Primary Documents - French Review of the War - The Battle of the Frontiers and the Retreat to the Marne, Aug-Sep 1914
Reproduced below is the text of the official French Review of the War encompassing the August/September 1914 Battle of the Frontiers and Retreat to the Marne.
Written by former French Army Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre, it explains the early French defeats of the first month of the war and explains how French forces were well-positioned to win the First Battle of the Marne in early September 1914.
Official French Review of
the Campaign in France
The Battle of the Frontiers and the Retreat to the Marne
by Joseph Joffre, French Commander-in-Chief
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 General 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 forces far from the northern theatre 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 behaviour of several of our army corps, notably that of Nancy, our troops were brought back on the Grand Couronne, while on the 23rd and 24th the Germans concentrated reinforcements - 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 General in Chief gave orders for our centre and our left to take the offensive.
Our centre comprised two armies. Our left consisted of a third army, reinforced 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 endeavouring 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 centre 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 centre began with ten army corps. On August 22nd it failed, and this reverse appeared serious.
The reasons for it are complex. There were 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 manoeuvre 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 favourable disposition of troops, still intact, which we had at our command.
The General in Chief determined on the second alternative.
Henceforward the French command devoted its 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.
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.
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.
On August 27th we also succeeded in throwing back upon the Meuse the enemy, who was endeavouring 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 General in Chief, to fall back on the Buzancy-Le Chesne-Bouvellemont line.
Further to the right another army took part in the same movement and carried out successful attacks on August 25th on the Othain and in the region of Spincourt.
On the 26th these different units re-crossed the Meuse without being disturbed and were able to join in the action of our centre. 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 further 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 Army (General von Kluck), comprising four active army corps and a reserve corps, had passed Compiegne.
The Second Army (General von Bulow), with three active army corps and two reserve corps, was reaching the Laon region.
The Third 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 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 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-Francois, 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 all 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 endeavour to envelop our left, had crossed the Grand Morin, and reached the region of Chauffry, to the south of Rebaix and of Esternay. It aimed then at cutting our armies off from Paris, in order to begin the investment of the capital.
The Second Army had its head on the line Champaubert, Etoges, Bergeres, and Vertus.
The Third and Fourth Armies reached to Chalons-sur-Marne and Bussy-le-Repos. The Fifth Army was advancing on one side and the other from the Argonne as far as Triacourt-les-Islettes and Juivecourt. The Sixth and Seventh 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, Villers-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 General 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 centre.
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."
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. II, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
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