Initial Border and Railway Security Operations in the West and the Occupation of Luxembourg
At the start of the war, the German General Staff believed that the French—possibly even before war was declared—would attempt to disturb German mobilization and deployment by systematically blasting railway bridges and tunnels, by initiating air attacks against railway buildings and trains (especially those travelling across the Rhine bridges), and by conducting surprise dashes using standing or quickly mobilized troops, especially cavalry. A coup de main against the defensive works on Metz’s western front near the frontier and Fort Kaiser Wilhelm II did not seem out of the question. It would be the task of German troops assigned to border and railway security to ward off such attempts. Furthermore, these troops were tasked with securing the areas required for the deployment of the Field Army, with obscuring their own measures, and, if possible, with gaining a glimpse of the enemy’s activities. It was therefore very important, in the event of war, that German border and railway security personnel be put into action in time and with sufficient strength.
At the instigation of the Prussian War Minister, and acting under the authority of special provisions initiated during times of heightened political tension, on 28 July, Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg increased railway supervision in frontier districts, as well as for railway employees under the jurisdiction of the Berlin Railway Division Authority (Eisenbahndirektion Berlin). This was the first protective measure taken at the behest of the central military authority. On the same day, the Ministry of War ordered the recall of those troops who were absent from their garrisons, who in the event of mobilization were to be “immediately” or quickly ready to march, for purposes of border security and for certain special tasks. Also, members of the public safety service were to guard the large wireless stations. Late on the night of 29 July, orders were sent out to recall to their garrisons all troops on manoeuvres and training grounds and to protect the air corps establishments as well as important structures along railway lines and waterways in the frontier districts. During the night of 29–30 July, the construction of armed positions for frontier defence was ordered as long as they were on German soil.
The state of “Sentinel Duty,” ordered on 30 July for the German Navy, required that the land army only put into readiness the active troops destined for the protection of the islands of Borkum, Pellworm, and Sylt—a total of five and a quarter infantry battalions, a company of engineers, and a foot artillery battalion including artillery equipment, ammunition, and provisions.
The deployment of frontier protection, which XVI Corps Headquarters intended to begin on 31 July, was abandoned after the Minister of War objected.
Only when the “State of Imminent Danger of War” was declared on 31 July at 13:00 did all measures prepared in peacetime for the military protection of frontiers, railways, and the coast come into force. Passenger and mail traffic across the frontiers was placed under more strict control, international telephone traffic and non-official wireless dispatches were prohibited, and public freight traffic in the border districts was suspended. The troop mobilization, however, was not connected with these moves. No reserves were called up, nor were units conveyed from the interior of the Empire to its borders; instead, the men of the frontier corps—who were still on their peacetime footing—took over protection of the frontiers as well as that of the railways within the jurisdiction of their corps.
Simultaneously with the Decree of Mobilization for the Army and Navy, promulgated on 1 August at 17:00 hours, the Landsturm was called out in the jurisdictions of fifteen separate corps (I, II, V, VI, VIII, IX, X, XI, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XX, XXI, and Bavarian II Corps).
At first, protection of the western deployment fell to the frontier corps (VIII, XVI, XXI, XV, and XIV Corps), according to the instructions for border and railway security issued by the Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army in peacetime. As hostilities were to commence only upon orders of the OHL, even patrols, small detachments, and aircraft were strictly prohibited from crossing the frontier into French or Belgian territory. This prohibition, however, would become immediately invalid if the enemy entered or overflew German territory. Notwithstanding these peacetime regulations, on the night of 1–2 August, the Chief of the General Staff of the Field Army enjoined the general commanding XVI Corps again, in a personal telephone call, to maintain the strictest restraint among his border guards. He stressed that any trespassing on enemy territory was to be strictly avoided, as were any hostilities. On the afternoon of 2 August the same instruction was telegraphed again to the headquarters of the five corps on the Western frontier. Only the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was exempt from these rules, since it was in a customs union with Germany. Luxembourg was scheduled to be occupied immediately upon the Decree of Mobilization and was to be included in the deployment territory; this was in order to take possession of its important railways.
In general, the borders of the corps districts were treated as the lateral operational boundaries for the areas to be defended. After entry into Luxembourg, the southern frontier of that country was to be divided between VIII and XVI Corps. The commanding generals were to direct the troops and formations within their own jurisdictions for the execution of their tasks. The 16th Infantry Division of VIII Corps was assigned to occupy Luxembourg. Its troops, which had been hurriedly put into readiness, were to turn out immediately after reporting themselves ready to march. Otherwise, during the “State of Imminent Danger of War,” VIII Corps’ border security operations in the relatively safe area between Kaldenkirchen and Echternach were to be carried out only by the Gendarme, customs officers, forestry officers, and road police, and, after mobilization, by Landsturm forces. On the Swiss border, too, the Landsturm was viewed as able to provide satisfactory security. However, in the section from Luxembourg to the Swiss frontier, active troops were stationed from the very start. Protection of the railways in the areas of XVI, XV, XXI, and Bavarian II Corps (Palatinate) was likewise assigned to active troops, while in the jurisdictions of VIII and XIV Corps this was left mostly to Landsturm troops.
The special difficulties attached to border and railway protection lay, first, in the speed at which the troops assigned to it had to ready themselves, and, second, in the steady change of troops and responsible commanding authorities during the first days of deployment. It was imperative that such protection come into force as rapidly as possible, on all points that could be threatened in any way. The first active troops to be employed had to be those stationed in the nearest peacetime garrisons. They were especially fit for this duty on account of their knowledge of local conditions. Of course, these troops were not already on a war footing and had to turn out before mobilization was completed. Some of them were not even stationed within the jurisdictions of the headquarters to which they had been assigned under the war organization.
Border security arrangements were executed in part on 31 July, the remainder on 1 August, without any disturbances and without serious contact with the enemy. Beyond the frontier, French guards and frontier sentries were identified at many points. At first, active patrols were made only in the Vosges and at the Burgundian Gate, where some frontier violations did occur in spite of the strict prohibitions that had been issued. These were the result of the understandable but ill-timed impulsiveness of eager patrol leaders. Against these, it is true, stood a considerably greater number of French frontier violations. Only after Germany declared war against France on 3 August at 18:00 was cross-border reconnaissance permitted.
In the meantime, 16th Infantry Division had already occupied the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The completion of this mission, however, was at first delayed by the Chief of the General Staff of the Army, who telephoned on 1 August at 18:40 to prohibit the crossing of the Luxembourg border on the orders of the Kaiser. According to its deployment instructions, 16th Infantry Division was to have entered Luxembourg immediately on receipt of the mobilization order, but it was only permitted to do so after a new instruction was issued at 12:45 the next morning. Elements of Infantry Regiments 29 and 69, which had assembled at different points, although their units were not yet fully mobilized, rushed forward by armoured train, in railway cars and automobiles, and on bicycles, to secure the railway lines Wasserbillig–Luxembourg and Duedelingen–Luxembourg–Diekirch–Wallendorf. Luxembourg City was occupied on the afternoon of 2 August. The bulk of 16th Infantry Division under Generalleutnant Fuchs followed at 07:00 the next morning from Zewen via Wasserbillig–Manternach, without waiting for mobilization to be completed. The deployment occurred without incident. The Luxembourg government limited itself to a diplomatic protest and behaved with restraint. The population was quiet, sometimes even obliging. The occupied railway lines were left fully intact and fit for operational use. There was no contact with the French. On 3 August the main forces of 16th Infantry Division remained on the German side of the Alzette River, while smaller forces entrenched on the far bank. In spite of a number of reports to the contrary, it was ascertained that the French had not crossed the Luxembourg frontier.
On the evening of 3 August, XVIII Corps’ 50th composite Infantry Brigade, composed of hurriedly mobilized troops, was conveyed by rail to Koenigsmachern and Sierck. These troops arrived as reinforcements in the area of Bettembourg. There they took over the tasks of border and railway security in the southernmost part of Luxembourg. The 15th and 16th Cavalry Brigades, seconded to 16th Infantry Division, were pushed forward to Dippach and Pontpierre. Only once beyond the French and Belgian borders did they come into contact with enemy frontier guards; repeated clashes followed between reconnaissance parties over the ensuing days.
Around the fortresses of Thionville and Metz, border security was assigned to XVI Corps Headquarters. Besides the measures taken to increase the preparedness and readiness for action of firing positions in the outer works and to secure the connections between them, headquarters pushed Infantry Regiment 144—reinforced by some artillery and cavalry—into the area of Rorabach on 31 July. From here the regiment marched across the border on 4 August to reconnoitre, occupying Briey the following day after a light skirmish with French frontier guard detachments. A more serious clash occurred on 8 August, when a company standing near Valleroy repulsed an attack by superior forces (French 16th Chasseurs) from Labry. Parts of the regiment, together with a battery, made a dash for Labry and Conflans in the afternoon, returning to their positions in the evening with a number of prisoners.
As in Luxembourg, German border protection forces in the Rhineland and Lorraine received welcome reinforcements on the evening of 3 August. This relief came with the arrival of hurriedly transported mixed infantry brigades consisting generally of six battalions, one squadron, and three batteries each. These units had already been made ready to march in their peacetime garrisons on the first day of mobilization and had to have their remaining complements sent after them into the field. As a rule, they were employed in the future deployment areas of those corps to which they belonged according to the wartime organization and were subordinated to the commanding generals of the frontier corps until the arrival of their own corps headquarters.
On 3 August the composite 53rd Infantry Brigade (XIII Corps) took over protection of the right wing of the section of XVI Corps north of Thionville while XXI Corps’ 42nd Infantry Division took up border security duty alone in the 75-kilometre-wide gap between Metz and the Vosges. The 42nd was given significant relief by bringing forward three mixed Bavarian infantry brigades. Of these, the 11th marched into the area of Rémilly, the 7th to Moerchingen, and the 3rd to Saarburg. From then on, 42nd Infantry Division could limit its own patrols to the section of Dieuze. The enemy was not very active along this entire front. After 7 August the German infantry guards were pushed forward over the border, with the left wing (Bavarian 3rd Infantry Brigade), in connection with the movements of the GHQ Cavalry—which was making light contact in places with a weak enemy—advancing to the line Blâmont–Cirey.
In addition to the gains made in border skirmishes in Luxembourg and Lorraine, beginning on 3 August early assistance was provided by the assembly of the cavalry, with I Cavalry Corps (Senior Cavalry Commander 1) arriving on the Eifel, IV Cavalry Corps (Senior Cavalry Commander 4) in the southern part of Luxembourg and north of Thionville, and III Cavalry Corps (Senior Cavalry Commander 3) in Lorraine. In addition to its primary task of gathering strategic intelligence, along with the Jägerbattalions allocated to it, the cavalry was to concurrently provide security along the borders and lines of communication.
From the beginning, it was anticipated that the planned German deployment in the Vosges and the Burgundian Gate would be eventful and difficult. In XV Corps sector—encompassing the northern part of the Vosges from Donon to the Rheinkopf south of Schlucht Pass—several infantry regiments and Jägerbattalions, reinforced by artillery and cavalry, guarded the border; in XIV Corps’ sector (adjacent to the Swiss border) the task fell under the unified leadership of the commander of the composite 58th Infantry Brigade.10 After the first two days in which border violations described above occurred, nothing of importance happened along this front. The situation determined by the reconnaissance carried out after the start of the war was that the entire frontier was safeguarded by chains of French posts behind which larger detachments were situated in reinforced positions. From 5 August onwards, however, combat patrols were sent out in many areas owing to the enemy’s increased activity. Of a more serious nature was an engagement at the Schlucht Pass and at the Hohneck on 5 August. Strong French detachments advancing from Gèrardmer with machine guns and artillery pushed the German pickets back, and the Germans blew the tunnel through the Schlucht Pass. The enemy did not press after them any further. The activity of the French border guards increased over the following days along the Vosges Front and was closely connected to the first large military action on which the enemy command had decided: the strike at Mulhouse.