Saturday, August 23, 2014

August 23rd, 1914

- The French 5th Army fights a desperate battle for survival, as crises mount by the hour.  The roads were choked with Belgian refugees, making rapid redeployment of units impossible.  At noon news arrived that the Belgians were evacuating Namur, which was to fall to the Germans later in the day.  The German 2nd Army launches a series of ferocious attacks which push elements of 5th Army southwards, while during the day the full force of the German 3rd Army is felt, as it seizes river crossings on the Meuse and directly threatens 5th Army's right flank.  Bits of news arriving by telegram of action elsewhere on the frontiers suggest the Germans are gaining all along the line, leaving him without any support.  He sees his worst nightmares coming true before his eyes - 5th Army trapped and annihilated between the two German armies, leaving France completely exposed to the German invasion of the north.  Lanrezac feels that the survival of 5th Army is essential to the survival of France itself.  At 930pm, Lanrezac informs Joffre that he has given the order to retreat.

As bad as the days events have been for 5th Army, they could have gone much worse.  General Bülow of the German 2nd Army had instructed General Hausen of 3rd Army to attack directly westwards across the Meuse, in support of his own push from the north.  Hausen complied with Bülow's order, instead of with a directive from OHL to move southwest towards Givet.  Had 3rd Army attempted OHL's manoeuvre instead, they would have been able to advance into the French 5th Army's rear, cutting its line of retreat and forcing its destruction.  By attacking frontally, Lanrezac's army is able to escape.

- When the commanders of the 3rd and 4th Armies report this morning on the devastating results of the prior day's fighting, Joffre at first cannot believe it.  So much has been invested in Plan XVII, in the notion that French infantry with sufficient elan can sweep all before them, that he can hardly comprehend that the attacks have failed.  Joffre orders both armies to resume the offensive.  As both armies struggle to resume the attack, German counter-attacks worsen the situation.  Just after noon, V Corps of 3rd Army is driven back eight miles, and to avoid envelopment the rest of 3rd Army retires the same distance.  To the north, the battered Colonial Corps of 4th Army withdraws from Neufchâteau at 5am, uncovering the flank of XII Corps which is also forced to retreat.  By the end of the day, all but two corps of 3rd and 4th armies have been driven back to the line from which they had started their offensive.

- The only decent news for the French comes from Lorraine where, despite its mauling, the French 2nd Army has managed to extricate itself and form a strong defensive line west of the Meurthe River, its northern flank anchored at Nancy and its southern linked to 1st Army.

- This evening, as the terrible news from along the front accumulates, Joffre struggles to understand the magnitude of what has transpired.  In a telegram to the War Minister, he suggests that he has been only 'momentarily checked' and that the offensive will be resumed.  The reality is that the French army has been defeated.  All of its pre-war planning and training, its emphasis on morale and infantry assaults, its unyielding faith in elan and the offensive, has been for nought.  In four days fighting, from Rupprecht's counterattack on the 20th to Lanrezac's order to retreat this evening, Plan XVII has disastrously miscarried.  Over those four days, the French army has suffered more than 140 000 casualties, and is now in retreat.

- As the French army endures a series of defeats, the British Expeditionary Force sees its first fighting of the campaign.  Acceding to Lanrezac's request, the BEF holds the line of the Mons Canal.  They are significantly outnumbered - the German 1st Army bearing down on them has four corps and three cavalry divisions, to the BEF's two corps.  Further, Smith-Dorrien's II Corps, on the left of the line, bears the brunt of the fighting, while Haig's I Corps on the right is not attacked at all.  Balancing the numbers are the quality of the British soldiers.  While the BEF is pitifully small compared to the armies of the Continental powers, it is also the only army composed of long-service regulars, instead of conscripts.  These are men who have made soldiering their profession - they train constantly, with a particular emphasis on rapid and accurate rifle fire.  Further, experience in the Boer War taught the British army the crucial importance of entrenchment and rifle accuracy.  Together this means the BEF is able to punch above its weight despite being heavily outnumbered.

The battle opens at 9am when German artillery begin firing on the British entrenchments south of the canal, followed shortly by infantry attacks.  Kluck's orders to maintain contact with 2nd Army to the east means he is unable to stretch his army westward to find and turn the BEF's flank.  As a result, 1st Army spends the day throwing itself at the British in frontal attacks.  Further, the attacks come in piecemail - 1st Army is still in marching formation, strung out along the Belgian road network, and is unable to concentrate when they stumble across the British.  Two corps of 1st Army never even engage the enemy today.  The German infantry who do enter the battle find themselves under intense rifle fire of such accuracy and frequency that some regiments report being halted by machine-gun fire instead.  By afternoon sections of the British line are being painfully forced back from the canal line, but the BEF is able to execute an orderly withdrawal to a second line of prepared entrenchments.  The Germans, for their part, are too exhausted to give chase.

German infantry advance towards Mons in the dense formations that made
them such easy targets for the British regulars, Aug. 23rd, 1914.

As evening falls, the soldiers of the BEF take satisfaction in having blunted a major German attack.  Though the British have suffered 1600 casualties, German casualties have been approximately 5000.  Further, a day has been lost for 1st Army, which has the furthest to travel.  Sir John French and his staff plan for a second day of fighting at Mons, continuing to cover the left flank of the French army.

- At 4am, the train carrying Ludendorff stops at Hanover station, where Hindenburg boards.  It is the first time the two men have met.  On the train Ludendorff explains the orders he has already issued, and Hindenburg approves, setting the pattern of the relationship between the two men.  Later today they arrive at 8th Army headquarters in East Prussia.  Meanwhile, I Corps completes its entrainment, an operation that has required precise coordination between five different railway stations.  The corps now begins its movement to the south to face the Russian 2nd Army.

- Russian operations in East Prussia reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the strategic situation.  Zhilinskii at North-West Front, as well as both Rennenkampf (1st Army) and Samsonov (2nd Army) believe that the Germans have been beaten, and are withdrawing behind the Vistula River.  Thus Zhilinskii's top priority is to hurry the advance of 2nd Army, so it can cut off the German 8th Army before it can extract itself from East Prussia.  To achieve this, one corps of 2nd Army is left in Poland to cover the western flank, and a second corps is detailed to the Masurian Lakes to cover the eastern flank.  This reduces the strength of 2nd Army to three corps as its advance continues.

Meanwhile, Rennenkampf is in no hurry to advance westwards.  Indeed, he fears that a rapid advance to allow 1st Army to catch up to the Germans would result in another German defeat that hastens their withdrawal from East Prussia before 2nd Army can close the trap.  Thus, though 1st Army begins to move today, its progress is extremely slow, and its cavalry is completely unable to discern that the German 8th Army is no longer in front of them - indeed, there is only a single German cavalry division left.  Moreover, Rennenkampf directs 1st Army northwestward towards the major German fortress of Königsberg in order to lay siege and potentially trap a portion of the German 8th Army he believes may have retreated there.  This movement draws 1st Army even further away from 2nd Army, leaving the latter increasingly exposed.

- The first major encounter on the Galician frontier begins today when the Russian 4th Army, advancing south, runs into the Austro-Hungarian 1st Army, moving north, in the Battle of Kraśnik.  In the pitched battle near the San River just inside Russian territory, it is the Austro-Hungarians who draw first blood.  Russian cavalry had completely failed to find the approaching enemy, and the corps of 4th Army were strung out and unable to provide mutual assistance.  One Russian corps is badly mauled, one of its divisions losing half its strength.  The Russians, however, do not view the Austro-Hungarian 1st Army as part of an invasion of Russian Poland, but rather the northern flank of the expected Austro-Hungarian concentration around Lemberg.  Pre-war expectations thus sow confusion among the Russian command structure.  In particular, there is no awareness that a second Austro-Hungarian army - 4th - is also advancing north on 1st Army's eastern flank.

- Their ultimatum having expired, Japan declares war on Germany. Japan feels no special attachment to the cause of the Entente - their war aims are limited to the Pacific, and indeed would have been equally pleased if Germany had acceded to Japanese demands peacefully.  As it is, Japan begins preparations for a campaign against Tsingtao.

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