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Battle of Lorraine, 14 August-7 September 1914

Battle of Lorraine, 14 August-7 September 1914

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Battle of Lorraine, 14 August-7 September 1914

The Battle of Lorraine, 14 August-7 September 1914 (First World War), began as part of the then current French war plan (Plan XVII). This called for a general offensive across the Franco-German border at the outbreak of war.

There were a variety of good reasons for launching this offensive. First, Alsace-Lorraine had been French territory until 1871, when it was seized by the new German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War. Recapturing Alsace-Lorraine was thus a major French preoccupation. Second, it was believed that the Russians would need more time to mobilise their vast armies than the French or Germans. A French offensive would relieve pressure on the Russians, and win time for the Russian steamroller to win the war. Third, the French were aware that as time went on, they would be increasingly outnumbered by the Germans. An immediate offensive was the best chance of taking advantage of the large French peacetime army.

The French allocated two armies to the offensive in Lorraine – the First Army, under General Auguste Dubail to the south and the Second Army under General Édouard de Castelnau to the north. Between them these armies contained six Corps. To their right was the small Army of Alsace, which had already made one unsuccessful attack into Alsace (Battle of Mulhouse).

They were opposed by two German armies. Dubail faced the German Seventh Army, under General Josias von Heeringen, while Castelnau faced the German Sixth Army under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. These armies contained eight Corps. The French would be outnumbered.

The Germans were following a modified version of the famous Schleiffen Plan. The main German effort was to come further north, and would involve an invasion of neutral Belgium and a great wheeling movement through north east France. If all went well part of the German army would pass west of Paris, but even if that was not achieved, it was hoped that the great wheeling movement would envelop the main French armies, trapping them against the German border and forcing their surrender. As part of this plan, the German armies in Alsace-Lorraine were to retreat east, allowing the French to advance into Alsace-Lorraine. Every mile the French armies moved east would make it harder for them to intervene in the crucial battle happening to the North West.

The French attack began on 14 August. For four days the French advanced without meeting serious German opposition. The two German armies, under the overall command of General Krafft von Delmensigen, maintained contact with the French, but withdrew from any serious confrontation. On 18 August the French VIII Corps captured Sarrebourg.

During the advance a gap had opened up between the two French armies. On the night of 19-20 August, Dubail launched an attack designed to close this gap. The French attack ran head on into a full German counterattack. This was the second part of the German trap, and was intended to pin the French armies in place. At this point the Battle of Lorraine became part of the Battle of the Frontiers of France.

The German counterattack overwhelmed the Second Army. After the fighting on 20 August, the majority of the army was forced to pull back to the River Meurthe, its starting point six days earlier. Only the XX Corps, under General Ferdinand Foch, held its ground (Battle of Morhange). The retreat of the Second Army forced the First Army to pull back to the same line.

In the original German plan, that would have marked the end of the battle. The French would have been pinned in place on the Meurthe, unable to move many troops to the crucial northern front. Instead, Prince Rupprecht and General Heeringen convinced von Moltke to let then launch a series of counter attacks on the French lines. These began on 25 August and continued through the first week of September. They did not have the expected results. The French lines held. The fighting on the Alsace-Lorraine front became increasingly static during this period. This allowed General Joffre to move some troops from this area back towards Paris and the Marne. Amongst the men moved west was Ferdinand Foch, promoted to command a new Ninth Army, which would play a significant role in the battle of the Marne.

Books on the First World War |Subject Index: First World War

  • General Joseph Joffre
  • Field Marshal Sir John French
  • King Albert I
  • 1,437,000 men

With the beginning of World War I, the armies of Europe began mobilizing and moving towards the front according to highly detailed timetables. In Germany, the army prepared to implement a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan. Created by Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905, the plan was a response to Germany's likely need to fight a two-front war against France and Russia. After their easy victory over the French in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, Germany viewed France as less of a concern than its larger neighbor to the east. As a result, Schlieffen elected to mass the bulk of Germany's military might against France with the goal of winning a quick victory before the Russians could fully mobilize their army. With France out of the war, Germany would be free to focus their attention on the east (Map).

Anticipating that France would strike across the border into Alsace and Lorraine, which had been lost during the earlier conflict, the Germans planned to violate the neutrality of Luxembourg and Belgium to attack the French from the north in a massive battle of encirclement. German troops were to hold along the border while the right wing of the army swung through Belgium and past Paris in an effort to destroy the French army. In 1906, the plan was adjusted by Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, who weakened the critical right wing to reinforce Alsace, Lorraine, and the Eastern Front.

Battle of the Marne (1914)

The beginning of World War One was marked the breakdown of the western powers’ war plans. Leaders on both sides experienced surprises, shocks, and the failure of plans. The first few months saw shocking violence on a scale never experienced before, at least not in Western Europe. During the first few months of the war, an average of 15,000 lives were lost each day. (five times as much as the worst day in the Civil War). This happened at the Battle of the Marne, fought from September 6 to 12 in 1914. The Allies won a victory against the German armies in the West and ended their plans of crushing the French armies with an attack from the north through Belgium. Both sides dug in their trenches for the long war ahead.

The beginning of the war was marked the breakdown of the western powers’ war plans. Leaders on both sides experienced surprises, shocks, and the failure of plans. The first few months saw shocking violence on a scale never experienced before, at least not in Western Europe. In Dan Carlin’s words, there were many “haymakers” thrown, and both sides “hit the floor and got back up again.

Lost chance, Battle of Lorraine, 14 – 25 August 1914

Post by Baltasar » 26 Oct 2012, 16:28

War had been declared and the French and German forces were already committed further north. In the souther sector, the Germans planned to lure the French forces into a trap from where they could be attacked from three directions. However, the French, aware of such a danger and the German main body further in the north, fighting it’s way through Belgium, were reluctant to fall for the trap and instead only advanced carefully and with relatively few forces.

(Bavarian) Crown prince Rupprecht, commander of the German 6th army, repeatedly petitioned the German high command to allow an offensive in his sector, together with the German 7th army. Eventually, the German high command gave in and allowed the Bavarian crown prince to attack.

However, what if the German high command instead had shifted forces from the German 6th and 7th armies to support the main thrust, thus not fighting the Battle of Lorraine in the first place? With the French not falling for the bait and with the German forces sitting in prepared defensive positions, the situation would have permitted such a maneuver.

The German 6th army did have 5 corps with two divisions each plus at least two brigades directly attached to army command. The German 7th army did have three corps of two divisions each. The idea would be to start moving two corps from 6th army by 19 August 1914 and have them available on the right wing later on while shifting 7th army area of operation slightly northward to keep the frontline steady between the opposing forces in Lorraine. The two detached corps should’ve been available in the area of the German 1st and 2nd armies by late August or early September 1914, thus strengthening these formations even before the historical battle of the Marne (5 – 12 Sept 1914).

The two corps could’ve been available to the German 1st and / or 2nd army in time for the Battle of Le Cateau (26 August 1914). Here, the Germans could only attack with limited forces because the French were fighting them at the same time. In the end, the BEF II. corps could withdraw in relatively good order. But with an additional four divisions available in the area, this British corps might have been decisively defeated. Without this corps, all other operations would have been decisively affected and potentially ended in a French military defeat if the Germans had managed to turn the flank of the Entente forces here.

Battles - The Battle of Lorraine, 1914

The French invasion of Lorraine formed one of the major objectives of the French pre-war offensive strategy against Germany, Plan XVII A consequence of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia festered in the minds of both French public and military alike, a national humiliation that needed to be addressed during the next war with the Prussians.

Plan XVII therefore made the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine a central plank of French strategy This much was known to Germany before the First World War began, and was consequently factored into the German Schlieffen Plan.

One of the Battles of the Frontiers, the Invasion of Lorraine (also known as the Battle of Morhange-Sarrebourg) began with the French First and Second Armies entering the city on 14 August 1914, despite the failure of General Paul Pau's 8 August offensive at the Battle of Mulhouse, another key target near the Swiss border, with his 'Army of Alsace'.

The French First Army, under General Auguste Dubail, intended to take Sarrebourg, east of Nancy, a strongly defended town, with General Noel de Castelnau's Second Army taking Morhange, similarly fortified The task of defending these towns fell to German Crown Prince Rupprecht, who had overall command of the German Sixth and General Josias von Herringen's Seventh Army.

Rupprecht implemented a strategy of apparently retreating under the force of the French attack, only to bounce back in a fierce, cleverly manoeuvred counter-attack, having lured the French armies into a strong attack upon a heavily defended position As the French armies advanced they encountered increasingly stern German opposition, including treacherous machine gun fire and heavy artillery.

Rupprecht, however, pressed German Army Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke to authorise a more aggressive strategy, under which the Germans would mount a counter-attack, the aim being to drive the French back to Nancy.

With Moltke's agreement the offensive was launched on 20 August, whilst de Castelnau's Second Army battered Morhange Caught by surprise and without the assistance of an entrenched position, Second Army was forced to fall back, eventually into France itself.

This in turn obliged General Dubail to retreat his First Army from Sarrebourg. Despite the German onslaught Ferdinand Foch's XX Corps managed to defend Nancy itself.

Gaps began to appear between the French armies, prompting Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre to withdraw the Army of Alsace - a bitter blow given the latter's recent success in retaking Mulhouse.

Eight days after the French offensive had begun, 22 August, both First and Second Armies were back to the fortress zones of Belfort, Epinal and Toul.

Diverting from the Schlieffen Plan, Rupprecht's forces were reinforced preparatory to an attack against the two French armies through the Trouee des Charmes, a natural gap between Epinal and Toul. However the French, through the successful use of reconnaissance aircraft, were alerted to the German's build-up and so prepared an adequate defence. Attacked therefore on 24 August, German gains were minimal, limited to the acquisition of a small salient into French lines, itself reduced by heavy French counter-attacks on the morning of 25 August.

The French line held Realistically the troops gathered for Rupprecht's offensive - which comprised 26 divisions of men - would have been put to far greater use at the First Battle of the Marne however Rupprecht continued fighting until the end of the month, without success Stalemate and trench warfare ensued.

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On 8 August, French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre issued General Instruction No. 1, ordering a general offensive to open on 14 August. Two armies were to advance into Lorraine and three into the Ardennes forest and southern Belgium. By the time the order was issued, one French force had already crossed the German border. An army corps and a cavalry division under General Louis Bonneau was sent into Alsace on 7 August to take the city of Mulhouse. The Alsatians, supposedly groaning under German rule since 1871, were exepected to rise up against their oppressors. Overcoming light German resistance, Bonneau entered Mulhouse, triggering a fanfare from French propagandists euphorically celebrating the liberation of Alsace.

The Germans quickly ocounterattacked and Bonneau embarrassingly scampered back across the French border, where he became the first of many French generals in the war to be dismissed by Joffre. A hastily organized Army of Alsace retook Mulhouse, but the French effort in Alsace was overtaken by events farther north and soon abandoned.

Attempt on Lorraine

The main French offensive opened in Lorraine on 14 August. The French First and Second Armies crossed the border, advancing with banners and bands playing. The German Sixth and Seventh Armies withdrew, fighting stiff delaying actions in which their machine guns took a heavy toll of the brightly-clad French infantry. The Schlieffen Plan dictated that the Germans should hold prepared defensive positions at Morhange and Sarrebourg, but Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, commanding in Lorraine, obtained permission from the German General Staff to launch a counteroffensive.

Forced back

On 20 August, German infantry moved forward after a concentrated artillery bombardment. Stunned by the power of the German heavy guns, the French Second Army reeled back from Morhange, forcing the First Army back as well. By 23 August, the French troops, much depleted in numbers, had been thrown back to their starting points on the Meurthe River.

By then, the French Third and Fourth Armies were engaged farther north, with similarly disastrous results. They marched into the heavily wooded Ardennes expecting to achieve surprise and find it lightly held. For the Germans, this sector formed the innermost part of their great wheeling movement through Belgium. Their Fourth and Fifth Armies, repsectively commanded by Albrecht, Duke of Wurttemberg and Crown Prince Wilhelm, were advancing in the opposite direction from the French. German reconnaissance aircraft reported the presence of French troops, alerting the Germans to the imminence of battle.

Depending on cavalry for reconnaissance, the French plunged forward, believing that, as Joffre's headquarters informed them, "no serious opposition need be anticipated." On 22 August, the opposing armies collided in morning fog. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. The rapid fire of the French 75mm field guns slaughtered German troops caught on open ground, but the French came off worse. They were too often thrown forward in futile bayonet charges and reluctant to dig trenches, the only effective protection against artillery and machine gun fire. The French 3rd Colonial Division lost 11,000 of its 15,000 men in a day. Despite receiving orders from Joffre to resume their advance in the Ardennes, the French armies fell back in disarray behind the Meuse River.

End of the offensive

By 24 August, the French offensive laid down in Plan XVII had clearly failed. On the attack, French forces had proved naive, launching infantry assaults without artillery support and without adequate reconnaissance. Lack of heavy guns and entrenching equipment had proved fatal defects. Forced on the defensive, however, the French troops fought like tigers. The Germans, in their turn, discovered how difficult it was to assault determinedly held defensive positions. By 26 August, the French had halted their enemy in front of the town of Nancy.

Battle of the Frontiers

The German Army swept through Belgium, executing civilians and razing villages. The application of “collective responsibility” against a civilian population further galvanized the allies, and newspapers condemned the German invasion and the army’s violence against civilians and property, together called the “Rape of Belgium.” After marching through Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Ardennes, the German Army advanced in the latter half of August into northern France, where they met the French Army under Joseph Joffre and the initial six divisions of the British Expeditionary Force under Sir John French. A series of engagements known as the Battle of the Frontiers ensued, which included the Battle of Charleroi and the Battle of Mons. In the former battle the French Fifth Army was almost destroyed by the German 2nd and 3rd Armies and the latter delayed the German advance by a day. A general Allied retreat followed, resulting in more clashes at the Battle of Le Cateau, the Siege of Maubeuge, and the Battle of St. Quentin (also called the First Battle of Guise).

Battles - The Battle of the Frontiers, 1914

The Battle of the Frontiers comprised five offensives launched under French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre and German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke's initiative during the first month of the war, August 1914.

The battles - at Mulhouse, Lorraine, the Ardennes, Charleroi and Mons - were launched more or less simultaneously, and marked the collision of both French and German invasion plans (Plan XVII and the Schlieffen Plan, respectively), each battle impacting the course of others.

Click here to view a map of the Battle of the Frontiers

Battle Date
The Battle of Mulhouse Opened 7 August
The Invasion of Lorraine Opened 14 August
The Battle of the Ardennes Opened 21 August
The Battle of Charleroi Opened 21 August
The Battle of Mons Opened 23 August

Saturday, 22 August, 2009 Michael Duffy

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