Battle of Charleroi
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 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-kilometre (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. 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.
On the morning of the 21st, French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre reported 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 seek to attack enemy forces in Belgian Luxembourg. The Fifth Army was ordered to cover the Meuse up to Namur, and the British were to cooperate in this action by moving in the general direction of Soignies, north-east of Mons. In accordance with this, Lanrezac positioned the Fifth Army on the Sambre, and reported his actions to Joffre later in the day, around 12:30. Unbeknownst to him at the time, German elements had clashed with his vanguards, between Namur and Charleroi. Lanrezac was made aware of this by a report from General Augustin Michel, commander at Namur, received at 14:00. Lanrezac was told by General Headquarters around 16:00 that the Germans were still moving west, and in consequence ordered his aviation to reconnoitre enemy troop movements and informed his subordinates that they should "be ready to launch an attack [...] by crossing the Sambre, towards Namur and Nivelles." At 20:00, having reported only minor action on the 10th Corps front to Joffre at 19:00, Lanrezac was instructed by the latter that he had total discretion to decide of the appropriate moment to start his offensive.
By the evening, vanguards from the 19th Division, between Floriffoux and Jemeppe-sur-Sambre, had pushed back German assaults. However, 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 abandonned by 21:00 and the easternmost elements were ordered to retreat by the corps commander, Defforges, who organized positions around Fosse in coordination with the 1st and the 3rd Corps. This meant the Germans had succeeded in crossing the Sambre.
On the 3rd 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, corps commander Sauret reported to Lanrezac that the 5th Division was continuing efforts to retake the bridges.
In a report the following morning, Lanrezac confirmed to Joffre the violence on the German attack on Namur. Reporting the actions of the 10th and 3rd Corps, he requested that the Fourth Army "makes itself felt as soon as possible".
On the French right flank, General d'Espèrey ordered the 1st 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.
Attacks were also launched by the Germans on the remainder of the Fifth Army front.
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.
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.
In 2001 Brose recorded 10,000 Fifth Army losses and Edward Spears in the 1999 edition of Liaison 1914 (1930) recorded 11,000 casualties in the German 2nd Army which took 4,000 French prisoners and 35 guns. In 2009, Herwig recorded that the 3rd Army had 4,275 casualties at Dinant. On the western flank of the French, the BEF lost 1,600 men.
Orders of battle
- Cavalry Corps, commanded by André Sordet
- 1st Army Corps, commanded by General Louis Franchet d'Espèrey
- 3rd Army Corps, commanded by General Sauret
- 10th Army Corps, commanded by General Defforges
- 18th Army Corps
- II Cavalry Corps (Höhere Kavallerie-Kommando 2/HKK 2) – preceding 1st and 2nd Armies (General der Kavallerie Georg von der Marwitz the Senior Cavalry Commander [Höherer Kavallerie-Kommandeur 2])
- 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).
- II Corps (General d. Inf. Alexander von Linsingen)
- III Corps (General d. Inf. Ewald von Lochow)
- IV Corps (General d. Inf. Friedrich Bertram Sixt von Armin)
- IX Corps (General d. Inf. Ferdinand von Quast)
- III Reserve Corps (General d. Inf. Hans von Beseler)
- IV Reserve Corps (General der Artillerie Hans von Gronau)
- IX Reserve Corps (General d. Inf. Max von Boehn) (Originally held back in Schleswig in case of British landings; moved up in late August.)
- 10th Mixed Landwehr Brigade
- 11th Mixed Landwehr Brigade
- 27th Mixed Landwehr Brigade
- Pionier Regiment (expansion of pre-war 18th Btn)
- Guards Corps (General d. Inf. Karl von Plettenberg)
- VII Corps (General der Kavallerie Karl von Einem)
- X Corps (General d. Inf. Otto von Emmich)
- Guards Reserve Corps (General der Artillerie Max von Gallwitz)
- VII Reserve Corps (General d. Inf. Hans von Zwehl)
- X Reserve Corps (General d. Inf. Günther Graf von Kirchbach)
- 25th Mixed Landwehr Brigade
- 29th Mixed Landwehr Brigade
- 4 Mortar Battalions (II & III Btns, 4th Foot Regt; I & II Btns, 9th Foot Regt)
- 10-cm Gun Battalion (II Btn, 9th Reserve Foot Regt)
- 2 Heavy Coastal Mortar Batteries (1st & 5th Btys)
- 2 Pionier Regiments (expansion of pre-war 24th & 25th Btns)
- I Cavalry Corps – preceding 3rd Army (HKK 1, General der Kavallerie Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen)
- XI Corps (General d. Inf. Otto von Plüskow)
- XII (1st Royal Saxon) Corps (General d. Inf. Karl d'Elsa)
- XIX (2nd Royal Saxon) Corps (General der Kavallerie Maximilian von Laffert)
- XII (Royal Saxon) Reserve Corps (General der Artillerie Hans von Kirchbach)
- 47th Mixed Landwehr Brigade
- Mortar Battalion (III Btn, 1st Foot Regt)
- Pionier Regiment (expansion of pre-war 23rd Bn)
- "Heavy casualties suffered in the Battles of the Frontiers – Aug 22, 1914". History.com. Retrieved 18 January 2018.
- Naërt et al. 1936, p. 473.
- Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 471-475.
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