Battle of the Ardennes
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Belgian military planning was based on an assumption, that other powers would eject an invader but the likelihood of a German invasion did not lead to France and Britain being seen as allies or for the Belgian government intending to do more than protect its independence. The Anglo-French Entente (1904) had led the Belgians to perceive that the British attitude to Belgium had changed and that it was seen as a British protectorate. A General Staff was formed in 1910 but the Chef d'État-Major Général de l'Armée, Lieutenant-Général Harry Jungbluth, was retired on 30 June 1912 and not replaced until May 1914 by Lieutenant-General Chevalier de Selliers de Moranville who began planning for the concentration of the army and met railway officials on 29 July. Belgian troops were to be massed in central Belgium, in front of the National redoubt of Belgium ready to face any border, while the Fortified Position of Liège and Fortified Position of Namur were left to secure the frontiers. On mobilization, the King became Commander-in-Chief and chose where the army was to concentrate. Amid the disruption of the new rearmament plan the disorganised and poorly trained Belgian soldiers would benefit from a central position to delay contact with an invader but it would also need fortifications for defence, which were on the frontier. A school of thought wanted a return to a frontier deployment in line with French theories of the offensive. Belgian plans became a compromise in which the field army concentrated behind the Gete river with two divisions forward at Liège and Namur.
German strategy had given priority to offensive operations against France and a defensive posture against Russia since 1891. German planning was determined by numerical inferiority, the speed of mobilisation and concentration and the effect of the vast increase of the power of modern weapons. Frontal attacks were expected to be costly and protracted, leading to limited success, particularly after the French and Russians modernised their fortifications on the frontiers with Germany. Alfred von Schlieffen Chief of the Imperial German General Staff (Oberste Heeresleitung "OHL") from 1891–1906 devised a plan to evade the French frontier fortifications, with an offensive on the northern flank which would have a local numerical superiority and obtain rapidly a decisive victory. By 1898–1899 such a manoeuvre was intended to rapidly pass through Belgium, between Antwerp and Namur, and threaten Paris from the north. Helmuth von Moltke the Younger succeeded Schlieffen in 1906 and was less certain that the French would conform to German assumptions. Moltke adapted the deployment and concentration plan, to accommodate an attack in the centre or an enveloping attack from both flanks as variants to the plan, by adding divisions to the left flank opposite the French frontier, from the c. 1,700,000 men expected to be mobilised in the Westheer ("western army"). The main German force would still advance through Belgium and attack southwards into France;the French armies would be enveloped on the left and pressed back over the Meuse, Aisne, Somme, Oise, Marne and Seine, unable to withdraw into central France. The French would either be annihilated or the manoeuvre from the north would create conditions for victory in the centre or in Lorraine on the common border.
Under Plan XVII the French peacetime army was to form five field armies, with groups of Reserve divisions attached, and a group of reserve divisions was to assemble on each flank, c. 2,000,000 men. The armies were to concentrate opposite the German frontier around Épinal, Nancy and Verdun–Mezières, with an army in reserve around Ste. Ménéhould and Commercy. Since 1871 railway building had given the French General staff sixteen lines to the German frontier against thirteen available to the German army, and the French could wait until German intentions were clear. The French deployment was intended to be ready for a German offensive in Lorraine or through Belgium. It was anticipated that the Germans would use reserve troops but also expected that a large German army would be mobilised on the border with Russia, leaving the western army with sufficient troops only to advance through Belgium south of the Meuse and the Sambre rivers. French intelligence had obtained a map exercise of the German general staff of 1905, in which German troops had gone no further than Namur and assumed that plans to besiege Belgian forts were a defensive measure against the Belgian army.
A German attack from south-eastern Belgium towards Mézières and a possible offensive from Lorraine towards Verdun, Nancy and St. Dié was anticipated; the plan was an evolution from Plan XVI and made more provision for the possibility of a German offensive through Belgium. The First, Second and Third armies were to concentrate between Épinal and Verdun opposite Alsace and Lorraine, the Fifth Army was to assemble from Montmédy to Sedan and Mézières and the Fourth Army was to be held back west of Verdun, ready to move east to attack the southern flank of a German invasion through Belgium or southwards against the northern flank of an attack through Lorraine. No formal provision was made for combined operations with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) but joint arrangements had been made and in 1911 during the Second Moroccan Crisis the French had been told that six divisions could be expected to operate around Maubeuge.
Declarations of war
At midnight on 31 July – 1 August, the German government sent an ultimatum to Russia and announced a state of "Kriegsgefahr" during the day; the Turkish government ordered mobilisation and the London Stock Exchange closed. On 1 August the British government ordered the mobilisation of the navy, the German government ordered general mobilisation and declared war on Russia. Hostilities commenced on the Polish frontier, the French government ordered general mobilisation and next day the German government sent an ultimatum to Belgium, demanding passage through Belgian territory, as German troops crossed the frontier of Luxembourg. Military operations began on the French frontier, Libau was bombarded by a German light cruiser SMS Augsburg and the British government guaranteed naval protection for French coasts. On 3 August the Belgian Government refused German demands and the British Government guaranteed military support to Belgium, should Germany invade. Germany declared war on France, the British government ordered general mobilisation and Italy declared neutrality. On 4 August the British government sent an ultimatum to Germany and declared war on Germany at midnight on 4–5 August, Central European Time. Belgium severed diplomatic relations with Germany and Germany declared war on Belgium. German troops crossed the Belgian frontier and attacked Liège.
French offensive preparations
French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre ordered an attack through the Ardennes forest in support of the French invasion of Lorraine. According to the pre-war French war strategy document, Plan XVII, German forces in the area were only expected to be light, with French light, rapid-firing artillery proving advantageous in a wooded terrain such as that found in the Ardennes. By 20 August, however, it was becoming clear - first to General Charles Lanrezac's French Fifth Army, and then to Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre - that a massive German presence was gathering in the area. That same day the Germans launched a counter-attack against the French advance into Lorraine. Even so, Joffre ordered an invasion of the Ardennes on 20 August for the following day.
Joffre issued instructions on 18 August but held back the Third and Fourth armies because air and cavalry reconnaissance found few German troops opposite the two armies, only a large force moving north-west 40–50 kilometres (25–31 mi) away. On 19 August, the Fourth army of General Fernand de Langle de Cary, was ordered to occupy the bridges over the Semois but not to advance into Belgium until the German offensive began. A premature attack would advance into a trap rather than give time for the Germans to empty Luxembourg of troops before the French advanced. On 20 August the German armies in the south attacked the French First and Second armies and next day the Third and Fourth armies began their offensive. The Fourth Army crossed the Semois and advanced towards Neufchâteau and the Third Army of General Pierre Ruffey attacked towards Arlon, as a right flank guard for the Fourth army. South of Verdun, the Third army was renamed Army of Lorraine and was to watch for a German offensive from Metz, which left the remainder of the Third Army free to concentrate on the offensive into Belgium. The French armies invaded Belgium with nine infantry corps but ten German corps and six reserve brigades of the 4th and 5th armies lay between Metz and the north of Luxembourg.
The German 4th Army under Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, and 5th Army of Crown Prince Wilhelm had moved slower than the 1st, 2nd and 3rd armies and the French offensive towards them was reported on 21 August. The French armies had few maps and were unaware of the size of the German force opposite, as the Third Army brushed aside small German detachments. On 22 August in the Third army area, the V Corps attacked dug-in German troops at Longwy at 5:00 a.m. in thick fog and heavy rain, with no artillery support. As the fog lifted, German artillery caught the French guns in the open and silenced them. A German counter-attack routed a French division and the corps was not rallied until the evening. To the north the IV Corps also advanced in fog and encountered German troops dug in near Virton and was forced back also with a division routed. On the southern Flank the VI Corps was pushed back a short distance. In the Fourth Army area the II Corps on the right flank managed to keep level with the Third Army to the south but was not able to advance further. The Colonial Corps on the left was defeated at Rossignol, 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) south of Neufchâteau, and had 11,646 casualties but the 5th Colonial Brigade on the left easily reached Neufchâteau before being repulsed with many casualties. Further north XII Corps advanced steadily but the XVII Corps beyond was outflanked and the 33rd Division lost most of its artillery. On the northern flank the XI and IX corps were not seriously engaged.
Charbonneau explained the defeat of the Colonial Corps was caused by faulty reconnaissance, the ineffectiveness of advanced guards in causing delay to advancing German units and that French offensive tactics neglected the importance of obtaining a superiority of fire, which had led to reckless attacks. The effectiveness of the German opponents was not mentioned but German reconnaissance had been effective, communication between commanders and subordinates had not broken down, mutual support between neighbouring units had occurred and German artillery had provided continuous close fire support. At Neufchâteau the French colonial infantry had been out-gunned and outnumbered by German forces which had been able to engage all their forces quickly. The French XII Corps had a greater number of guns but was not able to overcome the defences of two German infantry battalions. German artillery had engaged the Colonial Brigade from close range but when in a hastily occupied defensive position the French had nullified much of the German artillery-fire; French troops caught in the open had been annihilated. Both sides had attempted to gain fire superiority before advancing and once this had been gained by the Germans they had been able to move without severe casualties.
The French commanders were ordered by Joffre to continue the offensive on 23 August as early as possible, since his strategy depended on the success of the Third and Fourth armies. Ruffey replied in the morning that the attack could not begin until his divisions had reorganised and in the early afternoon found that the Germans had forestalled another advance, by pushing the V Corps in the centre back for 8 kilometres (5.0 mi), which led to the rest of the army falling back level. In the Fourth Army area, the 33rd Division of XVII Corps was routed and the rest of the corps had retired during the night of 22/23 August. The 5th Colonial Brigade withdrew from Neufchâteau before dawn on 23 August, exposing the right flank of XII Corps, which also fell back. By the end of 23 August the survivors of the Third and Fourth armies were back to their jumping-off positions except for the XI and IX corps on the northern flank.
At Rossignol German casualties were c. 1,318 and French casualties were c. 11,277 men. The French 4th Division had c. 1,195 casualties at Bellefontaine against c. 1,920 German casualties. At Neufchâteau the 5th Colonial Brigade had c. 3,600 casualties against units of the German XVIII Reserve Corps, which lost c. 1,800 men. At Bertrix the artillery of the 33rd Division was destroyed and c. 3,181 casualties incurred, against c. ⅓ the number of German casualties, which were noted as greater than all of the casualties in the Franco-Prussian War. At Massin-Anloy, the French 22nd Division and 34th Division lost 2,240 men killed and the 34th Division was routed. German casualties in the 25th Division were c. 3,224, of whom 1,100 men were killed. At Virton the French 8th Division was "destroyed" and the 3rd Division had c. 556 casualties; German losses were c. 1,281 men. In the fighting around Éthe and Bleid, the French 7th Division lost 5,324 men and the German 10th Division had c. 1,872 casualties. At Longwy the French V Corps with the 9th and 10th divisions had c. 2,884 casualties and German units of the 26th Division lost c. 1,242 men. South of Longwy, German casualties in the 9th and 12th Reserve and 33rd divisions were c. 4,458 men against the French 12th 40th and 42nd divisions, of which the 40th Division was routed. In 2009 Herwig recorded 19,218 casualties from 21–31 August in the 4th Army and 19,017 casualties in the 5th Army. Herwig also recorded 5,500 casualties in the French 8th Division at Virton and wrote that at Ethe, the 7th Division had been "stomped". At Ochamps the 20th Infantry Regiment lost 1,300 men (50%) and the 11th Infanrty Regiment lost 2,700 of 3,300 men. The 5th Colonial Brigade lost 3,200 of 6,600 men.
- Strachan 2001, pp. 209–211.
- Humphries & Maker 2013, pp. 66, 69.
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- Zuber 2007, p. 142.
- Zuber 2007, p. 150.
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- Herwig 2009, p. 151.
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- Humphries, M. O.; Maker, J. (2013). Der Weltkrieg: 1914 The Battle of the Frontiers and Pursuit to the Marne. Germany's Western Front: Translations from the German Official History of the Great War. I, part 1. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 978-1-55458-373-7.
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- Zuber, T. (2007). The Battle of the Frontiers. Ardennes 1914 (2009 ed.). Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7524-5255-5.
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