One must never fail to recognize that it is difficult to free oneself from a concept once it is conceived and to throw over board an entire operations plan once it appears that the presuppositions on which it is based are no longer valid.
—GERMAN GENERAL STAFF RIDE 1905/06
THE BATTLE OF THE FRONTIERS WAS OVER BY 24 AUGUST. FOR nearly two weeks, two million-man armies had been locked in murderous combat along a front roughly three hundred kilometers wide. There had been planned offensives that quickly degenerated into wild melees in Alsace-Lorraine, Belgium, the Ardennes, and the triangle of the Sambre-Meuse rivers. There had been unexpected skirmishes and unwanted surprises as the opposing forces ran into one another headlong in rugged terrain. There had been severe “wastage” due to senseless massed infantry assaults. Artillery and machine guns had proved utterly lethal. France and Germany had each suffered roughly 260,000 casualties.
In boxing terms, the two contenders had sparred for four rounds—at Nancy, Liège, Namur-Charleroi, and Mons. They had landed, and absorbed, jabs and light blows. They had inflicted black eyes, cut lips, and swollen cheeks on each other. But there had been no massive combination punches to the body or the head, no knockout blow. The Germans stuck to their game plan—to remain on the offensive everywhere and to knock out their opponent by either a left hook in Lorraine or a right hook at Paris, or both. They circled their prey waiting for an opening. The French had come out looking to land a knockout punch in the first two rounds—in Alsace-Lorraine and then in the Ardennes. When that approach failed, they adopted a “rope-a-dope”* strategy, constantly retreating, conserving energy, allowing the opponent to strike them repeatedly in hopes of tiring him out, and waiting for an opportunity to counterattack.
Round Five had the potential to be deadly—to the French. Alexander von Kluck’s First Army was chasing the retreating British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the right flank. Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Sixth and Seventh armies were resting and recuperating from a week of constant combat on the left flank, and preparing to drive past Nancy and across the Meurthe River. Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia’s Fifth Army and Duke Albrecht of Württemberg’s Fourth Army had given the French center a terrible pounding in the Battle of the Ardennes. The war’s center of gravity now shifted once more to Charles Lanrezac’s French Fifth Army. Pointing northeast into the apex (Namur) of the right angle formed by the Sambre and Meuse rivers, Lanrezac was the anchor of the French position. If he failed to hold the line, it would spell doom not only for Sir John French and the BEF on his left, but especially for Pierre Ruffey’s Third Army and Fernand de Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army on his right, which had been bludgeoned and was now pinned down in the Ardennes by German Fifth and Fourth armies. And, of course, for Paris.
LANREZAC HAD ALREADY CROSSED swords with Karl von Bülow at Charleroi and had come out the loser. German Second Army had chased French Fifth Army south across the Sambre and by 25–26 August was making a major effort to encircle it from the northwest. But Lanrezac’s problems did not end with Bülow. For on his right flank, another German army was driving west, and it posed the greatest potential threat: Max von Hausen’s Third Army. It was a force to be reckoned with: Saxon XII and XIX corps as well as XII Reserve Corps and Prussian XI Corps, a total of 113,000 infantry, 71,000 cavalry, 602 guns, and 198 machine guns.1 For much of August, Third Army had advanced through the Belgian province of Namur on the left flank of Bülow’s Second Army—both forming the spokes that connected the hub of Fourth and Fifth armies in the Ardennes to the outer rim of First Army in Flemish Brabant. After ordering Hausen to surrender Otto von Plüskow’s XI Corps to Second Army to besiege Namur, Army Supreme Command (OHL) on 20 August ordered him to head for the line Namur-Givet with his three remaining corps. His instructions were to support Second Army’s advance west of Namur and to coordinate his actions with Prussia’s senior field commander. Ahead lay the right flank of French Fifth Army.
Hausen’s advance was fraught with both promise and danger. If he and Bülow drove home their attacks on Fifth Army, the Prussian from the north and the Saxon from the east, Lanrezac’s forces could be taken between two pincers and crushed.2 But if either Bülow or Hausen failed to press the enemy hard at all times and allowed Lanrezac freedom of action, there was a danger that especially Hausen’s Third Army could be driven by French Fifth Army against Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army in the Ardennes. Expert coordination between Bülow and Hausen and their respective staffs was essential to success. The man whose job it was to provide this, Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke, was still at Koblenz, 280 kilometers from the front.
Hausen took his time. It was stiflingly hot. The roads were narrow and dusty. The local population was hostile. In town after town, from Somme-Leuze to Erezée, and from Champlon to Hargimont, his commanders reported finding vast caches of revolvers, ammunition, and dynamite, as well as destroyed railroad tracks, telegraph wires, and bridges. They notified Hausen of “cowardly attacks” on the men of Third Army by the local militia, the Garde civique. In response, Hausen took estate owners, priests, and mayors hostage, burned manor houses and urban dwellings, and summarily executed those caught obstructing his advance.3
Beginning on 17 August, Bülow almost daily badgered Hausen and his chief of staff, Ernst von Hoeppner, to drive their right wing across the Meuse River and thus secure Second Army’s left flank. On 20 August, Bülow frantically cabled: “Where 3. Army today?” Coordinated action by Second and Third armies was “urgently desired.” But the next day, he sent a mixed signal: “2. Army will not attack today.”4 What was it to be, Hausen must have wondered, a combined-armies attack or individual operations? And where was the controlling hand of Moltke?5
As Third Army approached Achêne on the road to Dinant on the afternoon of 21 August, Hausen and Hoeppner called a meeting of their corps and division commanders. All agreed that Dinant was a formidable obstacle. There, the Meuse flowed deep and broad and swift in a gorge that ran from south to north across their path of advance. Its eastern shore consisted of a ridge of high, heavily wooded hills; its western bank, of a precipitous hundred-meter-high rock cliff topped by a massive stone citadel.* The city of seven thousand inhabitants was strung out along the west bank of the river and dominated by the onion-domed Cathedral of Notre Dame. French forces—Hausen suspected two army corps—occupied both banks of the river. Three major roads fed into Dinant from the east. The French could be counted on to blow up the Meuse bridges as soon as Third Army hoved into view.
It was further agreed at the meeting that Dinant could be taken only by way of a frontal assault. Moltke, having received news that five French corps had begun a concentrated attack in the Ardennes, instructed Hausen to coordinate his assault with Bülow for 4 AM† on 23 August. Accordingly, Hausen moved his headquarters up to Castle Leignon, fifteen kilometers east of Dinant, and pushed Karl d’Elsa’s XII Corps and Maximilian von Laffert’s XIX Corps straight toward the city. Hans von Kirchbach’s XII Reserve Corps was to continue its advance on Third Army’s right flank in place of XI Corps, recently dispatched to Namur.6 Saxon field artillery began to “soften” Dinant for the infantry assault. Engineers gathered barges and brought up pontoon bridges to span the Meuse when the French, as expected, blew up its bridges. The weather continued hot and dry.
At 10:30 AM on 22 August, Bülow was back with another request: “Rapid advance 3. Army with right wing against Mettet urgently desired.”7 In plain language, Bülow demanded that Hausen shift the direction of his attack to the north of Dinant against Louis Franchet d’Espèrey’s I Corps at Mettet. Hausen and Hoeppner spent the rest of the day drafting new attack orders. Then, at 10 PM, they received startling news from Fourth Army. Erich Tülff von Tschepe und Weidenbach, commanding VIII Corps on Duke Albrecht’s right flank, reported to his northern neighbor, Laffert of Hausen’s XIX Corps, that the French seemed to have only three cavalry divisions in the area west of Dinant.8 Albrecht’s Fourth Army had turned southward to ward off the attack by Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army and hence could not take advantage of the opening. Tülff strongly suggested that Hausen’s Third Army bypass Dinant to the south, cross the Meuse, and drive a wedge between the joint of French Fifth and Fourth armies. Lanrezac’s Fifth Army of 193 battalions and 692 guns might thus be crushed between the pincers of Bülow’s Second Army and Hausen’s Third Army.
GERMAN THIRD ARMY’S ASSAULT ON DINANT
What to do? Obey the wishes of Prussia’s senior field commander? Heed the advice of a royal prince’s corps commander? Seize the moment? Hausen prevaricated for much of the night. Then, at 4:50 AM on 23 August, fifty-seven Saxon artillery batteries opened fire on Dinant. It was a dreary, foggy morning. Hausen’s spirits were raised immensely at 7:35 AM when he finally received instructions from Moltke: “Available units to be taken across Maas south of Givet.” The news from Koblenz, Hausen recorded in the war diary, “produced great joy at Army Supreme Command 3.”9 It was one of those rare moments of opportunity that make history’s great captains. At hand lay a golden opportunity to cut off Lanrezac’s retreat from the Sambre and envelop French Fifth Army. Within the hour, Hausen ordered Laffert’s XIX Corps to dispatch ten infantry battalions, nine artillery batteries, and three cavalry squadrons under Götz von Olenhusen south to Givet and on to Fumay, there to cross the Meuse and advance against Lanrezac’s right flank.10
Hausen’s bold action, of course, split his army into three groups. While Olenhusen’s force—mainly 40th Infantry Division (ID)—marched off toward Givet, Kirchbach’s XII Reserve Corps continued its advance north of Dinant toward Houx. That left a third group, d’Elsa’s XII Corps, to storm the narrow medieval streets of Dinant and to seize the heights between Haut-le-Wastia, Sommière, and Onhaye.11
In daylong bitter fighting, Horst von der Planitz’s 32d ID, followed by Alexander von Larisch’s 23d Reserve Infantry Division (RID), crossed the Meuse on barges and pontoon bridges north of Dinant at Leffe. Karl von Lindemann’s 23d ID advanced south of Dinant via Les Rivages. The French defense had been severely gutted as Lanrezac, hard-pressed by Bülow south of the Sambre, had ordered Franchet d’Espèrey’s I Corps to turn northwest to come to the aid of Gilbert Defforges’s X Corps, heavily battered by the German Guard Corps at Arsimont. René Boutegourd’s 51st RID and two brigades of Henri Deligny’s 2d ID were all that stood between the Saxons and victory.
Fighting quickly degenerated into hand-to-hand combat. At Leffe, an industrial suburb north of Dinant, Planitz’s 32d ID was met by a withering hail of bullets from Boutegourd’s 51st RID and—according to both Hausen and the German official history—from the “fanatical” Belgian population, including women and children.12 Lindemann’s 46th Infantry Brigade (IB) managed to penetrate Dinant, where it, too, was greeted with heavy fire from French reserves and Belgian irregulars. When attempts to smoke out the francs-tireurs failed, Lindemann abandoned the city for an hour—and unleashed his artillery on the inhabitants.
Boutegourd frantically appealed to Franchet d’Espèrey for relief, informing I Corps’ commander that one of his brigades had been “crushed by artillery fire, with heavy losses.”13 Franchet d’Espèrey at once realized the mortal danger to Fifth Army’s right flank. Without consulting Lanrezac, he ordered I Corps to retrace its steps of the night before. Along the way, he ran across a colleague from the colonial wars, Charles Mangin, whose 8th Brigade stood in reserve. “General, the enemy has crossed the Meuse behind our right. The [51st] Reserve Division is giving ground. … Go immediately and take your two battalions.” Franchet d’Espèrey promised to follow “as fast as I can with the main body of the corps.”14 It was Mangin’s first appearance as a major actor on the Western Front.
In one of the few bright moments for the French in this early part of the campaign, Mangin picked up a cavalry regiment along the way and headed for Onhaye. En route, he encountered the shattered remains of French 33d Battalion stumbling back from Dinant. Trooper Christian Mallet, 22d Dragoons, was “stupefied” at seeing
terrifying beings, livid, stumbling along, with horrible wounds. One has his lips carried away, an officer has a crushed hand, another has his arm fractured by a shell splinter. Their uniforms are torn, white with dust, and drip with blood. Amongst the last comers the wounds are more villainous, in the wagons one sees bare legs that hang limp, bloodless faces.15
Mangin pushed on. Two kilometers west of Dinant, he reorganized Boutegourd’s shattered reserve division and ordered a gallant bayonet charge that drove the enemy back from Dinant. The situation had been thus stabilized by the time Franchet d’Espèrey’s I Corps arrived on the scene. Still, losses had been severe.
Among the thousand French casualties at Dinant was Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle, serving in Colonel Henri-Philippe Pétain’s 4th IB. He later recalled the fierce fight around the city:
Suddenly the enemy’s fire was precise and concentrated. Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of the shells grew stronger. Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and the humble corpses. With affected calm, the officers let themselves be killed standing upright, some obstinate platoons stuck their bayonets in their rifles, bugles sounded the charge, isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose. In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire.16
To the south, Olenhusen’s forces—in the strength of a brigade—had fallen prey to Carl von Clausewitz’s “friction” of war and “fog of uncertainty.” Advancing down the eastern shore of the Meuse, Olenhusen’s troops planned to make Fumay by 23 August, and then to march southwest on Rocroi. But the troops never reached Fumay. The sun beat mercilessly on them. The roads were narrow and twisted, the woods dense, the slopes steep. Legs gave out. Horses collapsed. Units got lost. Orders were misread. West of Onhaye, it was this force that had the misfortune of running into Mangin’s fierce bayonet charges. Their advance ground to a halt on the heights north of Bourseigne-Neuve.17 And so, Hausen’s opportunity to become a great captain was lost.
Late on 23 August, d’Elsa’s XII Corps finally seized the smoking ruins of Dinant, lustily singing “Deutschland über alles.” The Saxon 1st Jäger Regiment, bayonets fixed, stormed the citadel. Angered by having their anticipated easy march through neutral Belgium halted and having received reports of civilians firing on soldiers, d’Elsa’s troops took their revenge.18 For most, including Major Johannes Niemann of 9th Infantry Regiment (IR), this took the form of burning the homes of known resisters, executing suspected civilian shooters, and “requisitioning” stocks of “marmalade, pineapples, champagne, red wine, and other delicacies.”19 What then followed, in the words of historians John Horne and Alan Kramer, was “the systematic, premeditated elimination of presumed civilian resistance.”20 For those with historical interest, it was a repeat of 1466, when Charles the Bold had sacked the city and murdered its inhabitants.
Almost one resident in ten was killed. Corporal Franz Stiebing, 3d Company, 178th IR, noted the violence at Leffe: “We pushed on house by house, under fire from almost every building, and we arrested the male inhabitants, who almost all carried weapons. They were summarily executed in the street.” Groups of suspected resisters were put up against city walls and shot; others were gunned down in the city’s squares or in their places of work. An anonymous lieutenant in the same 178th IR wrote home on 21 August:
The battle now becomes a wild melee, a street brawl. These mean-spirited brothers bring us assassin’s losses from cellar windows, from apartments, from attics, from trees. The doors are broken down with rifle butts and hatchets, the houses searched with bayonets fixed, the guilty arrested. They are all taken down to the local prefecture. … The scoundrels are executed in groups in front of all witnesses. A terrible sight.21
Private Kurt Rasch informed his parents in Dresden that his battalion had been selected to storm Dinant with but one purpose: “to level everything in sight and to make one part [of the city] left of the Maas disappear from view.” They did their jobs well. “Dinant has fallen, everything burned to the ground. … We shoot the men, plunder and burn down the houses.”22 A. Rückauer, a noncommissioned officer with 9th Foot Artillery Regiment, wrote home in a similar manner. Priests had led the civilian assaults on the Saxons. They were “rounded up and gunned down. [Dinant’s] inhabitants lay about in heaps.” Cattle and horses roamed the streets bellowing in terror. “By nightfall, Dinant resembled only a sea of fire and a heap of rubbish.”23 Eight villages on the ridge above the city likewise were ablaze.
On the Belgian side, Public Prosecutor Maurice Tschoffen recalled the manner of execution.24 “The [Germans] marched in two columns down the deserted street, those on the right aiming their rifles at the houses on the left, and inversely, all with their fingers on the trigger and ready to fire. At each door a group stopped and riddled the houses, especially the windows, with bullets.” Almost as if to change the routine, other soldiers threw grenades and small bombs into the cellars of homes.
The killings continued into 24 August. Some houses still burned; others were already cold, smoking shells. Public and historic buildings that had escaped the original orgy of destruction were systematically set to the torch. The stench of bodies decomposing under the searing sun became almost unbearable for inhabitants and occupiers alike. When it was all over, somewhere between 640 and 674 civilians had been killed and 400 deported to Germany. Two-thirds of the city’s houses had been torched; twelve hundred were but burned-out shells.25
At the height of the orgy of fire and death, around 5:30 PM, Bülow rudely interrupted Hausen’s operations: Another frontal assault by Karl von Plettenberg’s Guard Corps had been stopped cold at Saint-Gérard. Relief by the right wing of Third Army was “urgently wanted.” The demand hit Hausen like a cold shower. Confusion and uncertainty reigned at his headquarters. What to do? Follow Moltke’s orders to advance across the Meuse south of Dinant at Fumay? Recall Olenhusen’s units and rush them to Houx, north of Dinant, to come to Plettenberg’s aid? It was a cruel dilemma. Hausen resolved it as he had done before: “giving ear to Second Army’s distress,” as Chief of Staff von Hoeppner later put it,26 Third Army grudgingly recalled most of its units from the south. Chaos ensued as Olenhusen’s weary units dutifully about-faced to retrace their steps to Dinant.
Still, Hausen believed that all was not yet lost. Although having sustained almost 1,275 dead and 3,000 wounded at Dinant, he planned to drive his remaining forces southwest, belatedly to cross the Meuse south of Givet and to strike French Fifth Army in the right flank. Saxon XII Corps and XII Reserve Corps were to march on Rocroi, XIX Corps on Fumay and Revin. But no sooner had Hausen issued his orders than an emissary (Major von Fouqué) arrived from Bülow’s headquarters at 3 AM on 24 August and “urgently requested” that Third Army wheel around on a westerly course toward Mettet to take the pressure off Second Army’s left wing. No fewer than five French corps were assaulting Second Army.27
Sunrise was less than three hours away. A decision had to be made at once. For the second time in half a day, Bülow had directly interfered with Hausen’s command. And for the second time in half a day, Hausen yielded. Within ninety minutes of Fouqué’s arrival, he issued new orders for Third Army to fall into line with Bülow’s demand. By then, the weakened vanguard of Third Army had failed in its attempt to cross the Meuse in force at Fumay, Revin, or Monthermé. French sappers had dynamited the bridges, and enemy infantry was entrenched on the river’s west bank. In a bitter twist of fortune, six hours after Fouché’s mission pleading “urgent” help from Third Army, Bülow cavalierly informed Hausen that Second Army was no longer in danger.28
Max von Hausen had failed to bring about the war’s first “climacteric,” to borrow a phrase from Winston S. Churchill. By his actions, as the German official history noted, Hausen “gave away the brilliant prospect of an operational pursuit” of Lanrezac’s Fifth Army in order to “secure the tactical victory” scored at Dinant.29 In truth, Third Army’s commander had squandered a magnificent opportunity to help destroy an entire French army (or at least major parts thereof) because he could not bring himself to make an independent decision against the will of his Prussian superior.30
Artur Baumgarten-Crusius, the historian of Third Army, shifted the blame to Moltke. At no time had the chief of the General Staff offered Hausen the support he needed (and deserved). Prospects had been brilliant in the triangle of the Sambre and Meuse. While Max von Gallwitz’s Guard Reserve Corps anchored the German front at Namur, Moltke should have ordered Hausen to deliver a “left hook” against Lanrezac by advancing from Givet to Rocroi; concurrently, he should have instructed First and Second armies to halt their advance southwest and instead to march from Mons to Maubeuge and deliver a “right hook” against Lanrezac. As well, he should have dispatched Manfred von Richthofen’s I Cavalry Corps to Fumay, instead of wasting it on endless battles north of Binche as part of Bülow’s Second Army.31 French Fifth Army escaped the German “pincers” to fight another day. At Koblenz, Moltke incredibly informed the Saxon military plenipotentiary, Traugott Leuckart von Weißdort, “Operations are running … according to plan.”32
Moltke’s insouciance was no doubt occasioned by the flood of self-congratulatory reports that came in from the front.33 On 23 August, Fifth Army’s chief of staff, Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, informed Moltke that the main French armies had been “reduced to rubble” (zertrümmert) and that the rest were in full flight.34 Within hours, Duke Albrecht of Fourth Army was downright triumphalist in his report to Koblenz. “Total victory achieved; thousands of prisoners, including generals; and countless guns. Started pursuit of the beaten foe. … Troops fought valiantly; losses in many cases are great.”35 The next day, Bülow also signaled victory. “Enemy right wing decisively beaten by II Army;” and on 25 August, “II Army has decisively defeated the enemy.” Hausen reported the French in “full retreat” and in danger of encirclement.36 At the corps level, Max von Fabeck (XIII Corps) between 27 August and 2 September bombarded the OHL with a steady barrage of telegrams reporting French units “thrown back” from the front and “fleeing” the scene of battle; in short, a steady string of “unending victories against the Belgian-English army masses.”37
The OHL readily accepted the rosy news from its field commanders. Colonel Wilhelm Groener, chief of the Field Railway Service, on 25 August crowed that the campaign in the west had been decided in Germany’s favor. Lieutenant Colonel Gerhard Tappen, Moltke’s chief of operations, cheerily announced: “The whole thing will be done in six weeks.”38 It seemed to be 1870–71 all over again. The French simply were no match for the Prussian-German war machine. They were soft and effeminate, too much devoted to food and wine. They bolted at the first serious “storm of steel” from the Krupp guns. They blanched and ran at the first sign of massed waves of field-gray warriors coming at them with bayonets fixed.
The euphoria was contagious. Karl von Wenninger, the Bavarian military plenipotentiary, reported to Munich that the French armies had been reduced to “riff-raff” already on the first morning of the Battle of the Saar.39 Fritz Nieser, his counterpart from the Grand Duchy of Baden, informed Karlsruhe that “military circles” considered the campaign against France already won. “What is still to follow comes under [the heading] occupation measures.”40
Moltke at last agreed with critics in the General Staff who stressed that the OHL needed to be closer to the front—but not too close! He remained concerned that the closer Wilhelm II was to the fighting, the more active the role he might take in command decision making. He felt personal responsibility for the kaiser’s safety. And he was aware that General Moriz von Lyncker, chief of the Military Cabinet, since 9 August (!) had been interviewing candidates to succeed him in case of a major setback. Rather than Namur or Charleroi, Moltke settled on Luxembourg.41
It was a poor choice. Whereas Alfred von Schlieffen in 1908 had envisioned a distant, highly centralized command-and-control system, one in which the “modern Napoleon” would conduct operations from a “comfortable chair at a broad table” in a “house with roomy bureaus” by way of “wire and wireless telegraphy, telephone and signal apparatus, as well as hordes of trucks and motorcycles,”42 Moltke on 30 August had to settle for a small, dingy girls’ schoolhouse. “We have neither gas nor electric lights, only dim petroleum lamps,” he wrote his wife that day.43 An officer on Moltke’s operations staff was brutal in his assessment of the new headquarters. “Work conditions were simply scandalous. Desks consisted of several rough boards and trestles. There was no light at all.” Moltke worked out of a small schoolroom and Tappen out of an adjacent closet, “where operational discussions took place.”44 The “modern Napoleon’s” communications system consisted of a single radio transmitter.
IN TRUTH, COMMUNICATIONS REMAINED the Achilles’ heel of the German armies in the west. One scholar has acidly noted, “The war began with an end to communications.”45 The OHL’s single Morse-type telegraph transmitter had a reach of just three hundred kilometers, which meant that by the time of the Battle of the Marne, Moltke could reach First Army only by way of relay stations at Péronne, Noyon, Compiègne, and Villers-Cotterêts; Second Army, only via Marle, Laon, and Soissons.46 Unsurprisingly, transmission delays of up to twenty hours were not uncommon. As late as 3 September, German wire connections had been established only as far as Esch-sur-Alzette on the Luxembourg-Lorraine border. The Field Telegraph Corps was headed by a “total novice,” General William Balcke, who had been promoted to the post from command of 82d IB and who neither understood nor cared about modern electronic communications.47 Moreover, his corps of eight hundred officers and twenty-five thousand men was too small to handle the daily traffic emanating from seven armies and nearly two million soldiers. “Troops, individual units and private parties” all vied with headquarters for time on the radio-telegraph. The two critical “strike” armies on the German right wing were without radio connection to each other, much less to their individual corps. First Army established electronic connections to its corps headquarters only after the Battle of Mons. Second Army likewise failed to connect to its corps headquarters before the Battle of Saint-Quentin. Neither the four higher cavalry commanders nor any of the army’s ninety-two infantry divisions possessed a telegraph section. To compound this neglect, what little existed in the way of communications was designed to function “from the bottom to the top, rather than the other way around,” for the simple reason that army commanders wanted to be free of direct “interference” from General Staff headquarters. Finally, the Germans in the west, like the Russians in the east, sent most of their messages in clear because ciphers were cumbersome to use and speedy transmission was required.48
IN TERMS OF FUTURE operations, Moltke and Tappen on 27 August issued a new General Directive to their field commanders.49 They assumed that the Belgian army was in a “complete state of disintegration,” that the British would not be able to raise new armies “before from four to six months,” and that the French center and northern armies were “in full retreat in a westerly or southwesterly direction, that is, on Paris.” Thus, on the critical right wing, First Army was to advance to the lower Seine River, driving west of the Oise River; Second Army on Paris via La Fère and Laon; and Third Army on Château-Thierry by way of Neufchâtel-sur-Aisne. In the center, Fourth Army was to seize Reims on its way to Épernay, and Fifth Army to pass Châlons-sur-Marne and head for French army headquarters at Vitry-le-François. Sixth and Seventh armies were to secure the front in Lorraine—and, in case of a French withdrawal, to pursue the enemy across the Moselle River in the direction of Neufchâteau. Each army was to press the attack vigorously while simultaneously securing the flank of its neighbor(s). If the much anticipated French stand first along the Aisne and later along the Marne developed, “a turn by the armies from a southwesterly to a southerly direction can be required.”50
Three conclusions are warranted. First, Moltke, Stein, and Tappen had basically abandoned Moltke’s modified Schlieffen Plan. By 27 August, that concept had degenerated into individual operations by the various army commanders in the west, each designed to achieve local successes in a separate theater. Second, Moltke, Stein, and Tappen had also abandoned the concept of a vast envelopment of Paris from the north and the west. The right wing was now no longer pursuing an envelopment strategy, but simply one of flank protection. Third, the entire German advance had slid off in a general southeasterly direction, away from Paris. Moltke was “advancing on all points,” but no longer southwest; rather, south and even southeast. This meant that if each army advanced as instructed by Moltke, securing the flank of its neighbor, “the overall alignment would be set by the left and by the centre, and not by the right.”51 The chief of the General Staff’s instructions of 27 August—with their advance warning that the armies might be “required” to change course “from a southwesterly to a southerly direction”—were a vote of confidence for Bülow’s concept of a purely tactical victory over Kluck’s design of a strategic envelopment of the enemy. The nagging question at the OHL was whether the right wing—depleted by 265,000 casualties, by Hans von Beseler’s III Corps detached to invest Antwerp, by Hans von Zwehl’s VII Reserve Corps sent to seal off Maubeuge, and by XI Corps and Guard Reserve Corps dispatched to East Prussia—remained sufficiently strong to crush Allied forces still in the field.
JOSEPH JOFFRE HAD LOST the Battle of the Frontiers. At the Grand quartier général (GQG), his acolytes of the all-out offensive (l’offensive à outrance) were in a state of sudden and unexpected depression. Would the generalissimo be willing to recognize the full measure of the defeat? Would he be able to conjure up what Carl von Clausewitz called the “new and favorable factors” required of a great captain to avoid “outright defeat, perhaps even absolute destruction”?52 Joffre’s reputation, indeed his career, depended on his willingness and his ability to do so.
Reassessment began on the morning of 24 August. Joffre first laid out his future strategy in a candid letter to War Minister Adolphe Messimy.53 “We are condemned to a defensive supported by fortified places and large-terrain obstacles.” The immediate task was to surrender “the least possible” amount of terrain to the enemy; the longer-range aim was “to last as long as possible, while striving to attrit the enemy;” and the ultimate goal was “to resume the offensive when the [proper] moment arrives.” Gone were the sweeping Napoleonic brushstrokes of vast offensives, and in their place came sensible and effective movements of men and machines as if on a vast chessboard. Messimy provided governmental support. “Take swift means, brutally, energetically, and decisively. … The sole law of France at this moment is: conquer or die.”54
Joffre’s first move was to pull forces on the French left wing back to the line Maubeuge-Mézières-Verdun.55 This was followed by an accelerated shift of combat units from the right to the left—that is, from Alsace-Lorraine to the threatened region around Paris. Paul Pau’s Army of Alsace was further cannibalized for troops. Railroads and bridges in Lorraine that could be of use to the Germans were destroyed. For much of the week after 24 August, Joffre took advantage of his interior lines and used his superb Directorate of Railways to move units north to face the menacing German right wing sweeping down on the capital. On 1 September, Victor Boëlle’s IV Corps left Sainte-Menehould for Greater Paris in 109 trains; the next day, Pierre Dubois’s IX Corps embarked at Nancy bound for Troyes in 52 trains; and Émile-Edmond Legrand-Girarde’s XXI Corps departed Épinal for Gondrecourt in 74 trains.56
But what strategy to employ once the new formations were in place? Two alternatives dominated the discussions at GQG.57 Deputy Chief of Staff Henri Berthelot suggested that any new army being organized behind the Allied left wing could best be used to attack German forces immediately threatening Paris—in particular, the inner, or eastern, wing of Bülow’s Second Army. Joffre rejected Berthelot’s scheme since it was based on the ability of Fifth Army and the BEF to keep the German right wing in check while a new army was being stood up. He had little faith left in either Charles Lanrezac or Sir John French. Thus, he opted for a much bolder design: to form a new army well to the west of German First Army and then to drive it eastward into Kluck’s exposed outer right flank.
By 10 PM on 25 August, Joffre’s staff had formalized his new plans in General Instruction No. 2.58 After a cursory admission that it had been “unable” to carry out the “offensive maneuver originally planned,” GQG defined the new strategy as being one
to reconstruct on our left a force capable of resuming the offensive by a combination of the Fourth and Fifth Armies, the British Army and new forces drawn from the east, while the other armies hold the enemy in check for such time as may be necessary.
More sacred French soil—another hundred kilometers—would have to be abandoned as the planned withdrawal was extended farther into the interior to the line Amiens-Reims-Verdun. Rear guards of Third, Fourth, and Fifth armies were to cover the retreat by conducting “short and violent counterattacks” in which artillery was to be “the principal element employed.” Belatedly, Joffre demanded a more “intimate combination of infantry and artillery.” A new “group of forces,” composed of at least one and perhaps even two army corps and four reserve divisions from Alsace-Lorraine and Paris, was to be assembled “before Amiens” or “behind the Somme.” This was to be Joffre’s “army of maneuver” (later designated Sixth Army), which was to envelop the German right wing. There, in a nutshell, was the genesis of the strategic plan for the Battle of the Marne.
But it would take time—perhaps too much time—and it was predicated on the entire Allied line holding fast. Joffre had two great fears. First, a gap had developed between Fourth and Fifth armies stumbling out of the Ardennes and back from the Sambre, respectively. The Germans, moving south on Hirson, on the Oise River, might discover this and attempt to break through. Thus, Joffre formed a Special Army Detachment under Ferdinand Foch—the future Ninth Army—out of two corps from Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army and two divisions from Lanrezac’s Fifth Army. Foch, recalled from the Grand Couronné de Nancy on 27 August, immediately moved to close the gap in the line. He would soon learn that both his only son, Cadet Germain, and his son-in-law, Captain Charles Bécourt, had been killed on 22 August as the Germans swept into Belgium.
Joffre’s greatest fear, as always, was the British. Sir John French seemed bent on retreating from the Germans faster than they could pursue. Somehow, Joffre had to sell the field marshal on his General Instruction No. 2. In typical fashion, and in sharp contrast with the sedentary Moltke, on 26 August, Joffre raced off to British General Headquarters (GHQ) at Saint-Quentin. Lanrezac of Fifth Army, on the British right, and Albert d’Amade, commanding a group of territorial divisions on the British left, were also summoned. The meeting took place in a neo-Pompeian house with closed shutters and dimly lit rooms. Sir John French and Henry Wilson, representing Chief of Staff Archibald Murray, who was away at Le Cateau and ill, arrived late. Lanrezac, his pince-nez hanging over his ears “like a pair of cherries,” was less than enthused about having to deal with the British at all. He found Joffre silent and dull, seemingly “wrapped in a cloak of enveloping dumbness.”59
Predictably, the meeting became another disaster.60 Sir John rattled off a long list of French failures, beginning with Joffre’s refusal to accept the fact that the Germans had crossed the Meuse in force and ending with Lanrezac’s failure to inform him of Fifth Army’s sudden retreat from the Sambre. These French “blunders” had increased the burden on the BEF and decreased the field marshal’s confidence in French decision making. Moreover, his army was exhausted and desperately needed a day of rest. He proposed falling back to Compiègne. A painful silence ensued. Lanrezac, bored by the British diatribe, merely shrugged. He cagily declined to inform the group that he had already ordered Fifth Army to “break contact with the enemy” and to continue its retreat twenty kilometers toward Laon prior to any counterattack he might mount.61
It was up to Joffre to save the day. He was in an unenviable position. His concentration plan, XVII, had been shattered by the Germans at great loss. Bülow’s Second Army had advanced south from the Sambre and was about to cross the Oise. If it did so, and in the process routed French Fifth Army, the campaign in the west would be lost. He desperately needed to hold the line of the Oise River, and for that he desperately needed the BEF. Joffre pulled himself together. He patiently explained the gist of his Instruction général No. 2: After the planned withdrawal to the line Amiens-Reims-Verdun, he would form French Fourth and Fifth armies as well as the BEF as a “mass of manoeuvre” on the French left “capable of resuming the offensive;” all he asked of Sir John was that the BEF keep its place in the line and “conform” to the movements of French Fifth Army and d’Amade’s Territorials. But he could not simply issue the field marshal a direct order: Sir John outranked him, and there existed no machinery to coordinate the actions of the British and French armies. As General Wilson translated Joffre’s presentation, Lanrezac, shoulders stooped slightly, gave the impression that he was bored. The atmosphere was funereal.
Sir John French sprang into action. He was flummoxed. “I know nothing of this Order,” he petulantly barked out. He turned to Henry Wilson. The latter allowed that he had received Joffre’s instruction during the night, but had not studied it, much less translated it for Sir John. Joffre was livid, but he maintained his customary calm. The atmosphere had turned from ice cold to hostile. Another pained silence followed. Junior officers dared not speak. French and Lanrezac refused to speak to each other directly. When Sir John invited the group to lunch, Lanrezac declined.62
Charles Huguet, chief of the French Military Mission at GHQ, summarized the conference as having been conducted with “extreme coolness” and “lack of cordiality.” It had “achieved no military result.”63 Later that night, Huguet informed Joffre, back at Vitry-le-François, that the BEF had not only lost a battle, but “all cohesion.” It would require “serious protection” from the French army before it could reorganize.64 Joffre moved with alacrity.65 He enacted General Instruction No. 2, standing up French Sixth Army under Michel-Joseph Maunoury out of VII Corps and four reserve divisions around Amiens. He formally abolished Pau’s Army of Alsace since most of its units had already been sent to Sixth Army. And with another stroke of the pen, he crossed off the hapless Army of Lorraine, sending its infantry divisions to Third Army and its staff to Sixth Army. It was Joffre at his best: decisive, resolute, unflappable.
Colonel Huguet’s reference to a “battle lost” concerned Le Cateau. While the French and British held their desultory discussions at Saint-Quentin, advance guards of Kluck’s First Army had, at dusk on 25 August, attacked the Coldstream Guards of Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps, withdrawing on the east side of the Forest of Mormal. In fact, Haig had callously disobeyed Field Marshal French’s order to assist British II Corps. He instead prepared to shelter for a few hours in deserted army barracks at Landecries. There occurred several street fights with Kluck’s advance guard that night. This minor, accidental encounter set off near panic at corps headquarters—where Haig’s staff prepared to destroy the unit’s records—and at Saint-Quentin—where French’s chief of staff, Sir Archibald Murray, “completely broken down,” could scarcely be sustained by “morphia or some drug” before “promptly” slipping into a “fainting fit.”66 Landecries was not Haig’s finest hour. It was one of the rare occasions on which the normally steady Haig became “rattled,” possibly the aftereffects of a severe bout of diarrhea from the night before. Standing on a doorstep, revolver in hand, he cried out to John Charteris, his chief of intelligence, “If we are caught, by God, we’ll sell our lives dearly.”67 He was spared the sale. The I Corps continued its retreat toward the Aisne River the next morning.
Yet again, the greater danger faced Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps, falling back on the west side of the Forest of Mormal. Delayed by the passage of Jean-François Sordet’s cavalry corps across its line of retreat, II Corps was itself harassed by more of Kluck’s advance guards. It just managed to reach Solesmes, where it found cover under the guns of Sir Thomas Snow’s newly arrived 4th ID. But late that night, Sir Edmund Allenby’s cavalry division (CD) reported that Kluck was closing in on the BEF. Smith-Dorrien decided that his best chance lay in preparing his defenses and then “giving the enemy a smashing blow.”68 Twice he communicated his decision to GHQ. At 3:30 AM, he ordered his units to stand their ground on a low ridge running west of Le Cateau.
BATTLE OF LE CATEAU
BATTLE OF GUISE
The Battle of Le Cateau coincidentally fell on the 568th anniversary of the Battle of Crécy, where Edward III of England had defeated the far superior army of Philip VI of France. But in 1914, fate favored the stronger battalions. At 6 AM, the guns of Kluck’s First Army, sited on the heights above the town, unleashed a deadly barrage. At first, Smith-Dorrien’s center managed to hold its own against the infantry assaults of Friedrich Sixt von Arnim’s IV Corps. But on the right flank, left unprotected by Haig’s retreat from Landecries, Ewald von Lochow’s III Corps drove forward to envelop British II Corps. Furious counterattacks failed to repel the Germans, and 19th IB as well as 5th ID seemed threatened with destruction. On the left flank, too, the situation grew precarious as Georg von der Marwitz’s II Cavalry Corps and two infantry divisions of Hans von Gronau’s IV Reserve Corps attacked “Snowball” Snow’s 4th ID. British II Corps was saved from possible annihilation by a timely sortie by Sordet’s cavalry corps against Gronau’s IV Reserve Corps and by an almost suicidal attack by Henri de Ferron’s 84th Territorial Division against Alexander von Linsingen’s II Corps moving up to join Gronau’s units.
In contrast with the brutal offensive infantry assaults supported by massive artillery barrages at Charleroi, in the Ardennes, and in Lorraine, Le Cateau was a battle waged on open and largely treeless fields, in which British riflemen fought from prone positions and rarely had the luxury of digging rifle pits. It in many ways was more like a battle out of the U.S. Civil War or the Franco-Prussian War than the fighting one normally associates with World War I. Still, the British suffered 7,812 casualties at Le Cateau, their greatest battle (and losses) since Waterloo. The next day, gray and gloomy with heavy down-pours, the commanders of two exhausted battalions surrendered rather than offering battle near Saint-Quentin.69
By 28 August, intensely hot again, the BEF had put the Oise River between itself and the pursuing Germans. Even the ever-optimistic Henry Wilson was seen at the new headquarters in Noyon mumbling, “To the sea, to the sea, to the sea.”70 French communications at Belfort intercepted Wilhelm II’s ebullient radio message to the troops: “In its triumphant march, First Army today approaches the heart of France.”71 Still, Le Cateau was a bitter pill for Kluck to swallow. For a second time (after Mons), he had inflicted a tactical defeat on the British, but at great (unspecified) cost to his own forces and delay in the great sweep through northeastern France. And for a second time, due to poor intelligence and reconnaissance, he had failed to “achieve the desired annihilation.”72
LE CATEAU STIRRED JOFFRE to still more feverish activity. Around 6 AM on 27 August, he dispatched an urgent appeal to Lanrezac, reminding the commander of Fifth Army to launch the counterattack against the Germans that Joffre seemingly had promised French at the conference in Saint-Quentin the day before.73 The situation had grown more critical since then, given that Hausen’s Third Army had crossed the Meuse at Dinant. Joffre called for an immediate strike northwest from the region of the Oise River between Hirson and Guise. Yet again, Lanrezac prevaricated. He preferred to withdraw another twenty kilometers south, there to regroup, and then to attack from around Laon. All the while, Huguet bombarded Vitry-le-François with ever more dire reports concerning the British army.74 By early afternoon on the twenty-seventh, it had evacuated Saint-Quentin, exposing Lanrezac’s left flank. At 5:45 PM, Huguet reported that the BEF’s situation was “extremely grave” and that its retreat threatened to turn into a “rout.” In a final communiqué later that evening, he informed Joffre that after Le Cateau, two British infantry divisions were “nothing more than disorganized bands incapable of offering the least resistance,” and that the entire BEF was “beaten, incapable of a serious effort.” At 8:10 PM, Joffre gave Lanrezac a direct order to attack toward Saint-Quentin.
It was a bold plan. Bülow’s Second Army was moving in a southwesterly direction—Karl von Einem’s VII Corps and Guenther von Kirchbach’s X Reserve Corps were approaching the British near Saint-Quentin—and thus offered an inviting flank for a counterattack. Of course, Joffre also knew that the plan was risky because he was asking much of a battered and exhausted army that had just marched almost three hundred kilometers first up to and then back from the Sambre. Fifth Army would have to execute a ninety-degree turn from northwest to west—while facing major enemy forces. Hence, Joffre dispatched one of his staff officers, Lieutenant Colonel Alexandre, to Lanrezac’s headquarters at Marle to monitor the attack. Unsurprisingly, neither the professor from Saint-Cyr nor his chief of staff, Alexis Hély d’Oissel, was amused by being lectured by a junior officer. Lanrezac sent Alexandre back to Vitry-le-François with a brutal peroration: “Before trying to teach me my business, sir, go back and tell your little strategists to learn their own.”75
Joffre’s new deployment plan must have reminded Lanrezac of his recent trials and tribulations in the Battle of Charleroi. There, Fifth Army had been boxed into the triangle formed by the Sambre and Meuse. Now he was being asked to fight in a similar triangle around Guise, where the Oise River, after flowing east to west, turns sharply southwest. More, he would have to divide his forces: While Émile Hache’s III Corps and Jacques de Mas-Latrie’s XVIII Corps would drive west against Bülow’s formations harassing the British around Saint-Quentin, a single corps, Gilbert Defforges’s X, would have to secure the northern front toward Guise as well as to cover Fifth Army’s right flank and rear. That would leave only Franchet d’Espèrey’s I Corps in reserve.76
At 9 AM on 28 August, Lanrezac had a not-unexpected visitor: Joseph Joffre. The chief of staff was “shocked” by his commander’s physical appearance: “marked by fatigue, yellow complexion, bloodshot eyes.”77 In what both officers later admitted was a “tense and heated” meeting, they exchanged views. Lanrezac, without informing Joffre of the dispositions he had made during the night to realign his corps according to GQG’s new design, launched a biting attack on Joffre’s overall strategic plan and reminded him of the great fatigue of Fifth Army and the overwrought “nerves” of some of its commanders. Joffre, fully aware that he could not afford either militarily or politically to have the BEF crushed on French soil, lost his customary calm. He exploded. “His rage was terrific,” Lieutenant Edward Spears, British liaison officer with French Fifth Army, recorded. “He threatened to deprive Lanrezac of his command and told him that he must obey without discussion, that he must attack without his eternal procrastination and apprehensiveness.”78 When Lanrezac coldly countered that he possessed no written orders, Joffre sat down, seized paper and pen, and provided same. “As soon as possible, the Fifth Army will attack the German forces that were engaged yesterday against the British Army.”79
By the time the story of the stormy meeting made the rounds in the seething political cauldron of Paris, President Raymond Poincaré noted in his diary that Joffre had threatened to have Lanrezac “shot” if he “disobeyed” this direct order.80 A request that the BEF join Fifth Army’s attack was readily accepted by Haig—but immediately rejected by Sir John French, who “regretfully” informed Huguet that his “excessively fatigued” troops needed 29 August to rest.81 Huguet was shocked to learn that the field marshal was planning a “definite and prolonged retreat” south of Paris.82 Lanrezac was incensed. “C’est une félonie!” reportedly was his kindest comment on Sir John and the British.83
Lanrezac counterattacked out of the triangle of the Oise around Guise in a thick mist at 6 AM on 29 August.84 Yet again, he squared off against Bülow. Yet again, the weary soldiers of French Fifth Army and German Second Army were asked for another Herculean effort. Yet again, the terrain was miserable: woods and brush, ravines and streams. Yet again, Paris was the prize. And yet again, both sides had a different name for the battle: Guise to the French and Saint-Quentin to the Germans.
Lanrezac caught Bülow’s Second Army off guard. As the sun slowly began to burn through the morning mist, it became readily evident that once more, what was intended to be a single, bold, decisive French counterattack had degenerated into a series of distinct localized battles. Hache’s III Corps and de Mas-Latrie’s XVIII Corps advanced about four kilometers west and northwest, respectively, before each was met by a withering storm of artillery, followed by massed infantry charges. By noon, their drive had stalled. French X Corps in the center of the line attacking north fared even worse. By 11 AM, General Defforges was pleading with Lanrezac to send him reinforcements. “I am very violently attacked on my whole front. They are getting around my right flank. I will hold at all costs. Get me support as soon as possible on my right and on my left.”85Lanrezac countered that it was too early in the day to commit Franchet d’Espèrey’s precious I Corps.
North of the Oise, Bülow was about to enter Saint-Quentin with his staff when the thunder of heavy guns erupted to the southeast. He drove toward the sound of the guns. Not only had Kirchbach’s X Reserve Corps been heavily attacked east of Guise, but Emmich’s X Corps and Plettenberg’s Guard Corps were in a serious firefight around Audigny, south of Guise. Bülow and his chief of staff, Otto von Lauenstein, quickly appreciated that Second Army was conducting two major but separate battles: one at Guise in a southeasterly direction against the line of the Oise between Bernot and La Fère, and the other across the Oise from Guise to Vervins. By noon, a fifteen-kilometer-wide gap had formed between the two groups.86
A lieutenant (Dr. Trierenberg) with 2d Guard Regiment wrote home about the horror of battle around Le Sourd. Approaching the village through ripe orchards, the Guard was met by a withering hail of fire from houses and hedges and pinned down for two hours. When it finally resumed the advance, “the streets of Le Sourd offered a horrible picture. The dead and the wounded lay about in heaps. Pleading cries for help were directed toward us.” Beyond Le Sourd, the fields had been set on fire by the artillery and were littered with abandoned machine guns and their dead crews. Not even a small wood offered protection, as it was repeatedly raked by French 75mm fire. “Bloody corpses rolled around on the ground.” The heat was unbearable. Whenever the men spied even a dirty puddle of water in the clay soil, “they fell over it like a pack of wild animals.” The wounded ran about in delirium, “wild eyed and foaming at the mouth.” At the end of the day, 2d Guard Regiment was down to eight hundred men.87
The situation was critical. The French were tenaciously attacking Bülow’s entire front. On the left flank, the Guard Corps was battling Defforges’s X Corps east of Audigny. Unsurprisingly, Bülow hurriedly contacted Hausen’s Third Army and requested that it attack the French “in the direction of Vervins” to relieve the pressure on Plettenberg’s Guard Corps. Uncharacteristically, there was no ready reply from Hausen. In fact, Third Army was being hard-pressed by Dubois’s IX Corps near Rethel. Moreover, the distance to Vervins was too great for Third Army to cover in a day. As well, Hausen allowed, his men were “extraordinarily impaired by the great heat on the waterless plateau of Château-Porcien.”88 There was nothing for Bülow and Lauenstein to do but call in the last reserves: Kurt von dem Borne’s 13th ID and Paul Fleck’s 14th ID. Piecemeal, they fed their reserves into wherever the French threatened to break Second Army’s front—at Audigny, at Le Mesnil, at Mont-d’Origny, at Sains-Richaumont.
By midafternoon, the crisis on Second Army’s left flank had further intensified. Just after 1 PM Joffre, who had spent the morning with Lanrezac at Marle, released Fifth Army’s iron reserve to be “engaged as circumstances best require in liaison with the 3rd and 10th Army Corps.”89 Finally unleashed, Franchet d’Espèrey did not disappoint. Believing both Hache and Defforges to have been beaten morally rather than physically, he pushed his forces in between III and X corps. What followed was grand theater. Mounted on a chestnut charger in the light of the setting sun, Franchet d’Espèrey ordered Alexandre Gallet’s 1st ID, its bayonets fixed, colors unfurled, and bands playing “La Marseillaise,” to sweep down the slope from Le Hérie against the German line. Obviously stirred by the sight, the men of III and X corps joined the attack. Only the onset of darkness prevented a systematic attempt to exploit the charge. Joffre had found a potential new army commander: “a man of energy and willpower.”90
The western French front facing Saint-Quentin was dramatically less successful. Neither Hache nor de Mas-Latrie was cut from the same cloth as Franchet d’Espèrey. The more Hache clamored for reinforcements, the less inclined de Mas-Latrie was to press the attack against Saint-Quentin on the left flank of III Corps. And when German X Reserve Corps, commanded by Richard von Süsskind after Kirchbach had been wounded in a firefight, drove down the Oise against Justinien Lefèvre’s 18th ID, de Mas-Latrie ordered a retreat. On his left flank, Einem’s VII Corps at the same time crossed the Oise and chased Pierre Abonneau’s 4th Reserve Division Group out of its positions between Choigny and Moy. Jules Champin, a soldier with French 36th IR, recalled the horror of the attack:
German bullets whiz around my ears without stopping and shells fall on all sides, a bullet hits the ground just in front of me but doesn’t touch me. … I noticed that I didn’t have any more cartridges. When I asked my comrades who were 4–5 meters away, they didn’t answer my calls. They were all dead.91
The assault on Saint-Quentin, the cornerstone of Joffre’s grand design, had ended in failure.
As bloody 29 August came to a close, a depressed Bülow took stock of the situation. His center had held—but just barely. His right flank had chased Lanrezac’s XVIII Corps and 4th Reserve Division Group from the field. But his left flank southeast of Guise gave cause for concern. A liaison officer from General von Plettenberg’s headquarters reported around 8 PM that the Guard Corps had been stopped dead in its tracks by Defforges’s X Corps and Franchet d’Espèrey’s dramatic sunset charge; that its front was overextended to a width of eighteen kilometers; that it most likely would not be able to resume the attack the next day; and that in case of another French attack, it would have to fall back behind the river. Not prepared to have the kaiser’s Guard Corps “totally bled to death” on the banks of the Oise, Bülow gave Plettenberg freedom of action, including the option of a full withdrawal.92
Bülow then turned his attention to a gift from the gods: That night at Mont-d’Origny, several precious documents had been taken from Colonel Gédéon Geismar, the captured chief of staff of III Corps—among them, Lanrezac’s attack orders to his corps commanders. Bülow and Lauenstein were now fully informed. Whereas they had suspected that “at most 5 corps” had attacked Second Army that day, in truth the French had thrown thirteen divisions into the battle—against just six and one-half German divisions. More, the captured papers showed that Saint-Quentin was the main object of the French drive, and thus Plettenberg and the Guard Corps were not in danger of a renewed attack the next morning.93
In fact, the next day, 30 August, was anticlimactic. Bülow renewed the offensive into the triangle of the Oise. From Second Army headquarters at Homblières, he drove X Corps, Guard Corps, and X Reserve Corps forward with exhortations to “advance soon and energetically.” By noon, Chief of Staff von Lauenstein was sure of victory. The Battle of Saint-Quentin, he wrote his wife, had taken a sudden and surprising turn in the last twelve hours. “I was certain of the issue around 12 o’clock noon.” Bülow concurred. “Now the matter has been decided.” He hailed his advancing troops, “Great victory! French totally defeated!” The “moral capacity to resist” of the French army, Lauenstein crowed, “apparently” had been “broken.” German fliers reported large columns of French soldiers falling back on Crécy-sur-Serre and Laon. Lauenstein rose to giddy heights. “Our offensive surpasses even Napoleonic dimensions. If only Schlieffen could have witnessed this.”94 At 3:45 PM, Bülow issued his Order of the Day: “The enemy has been defeated along the entire front in the three-day [sic] Battle of Saint-Quentin.”95
Lanrezac, fearing that German Third and First armies might join the battle in a pincer move against Fifth Army’s flanks, at 5 PM on 31 August ordered his “fatigued” corps commanders to retreat south behind the Aisne River.96 Three hours later, Joffre approved Lanrezac’s request to break contact (lest his army be “captured,” as Lanrezac put it to GQG) and to withdraw forty kilometers to a new line running from Compiègne to Soissons to Reims.97
Guise/Saint-Quentin had turned into another German tactical victory, albeit another bloody one. Lanrezac had failed to take advantage of Fifth Army’s numerical superiority over German Second Army. He had held back Franchet d’Espèrey’s I Corps for much of the day and had engaged it only after Hache’s III and Defforges’s X corps had been driven to the point of defeat. He had left Abonneau’s cavalry and Boutegourd’s 51st RID (up from Dinant) virtually idle on his right wing. Above all, he had failed to detect and then to exploit the fifty-kilometer gap that had developed between Bülow’s left and Hausen’s right—that is, to press home a devastating attack on the left wing of Plettenberg’s battered Guard Corps on the morning of 30 August.98 Historians who speak of Lanrezac’s “unwilling victory” are off the mark.99
As great as Lanrezac’s failings were, they paled compared with those of Bülow. For a second time (since Charleroi), he had blunted an attack by French Fifth Army. For a second time, he had driven that force back with heavy losses. And for a second time, he had an opportunity to pursue and perhaps finish off Fifth Army. As commander of both First and Second armies and with Third Army at his beck and call, he was well positioned to close the vise on Lanrezac: Kluck to drive against Fifth Army’s left flank from the west, Hausen against its right flank from the east, and his Second Army against its rear from the north.
Bülow did nothing of the kind. Instead, he spent the afternoon of 30 August spreading the news of his victory. Kluck was first on the list. “Today 2 Army has decisively defeated the enemy. Large formations fell back on La Fère.” Moltke was next: “Today, the second day of the Battle of St. Quentin, complete victory. French [forces] comprising four army corps and three divisions in full retreat.” Hausen was last: “Major French forces decisively defeated in two-day Battle of St. Quentin and hurled back on La Fère and east [of there].”100 More, instead of immediately ordering a potentially fatal pursuit of the “decisively defeated” French Fifth Army, Bülow let his troops rest the next day, 31 August, as well. Field kitchens arrived to serve the half-starved troops from steaming vats of soup with meat, potatoes, cabbage or beans, and roots or rice. Nearly six thousand soldiers needed medical attention or burial. Almost as an afterthought, Bülow nonchalantly suggested that First Army change direction and advance along the line La Fère–Laon and “fully exploit” Second Army’s tactical victory. The Germans’ second potential “climacteric” of the war had been squandered.
* A term famously coined by Muhammad Ali for the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in October 1974 at Kinshasa, Zaire.
*Interestingly, in 1934 King Albert of Belgium died near Dinant while rock climbing.
† French (GMT) time. German records are in German General Time (one hour later).