Monday, September 08, 2014

September 8th, 1914

- Along the Ourcq the French 6th and German 1st armies continued to grapple.  Both sides are exhausted after four days of near-constant combat, but with all of the German 1st Army now in the battle line, the breakthrough desired by General Manourey that his 6th Army is increasingly unlikely.  Tonight two infantry divisions are forced back, and Manourey begins to plan a second line of defense should his entire army have to retire from its present positions.  Far from turning the German flank, 6th Army is now just barely holding on, and it is increasingly a matter of whether the BEF can make its presence felt in the gap between the German armies before 6th Army is defeated.

- The BEF continues its advance into the gap between the German 1st and 2nd armies, and by noon has reached the Petit Morin River.  There is a brief fight with General Georg von der Marwitz's II Cavalry Corps before the latter withdraws northwards - the German cavalry corps in the gap, exhausted by weeks of constant movement and with horses dropping dead from a lack of fodder, is able to do little more than observe the British advance.  Later today a violent thunderstorm slows the already lethargic march of the BEF.  After trying positive encouragement yesterday, Joffre is more direct today in trying to hurry the British along - at 8pm, Joffre telegrams Sir John French that it is 'essential' for the BEF to cross the Marne and exploit the gap between the German armies.

Men of the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, 19th Brigade, BEF, come under
shrapnel fire from German artillery on the Signy-Signets road during the
Battle of the Marne, September 8th, 1914.

- The nighttime bayonet attack of the German 3rd Army begins this morning at 245 am.  The soldiers advance with bayonets fixed and rifles unload.  Despite clear skies and a pale moon, the Germans achieve complete surprise, and descend on the French positions without warning.  The crews of the dreaded French 75s are put to flight, and within three hours four entire French divisions were in headlong retreat.  At 615am the commander of XI Corps, the rightmost corps of Foch's 9th Army, orders his force to fall back ten kilometres, which then dragged 9th Army's centre backwards.  The German 3rd Army has effectively outflanked the Marshes of St. Gond, and control the western exits.  By any measure, the bayonet charge has been a success, and 9th Army has been decisively defeated.

Unfortunately for the Germans, General Foch refused to accept that he had been defeated, as embodied in a draft signal to Joffre: 'My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat, situation excellent.  I attack.'  It was most likely never sent, but the words enhance Foch's reputation and become part of the legend of the Marne.  Counterattacks are ordered along the line to keep the advancing Germans off-balance.  At 9pm, in response to a desperate appeal from Foch, Franchet d'Espèrey of 5th Army sends two divisions to reinforcement the left wing of 9th Army, allowing Foch to redeploy a division from his left to reinforce the right.  Joffre also dispatches a cavalry division to help stop the German breakthrough.

The initial attack of the Germans had been a stunning success - three German divisions had forced back the French between ten to thirteen kilometres over a twenty kilometre section of the front line. It is a success that the Germans will not repeat on the Western Front until 1918.  However, the initial momentum is quickly lost.  French counterattacks and reinforcements slow the German advance to a crawl.  Moreover, the Germans had advanced beyond the reach of their own artillery, were short on food and water, and have suffered 20% casualties.  There were no additional units available to continue the advance, and an evening rain turned the ground into mud.  By nightfall, despite the substantial advance, the Germans had been halted.  In one of the decisive moments of the Battle of the Marne, Foch's 9th Army has held - if the Germans had been able to sustain their advance, the entire French line might have shattered.  Instead, the reasons behind the German failure to exploit their breakthrough would become a common refrain in the years ahead on the Western Front.

- The retreat has carried the French 3rd Army past Verdun, and by today its front line was overstretched between Verdun to the northeast and 4th Army to the west.  The German 5th Army has applied heavy pressure, and today pushes 3rd Army south of Revigny, raising the possibility that the Germans may break through the Revigny Gap.  Late this evening, Joffre orders General Sarrail to withdraw his right wing and break off contact with Verdun.  It was a reasonable order - the Germans were in no shape to take on the massive fortifications ringing the town of Verdun - but Sarrail refuses, which causes Joffre anxiety lest the Germans break through the weak link between 3rd Army and 4th Army on its left.

- The mood at OHL remains one of panic this morning, which is not alleviated when wireless intercepts indicate the advance of the BEF between 1st and 2nd armies.  Moltke desperately desires clarity about the situation at the front, but wireless communications have not yet been established with 1st or 2nd Army, and he feels that he himself cannot absent himself from OHL at this moment of crisis.  Meeting with his staff, Moltke decides to send Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, as he had visited Kluck and Bülow three days earlier and was thus more acquainted with the situation of the two German armies.  Sending a junior officer on such an important mission was not unusual, and such officers had been sent as emissaries to other headquarters during the war, and the instructions they gave were seen as emanating from Moltke himself.  Hentsch has private conversations with Moltke and the Kaiser, and though no direct records exist of what was discussed, it appears Hentsch was given the authority to order a withdrawal of 1st Army if the situation necessitated it.  Certainly Hentsch believed he had the authority necessary to make such monumental decisions, though no orders were given in writing.

At 10am Hentsch departs OHL in Luxembourg City by automobile in what has been described as 'undoubtedly . . . the most important staff ride in military history.'  He has decided to visit each German army as he proceeds west, so his first stop at 1pm is 5th Army headquarters.  Here he learns that the Crown Prince plans further attacks for tomorrow, so Hentsch is satisfied with their position. He encounters a similar situation at 4th Army headquarters - while there he uses their telephone connection with OHL to report that both 4th and 5th armies are in good shape.  At 3rd Army headquarters General Hausen expresses concern about his right wing, but otherwise reports the situation satisfactory.  Hentsch then sets out for 2nd Army headquarters, which he reaches at 745pm.  In a lengthy meeting with Bülow and his staff, the 2nd Army headquarters gives vent to his concerns about the gap between 2nd and 1st armies.  For Bülow all of the blame rests on Kluck for his disobedience of Moltke's orders, which resulted in 1st Army advancing ahead of 2nd Army, and his repeated ignorance of the necessity of protecting the flank of 2nd Army.  He insists that 1st Army must immediately break off the battle with the French 6th Army and march eastwards to close the gap and cover the western flank of 2nd Army.  Bülow here is concerned solely with the plight of his army, not of the larger German offensive.  The French 5th Army is applying increasing pressure on his right wing, and there are no signs yet that the French 9th Army on his left is broken.  The insistence on 1st Army marching east immediately reflects a lack of regard for what 1st Army might accomplish by a victory over the French 6th Army.  For him, the menace of envelopment is very realy, with the French 5th Army pushing on his right and the BEF marching through the gap beyond, potentially to attack his army from behind.

At this point Hentsch states that he has full authority to issue orders to Kluck, which takes Bülow by surprise.  He reiterates that at this point the best option is for 1st Army to move east, but Hentsch doubts that Kluck's force can successfully disengage from its fight with the French 6th Army.  At this point, a report comes in to 2nd Army headquarters that the French have broken through the German VII Corps and was advancing on Montmirail.  Bülow becomes concerned that his front is about to be pierced, and orders X Reserve Corps to fall back even further on his right.  For the first time the word 'retreat' is uttered, as Bülow comments that the French may soon be in a position to compel a German retirement.  They decide that the last possible moment to order a retreat that can still succeed would be when the British and French reach the Marne.  For reasons that Hentsch takes to his grave, he decides to stay the night at 2nd Army headquarters instead of immediately driving to 1st Army.  At 930pm, just before going to bed, he sends the following signal to OHL: 'Situation at 2. Army serious, but not desperate.'  With that Hentsch ends his mission for the day, leaving for tomorrow the climax of the Battle of the Marne.

- The battle continues to rage near Nancy.  In deference to Joffre's orders, Castlenau and 2nd Army continue to hold on.  The attacks of the Bavarians nearly break through.  They seize the vital village of Saint-Geneviève, nicknamed the 'Hole of Death', but a desperate counterattack by the French XX Corps retakes the village today.  The Germans have suffered horrendous losses - one German corps alone has suffered ten thousand casualties - and despite minor progress have failed to break though.

- Today the entirety of the German 8th Army is engaged in attacking the Russian 1st Army in East Prussia.  Four corps attempt a frontal attack on Russian lines north of Lake Mauer, but are repulsed.  XVII Corps, aimed at the Lötzen gap just south of Lake Mauer, finds the terrain too constricting and in three attacks is unable to break through.  I Corps, meanwhile, is still approaching the battle, marching 123 kilometres in four days.

The German offensives on September 8th and 9th, 1914, at the Battle of the Masurian Lakes.

- In Galicia, a German Landwehr Corps from Silesia, the only German unit available to assist the Austro-Hungarians and stationed to the west of the Austro-Hungarian 1st Army, is crushed by the Russian 9th Army, suffering eight thousand casualties today.  Its retreat behind the Vistula River uncovers the left flank of the already-hardpressed 1st Army.

To the south, Conrad orders 4th Army to join with 3rd and 2nd armies in attacking Russian forces around Lemberg.  However, the reorientation of the Russian 3rd Army to the northwest results in the Austro-Hungarian 4th Army attacking it not on its flank, but frontally around Rawa-Ruska.  Exhausted from several weeks of constant battle and movement, 4th Army is unable to make any significant progress.

In the fighting near Rawa-Ruska, Conrad's third son Herbert, a Lieutenant in the 15th Dragoons, is killed today in a failed attack on a Russian position.

- In the Balkans, the second attempt to invade Serbia is launched by Austria-Hungary, with General Potiorek once again in command.  With the departure of 2nd Army to Galicia, he has two armies remaining - 5th and 6th - both located to the west of Serbia along the Drina River, with 5th to the north in the same position as August (just south of the Drina) and 6th Army immediately next to it.  The commander of 5th Army is reluctant to launch another attack in the same place as before - his army has suffered more than 25% losses already - but with a direct order from Potiorek sends his two corps across the Drina, accompanied by XVI Corps on the southern flank of 6th Army (XV Corps, on 6th Army's northern flank adjacent to 5th Army, is not prepared to attack).  The attack by 5th Army is another disaster - most of their boats are grounded on sandbars in the river, leaving them under accurate Serbian fire.  To the south, however, XVI Corps manages to cross the Drina with only light losses, and hits the Serbian 3rd Army in the flank.  XVI Corps is thus able to secure a bridgehead in Serbian territory.  Meanwhile, a scratch force of two divisions under General Alfred Krauss is assigned to contain the invasion of the Serbian 1st Army.

No comments:

Post a Comment