The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 140th installment in the series.
August 20-25, 1914: Charleroi and Mons
After the inconclusive opening engagements of the Battle of the Frontiers earlier in the month, from August 21 to 23, 1914, the Allied armies of France and Britain ran headlong into reality at the Battles of Charleroi and Mons. These linked battles, sometimes referred to as a single engagement, showed beyond doubt that French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre, had seriously underestimated the size of the German forces invading northern France via Belgium, forcing him to make drastic revisions to his strategy. In the months to come, Allied troops would be locked in one long, desperate defensive struggle.
Battle of Charleroi
Following the failed offensive of the French First and Second Armies in the south, on August 20, Joffre ordered the Third Army under General Pierre Ruffey and Fourth Army under General Fernand de Langle de Cary to cross the Belgian frontier into the Ardennes region, where he expected them to find a weak spot in the center of the German line. Meanwhile, Fifth Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, would cross into Belgium near Maubeuge to attack the Germans on their western flank.
However, Joffre was sorely mistaken about German strength and dispositions. For one thing, the Germans were using reserve troops in their attack, and thus the French and British were badly outnumbered all along the line. The five German armies moving through Belgium had a combined strength of just over 1.1 million men, including 320,000 in First Army, 260,000 in Second Army, 180,000 in Third Army, 180,000 in Fourth Army, and 200,000 in Fifth Army. Opposing them were three French armies and the British Expeditionary Force forming near Maubeuge; the French Third Army numbered 237,000 men, the Fourth Army 160,000, and the Fifth Army 299,000, while the BEF at this early stage had just 80,000 men, for a total of around 776,000 men in the Allied armies in this theatre.
In short, the German center—composed of Third Army under General Max von Hausen, Fourth Army under General Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, and Fifth Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm, son of Kaiser Wilhelm II—was actually quite strong. Furthermore, the German right wing, composed of the German First Army under General Alexander von Kluck and the Second Army under General Karl von Bülow, was operating much further west than assumed in Joffre’s plan, meaning Lanrezac’s Fifth Army was in danger of being outflanked itself (see map below).
Thus, while Ruffey and Langle de Cary led the French Third and Fourth Armies into southeast Belgium, Lanrezac’s Fifth Army proceeded more cautiously, reflecting his skepticism about Joffre’s estimates of German forces. Writing off the fortress city of Namur as a lost cause, on August 22, Lanrezac tried to force the German Second Army under Bülow back across the Sambre River at Charleroi—but Bülow beat him to the punch, launching a preemptive attack and seizing two bridges across the Sambre. Wave after wave of German infantry gradually drove the French back from their positions along the Sambre amid incredibly fierce fighting, with bayonet charges and counter-charges often ending in hand-to-hand combat. Paul Drumont related an account by another soldier who fought at Charleroi:
We knew we were bound to be slaughtered… but in spite of that we rushed into the firing line like madmen, just hurled ourselves at the Germans to bayonet them, and when the bayonets broke from the violence of the shock we bit them, anywhere we could, tore out their eyes with our fingers, and kicked their legs to make them fall down. We were absolutely drunk with rage, and yet we knew that we were going to certain death.
The situation worsened on August 23, as the French center began to fall back and Lanrezac begged Joffre to allow Fifth Army to retreat before it was destroyed. He also asked for support from the British Expeditionary Force, which arrived west of Fifth Army on the evening of August 22, in the hopes that the British might be able to attack the German Second Army on its right flank (below, British troops wait to go into battle).
Battle of Mons
However, the BEF under Sir John French had its own problems to deal with, in the form of the German First Army under von Kluck, advancing south after occupying Brussels on August 20. Given the crushing German superiority in numbers, there was no doubt that the Allied forces would have to retreat eventually; the only question was how long they could delay the German advance. In this situation, the best the BEF could do was dig in and protect the left flank of Lanrezac’s Fifth Army from the German First Army while Lanrezac tried to hold off the German Second and Third Armies on the right.
The British troops entrenched themselves behind a canal running west from Mons to nearby Condé, which the Germans would have to cross in a frontal assault. At dawn on the morning of August 23, the Germans opened battle with an artillery bombardment, followed by the first German infantry attacks at 9am, focusing on the key bridge across the canal. Once again, the Germans advanced in dense, orderly formations, making incredibly easy targets for the professional soldiers of the BEF, who could fire their rifles 15 times per minute. This led the Germans to believe the British were firing machine guns (in fact, the BEF was woefully underequipped with the new weapons).
One British officer, Arthur Corbett-Smith, described the carnage: “Miss? It’s impossible to miss… It is just slaughter. The oncoming ranks simply melt away… The attack still comes on. Though hundreds, thousands of the grey coats are mown down, as many more crowd forward to refill the ranks.” On the other side a German officer, Walter Bloem, recalled the advance towards the canal: “We had no sooner left the edge of the wood than a volley of bullets whistled past our noses and cracked into the trees behind. Five or six cries near me, five or six of my grey lads collapsed on the grass. Damn it!... Here we were, advancing as if on parade ground…” Later, Bloem’s unit wisely dispensed with the parade ground tactics:
And so we went on, gradually working forward by rushes of a hundred, later fifty, and then about thirty yards towards the invisible enemy. At every rush a few more fell, but one could do nothing for them... Behind us the whole meadow was dotted with little grey heaps. The hundred and sixty men that left the wood with me had shrunk to less than a hundred… Wherever I looked, right or left, were dead or wounded, quivering in convulsions, groaning terribly, blood oozing from fresh wounds… The bullets hummed about me like a swarm of angry hornets. I felt death, my own death, very, very near me; and yet it was all so strangely unreal.
Despite horrendous casualties, by the evening of August 23, the Germans had reached the canal and forced a crossing in several places, pushing British troops back from an exposed salient created by a curve in the canal. The British were suffering very heavy casualties themselves, including direct hits by German artillery, resulting in gruesome scenes like the one recorded by Corporal Bernard John Denore:
One man was in a very bad way, and kept shrieking out for somebody to bring a razor and cut his throat, and two others died almost immediately. I was going to move a bundle of hay when someone called out, "Look out, chum. There's a bloke in there." I saw a leg completely severed from its body, and suddenly felt very sick and tired. The German rifle-fire started again and an artillery-man to whom I was talking was shot dead. I was sick then.
Worse news arrived in the early morning of August 24, when, at around 2am, Sir John French learned that the French Fifth Army under Lanrezac was retreating south, with apparently no warning to the British, leaving the British right flank exposed to attack by the German Second Army.
Disaster in Lorraine and the Ardennes
The French retreat was the result of a chain reaction of events that began further east, where the French First and Second Armies were tossed out of Lorraine by the German Sixth and Seventh Armies, then cascaded to the Ardennes region of Belgium, where the French Third and Fourth Armies were mauled by the German Fourth and Fifth Armies.
Joffre had ordered the First Army under Dubail and Second Army under Castelnau to invade Lorraine on August 14, heading for the towns of Sarrebourg and Morhange, while the newly formed Army of Alsace under Pau advanced on Mulhouse to the south. However by August 19 the French invasion was beginning to stall and a dangerous gap had opened between the French First and Second Armies. On the other side Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the commander of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies, received permission (sort of) to mount a counterattack—a major departure from the Schlieffen Plan, which called for Germany’s southern forces to stage a fighting retreat in order to lure the French armies away from the line of fortresses protecting the Franco-German frontier.
On August 20, Castelnau’s Second Army attempted to resume the attack on Morhange, only to find their infantry subjected to a ferocious bombardment by German artillery, followed by a sweeping counterattack by the Bavarian infantry of the German Sixth Army. Meanwhile, Dubail’s First Army came under attack by the German Seventh Army at Sarrebourg, and by the end of the day both armies were in retreat. To the south Joffre also ordered the small Army of Alsace to retreat, even though it wasn’t threatened immediately (it faced only Army Detachment Gaede, a smaller force created by the German high command to guard the frontier) because he needed the troops for his northern offensive in the Ardennes.
Even after the French First and Second Armies began their retreat from Lorraine, Joffre was still intent on a thrust into southeast Belgium, because (as noted above) he believed there were only light forces holding the center of the German line. His sole concession to reality—detaching some forces from Third Army to create a new Army of Lorraine to guard against the German offensive in the south—just ended up weakening Third Army more.
On August 21, 1914, the French Third Army under Pierre Ruffey and the Fourth Army under Fernand de Langle de Cary began their invasion of the Ardennes region of southeast Belgium, encountering little resistance during the first day of the advance—but on the second day they ran smack into the German Fourth Army under Duke Albrecht of Württemberg and the Fifth Army under Crown Prince Wilhelm. The result was catastrophe, as the French armies—well equipped with 75mm field artillery, but sorely lacking in heavy guns—simply wilted under savage bombardment by German 150mm and 210mm guns, as well as 77mm field artillery, machine guns, and massed rifle fire.
August 22, 1914, would be remembered as the bloodiest day in French history, with 27,000 French soldiers killed and countless wounded. One anonymous French soldier, fighting in the south, later wrote home: “In regard to our losses, I may tell you that whole divisions have been wiped out. Certain regiments have not an officer left.” As at Charleroi, over the next few days fighting often ended in savage hand-to-hand combat. A German soldier, Julius Koettgen, described the fighting near Sedan in northern France:
Nobody can tell afterwards how many he has killed. You have gripped your opponent, who is sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger than yourself. In the light of the burning houses you observe that the white of his eyes has turned red; his mouth is covered with a thick froth. With head uncovered, with disheveled hair, the uniform unbuttoned and mostly ragged, you stab, hew, scratch, bite, and strike about you like a wild animal… Onward! onward! new enemies are coming up… Again you use your dagger. Thank heaven! He is down. Saved! Still, you must have that dagger back! You pull it out of his chest. A jet of warm blood rushes out of the gaping wound and strikes your face. Human blood, warm human blood! You shake yourself, horror strikes you for only a few seconds. The next one approaches; again you have to defend your skin. Again and again the mad murdering is repeated, all night long…
The Germans also suffered heavy casualties at the hands of retreating French troops, who fought fierce rearguard actions: Altogether, around 15,000 German soldiers were killed in the Battle of Ardennes, while 23,000 were wounded. Another German soldier, Dominik Richert, recalled the struggle to seize a bridge over the River Meurthe in eastern France:
Almost as soon as the first line showed itself at the edge of the woods, the French infantry opened sweeping rapid fire. The French artillery shelled the woods with shells and shrapnel… We ran like mad from place to place. Quite close to me a soldier had his arm torn off while another one had half of his throat cut open. He collapsed, gurgled once or twice, and then the blood shot from his mouth… As we moved further forward we all headed for the bridge, and the French poured down a hail of shrapnel, infantry, and machine-gun fire on it. Masses of the attackers were hit and fell to the ground.
The Great Retreat Begins
As the German offensive ground relentlessly forward, on August 23, the French Third and Fourth Armies under Ruffey and Langle de Cary had no choice but to retreat or be annihilated. The withdrawal of Fourth Army left the right flank of Lanrezac’s Fifth Army, still fighting Bülow’s Second Army at Charleroi, exposed to the German Third Army under Hausen, which attacked the Fifth Army’s I Corps under Franchet d’Esperey (later nicknamed “Desperate Frankie” by the British) along the River Meuse. D’Esperey managed to fight off the first German attack, but Lanrezac judged the situation untenable and gave the order for a fighting retreat.
The Fifth Army’s retreat would be a bone of contention between the French and British for years to come, as the French apparently fell back without giving any warning to their allies, leaving the right flank of the BEF exposed in turn. While it’s still not clear what happened, it’s certain that in the heat of battle confusion reigned and communication broke down, resulting in bad blood between the Allied commanders. Corbett-Smith account reflects the views of mid-ranking British officers even years afterwards: “Any record of feelings during those hours is blurred. But there was one thought which, I know, was uppermost in every man’s mind: ‘Where on earth are the French?’”
Whatever the reason for the French retreat, it left the British commander, Sir John French, no choice but to begin withdrawing as well. Now began one of the most dramatic episodes of the First World War, the Great Retreat, which saw all the French armies and the British Expeditionary Force falling back before advancing German forces, fighting a series of desperate rearguard actions, seeking to delay the enemy as much as possible in order to give the Allied generals time and space to regroup and formulate a new, defensive strategy. At Joffre’s headquarters there was no longer any thought of mounting a glorious offensive; now the only object was to survive.
Ordinary British and French soldiers would remember the Great Retreat—with its endless forced marches under the blazing late August sun, sometimes in the rain, often with no food and no water, and no forage for horses—as one of the most physically trying parts of the war. One British soldier, Joe Cassells, described the retreat from Mons:
Of that fearful time, I have lost track of dates. I do not want to remember them. All I recollect is that, under a blazing August sun – our mouths caked, our tongues parched – day after day we dragged ourselves along, always fighting rear-guard actions, our feet bleeding, our backs breaking, our hearts sore. Our unmounted officers limped amongst us, blood oozing through their spats.
Another anonymous British soldier recalled a welcome interlude courtesy of Mother Nature:
The men had marched for the last three days almost incessantly, and without sufficient sleep… Dirty from digging, with a four days’ growth of beard, bathed in sweat, eyes half closed with want of sleep, ‘packs’ missing, lurching with the drunken torpor of fatigue… Then the heavens were kind, and it rained; they turned faces to the clouds and let the drops fall on their features, unshaven, glazed with the sun, and clammy with sweat. They took off their hats and extended the palms of their hands. It was refreshing, invigorating, a tonic.
If there was any consolation, it was that the journey was equally exhausting for the pursuing German troops, urged on by officers to keep pace with the strict timetable dictated by the Schlieffen Plan, whose success hinged on not giving the French and British time to regroup. The scene described by Bloem, a captain in the German First Army, is strikingly similar to the picture painted in British memoirs:
We were all tired to death, and the column just trailed along anyhow. I sat on my war-horse like a bundle of wet washing; no clear thought penetrated my addled brain, only memories of the past two appalling days, a mass of mental pictures insanely tangled together that revolved eternally inside it… the only impressions that remained in our dizzy brains were of streams of blood, of pale-faced corpses, of confused chaos, of aimless firing, of houses in smoke and flame, of ruins, of sopping clothes, of feverish thirst, and of limbs exhausted, heavy as lead.
The Burning of Louvain
As the French and British armies fell back, on August 24 and 25, the small Belgian Army under King Albert tried to distract the Germans with a daring raid from the fortified “National Redoubt” at Antwerp in the direction of Louvain (Leuven). But unfortunately, the raid accomplished little besides setting off panic among German occupation troops who then committed one of the most infamous atrocities of the war—the burning of Louvain.
German atrocities had already claimed the lives of thousands of Belgian civilians, who were shot in mass reprisals for supposed guerrilla warfare by “france-tireurs,” which turned out to be mostly figments of the German soldiers’ imagination. In this case, as Belgian forces approached Louvain, German soldiers marching through the city claimed that Belgian civil guardsmen dressed as civilians shot at them from the rooftops. Although this was highly improbable, it triggered an orgy of murder, looting, and arson that lasted five days, completely gutting the city (image below).
Hugh Gibson, the secretary of the U.S. embassy in Brussels, visited Louvain’s main street towards the end of the destruction:
The houses on both sides were either partially destroyed or smouldering. Soldiers were systematically removing what was to be found in the way of valuables, food, and wine, and then setting fire to the furniture and hangings. It was all most businesslike… Outside the [train] station was a crowd of several hundred people, mostly women and children, being herded on to trains by soldiers, to be run out of town.
The casualties included the city’s medieval library, which contained 300,000 priceless manuscripts, and was torched along with the rest of the city (photo showing the remains of the library below). In addition to the inestimable cultural loss, this was also a huge, self-inflicted propaganda defeat for Germany. Indeed, while the Germans committed hundreds of atrocities across Belgium, killing a total 5,521 Belgian civilians, the burning of the library at Louvain would stand out, along with the destruction of the cathedral of Rheims, as the crowning symbols of German barbarity, helping turn opinion in the United States and other neutral countries against the Germans.
Battles of Kraśnik and Gumbinnen
As the British and French fell back on the Western Front, the last week of August also saw the first major battles on the Eastern Front, as Russian and Austro-Hungarian forces clashed at the Battle of Kraśnik. While a victory for Austria-Hungary, Kraśnik was just the first in a series of huge battles in August and September that would ultimately see Hapsburg forces sent reeling back into Austria, forcing chief of the general staff Conrad to plead with his German colleagues for help.
Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, the German Eighth Army under Maximilian von Prittwitz faced encirclement by the Russian First Army under Paul von Rennenkampf and Second Army under Alexander Samsonov, advancing into East Prussia from the east and south in pincer fashion. The first serious German attempt to stop the Russians met with defeat at the Battle of Gumbinnen on August 20, prompting Prittwitz to order a hasty retreat to the River Vistula in order to avoid encirclement.
However, the German high command wasn’t willing to accept the loss of East Prussia so easily, and on August 22 Prittwitz was relieved of command, to be replaced by Paul von Hindenburg, an older officer called out of retirement, advised by Erich Ludendorff, the hero of Liège. The German high command also withdrew three army corps from the Western Front, although Ludendorff insisted he didn’t need them—further weakening the all-important thrust through Belgium.
Meanwhile, Prittwitz’s chief of staff, Max Hoffman, was already drawing up a daring plan, for which Hindenburg and Ludendorff later received the credit: the Eighth Army would use the East Prussian railroads to shift troops south against the invading Russian First Army, relying on East Prussia’s network of lakes and forests as a baffle to keep the Russian Second Army from coming to its rescue (map below).
With any luck, Eighth Army would not only be able to avoid encirclement but then defeat the Russian armies “in detail” (one at a time) without ever having to face their combined strength. On August 23 the first German troops, from the I Corps under Hermann von François, began the rail journey to the south, setting the stage for the Battle of Tannenberg.