Opening Round in the West (1)

To the slaughter, August 1914: French infantry in their brightly colored uniforms commence a bayonet charge (Musée de l'Armée)

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Note on Comparative General Officer Ranks

Rank structures and titles in the various armies of the Great War were not exactly equivalent. In the French Army there were only two permanent general officer ranks: General of Brigade (Général de Brigade) and General of Division (Général de Division). A General of Army Corps (Général de Corps d'Armee) or a General of Army (Général d'Armee) was actually a General of Division appointed to that higher command: He wore the insignia and used the title of his appointment during his tenure in command only. The title of Marshal of France (Meréchal de France) was technically not a rank but an honorific, conferred for distinguished service.

In the German Army all general officer ranks were permanent. These were Colonel-General (Generaloberst), General of Arm or Branch (General der Waffengattung), Lieutenant-General (Generalleutnant) and Major-General (Generalmajor). A General of Arm or Branch used the name of his parent branch of service, e.g. General of Infantry (General der Infanterie). The highest Army rank was Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall); in 1914 no general officer on the active list held this rank, which by custom was only conferred for distinguished service, usually in wartime. Kaiser Wilhelm II held it ex officio as monarch and "Supreme Warlord."

In the British Army also general officer ranks were permanent. These were Field Marshal, General, Lieutenant-General, Major-General and Brigadier-General. The Belgian Army had two general officer ranks: Lieutenant-General (Lieutenant-général) and Major-General (Major-général)

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For clarity, German formations are rendered in italics.

The first campaign of the Great War in the west was dominated by two factors: Germany’s amended Schlieffen Plan and France’s Plan XVII. The latter was a straightforward proposition: a mobilization and deployment scheme anticipating an all-out offensive, the objective of which was to clear German forces from Alsace and Lorraine and carry the French armies to the Rhine River. For this purpose France’s five field armies were to be concentrated between the Belgian and Swiss borders. On the left, Fifth Army was to act as a flank guard in case the Germans attempted an attack through Luxembourg and southern Belgium. The remaining armies—from left to right the Fourth, Third, Second and First—were to drive into Lorraine. To the south of this main effort, a detached corps would advance into Alsace. (Map 5 shows the deployment areas of the French and German armies on 2 August. Note how the concentration of forces on the German right flank overlaps the French left.)

Department of History, USMA West Point

Though the French commander-in-chief, General Joseph Joffre, recognized the possibility of a German flank attack through southern Belgium he never seriously considered the idea of a large-scale German maneuver on the pattern of the Schlieffen Plan. Joffre reasoned that the Germans possessed insufficient first-line divisions for such an audacious operation. Discounting the value of his own reserve divisions, he failed to foresee that the Germans would use theirs in an offensive role. Thus the Fifth Army, supplemented by the British Expeditionary Force (Field Marshal Sir John French), seemed to him adequate to secure the French left flank. He paid no attention to the warnings of Fifth Army’s commander, General Charles Lanrezac, that the Germans were deploying in great strength along the Belgian border. Lanrezac was uncomfortably aware that until the BEF appeared, there would be nothing to the left of his army than a thin screen of second-line Territorial troops along the Franco-Belgian border.

Joffre's strategic misjudgment was compounded by some serious tactical deficiencies. In the years prior to the war the French Army had fallen under the sway of a faction that preached the doctrine of the offensive in its most extreme form. All professional soldiers in Europe shared this view to some extent, but in France the offensive was embraced with an almost religious fervor. Relying on the bayonet and an aggressive spirit supposedly native to the French soldier, the troops would attack in dense formations, supported by the rapid fire of the excellent French 75mm field gun, overrunning the enemy in one audacious rush.

There were, indeed, doubters and critics. Some argued that insufficient attention was being paid to infantry tactics or to the problems of coordination between infantry and artillery. Others pointed to the French Army’s material deficiencies, especially in medium and heavy field artillery. These criticisms the prophets of the offensive waved away with assurances that French cran—guts—would compensate for any such minor shortcomings. To suggestions that the traditional infantry uniform—dark blue coat, madder red trousers—should be replaced by something less conspicuous, they replied scornfully: Les pantalons rouges, c'est la France!

Department of History USMA West Point

Given this background, what happened when Joffre launched his offensive seems sadly inevitable in retrospect. Between 14 and 23 August the French First Army (General Augustin Dubail) and Second Army (General Édouard de Castelnau) were bloodily repulsed at all points in Lorraine. Attacking in close order, bayonets fixed, regimental colors and saber-waving officers in front—sometimes even with regimental bands playing—the French infantry were mowed down in droves by rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. Against Sixth Army (Colonel-General Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria) and Seventh Army (Colonel-General Josias von Heeringen), whose troops occupied well-sited defensive positions, the 75mm field gun proved ineffective. Only in Alsace, where the defending Germans were weakest, did the French enjoy some measure of success—but the ground gained there had mostly to be yielded back after the disaster in Lorraine.

Thus preoccupied with the fortunes of his attacking armies, Joffre was slow to recognize the danger looming on his left flank. The information that did come to hand convinced him that the Germans were attempting no more than the anticipated flank attack through southern Belgium. He therefore ordered Fifth Army to sidestep to its left, establishing touch with the BEF, now in the field with four infantry divisions, a cavalry division and an independent cavalry brigade. (The BEF was supposed to have been six infantry divisions strong but an invasion scare led the British government to hold two divisions  and some cavalry back.) The Third Army (General Pierre Ruffey) and Fourth Army (General Fernand de Langle de Cary) were ordered to advance into the Ardennes, there to blunt the German advance. The French attack in this sector began on 21 August. But as in Lorraine the attacks, delivered in close order against well-posted defenders, broke down amid heavy casualties. (Map 6c shows the French offensives in Lorraine and the Ardennes.)

Farther north the German right wing, consisting of First, Second and Third Armies, was advancing through Belgium. First Army (Colonel-General Alexander von Kluck) initially moved northwest, engaging the Belgian Army (six infantry divisions and a cavalry division) on 17 August. After a hard-fought action, the Belgian commander, King Albert, ordered his army to withdraw into the fortified position around the port of Antwerp. Thereupon First Army turned left toward Brussels; the Belgian capital fell on 20 August. Meanwhile Second Army (Colonel-General Karl von Bülow) and Third Army (Colonel-General Max von Hausen) advanced into the gap between the Belgians and the French Fifth Army. Fifth Army, stretching its left flank northward, found itself badly outnumbered and was driven back by Second and Third Armies. This heavy pressure on the French left also forced Fourth Army to give ground.

The advance of First Army  brought it into contact with the BEF, deployed in defensive positions around the town of Mons. After some preliminary cavalry skirmishes, the Germans attacked in strength on 23 August, mainly in the sector held by the BEF's II Corps (General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrian). The rapid, well-directed rifle fire of the British infantry inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans before weight of numbers compelled the BEF to fall back. Maps 6a and 6b show the advance of the German right wing through Belgium and into northwestern France up to 26 August. Note how the line of advance of First Army began to diverge from that laid down for it in Schlieffen's scheme of maneuver. His attention fixed on the immediate tactical situation, Kluck deviated from the plan in an attempt to outflank the BEF and Fifth Army.

German infantry of von Kluck's First Army on the march in Belgium (Bundesarchiv)

The Battle of Mons was the epilogue to a grievous and costly Anglo-French defeat. With the repulse in the Ardennes and the advance of the German right wing the Battle of the Frontiers was over, and the Great Retreat was underway.

But at the headquarters of OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung or Army High Command) in Koblenz, General von Moltke was growing more and more uneasy. His armies had done well thus far but where were the spoils of decisive victory: prisoners, captured guns and impedimenta? What was happening at the front? Moltke could not be sure. For as the field armies advanced, communications between them and OHL became fitful and uncertain. Radio, still in its infancy, was unreliable. Telegraphic and telephonic links were mostly unavailable. Dispatches from the armies carried by couriers took time to reach headquarters. And from the east, where a mere fraction of the German Army stood in defense of East Prussia, there came grim tidings of a massive Russian offensive. As the terrible uncertainties accumulated, the nerves of the Chief of the Great General Staff began to fray.

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