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Battle of Charleroi

Coordinates: 50°24′N 04°26′E / 50.400°N 4.433°E / 50.400; 4.433
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Battle of Charleroi
Part of The Western Front of the First World War

Battle of Charleroi
Date21–23 August 1914
Location50°24′N 04°26′E / 50.400°N 4.433°E / 50.400; 4.433
Result German victory
 Germany  France
Commanders and leaders
Karl von Bülow
Max von Hausen
Charles Lanrezac
Joseph Joffre
2nd Army
3rd Army
Fifth Army
Casualties and losses
11,000 14,275 (10,000 killed, 4,275 missing or wounded) [citation needed]
Charleroi, a city in Wallonia, Hainaut province, Belgium

The Battle of Charleroi (French: Bataille de Charleroi) or the Battle of the Sambre, was fought on 21 August 1914, by the French Fifth Army and the German 2nd and 3rd armies, during the Battle of the Frontiers. The French were planning an attack across the Sambre River, when the Germans attacked first, forced back the French from the river and nearly cut off the French retreat by crossing the Meuse River around Dinant and getting behind the French right flank. The French were saved by a counter-attack at Dinant and the re-direction of the 3rd Army to the north-west in support of the 2nd Army, rather than south-west.


By 20 August, the Fifth Army (General Charles Lanrezac) had begun to concentrate on a 40 km (25 mi) front along the Sambre, centred on Charleroi and extending east to the Belgian fortress of Namur. The Cavalry Corps (General André Sordet) covered the Fifth Army's left flank and the concentration of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons.[1] The French had 15 divisions, after transfers of troops to Lorraine, facing 18 German divisions from the 2nd Army (General Karl von Bülow) and 3rd Army (Colonel-General Max von Hausen) moving south-west from Luxembourg towards the Meuse.

21 August[edit]

On the morning of the 21st, the French Commander-in-Chief, the head of Grand Quartier Général (GQG), Joseph Joffre, communicated to Lanrezac and to the BEF that German troops were moving west. In accordance with Plan XVII, the Third and Fourth armies further south were to move towards, respectively, Arlon and Neufchâteau, then attack German forces in Belgian Luxembourg. The Fifth Army was ordered to cover the Meuse up to Namur and the British were to conform by moving in the general direction of Soignies, north-east of Mons. Lanrezac positioned the Fifth Army on the Sambre and reported his actions to Joffre later in the day, around 12:30. Unbeknownst to him, German elements had clashed with his vanguards between Namur and Charleroi.

Lanrezac was informed by General Augustin Michel, the commander at Namur, at 14:00. Lanrezac was told by GQG around 16:00 that the Germans were still moving west and ordered his aviation to reconnoitre German troop movements and told his subordinates that they should "be ready to launch an attack [...] by crossing the Sambre, towards Namur and Nivelles".[2] At 20:00, having reported only minor action on the X Corps front to Joffre at 19:00, Lanrezac was instructed by the latter that he had discretion to decide of the appropriate moment to start his offensive.[3]

By the evening, vanguards from the 19th Division, between Floriffoux and Jemeppe-sur-Sambre, had pushed back German assaults. Reports from prisoners indicated that there was a strong German presence. Further west, Arsimont, guarded initially by a battalion and then reinforced by a regiment from the 20th Division, was abandoned by 21:00 and the easternmost elements were ordered to retreat by the corps commander, Defforges, who organized positions around Fosse in coordination with I Corps and III Corps. The Germans had crossed the Sambre.[4]

On the III Corps front, outposts of the 5th Division were attacked around 15:00. Despite initial failures, the Germans continued with their attacks and forced a passage at Tamines, Roselies and Aiseau. A French counter-attack retook Aiseau but failed in pushing the Germans back from any other bridgehead. At 23:00, the corps commander Sauret reported to Lanrezac that the 5th Division was continuing efforts to retake the bridges.[5]

22 August[edit]

In a report the following morning, Lanrezac confirmed to Joffre the violence on the German attack on Namur. Reporting the actions of X and III Corps, he requested that the Fourth Army "makes itself felt as soon as possible".[6] On the French right flank, General d'Espèrey ordered I Corps troops to make movements in preparation of an offensive action. At the same time, he hastened the relief of the 2nd Division by the 51st Reserve Division. The offensive movements were stopped by an attack of the XII Saxon Corps, which attacked advanced elements of the Dinant and Anseremme bridges. Although this attack did not prevent the relief of his own troops, Espèrey reported that he would be unable to reinforce the Sambre because of it around 13:00. Authorization to blow all Meuse bridges except those at Givet, Hastière and Dinant was asked for and granted by Lanrezac at 14:15.[7] Attacks were also launched by the Germans on the remainder of the Fifth Army front.

23 August[edit]

Fighting continued on 23 August when the French centre around Charleroi began to fall back. The 3rd Army crossed the Meuse and attacked the French right flank, held by I Corps. The attack threatened to cut the line of retreat of the Fifth Army but I Corps stopped the German advance with a counter-attack. With the evacuation of Namur and news of the Fourth Army retreat from the Ardennes, Lanrezac ordered the Fifth Army to withdraw, lest he be encircled and cut off from the rest of the French army. The German army was victorious.



German advance through Belgium, August 1914

The Fifth Army retreat after the Battle of Charleroi, arguably saved the French army from decisive defeat, as it prevented the much sought envelopment of the Schlieffen plan. After fighting another defensive action in the Battle of St Quentin, the French were pushed to within miles of Paris. Lanrezac was sacked by Joffre on 3 September (four days after General Pierre Ruffey, the Third Army commander) and replaced by d'Espèrey.[8] The 1934 work by the French Fascist and writer Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, The Comedy of Charleroi, explores the author's role in the battle.


In 2001, Eric Dorn Brose recorded 10,000 Fifth Army casualties and Edward Spears in the 1999 edition of Liaison 1914 (1930) recorded 11,000 German 2nd Army casualties and its capture of 4,000 French prisoners and 35 guns.[9] In 2009, Holger Herwig wrote that the 3rd Army suffered 4,275 casualties at Dinant.[10]

Orders of battle[edit]


Details taken from the French official history unless specified.[11]

Fifth Army, commanded by Charles Lanrezac


Details from the British official history and Cron (2002) unless otherwise indicated.[13][14]

Each Cavalry Division consisted of 3 Brigades, each of 2 Cavalry Regiments (24 squadrons total), 3 horse artillery batteries (4 guns each) and an MG detachment (6 MGs).

1st Army, commanded by Generaloberst Alexander von Kluck.

2nd Army, commanded by Generaloberst Karl von Bülow

3rd Army, commanded by Generaloberst Max von Hausen


  1. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, p. 473.
  2. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 471–475.
  3. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, Annexes, no. 763, pp. 645, 479.
  4. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 476–477.
  5. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 477–478.
  6. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, p. 480.
  7. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 481–482.
  8. ^ Herwig 2009, p. 195.
  9. ^ Brose 2001, p. 200; Spears 1999, p. 177.
  10. ^ Herwig 2009, p. 168.
  11. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 468–469, 471–474.
  12. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, Annexes, no. 8, p. 33.
  13. ^ Edmonds 1922, p. 492.
  14. ^ Cron 2002, p. 299.


  • Brose, E. D. (2001). The Kaiser's Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870–1918. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-517945-3.
  • Cron, Hermann (2002) [1937]. Imperial German Army 1914–18: Organisation, Structure, Orders-of-Battle. Appendix 1: The Field Army, 17 August 1914. Solihull: Helion. ISBN 978-1-874622-70-3.
  • Edmonds, J. E. (1922). Military Operations France and Belgium, 1914: Mons, the Retreat to the Seine, the Marne and the Aisne August–October 1914. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Vol. I. Appendix 6: Order of battle of the German Armies (1st ed.). London: Macmillan. OCLC 58962523.
  • Herwig, H. (2009). The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-6671-1.
  • Naërt, M. C.; Laxague, G. M. J. B.; Courbis, J. C. P.; Joubert, J.; Lefranc, eds. (1936). Les armées françaises dans la Grande guerre (in French). Vol. I. Paris: Imprimerie nationale. OCLC 461413445. Retrieved 15 March 2015.
  • Spears, E. (1999) [1968]. Liaison 1914 (2nd, repr. Cassell ed.). London: Eyre & Spottiswoode. ISBN 978-0-304-35228-9.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bloem, W. (2004) [1916]. Vormarsch [The Advance from Mons 1914: The Experiences of a German Infantry Officer] (Helion, Solihull ed.). Bremen: Grethlein. ISBN 978-1-874622-57-4. Retrieved 15 February 2015.
  • Doughty, R. A. (2005). Pyrrhic victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. ISBN 978-1-874622-57-4.
  • Edmonds, J. E. (1926). Military Operations France and Belgium 1914: Mons, the Retreat to the Seine, the Marne and the Aisne August–October 1914. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. Vol. I (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan. OCLC 58962523.
  • Evans, M. M. (2004). Battles of World War I. Select Editions. ISBN 978-1-84193-226-2.
  • Foley, R. T. (2007) [2005]. German Strategy and the Path to Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870–1916 (pbk. ed.). Cambridge: CUP. ISBN 978-0-521-04436-3.
  • 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. Vol. I. part 1 (1st ed.). Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 978-1-55458-373-7.
  • Porch, D. (2003) [1981]. The March to the Marne: The French Army, 1870–1914 (reprint ed.). Cambridge: CUP. ISBN 978-0-521-54592-1.
  • Strachan, H. (2001). The First World War: To Arms. Vol. I. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-926191-8.
  • Tyng, S. (2007) [1935]. The Campaign of the Marne 1914 (Westholme Publishing, NY ed.). New York: Longmans, Green. ISBN 978-1-59416-042-4.

External links[edit]