Wednesday, August 20, 2014

August 20th, 1914

- The German 1st Army occupies Brussels today, while the Belgian army completes its retirement into the fortified camp of Antwerp.

Belgian soldiers during the retreat to Antwerp, Aug. 20th, 1914.
And yes, those are dogs pulling machine guns.

- The concentration of the British Expeditionary Force at Maubeuge is completed today, and the two British corps begin to advance northeast.  Meanwhile, in London, the British Cabinet has authorized the deployment of the fifth British infantry division to the Continent.

- The French 5th Army completes its advance to the Sambre and Meuse Rivers.  Its defensive position resembles an inverted 'V', with the Belgian forts at Namur at the point.  Just to the north, cavalry units belonging to 5th Army engage in small skirmishes with German cavalry.

- At 830pm Joffre issues orders for 3rd and 4th Army to attack tomorrow.  The latter will advance northeast towards Neufchâteau while the former will move against Arlon.  To protect the advance against a German counterattack from Metz, Joffre has formed a portion of 3rd Army into a separate Army of Lorraine to cover the southern flank of the attack.  This is to be the main assault of Plan XVII - a strike north of Metz-Thionville which will crush the centre of the German line.  While Joffre is aware that the Germans are advancing through Belgium, he still does not see it as the focal point of the German campaign.  Indeed, he believes that the Germans have reduced their forces opposite 3rd and 4th Armies to strengthen the German right, which will increase the odds of French success tomorrow.  He has also instructed the commanders of 3rd and 4th Armies to make no preparatory movements, so as to not tip off the Germans to the advance and cause them to stop moving forces into Belgium.

- Even as Joffre is ordering the main French attack, the offensive in Lorraine is disintegrating.  There is a renewed attack today by the French 1st and 2nd Armies, the former in particular attempting to seize Morhange.  Advancing into prepared German defences, the French suffer horrendous losses.  Simultaneously, Prince Rupprecht's 6th Army launches the counterattack 'authorized' by OHL on the 18th.  This attack falls primarily against the two corps of 2nd Army to the south of XX Corps, whose successful advance had uncovered their flank.  Unlike the French attack, the German advance is successful - both French corps retire in disarray, and by nightfall 2nd Army is retreating back across the French border to the Meurhe River and the fortifications of Nancy.  2nd Army has also lost contact with 1st Army to the south, and in order to re-establish the line 1st Army, which has also suffered heavily, and the Army of Alsace are ordered to fall back.

- In the early morning hours, the German I Corps under General François attacks the northern flank of the Russian 1st Army, and is a shattering success - one Russian division suffers 60% casualties.  The rest of the attack by 8th Army, however, has a very different outcome.  XVII Corps, under General August von Mackensen, and I Reserve Corps, under General Otto von Below, arrive on the battlefield only in the late morning, and the Russians facing them have been forewarned by I Corps' attack.  Devastating artillery fire is poured onto XVII Corps, which suffers eight thousand casualties in two hours.  An entire division breaks and retreats in disarray.  I Reserve Corps, attacking to the south of XVII Corps, is similarly repulsed, and with XVII Corps in retreat, has no choice but to retreat as well.  At 6pm 8th Army commander General Prittwitz calls François and informs him that despite his local success, I Corps must retreat.  Though it is not an overwhelming one, the Russians have won the Battle of Gumbinnen.

The defeat provokes a crisis of confidence in Prittwitz.  He sees his strategy - attacking each Russian army separately - in tatters.  8th Army is already in retreat, and the Russian 2nd Army will be able to advance northwards unmolested.  Indeed, the Russian 2nd Army is already to the west of the German 8th Army, and Prittwitz concludes that a hasty withdrawal behind the Vistula River is required.  This would abandon the entirety of East Prussia to the Russians, and his subordinates, François included, are appalled.  When Prittwitz informs Moltke this evening of his decision, the latter is aghast - such a precipitate retreat might allow the Russians to threaten Berlin.  Moltke instructs his staff to contact 8th Army's corps commanders directly, to learn their impressions of the situation.

There is one saving grave to come out of the Battle of Gumbinnen for the Germans - General Rennenkampf does not order his 1st Army to pursue.  Though victorious, his army is exhausted and supplies are dangerously low.  Instead, 1st Army is to rest and recover from the battle.  In this are the seeds of the German revival.

- Conrad orders IV Corps to abandon the Sabac bridgehead as a preliminary to its transfer to Galicia.  The order is countermanded by Potiorek, who believes the bridgehead is necessary to the preservation of 5th Army.  Meanwhile, other elements of 2nd Army only today begin the transfer by rail to the Russian front, while 6th Army is finally in position to begin its offensive across the Drina River.

- Lord Kitchener persuades the British Cabinet to reject an alliance offer from Greek Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos, fearing that such a move would increase the probability of the Ottoman Empire joining the war on the side of Germany.  Kitchener views this issue primarily through the lens of the Empire - his concern is avoiding an Ottoman offensive against Egypt.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.