Battle of Lorraine
On the morning of August 15, 1914, General de Castelnau's Second French army moved rapidly toward the Lorraine border on a front extending from the Grand Cauronne to the Vosges.
In the van of this advance was the 20th Corps, commanded by General Ferdinand Foch, the incomparable strategist who was destined four years later to lead all the Allied armies to a glorious victory.
The French army aimed at seizing the Metz-Strasburg railroad, and especially the junction at Saarburg, in order to cut the direct communication between the armies of Prince Rupert and von HeerinGeneral The actual frontier line was then held by a mere screen of enemy troops, the main German army occupying an entrenched position of great strength in the hilly country a few miles back of the border.
General Foch's 20th Corps, across the frontier, advanced in two columns, the left aiming at Delme, the right at Chateau Salins, both driving the German outpost guards before them. Bridges were thrown across the Seille River and the corps crossed to the German side before night.
General Espinasse's 15th Corps, meanwhile, was moving toward the lake region, and General Taverna's 16th Corps on Saarburg, with General Conneau's cavalry division guarding its right flank and exploring the wooded uplands in front. On the extreme right, a division of Dubail's army was co-operating in the move on Saarburg.
The German frontier forces continued to fall back slowly during the next two days, fighting delayed actions on a large scale, but leaving neither guns nor prisoners in the hands of the French. General Foch's right column seized Chateau Salins on the 18th and his left column occupied Delme, thus controlling the junction of the Nancy-Morhange railway with the frontier line to Metz. The French center, advancing through the lake region, was approaching the main Metz- Strasburg railway; the French right wing had occupied Saarburg Junction.
On the 19th, the French advance came under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire and the well-concealed German battle line was at length disclosed, extending eastward from Morville through Morhange and Fenetrange to Phalsbourg, its left resting on the Vosges and its right supported by the fortresses at Metz. General de Castelnau gave orders for an immediate attack.
General Foch's 20th Corps stormed the village of Couthel and gained the northern margin of the Forest of Chateau Salins all the way to Delme. Espinasse's 15th Corps, in the center, captured the village of Vergaville and advanced toward Bensdorf Junction. Taverna's 16th Corps, pushing forward west of Saarburg, advanced toward Fenestrange. Dubail's Division, on the other hand, was checked north of Saarburg. From their strong main position in the uplands, largely masked by belts of wood, the German batteries swept every open space with a hurricane of shell fire.
Still unaware that six German corps were opposing his three, and that Prince Rupert's entrenched line bristled with artillery drawn from the arsenal of Metz, General de Castelnau, on August 20, reformed his line and gave battle to the enemy on a front of forty miles, extending from Delme to Saarburg. General Foch held the left of the line, from Couthel to Delme; General Espinasse the center in the region of Vergaville; General Taverna the right, with his base on Birphing.
Foch's "Iron Corps" led in the grand assault. The llth Division, advancing through a storm of high explosive shells and a hurricane of machine-gun fire, gained a footing in Rodalbe, the 26th Regiment penetrating the German trenches and sending back 115 prisoners of the Saxon Corps. Though heavily counter-attacked, they clung doggedly to the ground they had won, but could advance no further. Foch's 39th Division also made some gains in the direction of Marthil.
Elsewhere, the French offensive met with disaster. In the center, Espinasse's Corps was brought to a dead stop under the tempest of the enemy's fire. Whole batteries were put out of action by the howitzer shells, while the infantry, in attempting to push forward through the woods, found their progress barred by wire and were mowed down by machine-gun fire. On the right, Taverna's Corps also found it impossible to advance beyond the wire barrier. Their losses were appalling.
By noon the French troops were well-nigh exhausted, while the Germans, fighting under cover, were comparatively fresh. Prince Rupert then launched a counter-attack, which was heralded by a tremendous burst of shell fire directed at the French center. Espinasse's Provencal troops gave way before the onslaught of the Bavarians. Guns were abandoned and the retreat became a rout.
As the French center collapsed, General Foch's two divisions, in their advanced position on the left of the line, were left isolated and in danger of annihilation. Their peril was increased when a Bavarian reserve corps pushed out from Metz to attack their flanks.
Luckily this German stroke was parried by two French reserve divisions which had entrenched the ground between Nomeny and Delme, and now held back the Bavarians. With his left flank protected, General Foch was able not only to cover his own retreat, but to protect Espinasse's demoralized corps in the center from complete disruption.
With his llth Division Foch launched an immediate counter-attack on the flank of the advancing enemy. Then, skillfully withdrawing his divisions, he fought a series of rearguard actions with the German right as they pressed forward toward Chateau Salins, making use of the forest-clad ground in his fighting retreat.
His tactics were successful; the German assault gradually slackened and by evening the battered center was brought to a position of temporary safety on the line Jelancourt- Maizieres. Meanwhile, the retreat of Taverna's Corps, on the right of the French line, had been covered by reinforcements from Dubail's army.
General Dubail's army had been more successful in the invasion of Alsace. The Donan heights and the neighboring line of the Vosges had been seized, and General Pau's Division had captured Mulhousen with thousands of prisoners and twenty-four guns.
De Castelnau's Lorraine army was still in peril, however, and a further withdrawal across the Seille and Meurthe rivers and thence into France, was decided upon. The army was ordered to fall back to a new position on the French side of the frontier, covering the Trouvée de Charmes, a gap in the Eastern fortress barrier, with the entrenched camp of Toul on its left and that of Epinol on its right.
In co-operation with Dubail's First Army, they would there await the inevitable attack by the victorious Germans. Foch's 20th Corps was assigned to act as the rear guard of the whole army, covering its retirement across the Meurthe to the new battle positions. A welcome reinforcement reached the Second Army on August 21, 1914, made up of three brigades and several batteries of artillery belonging to the 9th Corps which had mobilized at Tours.
The retreat across the frontier was begun on August 21, 1914. General Foch, with his "Iron Corps," guarded the retirements, holding the heights on the left bank of the Meurthe above and below St. Nicholas and covering the river crossings with his artillery fire.
On the right bank, a brigade of the llth Division, with several batteries, held the heights above Flainvol against repeated attacks, and only withdrew across the river at dark, blowing up the bridges as they went. The only French troops left on the right bank were those that held the Grand Cauronne. On Sunday, August 23, 1914, the Second Army was in position on its chosen battle ground for the defence of the Charmes Gap.
On the same day, Lanrezac's French army on the Sambre was defeated by von Buelow, the British had begun their retreat from Mons, the armies of De Ruft'ey and De Langle had both been shattered and the whole Allied line on the Northern frontier was falling back.
As a result of the defeat of the Second French Army at Morhange, General Dubail's First Army was obliged to abandon the Donan heights in Alsace and the neighboring line of the Vosges, and General Pau was withdrawing from Mulhousen. Both were ordered to unite with General de Castelnau in front of Trouvée de Charmes.
On August 19, 1914, the 7th Company of the French 153d Infantry made an approach march of some three miles in the preliminary phase of the Battle of Morhange. The 4th Platoon of this company numbered about fifty-five menforty of them regulars and the rest reserves who had been called to the colors three weeks before. These reservists had forgotten much of their former training, and consequently lacked the dependability, confidence and aggressiveness of the other members of the platoon.
The platoon advanced some two miles under continuous artillery fire but, thanks to a combination of good leading and good luck, lost only two men. The remainder of the 7th Company was not so fortunate; it lost 33.
Late in the afternoon the platoon reached the reverse slope of a bare hill which had to be crossed. The crest, though out of small-arms range, was within easy range of the German artillery. A company to the left of the platoon attempted to cross in skirmish line and was shot to pieces. The platoon witnessed this.
The platoon leader studied the terrain carefully. He noted a ravine at the foot of the forward slope that offered fairly good protection. The only cover from the crest down to this ravine was a line of grain shocks spaced at intervals of four or five yards. The platoon leader decided to move his unit to the ravine a man at a time, taking advantage of the cover offered by the shocks. He led the way and directed his platoon to follow. On reaching the ravine he took cover and waited for the platoon to rejoin him. One by one they filed in. The enemy had not fired a single shot. Nevertheless, a check revealed `12 men missing-all reservists. The platoon leader had not left anyone behind to see that all men made the forward movement.
From studies on the advance of infantry under artillery fire by Major André Laffargue, Prench Army. Major Laffaergue commanded the 4th Platoon of the 71h Company.
DISCUSSION. The formation adopted for crossing the crest was undoubtedly correct. It enabled the platoon to escape the enemy's notice, and thus avoid the disaster which had overtaken the company on its left. True enough, this formation temporarily sacrificed control, but in this case it was justified in order to save casualties. Furthermore, the leader made positive arrangements to regain control at the earliest possible moment. He prescribed the length and method of the advance and he led the way in order to be on hand to gather up his men as they came in. He probably had an additional motive in going first: his outfit was undoubtedly shaken by the fate of the company on the left; by leading the way he provided his men with a first-class sedative.
Indeed, this young officer can not be criticized for anything he did, but, as so often happens in war, he can be criticized for something he failed to do. In this instance he forgot half of his command problem-the rear half. He failed to charge any of his noncommissioned officers with the job of seeing that the entire platoon followed him as directed. We have seen the result: when the platoon reformed in the ravine 12 reservists-nearly one-fourth of the command-were missing.
So far as these twelve men were concerned, special precautions were necessary. These men were reservists; they had but recently joined the unit; the platoon leader knew practically nothing of their state of training or their dependability. In such circumstances the closest supervision is necessary if control is to be maintained. The figures speak eloquently-two men lost from physical causes, twelve from moral causes.
The Battle of Lorraine was fought in August, 1914, between France and Germany. This followed Plan XVII, which proposed a French offensive through Lorraine and Alsace, and into Germany itself.
The main French offensive in the west, known as the Battle of Lorraine, was launched on 14 August. The First Army of General Auguste Dubail was to advance on Sarrebourg, while the Second Army of General de Castelnau headed towards Morhange. On the 17th, the XXth Corps (General Foch) captured Château Salins near Morhange, while Sarrebourg was captured on the 18th. However, after four days of retreat in order to lure the french armies into German territory, the German Sixth and Seventh Armies under the combined command of Crown Prince Rupprecht launched a counter-attack; Rupprecht was in charge of the German forces assigned to meet and engage the French assault in the centre until they could be enveloped by the encircling German right wing. The German rearguards, equipped with machine guns, inflicted heavy casualties on the French infantry, still wearing their early 19th-century uniform of blue coat and red trousers.
Crown Prince Rupprecht, dissatisfied with the defensive role assigned to him, petitioned his superiors to allow him a counter-offensive. On August 20, the offensive began and Auguste Dubail ordered his army to withdraw from Morhange. Seeing this, Noel de Castelnau's army pulled out of Sarrebourg. The Germans didn't halt at the border and instead marched on to try to take Nancy. Ferdinand Foch's XX Corps managed to defend Nancy successfully, halting the German offensive. To the north, Mulhouse was retaken, but it was abandoned as the French gave up on Plan XVII.
The battle lapsed into stalemate until August 24th, when a limited German offensive was launched. The French had been alerted beforehand by scouting aircraft and so German gains were limited to a small salient. The following day, even that was lost when the French counterattacked. Fighting continued on to the end of the month, at which time trenches were built and a permanent stalemate ensued.