Sunday, 23 November 2014

Battle of the Frontiers (3) - Overwhelmed in the North West.

The prevailing image of war on the Western Front as one of entrenched stalemate, set piece artillery barrages and periodic massacres of troops as at Somme, Ypres, Verdun does not apply to the first three months (apart from huge casualties). Even the role of cavalry - made overall redundant by WW1 - was crucial at many points of these early phases. Another look at the Schlieffen plan shows the large distances the German army was expected to cover in just a few weeks.  
Schlieffen Plan (Red) and Plan XVII (Blue)
This applied particularly to the German right wing, comprising 1st Army (Gen. von Kluck) and 2nd Army (Gen. von Bulow). Their steamroller advance through Belgium and northern France was responsible for most of the vandalism and atrocities towards Belgium that so enraged the world. The map also shows Joffre's more direct approach of Plan XVII. His confidence that the decisive actions would take place through these central thrusts, meant the the allied left flanks were relatively weak, whereas the invading German right wing was strong - a dangerous mismatch. Hence Mons, Le Cateau and the Great Retreat to the Marne


The French Left in the North and the link with BEF
The most critical part of the build up to the Battle of the Marne occurred on this French left. Its 5th Army, commanded by Lanrezac, was entrusted with holding its ground, and to make the difficult and incomplete link up with the BEF, gradually arriving from the Channel ports, and required to extend and strengthen its left wing.

It is an enduring British conceit that the First World War began in earnest only on 23 August, when the ‘Old Contemptibles’ of the BEF drubbed the Kaiser’s hosts at Mons, thus saving England by their exertions and Europe by their example. In truth, of course, the French army had been engaged in murderous strife for almost three weeks before the first of the King-Emperor’s soldiers fired a shot in anger; Serbia, Poland and East Prussia were already steeped in blood.” (Hastings)

During this time the repeated tactical retreats from the Sambre, which Lanrezac ordered on his own initiative enraged Joffre (and from the British viewpoint made the link up of forces more difficult). However, they saved the Fifth Army from even greater losses, and alllowed them to recover for decisive action at the Marne, which would be under a different commander. More immediately, Lanrezac’s handling of his forces denied the Germans the decisive clash in the north they were impatient to bring about.
General Charles Lanrezac
They nearly achieved it on 21 August, when von B├╝low’s formations trapped 5th Army near Charleroi, routed it, and prompted further retreat. Between 20 - 23 August, 40,000 French soldiers died in this action alone.

On 25 August Joffre’s forces brought some relief to Lanrezac by launching a counter-attack further south between Tour and Epinal, a difficult country of steep hills and rivers. In what became known as the Battle of the Mortagne, some 225,000 French soldiers clashed with 300,000 of Prince Rupprecht’s Bavarian army. Fighting exhausted itself to a draw on 28 August, but the Bavarians had been hit hard for small advantage – one historian estimates that they suffered 66,000 casualties in Alsace-Lorraine.

Overall, by 29 August, total French casualties since the war began reached 260,000, including 75,000 dead. The Third and Fourth Armies in the Ardennes had suffered worst – of the Third’s 80,000 infantrymen, 13,000 had fallen.


By the evening of 23 August, the ‘Battles of the Frontiers’ were effectively over. They would remain the entire war’s bloodiest daily clashes of arms, and signalled the first full involvement of the BEF at Mons, followed by the Great Retreat.

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