Military history



It is essential for a general to be tranquil and obscure, upright and self-disciplined. … He alters his management of affairs and changes his strategies. … He shifts his position and traverses indirect routes to keep other people from being able to anticipate him.


DESPITE KARL VON BüLOW’S FAILURE TO EXPLOIT HIS “TOTAL victory” at Saint-Quentin, Army Supreme Command (OHL) had every reason to believe that the campaign in the west had been won by late August. For nearly three weeks, its armies had steadily advanced, had blunted every enemy offensive, and had driven Joseph Joffre’s armies ever deeper into France. From Nancy to Verdun, Namur to Charleroi, Guise to Saint-Quentin, and Mons to Le Cateau, the enemy seemed on the verge of collapse. Only “occupation measures,” the OHL informed Fritz Nieser, Baden’s military plenipotentiary to Imperial Headquarters, remained. On the morning of 4 September, advance guards of Second Army happily passed a road sign, paris 121 KM; by afternoon, another sign read, paris 95 KM.1

The opposing headquarters took time to reassess the flow of the campaign after Guise/Saint-Quentin. For Helmuth von Moltke, this meant setting in place a series of orders instructing his armies how to pursue the enemy and how to bring about the final, decisive victory. For Joseph Joffre, this meant a further falling-back toward Paris and frantic efforts to form up Michel-Joseph Maunoury’s Sixth Army. And, of course, more dealings with the always difficult British.

SHORTLY AFTER NOON ON 28 August, having satisfied himself that Charles Lanrezac had the attack at Guise well under way, Joffre left Fifth Army headquarters at Marle. His driver, Georges Bouillot, sped him to Compiègne to confer with Field Marshal Sir John French.2 As always, Joffre was concerned about his “fragile” left wing. If, Godspeed, Lanrezac advanced across the Oise against German Second Army, or if, God forbid, Bülow’s infantry drove Fifth Army back on Laon, a serious gap would be created between Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). More, if the latter continued to retreat, a second gap—between Fifth Army and Maunoury’s nascent Sixth Army—would also open up. In short, it was imperative that Sir John halt his precipitous retreat and return to the line.

French had no desire to do either. Despite Joffre’s most flowery pleading and cajoling—something totally out of character for the usually phlegmatic generalissimo—the field marshal would buy into neither General Instruction No. 2 nor the new plan to stand along the line Compiègne-Soissons-Reims. “No, no, my troops need forty-eight hours of absolute rest,” French insisted.3 All the while, Chief of Staff Archibald Murray, having recovered from his “dead faint” at Le Cateau, urged his chief to remain firm about withdrawing and not to endorse Joffre’s design.

Joffre left Compiègne disappointed and bitter, but not defeated. He decided to appeal to President Raymond Poincaré to exert political pressure on John French. The latter made his feelings clear in a letter to Secretary of State for War Horatio Herbert Lord Kitchener on 30 August. “My confidence in the ability of the leaders of the French Army to carry this campaign to a successful conclusion is fast waning, and this is my real reason for the decision I have taken to move the British forces so far back.” His three “shattered” corps required time to rest and refit.4 Privately, he allowed that they needed “ten days of quiet.”5 For the next two days, the BEF made it its business to be always one day’s retreat farther back than French Fifth Army on its right and Sixth Army slowly being assembled near Paris on its left.

In fact, “Johnnie” French was fast retreating into the eye of a political storm. Joffre’s appeal to Poincaré resulted in the president contacting Sir Francis Bertie, and asking St. James’s envoy at Paris to forward Poincaré’s “imperative” plea for action by the BEF to the field marshal. “I refused,” was French’s lapidary comment.6 Poincaré was livid. “Eight days, eight days! Before eight days [are up] will the Germans not be in Paris?”7 At the War Office in London, Kitchener became alarmed that Sir John’s refusal to fall into line with Joffre’s new strategy and the continuing rapid retreat of the BEF could lead to defeat of the French left flank and therewith collapse of the entire front, if not also of the Entente. Before daybreak on 1 September, Kitchener, with the approval of the cabinet, was aboard a Royal Navy destroyer bound for France; he summoned French to meet him and Bertie at the British embassy in Paris. The field marshal took along “old Archie” Murray and Charles Huguet, the French representative at British headquarters (GHQ). Poincaré sent Premier René Viviani and the new minister of war, Alexandre Millerand, to what was fast shaping up as the first Anglo-French “summit.”

Secretary Kitchener’s arrival at the British embassy in his blue field marshal’s uniform was as dramatic as it was unfortunate. The “super-sensitive” Sir John French “immediately took it as an insult. Was Kitchener, who did not outrank him, trying to pull rank?”8Not unexpectedly, the meeting quickly became “heated.” Kitchener, according to Huguet, remained “calm, balanced, reflective, master of himself;” French, on the other hand, was “sour, impetuous, with congested face, sullen and ill-tempered in expression.”9 As the exchange between the two British field marshals grew in volume and intensity, Kitchener asked Sir John to join him in an adjoining room. There is no record of the conversation. None is needed. Kitchener later that night recapitulated their discussion in a letter to Field Marshal French, of which he sent Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith a copy for good measure. It was blunt.

French’s troops are now engaged in the fighting line, where he will remain conforming to the movements of the French Army. … By being in the fighting line you of course understand I mean dispositions of your troops in contact with, though possibly behind, the French as they were to-day. … 10

There was no more talk by Sir John of a withdrawal south of Paris. He resumed his place in the Allied line. Kitchener returned to London.

At Vitry-le-François, Joffre, resplendent as ever in baggy red breeches and crumpled black tunic, put the finishing touches on General Instruction No. 4 that same day.11 Lanrezac’s Fifth Army and Fernand de Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army were to withdraw another hundred kilometers to the Seine and Aube rivers, and Maunoury’s Sixth Army was to be stood up northeast of Paris. Joffre politely rejected Sir John French’s suggestion that the Allies hold along the Marne River, fearing that this would inhibit his freedom of maneuver. He furiously drove his Directorate of Railways to rush four infantry divisions from Alsace-Lorraine to face the German assault on Paris. For he well knew the state of fatigue of his soldiers along the Marne. During a tour of the front of Third and Fourth armies on 30 August, he had noted red trousers faded to the color of “pale brick,” coats “ragged and torn,” shoes “caked with mud,” the soldiers’ eyes “cavernous in faces dulled by exhaustion,” and their faces dark with “many days’ growth of beard.” Twenty days of campaigning had aged them “as many years.”12

As well, Joffre instructed the War Ministry to comb the depots and barracks of France for replacements for the 260,000 men killed, wounded, or ill at the front. It estimated the numbers to be large—a “minimum” of 300,000 infantry, 30,000 artillery, and 20,000 cavalry recruits—but it would be weeks before they could be sufficiently formed into units, equipped, trained, and deployed. The same was true for the draftees of the Class of 1914, which by the end of August amounted to 180,000 deemed fit for combat training. Already in late August, War Minister Adolphe Messimy had concluded that while “human resources” were “considerable,” the difficulties in clothing and equipping new recruits were “considerable, but not insurmountable.” However, the acute shortage of officers, especially for the infantry, remained “le point délicat.”13

The frantic pace of Joffre’s activities after the Battle of the Frontiers has been well documented.14 Ably chauffeured by Bouillot, Joffre crisscrossed the French countryside. On 26 August, he met with French, Lanrezac, and Albert d’Amade at Saint-Quentin; on the twenty-eighth, he saw Lanrezac at Marle; on the twenty-ninth, he met with French at Compiègne and Henry Wilson at Reims; on the thirtieth, he was at Pierre Ruffey’s Third Army headquarters at Varennes; on 3 September, he visited Lanrezac again, this time at Sézanne; and on the fifth he met yet again with Sir John French, at Melun, on the Seine River. Everywhere Joffre went, he inspected, he ordered, and he disposed, much like an eighteenth-century enlightened despot. And he fired—among the infantry, the commanders of two armies, nine corps, and thirty-three divisions; among the cavalry, one corps and five divisional commanders.15 On 30 August, he fired Ruffey of Third Army and replaced him with Maurice Sarrail, until then VI Corps commander. Four days later, he parted company with Lanrezac, dismissing the “lion of the French army” with two curt sentences and placing him under the military governor of Paris. Not surprisingly, Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, the tough-minded commander of I Corps, took over Fifth Army. For the upcoming counterpunch against the three German armies approaching Paris, Joffre needed leaders “who have faith in their success” and who thereby knew “how to impose their will on their subordinates and dominate events.”16 The “short and square” Franchet d’Espèrey, with a head like a “howitzer,” straight jaw, high cheekbones, and “dark piercing eyes,”17 fit the bill.

THERE WERE NO SIGNS of such frenetic activity at German headquarters in Luxembourg. Once in possession of Bülow’s pronouncement of “total victory” over Lanrezac’s Fifth Army, Moltke and his staff by the evening of 30 August believed that they had a clear picture of the situation. Despite small gaps among First, Second, and Third armies, the entire right pivot wing, or Schwenkungsflügel, was on the march again. Everywhere, Moltke assured nervous leaders in the German state capitals, the enemy was “in full flight.”18 And when First Army the following day reported that it had swept all opposing forces from the field, Moltke’s concerns about a flanking movement out of Fortress Paris vanished. As did a sudden panic attack when the British landed four battalions (three thousand men) of marine light infantry and artillery under Sir George Aston at Ostend on 27–28 August to secure the BEF’s supply base there and possibly to harass Kluck’s lines of communication. For they were reembarked within seventy-two hours when Sir John French moved his main supply base to Saint-Nazaire in the Bay of Biscay.19 All the Germans found at Ostend was a trainload of dead horses, shot because there had been no ships on which to evacuate them.20 Most critically, during the night of 30–31 August, Moltke received the welcome news that Eighth Army had shattered General A. V. Samsonov’s Russian Second Army at Tannenberg. Tales of Russian terror accompanied the news.* It was time to set all the major pieces in play for the final act in the great drama in the west.


Already by 30 August, Moltke and his chief of operations, Lieutenant Colonel Gerhard Tappen, were aware that the armies on the right wing were no longer advancing on a southwesterly course as originally prescribed, but rather more southerly. All thoughts of descending into the Lower Seine basin vanished. The immediate need now was to bring the movements of First and Second armies into concert with Third Army’s slow advance along the line of the Aisne between Rethel and Semuy. Accordingly, the OHL directed Bülow to march on Reims and there to link up with Hausen’s right flank. Bülow leisurely took La Fère, but halted his right wing at Marle.21 Yet again, Moltke declined to give a direct order to his senior commander in the field to speed up the advance—all the while mumbling “ordre—contre-ordre—désordre” before Tappen and his puzzled staff.22

The shift toward the south was reinforced on 1 September when Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Fifth Army, straddling the Meuse River around Stenay, unexpectedly ran into a buzz saw. Was it a local attack? Or had Joffre mounted a major offensive out of the fortified region of Clermont-Dombasle-Verdun? German Fourth Army quickly provided the answer when it captured Langle de Cary’s attack order: French Third and Fourth armies, in unison with Ferdinand Foch’s special army detachment, had indeed launched a concerted counterattack against the center of the German line. Wilhelm’s Fifth Army was in danger of being crushed on the Meuse—near the very place, Sedan, where forty-four years earlier Moltke’s uncle had routed the Imperial Army of Napoleon III.

Moltke saw opportunity arising from the crown prince’s predicament. He spied another chance at a Cannae and immediately ordered the right wing of Max von Hausen’s Third Army to drive southeast from Château-Porcien across the Aisne, with Bülow’s left wing to follow. All cavalry units within riding distance were “urgently urged” to attack the enemy “today, if possible.”23 If all went according to plan, Third, Fourth, and Fifth armies could crush Joffre’s forces between Verdun and Reims. “There, in Moltke’s estimation,” Chief of the Military Cabinet Moriz von Lyncker noted in his diary, lies “the decision” in the war.24 In a letter to his wife, Moltke noted the immediacy of the moment and the excitement of the possibility. “The center armies will engage today and tomorrow; it will be the decisive battle [of the campaign], on whose outcome incredibly much depends.”25 Throughout the morning of 1 September, he demanded “immediate, ruthless prosecution of the attack” southeast by Third and Fourth armies, for “today’s success depends on this.”

But Moltke was to be denied his Cannae as the French retreated more rapidly than his forces could advance. Shortly after 1:30 PM, Hausen reported that the enemy was rapidly withdrawing in great disorder to the Vesle River and that Third Army was “energetically” renewing its advance, “direction south.” The small fortress of Givet had finally fallen to the Saxons. Duke Albrecht of Württemberg soon followed with similar news from Fourth Army headquarters, noting that “according to prisoner interrogations, dissolution is setting in among French troops.” By 4 PM, even the erstwhile threatened Fifth Army informed the OHL that it had been victorious all along the line and that the adversary was “fleeing” the battlefield.26

Moltke was ecstatic. He had once more defeated the French. And on such a special day! That night, he wrote his wife: “Today, on the day of the Battle of Sedan [1870], we have once again achieved a great success against the French.” The German official history of the war tartly noted: “And yet, basically nothing more had been achieved than that the enemy had once again escaped the hoped-for decisive blow by timely withdrawal.”27

The fighting in the Ardennes remained vicious. The terrain was rocky and wooded. Artillery pounded poorly dug trenches. Bayonet attacks by both sides, accompanied by bloodcurdling yells, punctuated attack after attack. Eugen Röcker, a company commander fighting with Fourth Army “between Verdun and Reims,” remembers the “hellish roar” of the French 75s as their shells whistled by and threw massive clumps of dirt through the air. A theology student at Tübingen University, Röcker screamed the words of Psalm 91* above the din.28

Despite the repeated proclamations of “decisive victories,” the never-ending reports of “fleeing” French armies, and the hosannas that accompanied them at the OHL, there were doubters. One of these was Prussian war minister Erich von Falkenhayn. As early as 30 August, while visiting Sixth Army in Lorraine, he had expressed “doubts about the magnitude of successes to date.” He then toured the fronts of the German center armies to gain firsthand knowledge of the course of the war. The “real war” stood in stark contrast with the news bulletins from the front. Early in September, after having inspected the right-wing armies, Falkenhayn grew even more apprehensive. What was being reported “is not a battle won; that is [a] planned withdrawal.” There was no physical evidence of victory. “Show me the trophies or the prisoners of war,” he viciously demanded of Moltke.29

While the chief of the General Staff rebuked the war minister for meddling in operational matters, privately he shared Falkenhayn’s concerns. Although his armies had advanced to within ninety kilometers of Paris, Moltke confided his innermost fears to the banker Karl Helfferich. Somehow, the victories did not ring true. “We have had successes, but we have not yet won.”30 Victory, as Carl von Clausewitz had taught, “means the destruction of the opponent’s strength to resist.” And the French continued to “resist.” As a young officer with 7th Grenadier Regiment, Moltke had experienced “decisive victory” and had seen “shattered armies” during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 at Weißenburg, Wörth, and Sedan. In August 1914, there were too few captured guns, too few prisoners of war, he sadly noted. All signs seemed to indicate that the French were conducting an orderly retreat. “The hardest task is still ahead of us!” he warned Helfferich. But when Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm von Dommes, chief of the General Staff’s Political Section, suggested that “senior” members of the staff be dispatched to the fronts to gain personal insight into the overall situation, Moltke rejected this sensible idea. Neither his Supreme War Lord, Wilhelm II, nor his army commanders, he pathetically replied, “deserve such [a sign of] mistrust.”31

NOT FORGOTTEN IN THE hectic drive “to the Marne” was the fact that the cherished Cannae might yet be achieved: on the German south wing, or Südflügel, in Lorraine. As early as 21 August, Moltke had sent Crown Prince Rupprecht and his chief of staff, Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen, a General Directive for the further campaigns of Sixth and Seventh armies: “Pursue in the direction of Épinal.” Krafft, who was doing his best to mount a full pursuit of the retreating French armies after the Battle of the Saar westward, was “thunderstruck” by this new order.32 It made no sense to abandon that pursuit toward Nancy, to halt and reorganize the troops, and then to march them off in an almost straight southerly direction across the face of the French strongholds at Nancy and Lunéville. But Moltke was not impressed by this line of reasoning. Two days later, he informed Rupprecht and Krafft that if the French “continued to fall back,” they were to charge after them “to the last breath of man a[nd] horse,” to cross the Moselle between Toul and Épinal, and then to head for Neufchâteau, on the Meuse. He left the final mop-up of French forces to the discretion of the Bavarians: They could either break the right wing of Joffre’s armies against the Swiss border or drive them into the waiting arms of German Fifth and Fourth armies in the Ardennes and the Argonne.33 Chief of Operations Tappen was truly expansive. Such an offensive “in grand style” against the 100,000 to 120,000 French troops he believed still to be in the Vosges might even “end the war.”34 Indeed, visions of a gigantic Cannae—a double envelopment of the entire French army—now seduced the OHL. Might Joffre’s forces not be crushed between German First and Second armies driving down from the north and Sixth and Seventh armies charging up from the south, while Third, Fourth, and Fifth armies “fixed” the rest of the French forces in the Ardennes and Argonne?

Such grand musings were rudely shattered just twenty-four hours after Rupprecht ordered Sixth Army to advance toward Charmes while Josias von Heeringen’s Seventh Army encircled French forces from the north. For at 5 AM* on 25 August, Joffre’s two armies in Lorraine mounted a counterattack toward the northeast from their positions south of the Meurthe River.35 The initiative, won by Rupprecht in the Battle of the Saar, now returned to Joffre.

The Battle of the Trouée de Charmes (also known as the Battle of the Mortagne) was fought in rugged, hilly, wooded country crisscrossed by three major rivers—the Meurthe, the Mortagne, and the Moselle. The natural advantages all lay with the defenders, who, moreover, were familiar with the terrain from years of peacetime maneuvers. Heavy fighting ensued for two days. The brunt of the attack by Édouard de Castelnau’s XVI, XV, and XX corps of French Second Army fell on the Bavarian right wing (especially Oskar von Xylander’s I Corps and Karl von Fasbender’s I Reserve Corps). “Forward everywhere … to the limit!”36 Castelnau admonished his corps commanders. Farther south, Yvon Dubail drove the two left corps of French First Army against Karl von Martini’s Bavarian II Corps and Fritz von Below’s Prussian XXI Corps around Serres, north of the Marne-Rhine Canal.

For a brief moment, Rupprecht’s army was threatened with envelopment. A relief attempt by Ludwig von Gebsattel’s Bavarian III Army Corps with 5th Infantry Division (ID) as well as 4th and 8th Ersatz divisions was rebuffed with heavy losses. Martini reported that many of his companies (normally 250) were down to thirty men, and that some infantry units of II Corps had sustained losses of up to 75 percent. Maximilian von Montgelas’s 4th Bavarian ID was reduced to three thousand men, having lost almost nine thousand in the fighting in Lorraine. Bavarian 1st Infantry Regiment (IR) took a thousand casualties in two days. Only a heavy downpour on 26 August and the fact that French gunners routinely broke for lunch from 1 to 3 PM brought relief. At the height of the battle, Rupprecht learned that his eldest son, Luitpold, had died of infantile paralysis. That evening the OHL took away 8th Cavalry Division (CD) to beef up the front in East Prussia.

Fritz Burger, a deputy officer with Bavarian 1st Foot Artillery Regiment, noted the devastation around Blâmont on 27 August. “The broad, rolling countryside was a single sea of flames.” Domèvre-sur-Vezouze, a small town of fifteen hundred inhabitants, was “completely reduced to ashes. … Left and right nothing but smoking ruins.” The professor of art from Munich University mused: “Pompeii must have looked like this after the violent upheaval.” War was truly hell. “The blood of those [francs-tireurs] shot after courts-martial still stuck to a wall on my right.” Behind another smoldering ruin, he found the “bloody shirts and pants, knapsacks and rifles” of 190 French soldiers buried the day before. Once out of Domèvre, he came across “endless columns of wounded; wan, tired, sluggishly they moved along.”37 Major Rudolf von Xylander on Krafft’s staff similarly was shocked by the devastation at Maixe. “It looked extremely horrific everywhere; the farmsteads burned down; in many fields the French [soldiers with their red pants] lay as if in a field of poppies; many just lay in the road; a great number of horses and a great deal of material laid about. It smells terrible.”38

The Battle of the Trouée de Charmes ended in a bloody draw on 28 August.39 Thereafter, the front in Lorraine stabilized for almost a week. While Joffre used the relative calm to transfer more units—Georges Levillain’s 6th CD and Louis Comby’s 37th ID—to buttress his left wing around Paris, Moltke and Tappen devised a new plan for the Bavarian army. It was now to abandon the breakthrough in the direction of Neufchâteau and instead to reduce la position de Nancy, a heavily fortified belt of fortresses, woods, and heights that surrounded the capital of 120,000 inhabitants of the Meurthe-et-Moselle.

The change in plans had been occasioned in part by Tappen’s “displeasure” that Sixth Army had not already driven through the Charmes Gap.40 Moltke also poured out his venom over the putative “inactivity” of the Bavarians. “You visited Sixth Army,” he shot at General Karl von Wenninger on 30 August. “When will it finally attack?” Bavaria’s military plenipotentiary had indeed just returned from a tour of the front and had been deeply shaken by what he had seen: “burned-down villages, overturned wagons, dead horses, fresh graves.” The countryside was a wasteland of “still smoking, at times still burning ruins where there once were villages, animal corpses, wounded horses with deadly-sad eyes aimlessly wandering, the air filled with burning sweet smells” of the flesh of men and horses. Wenninger reminded Moltke that Rupprecht’s soldiers had suffered greatly during nineteen days of consecutive combat against an enemy “double our strength.” It elicited no sympathy. “That is also the case with other armies a[nd] still they attack!” Moltke snapped back. Growing more agitated by the minute, he accused the Bavarians of having used improper tactics. “Sixth Army’s losses all too often were unnecessary; the corps simply ran into art[illery] fire—that must come to an end!”41

Moltke chose not to inform Wenninger that he had dispatched yet another emissary, Major Max Bauer, to Bavarian headquarters that very day. Bauer, strongly hinting that he was acting on Moltke’s behalf, came up with another grand scheme. After storming la position de Nancy, Sixth and Seventh armies were “‘simply’ to pass through Charmes Gap” between Toul and Épinal, strike the French flank, and “drive the remainder of the Army of the Vosges into the arms of the German Fifth Army” around Verdun. In this way, Bauer assured the Bavarians, they would “bring about the decision” in the war.42 Flabbergasted by yet a further radical change in plans by the OHL, Krafft queried Bauer, Moltke’s expert on artillery, as to how long it might take to reduce the fortifications at Nancy. “Oh well, after our experiences at Liège and Namur you should be able to reduce them within 3 days.”43 Bauer promised Rupprecht the remaining 150mm field artillery from the fortresses of Metz, Strasbourg, Germersheim, and Mainz. But since there were no draft horses available for transport, General Otto Kreppel, commander, Bavarian Field Artillery, had to secure railways to move the heavy batteries and twenty-six trains of shells to Nancy. Rupprecht sadly recorded that the Bavarian army had lost three hundred officers and ten thousand men by the end of August 1914.44

While Rupprecht and Krafft drafted plans for Bauer’s small Cannae in the south, Major von Xylander just happened to be in Luxembourg. There, he learned “purely by accident” that the OHL no longer had “any desire” to take la position de Nancy. Lieutenant Colonel Tappen confirmed the rumor and added that Sixth and Seventh armies were just to “fix” French forces in equal numbers in Lorraine. Hardly had Xylander caught his breath than Deputy Chief of the General Staff Hermann von Stein let it be known that he expected the Bavarians “merely” to attack the “Bayon bridgehead” on the Moselle River, halfway between Nancy and Épinal to the south. Perhaps as early as “tomorrow.”45

It was pure Alice in Wonderland. What was it to be? Reduction of the Nancy salient? The drive through the Charmes Gap? The attack on the Bayon bridgehead? Or all of the above? Rupprecht took matters into his own hands: On 31 August, he decided as theater commander and as scion of a royal house that he had no choice but to follow Wilhelm II’s order to storm the Grand Couronné de Nancy, the natural three-hundred-meter-high protective ridge that extended from the German border to northeast of Nancy.

Krafft von Dellmensingen immediately did what any other good chief of staff would have done: He drove to Luxembourg to run Rupprecht’s decision by the OHL. He found the mood there downright ebullient. Tappen led off. “Everywhere the enemy is retreating. … The entire western wing is advancing with greatest marching effort.”He envied the men of First and Second armies. “Those people are conducting a promenade around France!” There would be “no holding along the Marne,” he assured Krafft. The French would be herded off in a southeasterly direction and “driven against the Swiss border.”46 There was no need even to contemplate shuttling forces to northern France, Tappen concluded, as the right wing sweeping toward Paris would bring its crushing might to bear in a few days, perhaps even the very next day!47


Kaiser Wilhelm II


Helmuth von Moltke, German chief of the general staff

General Alexander von Kluck, chief of staff, German 1st Army (center) with staff. General von Kuhl is on his right.

Erich Ludendorff, deputy chief of staff, German 2nd Army

General Karl von Bülow, German 2nd Army


Raymond Poincaré, president of France

General Ferdinand Foch, French 9th Army

General Édouard de Castelnau, French 2nd Army


General Joseph Joffre, French chief of general staff

General Fernand de Langle de Cary, French 4th Army (center). Joffre is at left.

General Charles Lanrezac, commander French 5th Army


General Auguste Yvon Edmond Dubail, French 1st Army

Joseph Galliéni, governor of Fortress Paris

General Michel-Joseph Maunoury

General Maurice Sarrail, French 3rd Army


H. H. Asquith, prime minister of the United Kingdom

Horatio Herbert Lord Kitchener, secretary of state for war, Great Britain (center)

A recruiting poster featuring Lord Kitchener’s image


Field Marshal John French, commander-in-chief, British Expeditionary Force

Field Marshal Douglas Haig

Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, British deputy chief of staff


General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, British II Corps

Fort Loncin, Liège, Belgium, November 1918

The library at Louvain

At noon on 1 September, Crown Prince Rupprecht called a meeting of his chief of staff and corps commanders. Krafft von Dellmensingen, as usual, favored offensive operations. La position de Nancy needed to be taken immediately so that Sixth Army could then break through the Charmes Gap and roll up the flank of the French forces facing Fifth and Fourth armies. To recall the heavy artillery being hauled up to the front would constitute “a definitive admission of defeat.”48 Oskar von Xylander spoke against Krafft. His I Corps had been badly battered in the advance on Nancy, and he feared that a “drawn-out, costly” siege could lead to the “disintegration” of his corps. The “only viable course was to withdraw.”49 Karl von Martini of II Corps was at the front and sent his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Franz Stängl, in his stead. Stängl led off with a litany of problems: The corps had sustained heavy losses, especially among the infantry; it lacked heavy artillery; its front was spread too thin and in danger of cracking under a sustained counterattack. Krafft craftily agreed. But the attack had been ordered by the OHL, he noted, and there was nothing he could do about that.50 The II Corps would just have to mount one final Herculean effort. Ludwig von Gebsattel of III Corps had “vainly” spoken the past week of “making Nancy a present” for King Ludwig III, but he now favored delaying the assault until his corps could be properly concentrated and the heavy artillery promised by Major Bauer was in place.51 Rupprecht, who considered the assault—especially on the Grand Couronné guarding Nancy—to constitute “an irresponsible, difficult undertaking,” readily took up Gebsattel’s notion of a delay. The crown prince confided to his war diary that he and Krafft had undergone a “test of nerves” and had both “lost their patience” at the meeting.52

The attacks on Bayon and the charge through the Trouée de Charmes were canceled. The great host of 272 guns was to be assembled before the Grand Couronné. The attack was set for the night of 4–5 September. Gebsattel’s Bavarian III Corps, which had largely been spared the fighting around Nancy and thus denied battle honors,53 would spearhead the assault.

“NEVER DO WHAT THE enemy wants for the very reason that he wants it,” the great Napoleon had counseled a century before. “Avoid a battleground that he has reconnoitered and studied, and with even more reason ground that he has fortified and where he is entrenched.”54 As is often the case, sound advice grounded in solid history was ignored. The Grand Couronné northeast of Nancy constitutes a plateau scarp that in the north is a mere ridge broken by buttes and mesas, but that near Nancy becomes wider and forms “an eastward projecting bastion measuring half a dozen miles from the [Moselle] to its apex.” The entire plateau of the Grand Couronné is “breached by transverse stream valleys”55 and erosion gaps. Attacking infantry from the north and northeast would have to batter their way across the plateau to assault Nancy. Key to the French defenders was the so-called Pont-à-Mousson Gateway, a broad opening in the Grand Couronné that cut the plateau east to the Moselle. It was protected by two pillars: the Mousson butte, to the north, and the Sainte-Geneviève Plateau, to the south.

As well, the French had carefully prepared the defenses around Nancy—and especially on the ridges of the Grand Couronné. It was one of the many ironies of the war that this work had been ordered by Foch, the apostle of the all-out offensive, after he assumed command of XX Corps at Nancy in August 1913. The French had left Nancy unfortified because it projected dangerously in front of the line of forts they had constructed in the 1880s through Toul, Épinal, and Belfort. Foch obviously thought Nancy worth saving from attack.

Specifically, Foch’s engineers had extended the defensive works three kilometers out to the heights of Malzéville. They had studded every approach to the escarpment with forts, artillery, machine guns, and barbed wire. They had dug deep trenches across roads and rail beds to slow the enemy advance. They had calibrated every piece of ground for the heavy Rimailho artillery as well as the soixante-quinzes. They had concealed much of this firepower in the ravines that dissected the Grand Couronné. Even geography had played into their hands. To the north of Nancy, 150-to 200-meter-high ridges shot straight up from the western banks of both the Meurthe and Moselle rivers, offering defenders a natural bulwark. The fallback position west of Nancy across the Moselle trench was even more formidable: The high plateau of the Forest of Haye in the angle formed by the Meurthe and the Moselle bristled with artillery emplacements and concrete forts. In between lay three water obstacles: the Mortagne River, 8 to 15 meters wide and 1.2 meters deep; the Moselle, 70 to 100 meters wide and between 0.60 and 1.50 meters deep; and the Canal de l’Est, 18 to 22 meters wide and 2.2 meters deep. All three would have to be crossed by the Bavarians after they had seized Nancy.56

French units, refreshed after the Battle of the Trouée de Charmes, were assigned positions around Nancy for the expected German assault.57 Castelnau deployed four corps of Second Army on the heights north and northeast of the city, with Jean Kopp’s 59th Reserve Infantry Division (RID) at Sainte-Geneviève and Émile Fayolle’s 70th RID at Amance. He then sited half of Pierre Dubois’s IX Corps southeast of Nancy behind the Meurthe: Émile Brun d’Aubignosc’s 68th RID at Saffais, Louis Espinasse’s XV Corps at Haussonville behind the Mortagne, and Louis Taverna’s XVI Corps as well as Louis Bigot’s 74th RID near Belchamp. Dubail placed Joseph de Castelli’s VIII Corps east of the Forest of Charmes and César Alix’s XIII Corps around Rambervillers. Léon Durand’s Second Reserves Group (three divisions) was divided among the active units. Émile-Edmond Legrand-Girarde’s XXI Corps was the last to arrive.58

But this formidable concentration was short-lived. Joffre was so confident of Nancy’s defenses that between 31 August and 2 September, he continued to strip his forces there to bolster the front around Paris. Unit by unit, Second Army had to surrender Espinasse’s XV Corps, three brigades of Dubois’s IX Corps, Justinien Lefèvre’s 18th ID, Camille Grellet de la Deyte’s 10th CD, and a chasseur brigade. First Army entrained Legrand-Girarde’s XXI Corps, bound for Paris.59 It now consisted mainly of Castelli’s VIII Corps and Pierre Roques’s XII Corps, 167,300 effectives and 5,400 sabers in all.60 Joffre was no longer interested in tying down (fixer) German forces in Lorraine, but merely in making a stand (durer) east of Nancy.61 By 4 August, Castelnau’s Second Army consisted of Taverna’s XVI Corps and Maurice Balfourier’s XX Corps (nine infantry divisions), Foch’s former unit, as well as the reserves (ten infantry divisions), roughly 120,500 soldiers as well as 3,800 cavalrymen and 536 pieces of artillery.62 Still, Second Army alone was superior to the attacking Bavarian Sixth Army.


THE ASSAULT ON THE Grand Couronné began a day ahead of schedule, in the heavy, humid night of 3–4 September. The air pressure caused by the massive artillery barrage was so powerful that it blew out the doors at Bavarian I, II, I Reserve, XIV, and XXI corps headquarters.63 In the morning, Crown Prince Rupprecht pushed his right wing north of Nancy along the Saffais Plateau and sent his left against Épinal. As well, he ordered Seventh Army to advance on Rambervillers, northeast of Épinal. Comprising mostly Landwehr formations, it quickly became bogged down in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Heavy fighting also ensued along the Meurthe River. But the main assault consisted of a frontal infantry attack on the Grand and Petit Mont d’Amance, northeast of Nancy, as well as Forts Saint-Nicolas-de-Port and Pont-Saint-Vincent, southeast of Nancy, and Frouard, northwest of Nancy. It was now or never on the Südflügel.

The desperate nature of the fighting immediately became apparent. At Mandray, a village ten kilometers southeast of Saint-Dié, the battle raged from house to house.64 French artillery on the Grand Couronné poured fire on the tight German waves as they attempted to cross the plains below. Chasseurs ferociously defended Mandray at every corner, finally retiring on the church. The soldiers of Eugen von Benzino’s Ersatz division blew open its barricaded door. With trumpets sounding the charge, the Bavarians stormed the sanctuary. They set the wooden stairs leading to the steeple on fire. The chasseurs there never had a chance.

At Maixe, a hamlet of five hundred people on the Marne-Rhine Canal, German reserves took a terrible pounding for fifteen hours from well-hidden French artillery, accurately directed by fliers.65 The Bavarian history of the war recorded, “Soon Hell broke loose. French heavy and light artillery shells whistled over our heads with their ear-shattering screams and their shrapnel, and the entire region was soon enveloped in a thick haze of smoke and dust.” Even well-dug-in infantry companies were hit hard. “Human torsos and individual [body] parts flew through the air” from wagons that had been abandoned in the village square. “Everywhere there was horror and despair, death and perdition; everywhere, there were wild screams of pain and fear.” Horses, as if whipped, ran about in panic, taking with them wagons and artillery caissons. The wounded screamed horribly—and had to be abandoned.

On 4 September, Sixth Army concentrated its artillery fire on the front along the Meurthe between the Forest of Vitrimont and Courbesseaux, but could not drive the French out. The next day, Rupprecht’s gunners shifted their fire to the area northeast of Nancy; roughly three thousand shells rained down on the Amance heights. Xylander’s I Corps fired off a thousand howitzer rounds on 5 September. Day and night the deafening artillery duel continued. Wave after wave of gray-clad Bavarian infantry debouched from the Champenoux Forest under cover of darkness to storm the front of the Grand Couronné—only to be cut down by murderous cross fire from the French 75s concealed on reverse slopes of the Mont d’Amance mesa and the Pain de Sucre butte guarding the eastern and southern approaches to the Grand Couronné. Still, the future of la position de Nancyhung by a thread on the second day of Rupprecht’s offensive.

Castelnau’s earlier optimism evaporated. He feared a repetition of the Battle of the Saar—decimation of Second Army if it stubbornly clung to defending the Grand Couronné. Reports from Durand’s reserve divisions and Balfourier’s XX Corps revealed that Second Army, recently depleted by Joffre, could not long withstand the Bavarian assault. At 2:30 PM on 5 September, Castelnau telegraphed the Grand quartier général (GQG): “I cannot depend upon a prolonged resistance.” He suggested a “timely withdrawal” behind the Meurthe and Moselle rivers, to the Forest of Haye or to the heights of Saffais and Belchamp—and perhaps even beyond.66

Joffre was not amused. Unlike his German counterpart, he never lost sight of the overall campaign and never gave in to momentary situations, no matter how dire they appeared. Thus, he began his “très urgent” epistle to Castelnau at 1:10 PM on 6 September with a lecture on strategy. “The principal mass of our forces is engaged in a general battle [along the Marne] in which the Second Army, too remote from the scene of operations, cannot take part.” If Second Army suddenly retreated to the line Belfort-Épinal, the two French armies in Lorraine would be separated from each other and defeated piecemeal. If First Army joined Castelnau’s retreat, all of Franche Comté, along with its capital, Besançon, and the major fortress Belfort, would be lost and the right wing threatened with envelopment and annihilation. Joffre deemed it “preferable” that Castelnau maintained his “present position” at Nancy “pending the outcome of this battle.”67 The “little monk in boots” well understood the understated meaning of the term préférable. Incredibly, after the war he would claim that he had heroically resisted Joffre’s “order” to abandon Nancy. It became another legend of the Battle of the Marne.

Castelnau dug in. The French right in the area of Rehainviller-Gerbéviller held firm, staunchly defended by Taverna’s XVI Corps and Espinasse’s XV Corps, shattered earlier at Sarrebourg, as well as by Bigot’s 74th RID and Charles Holender’s 64th RID. The center and the left of the line from the Sânon River to the Forest of Champenoux saw the fiercest fighting, with outposts and villages frequently passing from one hand into the other.

The battle for Nancy reached its climax on 7 September. The Bavarians advanced out of the north from the Pont-à-Mousson Gateway and three times furiously stormed the north front of the Grand Couronné with flags unfurled and bands playing. The village of Sainte-Geneviève and the Mont Toulon ridge commanding the southern side of the gateway witnessed brutal bayonet charges throughout the night. If they could be taken, the way would be opened for the Bavarians to march up the Moselle to Nancy, storm the vital Mont d’Amance defensive works from the rear, and shatter the entire French defensive network on the Moselle Plateau.68

The German assault almost worked. Several units from 314th IR of General Kopp’s French 59th RID accidentally abandoned Sainte-Geneviève, nicknamed the “Hole of Death” by its defenders.69 But by 8 September, the French had retaken the village, thanks in large measure to the gallant counterattacks of Balfourier’s XX Corps and the fact that the Bavarians had not detected the French withdrawal. More than eighty-two hundred German dead littered the battlefield; Baden XIV Corps suffered ten thousand casualties. The forests around Nancy had seen desperate bayonet charges. At one place, in the dark of night two Bavarian soldiers of Gebsattel’s III Corps had bayoneted each other; next morning a patrol found their bodies thus “nailed” to two trees.70

General von Gebsattel had finally experienced the battle he’d yearned for so desperately. It was not at all the glorious venture that he had imagined. His corps had advanced into an “undoubtedly cleverly prepared battlefield” studded with “far-ranging French guns.” Bavarian artillery had been unable to gain any “significant advantage” because its spotters could not detect the sources of hostile fire. Each night, the enemy had moved its units from one “well prepared position into another.” His own infantry had been unable to close with the French. “Everywhere trenches and advance guards and rear-echelon reinforcements.”71 It was siege-style warfare at its worst.

Violent fighting also occurred in the Forest of Champenoux. Kopp’s 59th RID and d’Aubignosc’s 68th RID were hard-pressed between its ridges. Rupprecht drove his troops on to encircle them. Castelnau wavered again—in part no doubt enervated by the news that his son had died in battle several days earlier at Morhange. Joffre called to rally Second Army. “I will try to hold out where I am,” Castelnau responded. But the prospect was not bright. “I feel that my army will be lost.” He again suggested “retreating immediately behind the Moselle.” And again, Joffre demurred. “Do nothing of the kind. Wait twenty-four hours. You do not know how things are going with the enemy. He is probably no better off than you are.” Joffre’s Order of the Day was blunt: “You must not abandon the Grand Couronné, and I formally order you to hold your present positions.”72

Again, Castelnau dug in. More, on 10 September, amid thunder and rain, he ordered an “energetic” attack by 59th RID and 68th RID in the Forest of Champenoux and on La Bouzule, northeast of Nancy, by Taverna’s XVI Corps eastward out of Belchamp against Lunéville, and by Balfourier’s XX Corps against Réméréville.73 Ever so slowly, French pressure began to take its toll. German artillery, bound to rail beds due to the lack of draft animals, was too inflexible to support infantry charges. The French 75s, on the other hand, were highly mobile and able to move up with the infantry. By the next day, French fliers reported the Germans abandoning Lunéville, leaving behind huge stores of arms and ammunition as well as countless wounded in field hospitals. Second Army pushed forward—into Fraimbois, Réméréville, Nomeny, and Pont-à-Mousson. French cavalry rode virtually uncontested into Einville-au-Jard, Serres, and Morville-sur-Seille. Dubail’s First Army advanced northward into abandoned ground. The line of the Meurthe had been secured and Nancy spared occupation.74 Castelnau was promoted grand-officier de la Légion d’honneur on 18 September 1914.

The Battle of the Grand Couronné was as great a defeat for the Germans as Morhange had been for the French. There would be no triumphant entry into Nancy. There would be no breakthrough across the Moselle. There would be no small Cannae between Toul and Belfort. Instead, the Germans had suffered their first true setback in 1914. And the butcher’s bill was savage. While neither side cared (or dared) to publish official figures, several unit diaries allow at least a glimpse into the frightful slaughter. On 11 September, Bavarian 14th IR lost a thousand men while retreating. Over the past week, 10th IR had suffered 70 percent casualties and 13th IR, around 50 percent. The Forest of Fraimbois was littered with the corpses of half-starved men and horses.

On the German southern left flank, Adolf Wild von Hohenborn, commanding 30th Division, XV Army Corps, wrote his wife that his troops were also withdrawing. He was delighted at finally being able to leave what he called “the pigsty Épinal.” The battlefield was littered with the dead, stripped of valuables and some even of clothing. “The woods are full of corpses,” he wrote. “The French dead lie in their trenches [packed] like sardines. The smell is so putrid that at [Saint-] Benoît the French built a bonfire to burn their dead.”75

WHAT HAD HAPPENED to the German assault? It had hardly been a “complete vindication of German tactical doctrine and training,” as a recent book on the Battle of the Frontiers claims.76 Apart from the fact that Rupprecht and Krafft von Dellmensingen had ordered a frontal infantry attack against a heavily fortified city without days of preliminary artillery bombardment, other areas of the front had demanded the OHL’s immediate attention. Already by the second day of the offensive against the Grand Couronné, rumors of British landings on the Continent caused panic in Luxembourg. Moltke decided at once to create a new northern army, to remove General von Heeringen from the south to command it, and to assign one corps each from Sixth Army (Xylander’s I Corps) and Seventh Army (Bertold von Deimling’s XV Corps) to the new formation. He ordered Rupprecht to dispatch Ernst von Heydebreck’s 7th CD as well. To the horror of his royal superior, Heeringen released XV Corps without asking or even informing Rupprecht.77And when Lieutenant Colonel Tappen demanded the immediate transfer of two corps from Lorraine to east of Paris on 5 September, Krafft von Dellmensingen became despondent. “For us, the entire matter is most unfortunate. If that occurs [removal of the two corps], we will never overcome this passivity.”78 Crown Prince Rupprecht once more lectured the OHL that any withdrawal from Nancy now would be “highly detrimental to the morale of the troops.”79

Wilhelm II arrived at Bavarian headquarters at this critical moment. He assured Rupprecht that he would personally “inhibit” any withdrawal of forces from Sixth Army. More, the pressure on the French from German Fourth and Fifth armies to the north would make itself felt within two to three days, with the result that “the enemy will be forced to give up [the battle] along the line of the Mosel.”80 But Rupprecht had lost all confidence in the kaiser’s role as Supreme War Lord. He was shocked by what he termed Wilhelm II’s “crass dilettantism” and “deficient knowledge” of the situation at the front.81

Rupprecht received more bad news from an irate General Ludwig von Sieger, chief of field munitions, who had arrived at Dieuze on 6 September to put an end to what he considered to be Sixth Army’s “wasteful” expenditure of shells. Sieger now threatened to remove some of Rupprecht’s heavy artillery if the attack on Nancy continued to stall. Before leaving Luxembourg, Sieger had mean-spiritedly barked at the Bavarian military plenipotentiary: “If they refuse to attack they hardly need that many artillery pieces.”82And when Sieger on 8 September diverted six munitions trains bound for Sixth Army to Fifth Army—that is, from the Bavarian to the Prussian crown prince—royal relations reached their nadir. Rupprecht, “extremely angry,” threatened to resign. Krafft agreed that this was yet another example of “haughty, brutal and encroaching Prussianism,”83but pleaded for his chief to remain at his post, citing the devastating impact that such a step would have both at home and abroad. Rupprecht agreed—on condition that he get an accounting from the OHL.

Krafft von Dellmensingen knew that the action against Nancy had unraveled and that the Bavarians would be blamed for the failure. He therefore penned a lengthy memorandum for posterity. Therein, he stressed the issue of troop morale. “Abandonment of the attack is a heavy moral blow for which we will not take responsibility.” He crowed that he had not “fallen” into Sieger’s “trap” by having the Bavarians concede failure. “The OHL all by itself must shoulder the responsibility for the entire idiocy of this on-again and off-again with regard to besieging Nancy.”84 He deplored how much modern warfare had degenerated in just one month. “This trench-and siege war is horrible!”85 It reminded Rupprecht of another conflict—the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05).

There remained one final act to be played out in the tragicomic opera that was Lorraine. Crown Prince Rupprecht traveled to Luxembourg to appeal his case to Moltke and Tappen. Neither was willing to order the heir of the Reich’s second largest kingdom to break off the assault on Nancy. Instead, they simply steered him toward that decision by restricting his supply of artillery shells. Moltke slyly informed Rupprecht to his “great surprise” that he could “proceed with the attack”—just as long as he suspended all other offensives, that he used his ammunition sparingly, and that he agreed to return all heavy artillery within six to nine days.86

That very moment, without informing Rupprecht, the last of the OHL’s emissaries was on his way to Sixth Army headquarters. Major Erich von Redern, Tappen’s chief of staff, painted a bleak picture of the war for Krafft. Russian units from Archangel had arrived in Britain and were on their way to northern France. “Hindus from India” had landed in southern France and likewise were headed for the front. To combat them, the OHL needed to draw down its forces in Lorraine. “It would be preferable,” Redern stated, for Sixth Army “to break off contact with the enemy east of the Mosel” and to “recall” those units. Some could be redeployed to secure the line Metz-Strasbourg; the rest would be sent north. “The operations” at Nancy, Redern allowed, “had reached a dead point.”87 Upper Alsace was to be evacuated so that the Rhine Valley could be held. Krafft had no option but to call off the attack on the Grand Couronné. And to send Bavarian I Corps up north as requested.

One can only imagine Rupprecht’s bitterness when, upon his return from Luxembourg, Krafft apprised him of the gist of Redern’s instructions. In an angry telephone call from Dieuze to Luxembourg, Rupprecht demanded to know which advice to follow, Redern’s or Tappen’s? This brought a final piece of obfuscation: Redern’s directives were valid, but Rupprecht could continue the assault on Nancy!88 A disillusioned Rupprecht formally suspended operations against Nancy. “They have totally lost control of their nerves at the OHL,” he noted in his war diary.89 He then ordered the bridges over the Meurthe River and all rail and communications centers destroyed.

THE BATTLE OF THE Frontiers in Lorraine ended in bitter recriminations (that were to last through the postwar period). Moltke’s staff convinced themselves that Sixth Army had allowed Joffre to “dupe it” into believing that far greater numbers of French forces opposed them than in actuality; that Sixth Army simply had lacked the will to advance; and that by his “inaction” Rupprecht had brought great stress to the armies north of him. “As punishment for this incompetence,” the OHL decreed, “Sixth Army needed to be disbanded.”90

The Bavarians rose to the occasion in kind. Krafft von Dellmensingen decried the lack of clear direction from the OHL in general, and from Tappen in particular. He repeated his earlier accusation that Tappen had been nothing more than a “cipher” whom Erich Ludendorff had chosen as his successor “to keep the seat warm” at the Second Section for his return.91 General von Wenninger stuck a dagger in the heart of the federal structure of the German army when he spoke of the unfortunate “anti-Bavarian” Kollegiumthat dictated operations: Tappen was a Prussian, Hentsch a Saxon, and Groener a Württemberger.92

The price for the command chaos in Lorraine was bloody stalemate. It was paid by the troops. While there never was a precise calculation of losses for the German armies in Alsace and Lorraine, Bavarian army historian Karl Deuringer “guesstimated” total casualties for the infantry at 60 percent and those killed at 15 percent. Since the Germans deployed fifty infantry brigades (three hundred thousand soldiers) in the area of the most violent battles between Pont-à-Mousson and Markirch, Deuringer calculated sixty-six thousand men killed or wounded, with seventeen thousand paying the ultimate price.93 Given the savage nature of the fighting, one can hardly expect French losses to have been less.94

The German army’s official ten-day medical reports (Sanitätsberichte) bear out Deuringer’s findings. For Sixth Army, they set the casualty figure for August at 34,598—almost the size of a fully mobilized army corps—and the number of dead at 11,476. For September, half of which Sixth Army spent in transit from Lorraine to Belgium, the casualty total remains high at 28,957 (including 6,687 killed).95 Most of this is due to the intense fighting around the Grand Couronné. Surprisingly, given that it was half the strength of Rupprecht’s Sixth Army, Heeringen’s Seventh Army suffered equally in terms of raw numbers: 32,054 casualties (10,328 killed) in August and 31,887 (10,384 killed) in September. On a percentage basis, Heeringen’s unit of “weekend warriors” lost 70 percent of its original mobilized strength killed or missing in August, compared with 50 percent for Rupprecht’s regulars.96

The Battle of the Frontiers in Lorraine had been central to neither the German nor the French deployment plan. It had simply gathered momentum and taken on a life of its own, at one time absorbing almost one-third of the forces on either side. Joffre had spied a chance for a frontal breakthrough of the Moselstellung between Metz and Thionville, with hopes of thereafter rolling up the German left wing and falling into the flank of Wilhelm’s Fifth Army around Verdun. When that offensive failed, Moltke, for his part, had sought a German breakthrough of the Trouée de Charmes between Toul and Épinal, with hopes of a follow-up drive north against French Third and Fourth armies east of Vitry-le-François. Both designs failed to reach their objectives, and by early September the front in Lorraine had degenerated into trench warfare. Both Rupprecht and Heeringen had been reassigned to command newly constituted armies in northern France and Belgium. The southern flank was divided into a host of third-rate army detachment commands. The main decision would have to come elsewhere.

THE INABILITIES OF CROWN Prince Rupprecht, Crown Prince Wilhelm, and Max von Hausen to achieve their small Cannaes, combined with Bülow’s inexplicable failure to pursue Lanrezac’s badly knocked Fifth Army after Saint-Quentin, shifted the German center of gravity back to its original axis: First Army driving on Paris. Neither Alexander von Kluck nor his chief of staff, Hermann von Kuhl, was in high spirits at the end of August. Although as a reward for Le Cateau, Moltke on 27 August had restored First Army’s independence, Kluck and Kuhl resented Bülow’s constant demands for accountability, his ceaseless cries for assistance, and his petty reminders to maintain contact on the flanks. Twice—at Mons and at Le Cateau—they had allowed the British to elude them. In disgust, Kuhl, fearing that First Army might be pulled apart in an endless pursuit, decided to let the BEF go wherever it wanted on its southwesterly trajectory.

But could the German right wing in general and First Army in particular still achieve the primary mission? Alfred von Schlieffen had demanded a ratio of 7:1 between the German right and left wings, and Moltke still one of 3:1. The reality at the end of August 1914 was that while the left flank in Alsace-Lorraine (Sixth and Seventh armies) had a strength of 331,597 men, the right flank in northern France (First and Second armies) had just 372,240, or about one corps more. What was now the German center in the Ardennes and the Argonne (Third, Fourth, and Fifth armies) was greatest at 474,050 soldiers.97 With specific reference to the critical pivot wing, during the initial battles of the war the Schwenkungsflügel (First, Second, and Third armies) had enjoyed an advantage of 100 infantry battalions and 175 artillery batteries over French Fifth Army and the BEF; by the time it reached the Marne, that ratio had been reversed, with the French left wing (Ninth, Fifth, and Sixth armies) superior to the German right wing (First and Second armies, and half of Third Army) by 200 battalions of infantry and 190 batteries of artillery.98

More, First Army was no longer the “strike” force that it had been at the start of the campaign, when it had put 217,384 men and 748 guns in the field. By the end of the month, it had lost 2,863 killed or missing, 7,869 wounded, and 9,248 ill.99 The large number in the latter category was due to heat exhaustion, sunstroke, foot sores, and hunger. Most corps were down to half of their full strength by early September. And the farther First Army advanced, the more its supplies lagged behind. By 4 September, its railhead at Chauny was 140 kilometers behind the fighting front. Its motor transport companies had been driven so hard that 60 percent of their wood-rimmed trucks had broken down by the time First Army reached the Marne. There were on hand far fewer than the 924 fodder wagons required to haul two million pounds of hay and oats daily to its eighty-four thousand horses.100 And given that the German army had gone to war with its reserves (Landwehr and Ersatz) in the line, it would be weeks if not months before suitable replacements were ready to fill the manpower holes. Leaving II Corps to besiege Antwerp and VII Reserve Corps to invest Maubeuge had further reduced First Army’s combat strength to just 174,000 “rifles.”

The soldiers of First Army were spent: tired, hungry, thirsty, and wounded. They had marched five hundred kilometers, often as much as thirty or forty per day, in searing heat. They had fought major battles with the British as well as with French rear guards. “Our men are done up,” one of Kluck’s infantry commanders noted. “They stagger forward, their faces coated with dust, their uniforms in rags. They look like living scarecrows.” They sang as they marched, mainly to keep from falling asleep. “They drink to excess but this drunkenness keeps them going.”101 Walter Bloem, a company commander with 12th Brandenburg Grenadiers, wrote likewise of his men.

Unshaved, and scarcely washed at all for days … faces covered with a scrubbly beard, they look like prehistoric savages. Their coats were covered with dust and spattered with blood from bandaging the wounded, blackened with powder-smoke, and torn threadbare by thorns and barbed wire.102

All Kluck could offer them were more forced marches. Paris was but sixty kilometers away.

The closer the German “strike” armies approached Fortress Paris, the more critical it became to coordinate their advance. Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, silence descended over the German front. The OHL at Luxembourg did not receive a single communication from either First or Second army on 1 September. Nor did it receive any news from either unit on 2 September. All it knew was that the two armies had generally changed from a southwesterly to a southerly direction of pursuit.

Around suppertime on 1 September, Moltke had dashed off a terse note to Kluck: “What is your situation? Request immediate reply.”103 No reply. During the afternoon of 2 September, the OHL intercepted a message from Second Army to First Army, informing the latter that the enemy was “in full retreat behind the Marne and to the south,” and that Bülow intended to push his advance guards to the Marne the next day. Planning at Luxembourg thus remained based on “suspicions” rather than facts. On the basis of these “suspicions,” Moltke and Tappen on the evening of 2 September reached a basic decision: The war would have to be decided by concentrating the German armies for an envelopment of the “main French forces”104 somewhere in the area between Paris and Verdun—the region of the Marne. At 8:30 PM on 2 September, Moltke sent out his General Directive: “Intention Army Supreme Command to drive the French away from the capital in southeasterly direction. 1 Army is to follow 2 Army in echelon and to continue to protect the army’s flank.”105 Paris was to be bypassed to the east.

Specifically, Sixth and Seventh armies would continue to tie down French First and Second armies in Alsace-Lorraine; Fifth and Fourth armies were to keep the pressure up on French Third and Fourth armies in the middle of Joffre’s line; and Third Army was to advance in concert with Second Army’s left wing against Foch’s Special Army Detachment. The knockout blow now was to be delivered by Bülow’s Second Army, which would race south of Paris, cut off French Fifth Army’s line of retreat, and roll up the enemy armies west of the Argonne. First Army’s new role was to follow Second Army in echelon and guard its right flank against a possible attack out of the west. Satisfied with his labors, Moltke assured members of the kaiser’s entourage that “the steamroller in France is moving ahead unstoppable.”106

Unsurprisingly, Kluck and Kuhl, headquartered at Louis XV’s château at Compiègne, were not thrilled with this turn of events. Quite on their own, the two had crafted a new role for First Army. Fully appreciating that it was no longer sufficiently powerful to attempt the march around Paris, and seeing in Lanrezac’s retreat from Guise/Saint-Quentin a splendid chance at last to strike an enemy army in the flank, they turned First Army toward the Oise River along the line Compiègne-Noyon. Once more, their corps commanders were well ahead of Kuhl’s staff work. By the morning of 3 September, both Ewald von Lochow’s III Corps and Ferdinand von Quast’s IX Corps had reached the Marne; advance guards crossed the river at Nanteuille-Haudouin, Charly, and Château-Thierry. Friedrich Sixt von Arnim’s IV Corps stood on the Aisne at Crouy. Alexander von Linsingen’s II Corps and Hans von Gronau’s IV Reserve Corps had advanced across the Oise between Chantilly and Compiègne.107 Later that afternoon Kuhl, perhaps anticipating Moltke’s directive for First Army to follow Bülow’s Second Army “in echelon,” issued orders formalizing the new advance due southeast. In fact, Bülow after his victory at Saint-Quentin on 30 August had suggested that very move.

While this “deviation” is generally depicted as a spur-of-the-moment “bolt out of the blue,” new documents discovered after the fall of the German Democratic Republic in 1990 prove this not to have been the case. For Kuhl, then in the grade of major, had gamed just such a scenario in Case “Freytag II” as part of Schlieffen’s “General Staff Ride West 1905.”108 In short, the march-by east of Paris had been a major component in the master’s great design.

Kuhl was not worried about a possible French sortie out of the capital as long as the “phantom Paris” did not become “flesh and blood.”109 But just to be on the safe side, he dispatched Gronau’s IV Reserve Corps to Nanteuil-le-Haudouin to guard First Army’s right flank—where, according to the latest intelligence, the only enemy formation was the BEF beating a hasty retreat. Indeed, he was sufficiently unconcerned about the area north and northeast of Paris not to send aerial reconnaissance there.

At this critical point of the campaign, with million-man armies either in panicked retreat or in hot pursuit, intelligence was at a premium. Where was the enemy? In what strength? And, especially, on what route of march? The French, like Bülow during the night of the first day of the Battle of Guise/Saint-Quentin, now received a “dramatic windfall.” An officer with German Guard Cavalry Division, apparently fresh from Kluck’s headquarters, had been ambushed and killed in his car by soldiers of French 310th Infantry Regiment. His haversack contained a blood-smeared map bearing numbers and pencil lines. Commandant Girard, head of the Deuxième Bureau, was ecstatic. He at once deduced that the numbers referred to German First Army’s corps and the pencil lines, their lines of advance. It was the intelligence breakthrough that Joffre needed. For it was now clear to him that Kluck had changed his course toward the southeast.110

Kluck and Kuhl, having made their momentous decision to turn southeast without any input from the OHL, Bülow, or Hausen, in the morning of 4 September finally conveyed their new course of action to Moltke. The rambling message was a strange mix of information, accusation, and self-justification. It began, “First Army requests information about the situation at other armies.” The duumvirate then testily reminded Moltke that they had heard only “news of decisive victories followed on many occasions with pleas for assistance.” That was aimed directly at Bülow. First Army had at all times provided the requested assistance, which had entailed “sustained heavy fighting and [long] marches,” and in the process had “reached the limits of its capabilities.” Quast’s IX Corps alone had allowed Bülow to cross the Marne and to force the enemy to retreat. “Hope now to exploit that success.” Kluck and Kuhl bluntly informed Moltke that they could not heed his General Directive of 2 September to follow Second Army “in echelon” if they were to stove in the left flank of French Fifth Army. They requested immediate reinforcement in the form of Hans von Beseler’s III Reserve Corps (guarding Antwerp) and Hans von Zwehl’s VII Reserve Corps (besieging Maubeuge). And they demanded at all times to be kept abreast of the action of the other German armies. It took an incredible sixteen hours for the six-part message to be drafted, typed in clear text, enciphered, and transmitted.111 Was it purposeful obfuscation? Moltke chose not to reply to this stinging epistle.

Lost in all the excitement of the “march to the Marne” were several German reconnaissance reports of French troop movements. On 31 August, a flier from First Army reported “strong masses,” which he estimated at one army corps, marching in a southerly direction toward Villers-Cotterêts; “various columns” heading south out of the Forest of Compiègne; and “about a division” leaving the Oise Valley for Senlis.112 Three days later, just after Moltke and Tappen had sent out their General Directive for First Army to march by Paris on its eastern side, fliers from Maximilian von Laffert’s XIX Corps of Saxon Third Army sent in detailed reports of French troop movements. One spied “marching columns of all weapons formations” heading south on the roads near Sainte-Menehould. “Suippes full of troops.” French infantry was being entrained at railroad stations at Suippes, Somme-Suippe, Cuperly, and Saint-Hilaire-au-Temple. “One army corps” and eight troop trains ready to roll were spotted at Châlons-sur-Marne; another four troop trains at Mairy. A second flier reported seeing forty-two and a half kilometers of roads bursting with French troops en route to Châlons, Épernay, and Montmirail.113 The next day, twenty-three kilometers of roads still bristled with poilus heading south toward Épernay. Obviously, these French movements would impact the coming battle in the Reims-Verdun sector of the front.

The reports by Saxon fliers were buttressed by other reports. At 11 AM and again at 8:45 PM on 3 September, Prussian fliers noted enemy movements at Dammartin-en-Goële and Villeron, northeast of Paris—heading in the general direction of Gronau’s IV Reserve Corps of First Army. Kluck and Kuhl ignored them and ordered reconnaissance for 4 September only toward the south. One of the aircraft strayed off course, and at 5:30 PM on 4 September reported hostile formations marching northward from Épiais-lès-Louvres, just north of Paris. There was no way to warn Gronau as IV Reserve Corps was without radio communications.114 At Luxembourg, the OHL dismissed these reports as merely pertaining to French rear guards (Nachhut).

During that same period, Linsingen’s II Corps skirmished with troops of Frédéric Vautier’s VII Corps—previously known to have been in Alsace—and Georg von der Marwitz’s II Cavalry Corps with fresh forces from Céleste Déprez’s 61st RID, François Ganeval’s 62d RID, and d’Amade’s Territorials. Kluck and Kuhl refused to acknowledge that the French were undertaking major troop transfers. Like Moltke, they argued that Linsingen and Marwitz had simply stumbled upon isolated French rear guards.

“The left wing of the main French forces”—read, Fifth Army—remained of “decisive importance” to Kluck and Kuhl. It was to be “pushed away from Paris” and “outflanked.”115 If all went according to plan, First Army would at the eleventh hour again become the hammer that would strike the left flank of the French armies as they were driven south by the other German armies. This grand vision of a right hook against French Third, Fourth, and Fifth armies blinded Kluck and Kuhl to the formation of Maunoury’s Sixth Army on their right flank. Day after day, they drove II, IV, and III corps forward in frontal charges against Franchet d’Espèrey’s Fifth Army, withdrawing behind the Marne, as well as against the three British army corps retreating from Creil and La Ferté-Milon. Day after day, the French and the British refused to accept a decisive battle. On 3 September, an advance guard of Pomeranian Grenadiers of Linsingen’s II Corps had reported—rather optimistically—that they were just eighteen kilometers east of Paris. At dusk the next day, Kluck’s flanking cover, IV Reserve Corps, made contact with French units at the Ourcq River.

* The Reichsarchiv later set the total at 1,620 civilians killed or deported; 17,000 buildings torched; 135,000 horses, 200,000 pigs, and 250,000 cows slaughtered.


* “He will cover you with His wings; you will be safe in His care. … A thousand may fall dead beside you, ten thousand all around you, but you will not be harmed.”

* French (GMT) time.

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