields. In Serres Forest and in the region around Château-Brehain, he noted, the enemy had “left behind masses of dead and wounded.” But his own troops had also suffered grievously: At Eschen, one of the battalions of 9th Regiment, 4th ID, had been nearly annihilated and henceforward could only be deployed as a single company. Elsewhere, 18th IR had sustained 45 percent casualties; 70th IR had lost twelve hundred men. Especially the cavalry had suffered from both the heat and the steep climbs up the slopes of the Vosges. It had been forced to race back and forth on reconnaissance missions and then to deploy dismounted. One cavalry division had lost 213 riders over seventeen days of continuous patrol, and many of its mounts had no shoes; another reported that its horses were utterly worn out, and that seventy had died of exhaustion.

As Rupprecht rode toward his new headquarters at Dieuze, he came across more scenes of carnage. At Conthil, the fields were studded with mass graves, for both men and horses. Houses were burned out, shot to pieces by the artillery. Cows not milked for days, their udders nearly bursting, roamed about “bellowing in pain.” At Morhange, artillery shells had hit the gasworks, and fires ravaged the city. On a nearby hillside, where an enemy unit had been caught in the flank, French dead, recognizable by their red pants, “lay in rows and looked like a field of poppies.” The corpses presented an eerie sight. “They lie man to man. Some still hold their rifles at the ready. Due to the intense heat, most of the men’s faces have already turned a bluish black.” Yet again, the crown prince witnessed the effects of “friendly fire”: Bavarian artillery had mistakenly fired on its own advancing infantry.

Next, Rupprecht made his way through the Forest of Dieuze. Shirts, boots, hats, rifles, and knapsacks had been hastily abandoned. In the city itself—“a typical French town: ugly and dirty”—the scene of abandonment was even greater. Where earlier the citizenry had thrown a ball for the approaching French forces, automobiles now lay overturned in ditches, knapsacks and uniforms scattered about, and rifles with smashed butts littered the streets. The barracks attested to the “flight” of two French divisions. “An indescribable filth. Bones and pieces of meat from butchered animals lay in the courtyard and torn pieces of uniforms inside the rooms.” Rupprecht estimated recent enemy losses at thirty thousand dead and wounded.

Ominously, reports again began to filter in to Sixth Army headquarters from company to regimental levels that the fighting had not been restricted to the battlefield or to regular forces. Countless commanders stated that armed civilians had shot at their troops with hunting pieces from windows and rooftops as they entered a town. Francs-tireurs! Word about French civilians firing on German troops spread like wildfire. Reprisals were swift. Already on the first day of the Bavarian offensive, 20 August, at Nomeny, a small town on the Meuse River between Metz and Nancy,84 men of French 277th IR at a bridge over the Seille River had held up the advancing Bavarian 2d IR and 4th IR; when the Germans finally took the bridge, French enfilading fire from a nearby field inflicted heavy casualties. Karl von Riedl’s 8th IB and Viktor Bausch’s 33d RID were convinced that the poilus of the French 277th had been assisted by civilians, who also had sheltered sharpshooters after the battle. That night 3d Battalion, 8th IR, burned much of the village; the next day, its inhabitants were expelled. Fifty-five residents of Nomeny died on 20–21 August; of those, forty-six had been shot.

At Gerbéviller, southeast of Nancy, a similar scenario had developed.85 Soldiers of French 2d Battalion and 19th Dragoons as well as some chasseurs had stiffly defended a bridge over the Mortagne River against units of Bavarian 60th IR and 166th IR. Frustrated by this rearguard action and seeing French civilians firing on them, the Germans between 24 and 27 August pillaged and burned the city. Albert von Berrer, commanding 31st ID, ordered Gerbéviller destroyed. Sixty civilians reportedly died in the process.

At Lunéville, southeast of Nancy, savage “reprisals” took place on 25 August.86 For three days, Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein’s 5th RID and Maximilian von Höhn’s 6th ID had taken heavy losses—25,003 casualties—attempting to breach General de Castelnau’s defensive line before Nancy.87 Demoralized by failure, the men returned to Lunéville in a foul mood. They found the city clogged with columns of supply wagons and carts full of the wounded. They were sure that armed civilians on rooftops were firing at them, at supply columns, and at field hospitals. They shot wildly into homes and shops, at anything that moved. Several civilians were caught carrying cartridges to fellow shooters. “Mindless fear,” in the words of the Bavarian semiofficial history, “was the reaction. Vehicles rushed in every direction, while guards returned the fire without plan or purpose.” As darkness fell, seventy homes had been burned and nineteen civilians killed. For the soldiers, it was “a horribly beautiful, wild scene, one which deepened and reinforced their impression of this bloody and fateful day.”88 Major von Xylander of Rupprecht’s staff wrote in his war diary: “In Lunéville, murder and slaughter. Fires. Panic among our rear-guard formations. Wild rumors.” The young officer found it simply “unbelievable” how an army victorious in the Battle of the Saar* just three days earlier “in such a short time” could have degraded “to such a state.” He blamed it on the “overly excited nerves” of troops engaged in almost daily combat.89 A larger massacre was avoided by the swift action of Major Berthold Schenk von Stauffenberg of XXI Corps, who ordered his troops to stop plundering and who took sixty civilians hostage as a human shield to end the shooting. Crown Prince Rupprecht denounced the “foolish” torching of villages, which held up his train and denied the soldiers quarters.90

Fritz Nieser, the Grand Duchy of Baden’s acting plenipotentiary at Munich, reported that the capital was decked with flags to celebrate Rupprecht’s victory in the Battle of the Saar, and that King Ludwig III had received enthusiastic public ovations. The French army “obviously had been totally defeated in the west.”91

THE BATTLE OF THE Saar had not fulfilled Rupprecht’s dream of a great flanking movement primarily because Heeringen’s Seventh Army, although augmented by Bavarian I Corps, had not been able to make sufficient progress north of the Marne-Rhine Canal. By attacking more than six hours later than Rupprecht, Heeringen had surrendered the element of surprise. Moreover, his Landwehr brigades had become bogged down in the Vosges in countless encounters with crack French Alpine troops.92 Unlike the French, the Germans had neither specially trained Alpine troops nor high-angle-fire mountain artillery. The going was nearly impossible. Dense fog not only inhibited accurate fire but also turned the battlefields into semi darkness. Combat was close and personal, in most cases ending with bloodcurdling bayonet charges. The small creeks of the Vosges at times ran red. The din was unbearable. The woods rang with the screams of wounded soldiers rolling on the ground. Drums and bugles sounded advance and retreat, alternately. Men accidentally shot their own. And even in the mountains, there was little relief from the broiling heat.

Adolf Hartner, a Bavarian telegraph specialist, noted that the artillery reduced the great trees of the Vosges to matchsticks and enemy soldiers to grotesque heaps of body parts. “Here a torn off foot, there an arm, a leg, then another body torn apart to the point of non-recognition; one was missing half his face & both hands; truly horrible.” At Lucy, Hartner almost became sick at the sight of a pitiful French corporal.

A grenade had ripped open his body & he now attempted to push back into it the intestines that had spilled out of it—until death took mercy on him. Thus he lay there with distorted eyes & a snarl on his teeth. I believe that none of us could resist a mild shudder.93

Karl Gruber, an architect from Freiburg in charge of an infantry company, noted in his diary that the war enthusiasm of the first days of August quickly wilted in the heat and savagery of mountain warfare. More and more, his Baden soldiers badgered him with questions such as: “Lieutenant, will we be in Paris soon?” and “Lieutenant, won’t the murdering soon stop?”94

The Bavarian semi official history of the war reproduced the travails of two battalions of 15th RIR and 30th RID in the area around Markirch in Upper Alsace on 24 August. What today is a charming resort known for its Munster cheese and Gewürztraminer wine was in 1914 a tough textile town of twelve thousand people. The countryside was still studded with open pits and slag heaps from earlier days of lead and silver mining. Bavarian infantry ran up against a natural fortress. “Everywhere, felled trees, barricades made with branches, barbed-wire entanglements, and tripwires impeded progress.” Enemy sharpshooters hid behind “bushes, boulders, rock walls,” in “holes and trenches,” as well as “in tree tops.”95 The battle raged all day across the face of the 772-meter-high Col de Sainte-Marie and the Robinot and Lièpvrette rivers. At Brifosse, the advance of 5th RIR over a bridge crossing the Robinot was halted by French machine gunners. Panic ensued.

The troops, seized by fear, run for their lives down the southern hillside … to seek safety in Brifosse. The horses, hit by the bullets, roll on the ground and wildly flay their legs into the harnesses. The wagons, wheels inter-locked, crash into one another; are pulled to the side; then pushed over the edge. Dead and wounded men and horses lie about everywhere. There was neither any going “forward” nor any going “backward.”96

The arrival of the 5th in Markirch later that night brought no relief. A rumor circulated that a French infantry brigade from 58th RID of Paul Pouradier-Duteil’s XIV Corps was attacking the regiment’s artillery en route to Lièpvre (Leberau). The supply wagons took off down the single, narrow road—only to run headlong into their own artillery. “A wicked chaos ensued. The wagons bump each other and collide. Shafts splinter. Horses spook and collapse. Oaths and agitated cries ring out into the darkness. One artillery piece even falls into the stream alongside the road.” Suddenly, shots rang out. “Now the disaster is complete. Whoever has a rifle or can lay their hands on one begins to shoot about wildly.”97 It took several hours to restore order. The French infantry brigade never appeared. The source of the rumor was never uncovered. In fact, the occupying units of French 71st RID from Épinal had withdrawn from Markirch during the night of 23 August. From 7 AM until 2 PM the next day, German reserves drove the remaining French up and across the strategic Sainte-Marie Pass.98

Bloody engagements, whether in open fields or along mountain slopes, brought Seventh Army’s reserve troops greater losses in August 1914 than their forefathers had encountered in the entire Franco-Prussian War (1870–71).99 At Lagarde, 2d Jäger Battalion lost 161 men and the Kaiser-Ulanen-Regiment, 158 riders and 149 mounts. At Badonviller, the King’s Own Infantry Regiment sustained losses of 97 dead, 322 wounded, and 17 missing. At Diespach, 15th RIR lost 408 men. And the closer the troops came to the French border, the lustier became the civilian cries, “Beat the Prussian filth.”* In many instances, the reply of the “Prussian filth” was to burn down hostile villages and remove their inhabitants.

Nor were conditions much better on the Plain of Alsace. There, the heat was abominable, the roads dry and dusty, and the still-unripe fruit fuel for intestinal disorders. In the region where, almost two millennia before, Caesar had clashed with Ariovistus, French and German troops engaged each other in ancient combat.100 By and large without artillery, they resorted to savage bayonet charges and hand-to-hand fighting. The steep, terraced vineyards of the eastern slopes of the Vosges around Colmar, Turckheim (Türkheim), Kaysersberg, Riquewihr (Reichenweier), and Ribeauvillé (Rappoltsweiler) were easily turned into miniature fortresses by interweaving felled trees with chest-high grapevines and barbed wire. Bavarian 1st and 2nd Landwehr regiments each lost 150 to 200 men in the first few days of fighting alone—as did French 13th and 30th chasseur brigades ranged against them.

THE BAVARIAN ARMY ALSO experienced a new logistical impediment to maneuver warfare—mail. Whereas in the Franco-Prussian War, the postal services of Prussia, Baden, and Württemberg daily had to move 500,000 letters and packets, that figure in 1914 shot up to 9.9 million pieces to the front and 6.8 million back home per day. Roughly eight thousand postal employees handled the increasing flood of mail.101 In part, the explosive expansion was due to the fact that German authorities allowed these mailings postage-free. For the government saw a potential for patriotic uplifting at home by publishing many of the letters in local newspapers and in special book editions—sixty in 1914 alone.

Apart from sheer volume, a second problem lay in the nature of many of the packets sent to the front. Especially after the death of Pope Pius X on the day of Rupprecht’s offensive in Lorraine—20 August—these took on a macabre composition. Officers reported a host of “forbidden” items reaching their men: amulets rubbed with herbs, playing cards, engagement or wedding rings, vials of wine mixed with gunpowder, creams to ward off bullets, identification cards, chain letters, Bible verses, curses, and “hexes” of all manner and form.102 For their part, soldiers reported sighting the Madonna smiling down on them through the black powder smoke.

Furthermore, relations between the “Old Reichsland” and German military authorities rapidly deteriorated. General Gaede, head of a special Army Detachment Gaede on the Vosges front, so distrusted the indigenous population that he literally fenced in the front in Upper Alsace with three Landsturm battalions and hundreds of kilometers of barbed wire. “A fluidum of betrayal,” he reminded his officers, “runs throughout the entire population.”103 He arrested 574 civilians for “anti-German utterances” and 913 for “anti-German sentiments.” He deported 752 Alsatians and ordered summary executions for 6. Finally, he called up 15,000 Alsatian reservists, transferred them to the right bank of the Rhine, and with the consent of the Prussian War Ministry distributed them in groups of 100 throughout the Reich. “A very severe but also very necessary and salutary measure,” he informed Grand Duke Friedrich II of Baden.104

TO JOSEPH JOFFRE’S PLEASANT surprise, the Bavarians, equally exhausted by the Battle of the Saar, took three days to pursue Dubail and Castelnau. At times, they lagged twenty kilometers behind the beaten foe. Especially French Second Army used these precious seventy-two hours to regroup, resupply, refresh, and reinforce Nancy’s defensive belt along the line Gerbéviller-Lunéville-Amance. Joffre created a new Army of Lorraine under Michel-Joseph Maunoury and ordered it not only to hold Lorraine but to “fix” as many German units as possible in the south while he launched his great assault across the Ardennes.105 Still, Lunéville fell to the Bavarians on 23 August and Saint-Dié shortly thereafter. Given that Pau had done little to be of help at Sarrebourg and had lingered in the Alsatian vineyards for six days since 20 August, Joffre dissolved the Army of Alsace on 26 August. He left a single division to guard the Col de la Schlucht and transferred the rest of Pau’s units into Vautier’s VII Corps, which he then sent to reinforce Fortress Paris—a major reshuffle that required 110 to 120 trains and five to six days of travel. Four days later, German 55th Landwehr Brigade retook luckless Mulhouse.

In fact, the Bavarian army had been temporarily derailed by the Army Supreme Command to deal with a nagging problem: Fort Manonviller, perhaps the strongest French fortress, which commanded the strategically important Paris-Nancy-Strasbourg rail line.106 General Karl Ritter von Brug, chief of the Bavarian Corps of Engineers, was given an enhanced brigade of I Corps to take the fort. At 10:30 AM on 25 August, the 300mm and 210mm howitzers opened fire on the giant fortress. They were joined at 2 PM by Krupp 420mm howitzers and at 6 PM by 150mm coastal howitzers. By dusk the next day, the fort “looked like a hill spouting fire.” It surrendered at 5:30 PM on 27 August. The Germans over fifty-two hours had fired about sixteen hundred artillery rounds at Manonviller, including two hundred shells, 922kg each, from the mammoth Krupp “Big Berthas” that had been hauled to Manonviller by Daimler Benz tractors and sited at Elfringen, 14.5 kilometers from the fort.107 Deputy Officer Fritz Burger of 1st Foot Artillery Regiment was shocked at the “unbelievable devastation” caused by the Krupp howitzers. Manonviller looked like a “rooted-up molehill.”108 There had been just 2 fatalities among the 820 officers and men inside the well-protected fortress, but its defenders had been physically and psychologically shaken by the terrible pounding. A direct hit on Manonviller’s ventilation plant had greatly accelerated the decision to surrender. In an act of “chivalry,” General von Brug had requested that the French garrison be allowed to withdraw “with honor.” Rupprecht vetoed the suggestion. The French had been “less than chivalrous” at Lunéville, he countered, firing on German medics and wounded.109 It was a new, “hard” war.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was “simply ecstatic” over the battlefield success of a fellow royal and on 27 August bestowed the Iron Cross, First and Second Class, on Crown Prince Rupprecht. Moltke, in the words of a Bavarian staff officer, had been “moved to tears” by the gesture. But their Prussian paladins were less charitable. Rupprecht’s failure to dispatch his “tired” cavalry to cut the defeated French Second Army to pieces after the Battle of the Saar, War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn testily recalled on the eve of the Battle of the Marne, meant that the Bavarians had missed a “golden moment” to decide the war on the southern flank, the so-called Südflügel. Prussian cavalry, unlike its Bavarian counterpart, he savagely noted, was never “too tired” to pursue a beaten foe!110

With Fort Manonviller taken and the French driven to the line of the Meurthe River, Rupprecht and Krafft began preparations to send a major portion of their forces north to assist Fifth Army in and around Verdun. This had been “Case 3” of the modified Schlieffen Plan that Moltke had distributed on 6 August as the Bavarian part in the great Westaufmarsch. They awaited new instructions from the OHL. Eventually, Lieutenant Colonel Tappen informed them that since the German rail net in the southwest only ran as far north as Aachen—after which the troops would face a very long march to the front—they would arrive much too late to assist in the envelopment of Paris.111 The Bavarians were left alone to plot their future course of action.

* Actions in German Alsace are given in German General Time (DGZ); in French Lorraine, in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), one hour earlier.

* A patriotic military march arranged by Joseph François Rauski in 1879, after the Franco-Prussian War.

* In today’s terminology, “partisans” to one side and “terrorists” to the other.

 The others were the Ardennes, Sambre-et-Meuse (Battle of Charleroi), and Mons.

* Weather descriptions were taken from a special compilation, Das Wetter, in the German official history, Der Weltkrieg, vol. 1, p. 893, and were cross-checked against army and corps war diaries (KTB) as well as soldiers’ letters from the front.

* On 2 December 1805, Napoleon I with a “lion leap” charged the Austrian and Russian right flank at the Battle of Austerlitz through a thick morning fog; at 7:45 AM, the sun rose over the battlefield.

* I follow the established practice of letting the victor name the battle. Allied historians usually refer to the Battle of the Saar as the Battle of Sarrebourg-Morhange.

* “Il faut battre les sales Prussiens!”

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