Battle of Grand Couronné
The Battle of Grand Couronné (French: Bataille du Grand Couronné) took place in France after the Battle of the Frontiers, at the beginning of World War I. After the German victories of Sarrebourg and Morhange, the German pursuit by the 6th and 7th armies took four days to regain contact with the French. The Germans attacked to break through French defences on the Moselle, from 24 August – 13 September in three phases, the Battle of the Trouée de Charmes (24–28 August), when the German offensive was met by a French counter-offensive, a period of preparation from 28 August – 3 September, when part of the French eastern armies was moved westwards towards Paris and then a final German attack against the Grand Couronné de Nancy. The battle was fought day and night from 4–13 September 1914, by the German 6th Army commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and the French Second Army commanded by Noel de Castelnau.
After the failure of the French offensives in the Battle of Lorraine on 20 August 1914, the French Second Army was ordered by Joffre on 22 August to retreat to the Grand Couronné de Nancy, heights near Nancy, on an arc from Pont-à-Mousson to Champenoux, Lunéville and Dombasle-sur-Meurthe and defend the position at all costs. On 24 August, Rupprecht and the 6th Army tried to break through the French lines on the Moselle from Toul to Épinal and encircle Nancy. After the Battle of the Mortagne, an attempt by the Germans to advance at the junction of the French First and Second armies. A lull followed from 28 August – 3 September, then the Germans simultaneously attacked Saint-Dié and Nancy in the Battle of Grand Couronné. After the failure of the Battle of Mortagne, the capture of Nancy would have been an important German psychological victory and the German Emperor Wilhelm II came to supervise the offensive. The German attack was part of an offensive of all the German armies in France in early September and a German success would have outflanked the right of the French armies from the east. Castelnau had to send several divisions westwards to reinforce the Third Army.
German offensive preparations
From the end of the Battle of the Trouée de Charmes on 28 August, Rupprecht and his Chief of Staff Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen obtained more heavy artillery and managed to prevent the removal of troops to the Eastern Front. Moltke wanted attacks by the German armies on the eastern flank to resume, to prevent the French from withdrawing troops to the western flank near Paris. German preparations were sufficiently advanced for the offensive to begin during the night of 3 September.
French defensive preparations
Castelnau concluded that the losses of the Second Army and the withdrawal of forces to reinforce the Third Army, made it unlikely that the Second Army could withstand another German attack and submitted a memorandum to Joffre with the alternatives of fighting the battle without withdrawal, which would exhaust his forces or falling back to two successive defensive positions, which would cover the right flank of the French armies from Verdun to Paris and delay the German advance.
The German offensive began during the night of 3 September, against the fortifications of the Grand Couronné, either side of Nancy, which pushed back the 2nd Group of Reserve Divisions with the 59th, 68th and 70th Reserve divisions (General Léon Durand) to the north and the XX Corps (General Maurice Balfourier) to the south, by the evening of 4 September. In the afternoon of 5 September, Castelnau telegraphed to Joffre that he proposed to evacuate Nancy rather than hold ground, to preserve the fighting power of the army. Next day Joffre replied that the Second Army was to hold the area east of Nancy if at all possible and only then retire to a line from the Forest of Haye to Saffais, Belchamp and Borville. The civilian authorities in the city had begun preparations for an evacuation but the troops on the Grand Couronné repulsed German attacks on the right flank during 5 September; the Reserve divisions were only pushed back a short distance, on the front to the east and north of Nancy. An attempt by Moltke to withdraw troops from the 6th Army, to join a new 7th Army being formed for operations on the Oise failed, when Rupprecht and Dellmensingen objected and were backed by the Emperor, who was at the 6th Army headquarters.[a] German attacks continued on 6 September and the XX Corps conducted a counter-attack, which gave the defenders a short period to recuperate but the troops of the 2nd Group of Reserve Divisions, east and north of Nancy began to give way.
On 7 September, German attacks further north drove a salient into the French defences south of Verdun at St. Mihiel, which threatened to separate the Second and Third armies. At Nancy, part of the 59th Reserve Division retreated from the height of St. Geneviève, which overlooked the Grand Couronné to the north-west of Nancy, exposing the left flank of the Second Army and Nancy to envelopment. Castelnau prepared to withdraw and abandon Nancy but was circumvented by the Second Army staff, who contacted Joffre and Castelnau was ordered to maintain the defence of the Grand Couronné for another 24 hours. (Castelnau had received news that one of his sons had been killed and gave the orders while shocked by the news.) The French abandonment of the height of St. Geneviève went unnoticed by the Germans, who had retired during the afternoon and the height was reoccupied before they could react. German attacks continued until the morning of 8 September, then became less powerful as Moltke began to withdraw troops to the right (west) flank of the German armies. Moltke sent Major Roeder from his staff to the 6th Army, with orders to end the offensive and prepare to retire to the frontier; only at this point did Rupprecht find out that the armies near Paris were under severe pressure. The attacks by the 6th Army diminished and on 10 September, the army began to withdraw to the east. On 13 September, Pont-à-Mousson and Lunéville were recaptured by the French unopposed and the French armies closed up to the Seille river, where the front stabilized until 1918.
The battles near Nancy contributed to the Allied success at the First Battle of the Marne, by fixing a large number of German troops in Lorraine. Attempts to break through between Toul and Épinal were costly to the Germans in manpower and supplies, which might had had more effect elsewhere. The German offensives failed and were not able to prevent Joffre from moving troops westwards to outnumber the German armies near Paris.
In 2009, Herwig wrote that in September, the 6th Army had 28,957 casualties, with 6,687 men killed, despite half the army being en route to Belgium, most lost in the fighting at the Grand Couronné and the 7th Army had 31,887 casualties, with 10,384 men killed. The German army never calculated a definitive casualty list for the fighting in Alsace and Lorraine but the Bavarian official historian Karl Deuringer made a guess of 60 percent casualties, of which 15 percent were killed, in the fifty infantry brigades which fought in the region, which would amount to 66,000 casualties, 17,000 of them being killed, which the Verlustliste (ten-day casualty reports) bore out.
- The German Emperor waited in the 6th Army headquarters at Dieuze to be present at a great victory but returned to Luxembourg in the evening.
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