The first month of the campaign began with successes and finished with defeats for the French troops. Under what circumstances did these come about? Our plan of concentration had foreseen the possibility of two principal actions, one on the right between the Vosges and the Moselle, the other on the left to the north of Verdun-Toul line, this double possibility involving the eventual variation of our transport. On August 2nd, owing to the Germans passing through Belgium, our concentration was substantially modified by Marshal Joffre in order that our principal effort might be directed to the north.
From the first week in August it was apparent that the length of time required for the British army to begin to move would delay our action in connection with it. This delay is one of the reasons which explain our failures at the end of August.
Awaiting the moment when the operations in the north could begin, and to prepare for it by retaining in Alsace the greatest possible number of German forces, the Commander-in-Chief ordered our troops to occupy Mulhouse, to cut the bridges of the Rhine at Huningue and below, and then to flank the attack of our troops, operating in Lorraine.
The purpose of the operations in Alsace was to retain a large part of the enemy's force far from the northern theater of operations. Our offensive in Lorraine was to pursue the same purpose still more directly by holding before it the German army corps operating to the south of Metz.
This offensive began brilliantly on August 14th. On the 19th we had reached the region of Saarburg and that of the Etangs (lakes), and we held Dieuze, Morhange, Delme and Chateau Salins.
On the 20th our success was stopped. The cause is to be found in the strong organization of the region, in the power of the enemy's artillery, operating over ground which had been minutely surveyed, and, finally, in the default of certain units.
On the 22nd, in spite of the splendid behavior of several of our army corps, notably that of Nancy, our troops were brought back on the Grand Couronné, while on the 23rd and 24th the Germans concentrated re-enforcements -- three army corps, at least -- in the region of Luneville and forced us to retire to the south.
This retreat, however, was only momentary. On the 25th, after two vigorous counter-attacks, one from south to north and the other from west to east the enemy had to fall back. From that time a sort of balance was established on this terrain between the Germans and ourselves. Maintained for fifteen days, it was afterward, as will be seen, modified to our advantage.
There remained the principal business, the battle of the north -- postponed owing to the necessity of waiting for the British army. On August 20th the concentration of our lines was finished and the Commander-in-Chief gave orders for our center and our left to take the offensive. Our center comprised two armies. Our left consisted of a third army, re-enforced to the extent of two army corps, a corps of cavalry, the reserve divisions, the British army, and the Belgian army, which had already been engaged for the previous three weeks at Liege, Namur and Louvain.
The German plan on that date was as follows: From seven to eight army corps and four cavalry divisions were endeavoring to pass between Givet and Brussels, and even to prolong their movements more to the west. Our object was, therefore, in the first place, to hold and dispose of the enemy's center and afterward to throw ourselves with all available forces on the left flank of the German grouping of troops in the north.
On August 21st our offensive in the center began with ten army corps. On August 22nd it failed, and this reverse appeared serious.
The reasons for it are complex. There we re in this affair individual and collective failures, imprudences committed under the fire of the enemy, divisions ill engaged, rash deployments, precipitate retreats, a premature waste of men and, finally, the inadequacy of certain of our troops and their leaders, both as regards the use of infantry and artillery.
In consequences of these lapses the enemy, turning to account the difficult terrain, was able to secure the maximum of profit from the advantages which the superiority of his subaltern complements gave him.
In spite of this defeat our maneuver had still a chance of success, if our left and the British army obtained a decisive result. This was unfortunately not the case. On August 22nd, at the cost of great losses, the enemy succeeded in crossing the Sambre and our left army fell back on the 24th upon Beaumont-Givet, being perturbed by the belief that the enemy was threatening its right.
On the same day (the 24th), the British army fell back after a German attack upon the Maubeuge-Valenciennes line. On the 25th and 26th its retreat became more hurried. After Landrecies and Le Cateau it fell back southward by forced marches. It could not from this time keep its hold until after crossing the Marne.
The rapid retreat of the English, coinciding with the defeat sustained in Belgian Luxemburg (at the Sambre), allowed the enemy to cross the Meuse and to accelerate, by fortifying it, the action of his right
The situation at this moment may be thus summed up: Either our frontier had to be defended on the spot under conditions which the British retreat rendered extremely perilous, or we had to execute a strategic retirement which, while delivering up to the enemy a part of the national soil, would permit us, on the other hand, to resume the offensive at our own time with a favorable disposition of troops, still intact, which we had at our command. The Commander-in-Chief determined on the second alternative.
Henceforward the French command devoted it efforts to preparing the offensive. To this end three conditions had to be fulfilled:
1. The retreat had to be carried out in order under a succession of counter-attacks which would keep the enemy busy.The counter-attacks, executed during the retreat, were brilliant and often fruitful. On August 26th we successfully attacked St. Quentin to disengage the British army. Two other corps and a reserve division engaged the Prussian Guard and the Tenth German Army Corps, which was debouching from Guise. By the end of the day, after various fluctuations. the enemy was thrown back on the Oise and the British front was freed.
2. The extreme point of this retreat must be fixed in such a way that the different armies should reach it simultaneously, ready at the moment of occupying it to resume the offensive all together.
3. Every circumstance permitting of a resumption of the offensive before this point should be reached must be utilized by the whole of our forces and the British forces.
On August 27 th we also succeeded in throwing back upon the Meuse the enemy, who was endeavoring to gain a foothold on the left bank. Our successes continued on the 28th in the woods of Marfee and of Jaulnay. Thanks to them we were able, in accordance with the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, to fall back on the Buzancy-LeChesne-Bouvellemont line.
Further to the right another army took part in the same movement and carried out successful attacks on August 25th on the Othian and in the region of Spincourt. On the 26th these different units recrossed the Meuse without being disturbed and were able to join in the action of our center. Our armies were, therefore, again intact and available for the offensive.
On August 26th a new army composed of two army corps, five reserve divisions, and a Moorish brigade was constituted. This army was to assemble in the region of Amiens between August 27th and September 1st and take the offensive against the German right, uniting its action with that of the British army, operating on the line of Ham-Bray-sur-Somme
The hope of resuming the offensive was at this moment rendered vain by the rapidity of the march of the German right wing. This rapidity had two consequences, which we had to parry before thinking of advancing. On the one hand, our new army had not time to complete its detraining, and, on the other; hand, the British army, forced back farther by the enemy, uncovered on August 31st our left flank. Our line, thus modified, contained waves which had to be redressed before we could pass to the offensive.
To understand this it is sufficient to consider the situation created by the quick advance of the enemy on the evening of September 2nd.
A corps of cavalry had crossed the Oise and advanced as far as Chateau-Thierry. The First German army (General von Kluck), comprising four active army corps and a reserve corps, had passed Compeigne.
The Second German army (General von Bulow), with three active army corps and two reserve corps, was reaching the Laon region.
The Third German army (General von Hausen), with two active army corps and a reserve corps, had crossed the Aisne between the Chateau Porcien and Attigny.
More to the east, the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh German armies, namely twelve army corps, four reserve corps, and numerous Ersatz formations, were in contact with our troops, the Fourth and Fifth Armies between Vouziers and Verdun and the others in the positions which have been indicated above, from Verdun to the Vosges.
It will, therefore, be seen that our left, if we accepted battle, might be in great peril through the British forces and the new French army, operating more to the westward, having given way.
A defeat in these conditions would have cut off our armies from Paris and from the British forces and at the same time from the new army which had been constituted to the left of the English. We should thus be running the risk of losing by a single stroke the advantage of the assistance which Russia later on was to furnish.
General Joffre chose resolutely for the solution which disposed of these risks, that is to say, for postponing the offensive and the continuance of the retreat. In this way he remained on the ground which he had chosen. He waited only until he could engage in better conditions.
In consequence, on September 1st, he fixed as an extreme limit for the movement of retreat, which was still going on, the line of Bray-sur-Seine, Nogent-sur-Seine, Arcis-sur-Aube, Vitry-le-François, and the region to the north of Bar-le-Duc. This line might be reached if the troops were compelled to go back so far. They would attack before reaching it, as soon as there was a possibility of bringing about an offensive disposition, permitting the cooperation of the whole of our forces.
On September 5th it appeared that this desired situation existed.
The first German army, carrying audacity to temerity, had continued its endeavor to envelop our left, had crossed the Grand Morin, and reached the region of Chaugry, to the south of Rebaix and of Eternay. It aimed then at cutting our armies off from Paris, in order to begin the investment of the capital.
The Second German army had its head on the line Champaubert, Etoges, Bergeres and Vertus.
The Third and Fourth German armies reached to Chalons-sur-Marne and Bussy-le-Repos. The Fifth German army was advancing on one side and the other from the Argonne as far as Triacourt-les-Islettes and Juivecourt. The Sixth and Seventh German armies were attacking more to the east.
But -- and here is a capital difference between the situation of September 5th and that of September 2nd -- the envelopment of our left was no longer possible.
In the first place, our left army had been able to occupy the line of Sezanne, Viller St. Georges and Courchamps. Furthermore, the British forces, gathered between the Seine and the Marne, flanked on their left by the newly created army, were closely connected with the rest of our forces.
This was precisely the disposition which the Commander-in-Chief had wished to see achieved. On the 4th he decided to take advantage of it, and ordered all the armies to hold themselves ready. He had taken from his right two new army corps, two divisions of infantry, and two divisions of cavalry, which were distributed between his left and his center.
On the evening of the 5th he addressed to all the commanders of armies a message ordering them to attack.
"The hour has come," he wrote, "to advance at all costs and to die where you stand rather than give way.
Return to World War I Document Archive