Friday, August 22, 2014

August 22nd, 1914

- Almost since the start of the war, General Charles Lanrezac has been warning Joffre that the Germans are making a major push through Belgium.  Other than minor adjustments, Joffre has dismissed Lanrezac's fears.  Today, Lanrezac and his 5th Army discover just how right he was.

Belatedly recognizing the importance of the German bridgeheads over the Sambre River, Lanrezac orders a major counterattack by two of his corps.  The attack is a dismal failure.  Advancing against German infantry that spent the night digging in, the French soldiers are mowed down by machine-gun and rifle fire.  By the afternoon, German counterattacks were forcing the two corps back, and by nightfall 5th Army has been completely driven from the Sambre.  To make matters worse, 5th Army had lost contact with 4th Army on its right, while three French cavalry divisions on his left had broken and retreated.  Lanrezac was now faced with the possibility of both his flanks being turned.  Finally, losses had been terrible - some French regiments had lost almost 50% of their strength, while the Germans had seized the initiative.  Lanrezac now found himself fighting precisely the desperate defensive battle that he had long feared he would have to.

The Battles of Charleroi and Mons, Aug. 21st to 24th, 1914

-  To the west of the French 5th Army, the British Expeditionary Force has continued to march northwards.  During the day, British cavalry ahead of the main columns encounter for the first time German cavalry, and the realization of imminent battle dawns.  Late in the evening, a request arrives from a beleaguered Lanranzac requesting the BEF to attack the flank of the German force attacking him from the north.  This is not practical, but Field Marshal Sir John French agrees to hold the line of the Mons Canal for twenty-four hours.  By midnight the BEF is entrenching on the south side of the canal, expecting battle in the morning.  Despite aerial reconnaissance indicating otherwise, the British believe that there are only one or two German corps before them, giving the BEF superiority and a sense of confidence.

British soldiers of the 18th Hussars with Belgian civilians, Aug. 22nd, 1914

If they had known what was advancing towards them, the BEF might not have had such confidence.  The German 1st Army, the most powerful of the armies arrayed against France, and the one with the most vital role in the Schlieffen Plan, was bearing down upon them.  The one saving grace for the BEF was that the Germans had absolutely no idea where the British were.  German cavalry had utterly failed to find anything - one German regiment, when just three miles north of Mons and the BEF, was told by a cavalry commander there were no enemy forces within eighty miles.  OHL, for its part, was not even sure the BEF was on the Continent at all.  Rumours abounded of where the BEF might have landed, from Antwerp to Calais to ports further afield.  Thus the first encounters with British cavalry on the 22nd come as a complete surprise to General von Kluck of the German 1st Army.  His first instinct is to move southwestward, in an effort to move around the western flank of whatever force had appeared before him.  Bülow, who has been given a supervisory role over the two armies adjacent to his own, instead orders Kluck to cover his own westward flank as he continues the fight.  1st Army thus moves south on the 22nd, which will carry it directly to Mons.  The most important army in the Schlieffen Plan was about to fight its first major battle.

- After yesterday's scattered encounters, the French 3rd and 4th armies today find themselves in pitched battles with the German 4th and 5th armies in the Ardennes.  Along the entire front the French infantry throw themselves at the German defenders, with terrible results.  IV and V Corps of 3rd Army attack entrenched positions in a heavy fog that prevents artillery fire, and are repulsed, with one division in each corps fleeing under German artillery fire.  VI Corps, the last belonging to 3rd Army, does better, but by the end of the day is yielding ground to the enemy.  4th Army to the north is faring no better.  Its rightmost corps - II - encounters heavy German resistance and makes no forward progress.  On its left the Colonial Corps suffers the worst of any French unit involved in the day's battles.  Composed of long-service regulars who had served in colonial wars in Africa and Asia, the corps' experience proves its undoing.  Able to advance under heavy fire without breaking, as was frequently the case with conscripts, the Colonial Corps is able to advance farther than its adjacent units, and finds itself in a mass of Germans.  Battalion after battalion launch bayonet attacks, broken up by concentrated machine-gun fire.  By the end of the day, the Colonial Corps has lost 11 000 of its strength of 15 000, the highest casualties of any French unit fighting in the Battle of the Frontiers, and twelve kilometre gaps existed on either side.  To the north the remaining corps of 4th Army are suffering varying fates.  Of crucial importance was the plight of XVII Corps, whose 33rd Division had been attacked in its rear, lost all its artillery, and fled the battlefield, forcing the rest of the corps to pull back.

Though the Germans have suffered heavily as well, the fighting is disastrous for the French.  The main attack of Plan XVII had been launched, and failed to dislodge the German defenders.  Prospects for the next day's fighting were dim, but Joffre remained supremely confident.  He informs the War Minister this evening that the French armies are well-positioned to strike at the Germans, and all that remains is for the officers to execute their orders.  This foreshadows Joffre's future explanations for the failures of August 1914 - it was due to the weakness of subordinates, not any mistakes either on his part or in Plan XVII.

- The French disasters continue to the south in Lorraine.  After the crushing defeat inflicted on 2nd Army on the 20th, it again comes under devastating attack by the German 6th Army.  At midmorning, 2nd Army's right is crushed and forced into a precipitate retreat.  Again 2nd Army's link to 1st Army in the south is severed, and again 1st Army has to retire to reestablish the front line.  2nd Army is now pulling back to the fortifications around Nancy, hoping to use them to anchor a defensive line.

The attack by the German 6th Army of today is the product of another deviation from the Schlieffen Plan.  Under pressure from Prince Rupprecht, Moltke has agreed to expand 6th Army's counterattack into a full offensive.  After the relatively quick fall of Liège, it is hoped that the French forts around Nancy and Epinal will prove equally susceptible to attack.  Beyond that, the possibility of enveloping the entire French army via breakthroughs on the left as well as the right has proven too seductive to Moltke.  6th and 7th armies are thus committed to an invasion of France itself, instead of leaving their forces available for redeployment to the right.  One of the most important decisions Moltke would make, placing in a day of victories the seeds of defeat.

- The Russian 2nd Army under General Alexander Samsonov today completes its crossing of the Russo-German frontier, but it is already in trouble.  Its concentration zone during mobilization was fifty kilometres from the border, which means that the exhausted Russian columns have been marching ten to twelve hours each day for a week.  Further, the supply situation was collapsing - there were no railways reaching to the border along the route of 2nd Army, and it was already being forced to live off the land.  Finally, the communication situation is disastrous.  2nd Army's corps lacked sufficient telephone wire to connect themselves to their own divisions, while Samsonov was effectively disconnected from his superior, General I. G. Zhilinskii of North-West Front - telegrams from the latter could only reach the former by car from Warsaw, rendering null Zhilinskii's ability to co-ordinate the actions of the two armies invading East Prussia.

- The summons from OHL reaches Ludendorff at Namur at 9am, and within fifteen minutes he departs for Coblenz, where he arrives at 6pm.  He is briefed on the situation in East Prussia, and meets with Moltke and the Kaiser.  His first orders are to confirm Hoffman's plan of transferring I Corps by rail to face the Russian 2nd Army, while XVII and I Reserve Corps are to rest tomorrow, to allow them to be better capable of joining the rest of 8th Army in battle.  At 9pm, Ludendorff departs Colbenz on a special train for East Prussia.  Meanwhile, OHL has also decided on the new commander for 8th Army - General Paul von Hindenburg.  A veteran of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, he had retired in 1911, but on August 3rd had informed Moltke of his willingness to take a field command if one was available.  OHL decides that Hindenburg is the ideal man for the job - from a long line of Prussian Junkers, Hindenburg's career had demonstrated a solidity and imperturbability that would match perfectly with Ludendorff's imagination and excitedness.  It was Ludendorff who could develop brilliant operations, while Hindenburg would ensure their execution through moments of crisis that might rattle Ludondorff.  Moltke and the Kaiser approve of Hindenburg's appointment, and he receives a telegram at his home in Hanover at 3pm informing him of his appointment.  He is instructed to board Ludendorff's train as it passes through Hanover the next morning as it travels east.

- As the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Russian Poland begins, the Russian army is preparing its own invasion of Galicia.  Four armies are deployed against Austria-Hungary - 4th, 5th, 3rd, and 8th (the latter commanded by General Alexei Brusilov) - stretching from the northwest to the southeast.  The pre-war plans, assuming that the Austro-Hungarians deploy their forces close to the border, calls for 3rd and 8th armies to advance westward and engage the enemy in a defensive battle near Lemberg (modern Lvov).  Once the Austro-Hungarian army is fixed by this attack, 4th and 5th armies are to attack south behind the enemy forces and rout them.  The pre-war plans are nullified almost the instant war is declared.  Grand Duke Nicholas, appointed commander of the Russian army, responds to pleas from France by ordering the advance of 4th Army prematurely.  Conversely, the advance of 3rd Army westward is painstakingly slow - its commander believes that the Austro-Hungarians have deployed near the border, when in fact they have deployed far to the rear.  It is only on the 21st that 3rd Army has crossed the border, and progress remains glacial.  Thus the pre-war plan is being in practice reversed - it is the attack south of 4th and 5th armies that will hit the enemy first, a situation complicated by the Austro-Hungarian deployment in the rear and Conrad's decision to invade Russian Poland.  Thus the first Russian invasion of Galicia is heading directly towards the Austro-Hungarian invasion heading in the opposite direction.

Initial plans of Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies in Galicia, Aug. 1914.

- The advance of the Gold Coast Regiment northwards from Lome to Kamina in German Togoland encounters German resistance along the Chra River.  Entrenched on the northern bank, the Germans pour fire on the advancing Imperial troops, who suffer 17% casualties.  Despite the victory, the outnumbered Germans withdraw northwards this evening.

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