Thursday, August 21, 2014

August 21st, 1914

- The British Expeditionary Force is today marching northeast from Le Cateau and Maubeuge, with an objective of Soignes.  Field Marshall Sir John French does not expect serious fighting before the 24th, and believes the overall position of the BEF is favourable.  However, his force is about a days march behind the French 5th Army on his right, and is not yet in a position to support them.

- This morning Joffre orders 5th Army to cross the Sambre River and advance north and engage the German forces moving through Belgium, in concert with the British Expeditionary Force on his left.  His plan is to fix the German forces in Belgium so they cannot counter the French offensive in the Ardennes to the south.  When General Lanrezac of 5th Army informs Joffre that the BEF will not be in position to advance until the 23rd, Joffre orders 5th Army to attack by itself.

As this conversation is ongoing, however, the Germans are beginning both to upset the French plans and realize Lanrezac's worst fears.  The French 5th Army finds itself in the path of the 2nd and 3rd German armies - the former moving south towards the Sambre and the latter moving southwest against the Meuse.  In addition to attacking the demoralized Belgian garrison at Namur, where the Sambre and Meuse meet, advance elements of the German 2nd Army seize several bridges over the Sambre, pushing back French forces at the river's edge in the first action of what will come to be known as the Battle of Charleroi.  The seizure of the river crossings is relatively uncontested by 5th Army, Lanrezac believing that only small outposts have fallen, with most of the defenders of the Sambre entrenched on high ground south of the river.

- Joffre's primary focus is not on 5th Army today - to the south, the offensive by the French 3rd and 4th Armies begins as they advance into the Ardennes.  Between them the French armies have nine infantry and one cavalry corps, and expect to outnumber the Germans, believing significant forces have been pinned to the south by 1st and 2nd Armies while the Germans also appear to have committed heavily to the Belgian invasion.  They are disastrously misinformed, however.  Opposing the French in the Ardennes are the German 4th and 5th Armies, who form the pivot of the Schlieffen Plan, and include ten infantry corps plus reserve forces.  Unlike the three armies to the north, 4th and 5th Armies had less distance to travel, were moving more slowly, and had been entrenching as they advanced.

The advance begins in a thick fog which prevents any accurate reconnaissance by French cavalry.  Further, the French advance was poorly coordinated in the rough terrain of the Ardennes, with corps losing contact with their neighbours and gaps opening in the French lines.  Blundering through the woods and hills, lead elements of the French armies encounter their German counterparts, fighting a series of short, sharp preliminary engagements.  In these small fights, French officers are reluctant to order their soldiers to entrench as the Germans have, fearing that doing so will make them reluctant to attack.  It is clear that tomorrow the major clash will occur.  To the Minister of War, Joffre telegrams that 'the moment of decisive action is near.'  Joffre is correct, but not in the way he imagines.

Operations in the Ardennes, Aug. 21st to 26th, 1914.

- The Russian 1st Army remains stationary today, recovering from its victory of the day before.  In this rest, Colonel Max Hoffman, Deputy Chief of Operations of the German 8th Army, senses opportunity.  He had argued the night before that if 1st Army did not move for several days, 8th Army could use interior lines to redeploy against the Russian 2nd Army, which today is crossing the German border southwest of the Masurian Lakes.  When aerial reconnaissance confirms the lack of activity by the Russians at Gumbinnen, Hoffman convinces his superior to execute his plan.  I Corps, with the longest to go to reach the Russian 2nd Army, is to move by train to the western flank of XX Corps, the only unit currently in the south.  8th Army's other two corps - XVII Corps and I Reserve Corps - are to disengage from the Russian 1st Army and march to the eastern flank of XX Corps.  In doing so, the units of 8th Army were aided by their familiarity with East Prussia - I and XVII Corps had previously executed these precise movements during manoeuvres in 1910.  Hoffman's plan leaves open the ability to face the Russian 1st Army again should it advance in the next couple of days - as I and XVII Corps are to march on foot, they can reverse course if necessary - but allows for a revival of the original war plan of 8th Army; namely, the defeat of invading Russian armies in detail.

Simultaneously, officers of Moltke's staff at Colblenz have been in touch with 8th Army's corps commanders, who have painted a more optimistic picture of the situation than Prittwitz's report of the previous day.  With Moltke once again paralyzed by indecision - it never occurred to him that when he received Prittwitz's report, he could simply overrule his subordinate and order 8th Army to stand its ground - it is the officers of the operations staff who conclude that Prittwitz and his chief of staff must go.  For the latter post, they desired someone who had already proven himself in action, and had the imagination and temperament essential to deal with the fluid situation in East Prussia.  They select General Erich Ludendorff, whose star is in the ascent after his success at Liège.  He is currently overseeing 2nd Army's attack on the Belgian forts at Namur, so an officer is dispatched by car to summon him to OHL headquarters.

- The offensive of the Austro-Hungarian 6th Army, which General Potiorek had intended to be the main axis of advance, has achieved local successes along the Drina.  However, the prior defeat of the 5th Army to the north allows General Putnik to concentrate most of the Serbian army against the Austro-Hungarian 6th Army, and under pressure 6th Army is forced to fall back.

- Minister of Defence Jan Christian Smuts finalizes today his plan for the South African campaign against German South-West Africa.  South African forces would be divided in three: Force A at Port Nolloth and Force B at Upington would advance north across the border, while Force C will land at Lüderitz on the coast and advance inland.  Total strength of the three forces will be five thousand men and fourteen guns.

German South-West Africa

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