Saturday, 22 November 2014

Battle of the Frontiers (2) - Joffre's Folly

Joffre's determination to fight the war the French way cost his country dearly.
Joseph Césaire Joffre, was made commander-in-chief of France in 1911.  For a period he was near-dictator of France, given free rein by President Poincare, pro military and anti German successor to Caillaux. Joffre directed France's military destinies from GQG, his Grand-Quartier-Générale, located in the little Marneside town of Vitry-le-François. He “remembered too well the events of 1870, and was resolved to resist more stoutly the lure of fortified places, and keep his armies together as a force of manoeuvre” (Buchan). His early belief in an offensive into Alsace Lorraine to redress their seizure in 1870 was the consequence.

Events on the centre and right of the French Dispositions
Joffre held strongly to his views and required a stand at all costs in the east by Generals  Dubai and Castelnau, holding Nancy if at all possible. In the centre he would need to hold the line Toul-Epinal-Belfort, and allow a short retreat by the Third and Fourth armies, pivoting on Verdun. The French 5th and BEF armies should be allowed a short retreat until such time as they could be reinforced, and enable an ‘ultimate reaction’ to the German advances.

General  Auguste Dubail
 On 14th August the French 1st Army under Dubail and 2nd Army under Castelnau advanced across the frontier towards Sarrebourg, Lorraine. German 6th and 7th Armies under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and General Josias von Heeringen fell backFurther south the right flank of the French forces pushed into Germany and pushed towards Kingersheim and Mulhouse, also meeting initial success

Castelnau himself had opposed the offensive into Lorraine: he argued, with notable prudence, that his forces should merely hold their strong positions on the hills around Nancy, and let the enemy do the attacking. Joffre, however, was insistent that the offensive should go ahead, and progress in the first few days convinced him of its success. Further south, 1st Army overran Sarrebourg. On the evening of the 19th, Castelnau again urged caution on his local corps commander, Ferdinand Foch.
The French threw forward 320 battalions and a thousand guns, which the Germans (who as it happened had chosen the same day to deliver their own massive blow) met with 328 battalions and over 1,600 guns. In the midst of Alsace-Lorraine, the rival attacks collided with shocking force and heavy losses on both sides. Morhange was the site of huge carnage and losses.
French aviators had warned their commanders of the strength – indeed, near-impregnability – of the German position, but they were ignored. The attackers pressed forward in two vast columns, between the Forêt de Cremecy and the Forêt de Bride. Here was a battle that is today little known, yet was awesome in its scale and character.
General Noel de Castelnau

Behind this killing ground lay the hamlet of Fontaine Saint-Barbe. This became a casualty-clearing station for the French, though the medical facilities were overwhelmed.
On the night of the 20th, Castelnau, who was furious with his subordinates, ordered a full retreat, fifteen miles back inside France to the Meurthe river and the heights known as the Grand Couronné of Nancy, which protected that city.

Joffre had repeatedly told the commanders of his right flanks that their job was to tie down the maximum German forces, rather than to win the war, which would be contrived by his centre, and further north toward the Ardennes. If this was so, it is extraordinary that he accepted such huge losses in pursuit of secondary objectives. Yet during those early days, the French disaster at Morhange was matched elsewhere. The slaughter in Alsace-Lorraine represented only one part of Joffre’s disastrous achievement. Even as it unfolded, elsewhere along the front other French armies were suffering still bloodier fates in piecemeal encounters with the Germans. The most northerly, Gen. Charles Lanrezac’s Fifth, was a quarter of a million men strong. They advanced into Belgium, up the Meuse past Sedan and Mezières as far as Dinant, before meeting the Germans. One of the regiments collapsing into exhausted sleep on the streets of Dinant on the night of 14 August, contained a certain Lt. Charles de Gaulle.  

A stream of reports were reaching Joffre - from French airmen and from intelligence officers - that large forces of Germans were crossing the front northwards, towards his left flank. The Belgians also described enemy masses crossing their country in long, grey-green columns. This merely led Joffre to the conclusion that since Moltke’s forces – whose overall numbers he much underestimated – were so strong on both flanks, they must be weak in the centre. Instead of focusing on the northern threat, the commander-in-chief pressed France’s own, supposedly decisive, thrust into Luxembourg and southern Belgium through the Ardennes. On 21 August he gave the order – among the most fateful in French history – for nine corps of Third and Fourth Armies to attack between Charleroi and Verdun, while the Fifth did likewise on the Sambre.

Thus, they unleashed a series of murderous – and, on the French side, disastrously ill-coordinated – encounter battles across a sixty-mile front. The fighting on this one day, the 22nd, cost the French army 27,000 men killed, in addition to wounded and prisoners in proportion. This was a much larger loss than the British suffered on 1 July 1916, first day of the battle of Somme, which is often wrongly cited as the First World War’s high blood mark.

Ruffey’s third army pulled back across the Meuse on 26th August and began slowly to retreat on the entrenched camp of Verdun. After the French retreated, the Germans conducted another orgy of violence against civilians, murdering 122 people in Rossignol on 26 August.

Langle’s fourth army had a more troubled retreat, as it had further to trouble and was continuously engaged with Wurtenburg’s Fourth Army. On the 25th, after the failure of its Ardennes offensive it was still east of the Meuse, between Mezieres and Montmady.  Langle was gradually able to pull back towards Paris, so that by 29th August he was on a line Buzancy-Rethel, and next day he was crossing the Aisne. By early September, the French 4th Army was astride the upper Marne, among the Champagne wolds, just south of Joffre’s old HQ at Vitry-le Francois.

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