Thursday, September 04, 2014

September 4th, 1914

- This morning, as 1st Army crosses the Marne River in strength, Kluck dispatches a lengthy telegram to OHL, informing Moltke for the first time that 1st Army, instead of following his General Directive of the 2nd and redeployed in echelon behind 2nd Army, has continued to advance, and is ahead of 2nd Army.  Kluck justifies his action by stating that obedience to Moltke's orders would eliminate any opportunity to envelop the flank of the French 5th Army.  Moreover, he believes that the BEF is out of the fight, posing no great danger, and that only second-rate French formations are at Paris, which can be held off by IV Reserve Corps, left behind for this reason.  Moltke does not reply to this admission of insubordination.

For its part 1st Army is no longer the force it was at the outbreak of the war.  In addition to suffering over twenty thousand casualties to this point, its supply position is precarious.  By today, its supply railhead at Chauny is 140 kilometres behind the army, and more than 60% of the trucks assigned to supply 1st Army have broken down.

- At 630am, XII Reserve Corps of 3rd Army comes under artillery fire in Rheims.  The source of the bombardment, however, is not the French, but rather artillery belonging to the 2nd Guard Division of 2nd Army.  About 170 shells are fired into the city before 2nd Guard Division realizes its error.  The episode is emblematic of the extent to which communications between the German armies on the right wing have completely broken down.

- Further aerial reconnaissance by flyers of the Paris garrison confirm that the German 1st Army continues to move southeast past the French capital.  At 910am Gallieni thus orders 6th Army, now reinforced to approximately 150 000 soldiers, to prepare to advance eastward, lead elements to begin moving this afternoon with the rest of the army following in the morning.

Meanwhile, Joffre has independently come to the same conclusion as Gallieni - the march of the Germans past Paris to the east creates the desired opportunity to counterattack the Germans and hit their flank.  Joffre agrees with Gallieni's order to 6th Army, but is still uncertain as to the timing of the attack.  The critical variable is when 5th Army will be able to halt its retreat, turn about, and attack.  Given its battered state and lengthy retreat, it is not immediately clear how early this can be done, so Joffre telegrams Franchet d'Espèrey asking if his army would be able to counterattack within the next several days.

As he waits for a reply, he takes the opinions of his staff, some of whom still prefer to retreat behind the Seine before counterattacking.  Taking leave of his staff, Joffre then steps outside and finds shade beneath a weeping ash tree in the playground of the school currently serving as his headquarters.  For most of the afternoon he sits here alone, weighing the choice before him.  He knows he has but one chance at a counteroffensive - if it fails, the French army would be broken and the war lost.  Is this the best opportunity?  Would patience and further retreat allow for an even greater chance of success?  His inclination is to attack, but the significance of the choice does not lend itself to a rapid decision.

Shortly after 630pm the reply from Franchet d'Espèrey arrives.  Despite only having been commander of 5th Army for less than 24 hours, he informs Joffre that his army will be able to attack as of the 6th.  He also states that he has met with General Wilson, Deputy Chief of Staff of the BEF, and the latter has agreed to BEF participation in the attack, provided its flanks are covered by 5th and 6th armies.  This is the information Joffre needed.  The decision made, Joffre instructs his staff to draft instructions for ending the retreat and going back over to the attack.  He originally selected September 7th as the day for the counteroffensive to begin, but compelling arguments delivered over the telephone by Gallieni convinced Joffre that 6th Army was best positioned to attack on the 6th, and thus the date for the general attack was moved up a day.  At 10pm Joffre issues General Instructions No. 6.  It orders the retreat of 3rd, 4th, and 5th armies, as well as Foch's army detachment (now renamed 9th Army), to halt and attack the Germans on September 6th.  Simultaneously, 6th Army would hit the German flank east of Paris, while the British were expected to co-operate by taking their position between 5th and 6th armies.

Meanwhile, this evening General Wilson returns to BEF headquarters to find that Chief of Staff General Archibald Murray has ordered a further night retreat of ten to fifteen miles, putting the BEF twenty-five miles from where Joffre believes it will be when the French counteroffensive is to begin.  When Sir John French arrived at BEF headquarters after a day reviewing the frontline commands, he decides that 'further study' is needed before committing the BEF to any particular action.  Wilson, a long-time advocate of Anglo-French co-operation, is heartbroken, and Captain Huguet, the French liaison officer attached to BEF headquarters, sends off an urgent telegram informing Joffre of the situation.  Just before midnight, the telegram arrives, and its news comes as a great shock.  Participation of the BEF is essential, and the orders sent out for the counteroffensive cannot now be adjusted.  Sir John French must be convinced of the necessity of joining in the attack, or all may yet be lost.

- After a week of preparation, Prince Rupprecht's 6th Army launches a major offensive against Nancy.  Though there is major fighting near Épinal and south of Nancy by divisions of 7th Army, the major objective of the attack is the Grand Couronné, a ridge northeast of Nancy, the capture of which would allow 6th Army to attack nearby French forts from the rear and unbalance the French defense of Nancy.  Opposing the Germans is the French 2nd Army under General Castelnau.  Beginning in the early hours of the morning, German forces advance under murderous French artillery fire raining down from the heights of the Grand Couronné.

The front at Nancy, September 4th to 7th, 1914.  Note the Grand Couronné north of Nancy.

- Late this evening Moltke issues another General Directive to the armies on the Western Front, ordering it delivered by automobile to ensure that each commanding general receives it.  It acknowledges that the French have transferred units from Lorraine to near Paris, and as such the original objective of driving the French armies to the Swiss frontier, as embodied in the Schlieffen Plan, was no longer practical.  Instead, 1st and 2nd armies are to hold their positions east of Paris, prepared to parry any French attacks from that direction.  On the other end of the front, 6th and 7th armies are to continue the offensive in Lorraine, to tie down as many French units as possible, while 4th and 5th armies west of Verdun are to push the French armies opposite southeast through the Argonne Forest.  Finally, 3rd Army would be available either to assist 4th and 5th armies to the east or 1st and 2nd armies to the west.  In concept this General Directive abandons all pretense of implementing the Schlieffen Plan.  Especially with respect to the new roles for 1st and 2nd armies, it is an admission that the German army lacks sufficient strength on the Western Front to achieve the decisive victory embodied in the Schlieffen Plan.

- In the aftermath of the annihilation of the Russian 2nd Army, 1st Army has formed a strong defensive line in East Prussia running north from the Masurian Lakes.  In addition, 10th Army is assembling to the southeast just inside the Russian border, to provide cover for 1st Army's southern flank.  Indeed, General Zhilinskii of North-West Front believes that his forces are capable of launching a further offensive, as he interprets continued actions by German reserve troops south of the Tannenberg battlefield as an indication that the German 8th Army will invade Poland.  As such, he hopes that a move westwards by 1st Army will be able to cut in behind the Germans.  General Rennenkampf, for his part, is more negative - he feels his army is in a dangerously exposed position, and in particular fears a sortie of strong German forces from the fortress of Königsberg to the northwest.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff, however, are not content to rest on the laurels earned at Tannenberg.  Instead, they are in the process of redeploying 8th Army, augmented by the arrival of II and Guard Reserve Corps from the Western Front, eastward to attack the Russian 1st Army.  Ludendorff's plan is to send his best units - François' I Corps and Mackensen's XVII Corps - to move south against the Russian left while the rest of 8th Army attacked the main defensive line of the Russian 1st Army.  The objective was to break through on the left and encircle the Russians, and thus repeating the decisive victory of Tannenberg.

- South of Lublin in Russian Poland, the Austro-Hungarian 1st Army is finding itself under increasing pressure from the Russian 4th and 9th armies to its north, and is gradually being forced backwards.  Meanwhile, to the east, the Russian 5th Army, which Conrad had assumed had been effectively destroyed at the Battle of Zamość-Komarów, has halted its retreat and gone back over onto the attack, advancing to the southwest into a gap that has emerged between the Austro-Hungarian 1st and 4th armies after the latter turned southeast as part of Conrad's plan to envelop the Russian 3rd and 8th armies.  The balance of numbers is increasingly tilting against the Austro-Hungarians as more divisions of the slower-mobilizing Russian army arrive on the front, and Conrad is encountering the inherent difficulties of attempting to surround a numerically-superior enemy with exhausted soldiers.

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