|Born||July 31, 1852
|Died||January 18, 1925 (aged 72)
|Years of service||1869–1914|
|Commands held||Fifth Army|
World War I
|Awards||Grand cross of the Légion d'honneur
Grand cross of the Order of the Crown (Belgium)
Charles Lanrezac (July 31, 1852 – January 18, 1925) was a French general, formerly a distinguished staff college lecturer, who commanded the French Fifth Army at the outbreak of World War I.
His army, originally intended to strike the Germans on their western flank, faced the brunt of the German march, stronger and further west than anticipated, through Belgium at the Battle of Charleroi. He was frustrated by the reluctance of his superior, General Joseph Joffre, who was initially preoccupied by French attacks into Lorraine and the Ardennes, to appreciate the danger of the German march through Belgium. Forced to retreat, at Joffre's insistence he made a successful counterattack at the Battle of Guise, but his apparent reluctance to counterattack led him to be relieved of command prior to the Battle of the Marne.
Lanrezac was a Marquis, but did not use his title.
Lanrezac attended the military school at Saint-Cyr in 1869 but when the Franco-Prussian War started 1870, he was sent to fight as a lieutenant. He fought with the Armée de la Loire at Coulmiers and in the campaign around Orléans. In January 1871 he was transferred to the Armée de l'Est and following the failure of its campaign, he was interned in Switzerland. By 1876 he had been promoted to captain. He graduated from the École Militaire in 1879. The following years Lanrezac served in various staff functions in the 113th Infantry Regiment and on a brigade staff in Tunisia. Lanrezac was promoted to colonel in 1902 and given command of the 119th Infantry Regiment. He became a brigade general in June 1906, commanding the 43rd Infantry Brigade stationed in Vannes. After this brigade command he was made a professor at the École Militaire. He was made a Général de Division in 1911 and the following year he was appointed to command of the XI Corps in Nantes. In April 1914 Lanzerac succeeded Joseph Gallieni as a member of the French Supreme War Council and was designated as the commander of the Fifth Army in the event of war.
World War I
Advance into Belgium
At the start of World War I, Lanrezac was given command of the French Fifth Army, holding the extreme left of the French line. His command was arguably the most difficult on the Western Front; he had to meet the enveloping right-wing of the German Army that quickly steamrolled Belgium, whilst co-operating with the allied British Expeditionary Force on his left flank.
Lanrezac was already sufficiently concerned (11 August) about the German movement into Belgium to obtain permission to deploy one of his corps at Givet on the Meuse. Liege fell on 12 August (on which day senior British generals were still arguing, in London, as to how far forward the BEF should be deployed). Lanrezac visited his superior, General Joseph Joffre on 14 August, but the latter was pleased at the good progress which the French were making into Alsace-Lorraine, and unwilling to listen. On 15 August, after German cavalry had been spotted at Dinant on the Meuse, Lanrezac at last obtained permission to redeploy from opposite the Ardennes to the angle of the Sambre and the Meuse, and on that day Joffre issued his Instruction Particuliere No 10, stating that the main German effort would come through Belgium.
The British liaison officer Edward Spears later wrote that Lanrezac's reputation as an academic lecturer made him “the star turn” of the French Army. The British commander Sir John French, at his meeting with Joffre on 16 August, was advised to hurry up and join in Lanrezac’s offensive, as he would not wait for him to catch up. Spears described Lanrezac as “a big flabby man” with a habit of hitching his spectacles behind his ear, whilst Sir John, who disliked him, later described him as “a Staff College pedant” with no practical ability at command in war. Sir John had an infamous meeting with Lanrezac at Rethel (17 August), at which he attempted to speak in French, despite not being able to do so well. When he asked whether the Germans spotted at Huy were crossing the river, his attempt to pronounce the name "Huy" caused Lanrezac to exclaim in exasperation that the Germans had probably gone there to fish. Not only did they form a mutual dislike, but Sir John also believed Lanrezac was about to advance further, whereas in fact Lanrezac wanted to fall back from his strong position behind the angle of the Rivers Sambre and Meuse, but was forbidden to do so by Joffre.
Although Joffre was aware (18 August) that as many as fifteen German corps were moving through Belgium (in fact it was sixteen, and twenty-eight if the German Fourth and Fifth Armies are also included), he believed that only a few of these would come west of the Meuse, where he believed they could be held by the British and Belgians. French Third and Fourth Armies, on Lanrezac's right, were preparing to attack into the Ardennes in accordance with Plan XVII, and Joffre wanted Lanrezac’s Fifth Army to attack the bulk of the German right wing on its west flank as – it was assumed – it attacked the left flank of French Fourth Army. Lanrezac, forbidden to retreat by Joffre, reported that he would be ready to attack by 20 August.
Joffre believed (20 August) that Liege was still holding out (in fact the last of the Liege forts had fallen on 16 August), and hoped that Lanrezac would be able to link up with Namur, which was expected to hold out for even longer.
Battle of Charleroi
With the French Third and Fourth Armies now attacking into the Ardennes, Lanrezac declined either to attack as Joffre wished or to send reinforcements to Namur, which he had been warned would not hold out. Later that day the German Second Army attacked the French Fifth Army and forced bridgeheads across the Meuse (within a fortnight, Joffre had sacked one of the French corps commanders – General Sauret of III Corps, who had disappeared during the battle, leaving the corps artillery commander to take charge - and three of the four division commanders involved).
The French III and X corps counterattacked but were beaten further back. Lanrezac’s Fifth Army was now attacked on its right by the German Third Army; although these attacks were held, Lanrezac asked Joffre for permission to retreat. Lanrezac asked for the BEF to attack the German Second Army in flank, although he also – contradicting himself – reported that the BEF was still in echelon behind his own left flank, which if true would have made it impossible for the BEF to do as he asked. Sir John, who had cancelled his own planned advance on news that Lanrezac had asked to fall back, agreed to hold his position.
23 August was the third day of the Battle of Charleroi. A more aggressive commander than von Bülow might have been able to drive in III and X Corps in the French centre, but despite repeated pleas from 10am onward, Lanrezac refused Franchet d’Esperey’s I Corps permission to counterattack from the French right. The Fifth Army was attacked again, this time also on the flanks, by Bülow’s German Second Army to the north and Hausen’s German Third Army to the East. Hausen was prevented from driving south-west to cut off the French retreat only by several entreaties by Bülow to attack westwards to draw off French strength from Bülow’s front.
Retreat from Charleroi
Lanrezac's retreat after the Battle of Charleroi (21–3 August) arguably saved the French army from decisive defeat as it prevented the much sought envelopment of the Schlieffen plan. In the small hours of 24 August (just after the Battle of Mons) the BEF was forced to retreat on news that Lanrezac was falling back, which disgusted Sir John French, and that the French Third and Fourth Armies were also falling back after being defeated at Virton and Neufchateau.
Churchill later wrote:"The French Fifth Army had no sooner completed with severe exertions its deployment on the Sambre, and the British Army by forced marches had no sooner reached the neighbourhood of Mons, when the overwhelming force of the German turning movement through Belgium fell upon them ... (Sir John French) accepted (Joffre's wish to attack, even on the left) with implicit faith. Lanrezac, sure that Joffre was utterly adrift from facts, watched with insolent distrust the impending disaster. But even he never imagined the weight and sweep of the German enveloping wing. The two armies of the left only escaped disaster by the timely retreat which Lanrezac and Sir John French each executed independently and on his own initiative ... Lanrezac's grasp of the situation and stern decision to retreat while the time remained has earned the gratitude of France. It was a pity he forgot to tell his British Allies about it."
On the morning of 26 August, while the BEF II Corps was engaged at the Battle of Le Cateau, Sir John French had a hostile meeting with Joffre and Lanrezac at St Quentin. Lanrezac was only reluctantly persuaded by his chief of staff to attend, and before Joffre’s arrival he was observed loudly criticising both GQG and the BEF, making a poor impression on the junior officer who witnessed it. However, he assured Joffre that Fifth Army would be ready to counterattack as soon as he was out into open country where he could use his artillery. French complained of Lanrezac’s behaviour, to which Lanrezac gave a vague and academic reply. Joffre stayed for lunch (Lanrezac declined to do so), at which the atmosphere improved as Joffre confessed that he too was dissatisfied with Lanrezac.
Battle of Guise
The liaison officer Colonel Victor Huguet reported (10.15pm on 26 August) that the British had been defeated at Le Cateau and would need French protection to recover cohesion, and Joffre decided to order an attack by Fifth Army to relieve the British. Early on 27 August Joffre gave Lanrezac a direct written order to counterattack as soon as his forces were on open ground where they could use their artillery (which Lanrezac had told him was the key factor), and to take no account of what the British on his left were doing. This angered Lanrezac, who spent the day – both on the telephone to GQG and in conversation with Colonel Alexandre of GQG who visited him twice – arguing against the order, and he again demanded to be permitted to fall back when he learned that the BEF intended to retreat again on 28 August.
Joffre visited Lanrezac at 8.30am on 28 August, and ordered Lanrezac to attack to the west, against the forces engaging the BEF. He later recorded that he had been struck by Lanrezac’s tired appearance, and that a “heated” discussion ensued until Lanrezac agreed to obey, at which point Joffre had his aide Major Gamelin draw up a written order and signed it in Lanrezac’s presence. Joffre later wrote of the difference in aggression between Lanrezac and de Langle de Cary, whose Fourth Army, originally intended to be the spearhead of the attack into the Ardennes, was a strong force and had made several counterattacks.
French refused Haig (commanding British I Corps) permission to join in an attack by Lanrezac (28 August), who wrote of French’s “bad humour and cowardice”. The BEF also did not join in Lanrezac’s attack on the German Second Army at Guise (29 August). Joffre spent the morning at Lanrezac’s headquarters to supervise his conduct of the battle (29 August) – willing to give Lanrezac a final chance but if necessary to sack him there and then. In the event he was impressed by Lanrezac’s cool demeanour and handling of the battle, before departing for an afternoon meeting with Sir John French. The westward attack towards St Quentin failed, but the day was won by a successful attack by Franchet d’Esperey’s I Corps in the north at Guise.
As a result of the battle of Guise, von Kluck’s German First Army broke off its attacks on Maunoury’s Sixth French Army and swung south-east, inside of Paris. However, Lanrezac’s victory had left him in an exposed forward position, and he had a telephone conversation with General Belin at GHQ, warning him that he had been directly ordered to hold his position and attack if possible, and that his army was in danger of being cut off and encircled. Permission to retreat finally reached him at 7am the next morning.
On 31 August German cavalry, hampered by lack of fresh horseshoes and nails, almost penetrated behind French Fifth Army (almost capturing the British politician J.E.B. Seely, then serving as a liaison officer) and came close to capturing the Aisne bridges, which would have cut off its retreat. On 1 September Fifth Army retreated across the Aisne in some confusion, with Lanrezac at one stage being heard to exclaim “Nous sommes foutus! Nous sommes foutus!” (roughly: "We're shafted!").
Lanrezac's harsh criticism of his superiors in the Staff Corps overshadowed his impressive ability to avoid envelopment by the Germans and he was replaced by Louis Franchet d'Espérey just before the opening of the First Battle of the Marne. Joffre later recorded that ever since the Battle of Guise Lanrezac’s normal tendency to criticise and argue about his orders had been exacerbated by fatigue, to the detriment of Fifth Army staff’s morale. As he could not be counted upon for the planned counterstroke, it was necessary to relieve him on the afternoon of 3 September. The accounts of Lanrezac, Joffre (who claimed that Lanrezac immediately agreed and cheered up when relieved of command, in his own office) and Spears (who recalled seeing them having a lengthy and strained conversation in the playground of the school where Fifth Army HQ was currently based) do not agree with another.
Joffre and Spears both claimed in their memoirs that, whatever his intellectual accomplishments, Lanrezac had been overwhelmed by the strain of command, Spears adding that he had done little to prepare the Charleroi position for defence and had never once in the entire campaign willingly engaged the enemy. Much of Lanrezac's poor reputation in English comes from Spears' memoirs (Liaison 1914) published in 1930. Coming after criticism of the British in the memoirs of Huguet and Foch, the book was a great success, Harold Nicolson writing that he had especially enjoyed the "satirical" portrait of the "conceit(ed) ... arrogant and obese" Lanrezac. However, General Macdonogh, who had been Head of BEF Intelligence in 1914, thought Spears had been unfair to Lanrezac, whilst Lanrezac's son disputed the accuracy of his account of the Rethel meeting, writing that Lanrezac's most scathing comments about the British had been directed at his own staff afterwards (Sir John French had in fact been complimentary about Lanrezac in his diary after the meeting, although his feelings appear to have soured thereafter).
Lanrezac stayed in retirement for the rest of the war, refusing an offer of re-employment in 1917. In 1921, he published a book on the campaign - "Le Plan de campagne française et le premier mois de la guerre, 2 août-3 septembre 1914".
In recogntion of his initially unappreciated prudence in the opening month of the war that helped save France, he was made an officer of the Légion d'honneur in July 1917, awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown by Belgium in 1923, and awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur in 1924.
Following his death in January 1925, he was, at his request, buried without military honours.
The city of Paris honored Lanrezac by naming a street after him near the Place de l'Étoile. The Rue de Général Lanrezac, one block from the Arc de Triomphe, is a side street connecting Avenue Carnot with Avenue MacMahon. Other streets bearing Lanrezac's name are to be found in Marseilles, Nantes, Neuilly-sur-Seine and Saint-Malo.
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