Strategy and Tactics
The defeat of the French 4th Army by the German 4th Army in the Battle of the Frontiers spelled the failure of the French war plan. Combined with the Russian defeat at Tannenberg, the Entente strategy for simultaneous Russian and French attacks against Germany had also failed. French losses were far higher than German, and the resulting disparity in combat power meant that the French were not even able to hold the last significant terrain obstacle, the Meuse.
These victories were not accomplished by superior war planning or by operational excellence. The French had anticipated the German advance to the north of the Meuse and had devised an excellent means defeating it. The German advance through Belgium was hardly the thing of wonder that it has been made it out to be. That the French plan did not succeed, while the German plan did, had nothing to do with strategy, but was solely the product of German superiority at the tactical level.
There is a school of thought which maintains that the German ‘genius for war’ was the product of the excellence of the German Great General Staff, that is, German victories were due to superiority at the operational and particularly at the strategic levels. There is no evidence to be found for this proposition either in the Battle of the Frontiers as a whole or in the Ardennes on 22 August. The Chief of the General Staff, the younger Moltke, did nothing to give German planning operational coherence: the seven German armies acted virtually independently of each other. The German 5th Army attack plan for 22 August, written by a General Staff major general, left a corps-sized gap in the army centre that was not filled until late afternoon, and which nearly resulted in a French breakthrough, while the army right flank was hanging completely in the air. The 5th Army plan was not coordinated with the 4th Army. The 4th Army moved to the south on its own initiative at the last minute to cover the 5th Army right flank, in turn leaving the 4th Army’s own centre outnumbered and dangerously thin. Due to the 5th Army’s poorly thought-out attack, of the ten German corps in these two armies, two corps could only be brought into action late in the day and one not at all, while all the French corps were engaged. The only German senior officer to display sound operational ability in the Ardennes was the commander of the 4th Army, the Duke of Württemberg, a capable professional soldier but also the hereditary ruler of a German state and hardly the prototypical General Staff officer. But the real victors on 22 August in the Ardennes were the officers and soldiers of the divisions of the German 4th Army, which dealt the French 4th Army – the French main attack – the most stinging defeats in the entire Battle of the Frontiers.
The German Army in The Ardennes
The German army’s 1906 infantry regulation presented an effective tactical doctrine based on the need to gain fire superiority as well as on offensive action based on fire and movement. German training in this doctrine was realistic and thorough, and concluded every year by several weeks of live-fire gunnery exercises and tactical problems conducted at MTA. French doctrine did not include the concept of fire superiority and the French did not have adequate training areas. German doctrine and training also emphasised the meeting engagement and individual initiative at the tactical level; the French, on the other hand, emphasised linear engagements tightly controlled at the division, corps and army levels.
The German army won the Battle of the Frontiers because of superior peacetime doctrine and training. German patrolling and reconnaissance were vastly superior to the French. In almost every instance, German reconnaissance provided excellent reports on French movements while blinding French cavalry reconnaissance. French air reconnaissance was largely ineffective in the forested Ardennes; the French senior headquarters formed an entirely erroneous impression of German movements and intentions. On 22 August none of the French divisions had any idea that major German forces were in their immediate vicinity.
On 22 August the two French armies were advancing to the northeast, while the two German armies were attacking to the west. All of the subsequent battles were meeting engagements. German units moved quickly and deployed smoothly. French movements suffered from friction and their deployment was slow and uncertain. Once engaged the Germans smothered the French with rifle, MG and artillery fire and gained fire superiority. If the Germans were on the defence, this fire stopped the French attack. If attacking, the Germans then closed with and destroyed the French infantry by fire and movement. Widespread myths notwithstanding, there were no trenches, and the only barbed wire encountered was that which the Belgian farmers used to fence in their livestock.
Prior to the war there had been considerable concern that the nerves of the troops would not stand up to the terrors of modern combat. As Otto von Moser noted, these battles proved beyond a doubt that the German troops were equal to the task. To Moser’s observations it must be added that the French troops were often not equal to the requirements of the modern battlefield; after a few hours of combat, most French units cracked. This was due to inadequacies in French training.
This was not to say that everything went flawlessly. In particular, the infantry often attacked without waiting for the fire support of MG and artillery to soften the enemy up. Losses were even higher than the most sobering peacetime projections: in Moser’s units more than a third of the officers and nearly a third of the enlisted men became casualties on 22 August. But French casualties were even higher. As The commander of the 25 ID, speaking of IR 116 and IR 117 at Anloy, said:
‘In spite of these (terrain) difficulties, in spite of the casualties and the intense enemy fire our troops worked their way forwards. As was characteristic of our men at this time, they got the bit in their teeth and pushed forward, which cost us a great many casualties … Nevertheless! Who would dare to criticise the wonderful aggressive spirit of our soldiers?’
In the battle the general was describing, the terrain was very close and the action was taking place at 400m range or less. Artillery support was practically impossible. Using fire and movement, the German troops pushed back the French, one terrain feature at a time. There were no ‘bayonet charges’. The German infantry simply kept on battering the French, undeterred by casualties.
The performance of the German infantry on 22 August 1914 was exceptional, the result of high morale, intelligent doctrine, effective training and excellent leadership.
The commander of the VI RK listed the common complaints about the performance of the German artillery.19 The infantry pushed quickly forward and the artillery was too slow to keep up. The German artillery was especially slow in occupying covered positions. The result was that the German artillery often fired into its own infantry. The French gun had a maximum effective range 2,000m greater than the German gun. The French artillery was better trained and more tactically proficient; the French operated flexibly, by batteries, the Germans employed clumsy three-battery sections.
Most of these criticisms seem to have been coloured by experiences later in the Marne campaign. During the French withdrawal, their artillery was very effective as a rear-guard. During the battle of the Marne the French emptied their magazines, firing prodigious quantities of shells that smothered the German infantry.
But during the meeting engagements on 22 August in the Ardennes the German artillery was almost always superior to the French. If it was sometimes slow to get into action, the French artillery was slower. The Germans were usually able to fight combined-arms battles; the French infantry was often destroyed before the French artillery got into action. The Germans frequently brought individual guns right into the skirmisher line, where they provided highly effective fire support at point-blank range; the French never did so. The German light and heavy howitzers proved their worth.
Both the German and the French artillery soon discovered that frequently the terrain did not provide observation of enemy positions. Rather than do nothing, both artilleries employed unobserved area fire (Streufeuer) against suspected enemy locations.20 This was not provided for in either the French or German pre-war artillery doctrines, because it was felt to be ineffective and wasteful of ammunition. However, both sides used it from the first day of combat on, and to good effect.
German doctrine emphasised that cavalry needed to be aggressive during the battle in developing opportunities to both participate in the battle as well as to operate against the enemy flank and rear. Doctrine also stated that cavalry was the arm best suited to conduct pursuit.
While the 3 KD and 6 KD had been very effective in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance roles before the battle, during the battle they accomplished nothing. The 3 KD commander decided that the terrain prevented the division from accomplishing anything and resigned himself to inactivity. 6 KD was used to guard the army left flank. Neither division conducted a pursuit, either on 22 or 23 August, although the Colonial Corps would seem to have offered a fine target for 3 KD and the right flank of the French VI CA an even better target for 6 KD.
It appears that the cavalry learned during the approach march that a mounted man presented a fine target and that even small groups of infantry were capable of blocking cavalry movement. By 22 August the senior cavalry commanders were thoroughly intimidated: they avoided serious contact and were unwilling to attempt to move large bodies of cavalry anywhere that they might be subject to small arms or artillery fire. Coupled with the unimaginative operations of the 5th Army headquarters, the timidity of the cavalry leaders cost the cavalry the opportunity to have made a major impact in the battle.
Command and Control
The German army discovered that modern means of communications were unreliable, an observation that would be repeated by practically every subsequent army. This included the telephones that connected army headquarters to OHL, which utilised the seemingly infallible civilian telephone net. As Crown Prince Wilhelm complained, the telephones became so overloaded with traffic that the command and control system at times broke down completely.21 Nevertheless, German reporting was good and with the exception of the breakdown between V AK and XIII AK German senior HQs kept each other informed.
Liebmann’s Evaluation of German Doctrine and Training
In his study of how German doctrine and training withstood the test of combat in 1914, Liebmann concluded that ‘In 1914, none of our enemies possessed a doctrine which was superior in combat to that of the German army, even though we must acknowledge that German doctrine had weaknesses’.
‘Foremost among these errors was a failure to recognise the effect of firepower, even though German doctrine was based on firepower … It must also be recognised that even the most conscientious preparation in peacetime does not insulate against similar errors.’
‘The German infantry proved itself to be superior to that of the enemy. Its high morale and discipline and its powerful offensive spirit, the product of its traditions and decades of training, allowed it in many cases to simply overrun the enemy infantry’. But Liebmann said that this superiority applied only to mobile warfare, and contended that attacks later in the war against a prepared enemy defence failed disastrously.
Liebmann said that conducting the firefight with thick skirmisher lines was effective and that the casualties incurred were acceptable as were forward bounds by individuals or by squads. Casualties only became serious when long lines bounded forward or entire fronts conducted assaults. And although the German army emphasised fire superiority, gaining and using it in actual practice proved difficult. A much more serious deficiency in German doctrine and training was the failure to recognise the difficulties in infantry–artillery cooperation. In German exercises the problem was glossed over. On the other hand, the German cavalry performed its reconnaissance function everywhere with distinction.
The French army In The Ardennes
French Training and Doctrine
Thomasson listed the reasons for the defeat of the French 3rd and 4th French Armies.23 Several commanders failed. The cohesion, training, and spirit of sacrifice of some divisions and corps was not adequate. But most important was the insufficient training of certain units and their leaders. They were unable to match the ‘brutal and rapid’ combat methods of the Germans, in particular the German practice of immediately engaging all available artillery. The Germans engaged their infantry ‘progressively and economically’, while the French were unable to ‘develop the battle methodically’. Dense French formations were too often caught in the open by effective German fire. When French commanders lost sight of their units, they also lost control.
French Command and Control
French reporting was abysmal. The terrific shock effect of German fire and movement was so severe that the French commanders could make no sense of what was happening to their units. At the lowest tactical levels, reporting ceased altogether: so many French battalion and regimental commanders were quickly killed, and movement of messengers on the front line was so difficult, that brigade and division commanders were cut off from their troops. The French senior commanders also recognised that bad news was unwelcome at the next higher headquarters. French commanders always understated the seriousness of the situation and tried to put their units in the best possible light. Their fear that the bearers of bad news would be punished and that the most senior leadership would protect their own positions by sacrificing subordinates as scapegoats was fully justified: Joffre relieved general officers wholesale.
Inaccurate reporting was fatal to top-down French command and control system, which depended on timely and accurate information to permit division, corps and army commanders to form a picture of the battlefield, then conduct manoeuvre and commit reserves. The corps and army commanders were utterly ignorant of the tactical situation and their attempts to manoeuvre were fruitless, even counter-productive. Reserves were committed at the wrong place, too late or not at all. On 22 and 23 August the French troops took matters into their own hands and retreated out of range of German weapons, movements that the senior officers attempted to stop without success.
French Lessons Not Learned
On 16 August GQG had issued tactical instructions to the armies, which 4th Army passed almost verbatim to its subordinate units.24 In attacking fortified positions, the order said, it was essential to wait for the artillery to provide fire support and prevent the infantry from attacking impulsively. The infantry attack was to be kept under the tight control of general officers (brigade commanders and up) and needed to be carefully prepared.
It is therefore no surprise that by 0930 on 23 August the French 3rd Army had already decided why it had been beaten on the previous day, in spite of the fact that there is no possibility that at this time the army HQ had any actual knowledge of what had occurred at the tactical level.25 The army bulletin said that the attacks had failed solely because they had not been prepared by artillery fire, not even by infantry fire. It was essential that the infantry attack be preceded by an artillery preparation and that the artillery be prepared to support the infantry. The infantry could not be allowed to conduct bayonet charges without fire support, as it had generally done on the previous day. This evaluation was based on preconceived ideas and peacetime training critiques, not combat experience. The army HQ also needed an explanation for the previous day’s defeat that did not implicate the army leadership.
On most of the 3rd Army front (IV CA and V CA sectors) the decisive part of the infantry battle was fought in the fog, when artillery support by either side was impossible. The French had not been beaten because they had launched ‘bayonet charges’, but rather in hours-long firefights.
Writing in 1937, the French 7 DI commander, General Trentinian, who had been relieved of his command in 1914, drew conclusions from this battle which are representative for those drawn by both the French army and society, and which show that, like Grasset, he was unable to arrive at objective and useful lessons learned.26 Like most French commentators, Trentinian blamed the defeat of the French offensive on the offensive à outrance, that is to say, on Grandmaison and like-minded young officers as well as GQG and Joffre. The distinguishing characteristic ofJoffre’s Plan XVII was that it immediately assumed the offensive. This offensive war plan required offensive tactics. A better plan, said Trentinian, would have been that of Michel and Pau, in which the French armies remained on the defensive from the English Channel to the Swiss border until they had determined what the German plan was. Then, the French would go on the offensive.
Trentinian fails to take into account that French strategy was based on the alliance with Russia. Between 1911 and 1913 the French succeeded in convincing the Russians to attack East Prussia on the 15th day of mobilisation with the forces then available, without waiting for the entire Russian army to deploy. The corollary to this Russian offensive was that the French would attack on the 15th day of mobilisation also. Only after this agreement was in place did the French replace the old defensive-offensive doctrine of Bonnal’s Plan XIV and XV with offensive strategy of Plan XVII. Had there been no such agreement, that is, had the French adopted Michel’s defensive strategy, then the Russians would have been free to follow their own interests, which were to attack the Austrians and stay on the defensive against the Germans. The Germans would then have been free of any distractions in the east, such as the command crisis on 21 August. Nor would Moltke have felt the necessity to send corps to the east, as he did on 24 August.
It is doubtful that French tactics were significantly influenced by Grandmaison’s so-called offensive à outrance. The tactical manual that implemented this doctrine was issued in 1913, far too late to have any serious effect on training. On 22 August 1914 the French attempted to employ the tactics embodied in the 1904 regulation. It was this regulation and the training that went with it in that failed in 1914, and not the offensive à outrance. There is no evidence of the offensive à outrance in the tactics employed by Trentinian’s own division on that day. In fact, Trentinian’s conclusions were pure Bonnal – he says that what the IV CA should have done was to establish a small security detachment (two battalions, a cavalry squadron and an artillery battery) between 7 DI and 8 DI, and 3rd Army should have established a similar detachment between IV CA and V CA. This was exactly the sort of dispersion of strength that Grandmaison was opposed to.
Trentinian was convinced that his corps was victorious on 22 August 1914: ‘After vain attacks against the French IV Corps, the German V Corps retreated.’ Trentinian’s description of 7 DI’s victory degenerates into pure fantasy. Since 7 ID was victorious, there was no need to critically examine the division’s actions, and Trentinian did not do so. Like Grasset, Trentinian had not taken the trouble to determine, or did not care, what were the mission or actions of the German V AK.
French Army Politics
Trentinian generally faults young General Staff officers at GQG, 3rd Army and IV CA for any mistakes that may have been made. He was particularly bitter because Joffre, whom he regarded as the cat’s paw of the General Staff, relieved over 100 general officers from their commands, including Trentinian himself. These reliefs for cause were ‘usually improper, sometimes justified’. We have arrived at the real centre of Trentinian’s complaint, which has to do with his career, which he thought had been unjustly and ignominiously cut short by arrogant upstart General Staff officers.
Trentinian was supported in this opinion by Percin, who said that Joffre conducted these reliefs at the instigation of young General Staff officers, who were eliminating officers that stood in their way, principally those promoted by the left-wing Minister of War, André.27
Indeed, the argument that Grandmaison’s offensive à outrance was responsible for the French defeats in the Battle of the Frontiers may have initially been motivated by French army politics. Percin repeats the charge that prior to the war there was a power struggle between General Michel, whose plans were comparable with those of the left-wing politician Juares, and the young Turks and Grandmaison: Michel lost. It would appear that Michel’s supporters got revenge by blaming the French defeats in the Battle of the Frontiers on Grandmaison.
French strategy in 1939 and 1940 was determined in large part by the conclusions it drew from the Battle of the Frontiers. The most important of these was that the French army would never allow itself again to engage in meeting engagements or a mobile battle with the Germany army, and in particular not in the Ardennes. The critics of the offensive à outrance received full satisfaction: French strategy in 1939–40 would be based on linear defence.
The construction of the Maginot Line made this strategy perfectly evident; it advertised that the French would never attack from Lorraine towards the Rhineland. Since Belgium was again neutral after 1936, the French could not attack Germany through this avenue of approach either. In September 1939 the Germans were free to mass their entire army against the Poles and quickly destroy them without interference in the west, which the Germans defended only with second-rate divisions.
When the Germans attacked in 1940, mindful of the Battle of the Frontiers in the Ardennes in 1914, the French refused to engage the Germans in a mobile battle, conceded the Ardennes and held the obvious line in northern Belgium and on the Meuse River. The German 1914 intelligence estimate said that the French army was not strong enough to form a defensive line all the way to the English Channel, and if they did so, they would have to dangerously weaken their centre.28 The same calculation applied in 1940. Erich von Manstein based his famous Sichelschnitt plan for launching the main German attack through the Ardennes on the fact that the French would be weak in the Ardennes. French defensive strategy in 1939–40, drawing on erroneous lessons learned from the Battle of the Frontiers, was passive and predictable.29
Doctrine, Training, Combat and Military History
In modern armies, changes in military technology must be accommodated by changes in tactical doctrine, which then must be taught to the officers and men. In an early 20th-century mass army this was no small undertaking.
The German army mastered this process to a degree not equalled by any other modern army. It drew the correct conclusions from the weaponry revolution occasioned in the mid-1880s by the discovery of high explosives and smokeless powder, the effects of which became evident in the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars. It codified the concepts of fire superiority and fire and manoeuvre in the 1906 infantry regulation and practiced these tactics at the MTA, and in a broad range of map exercises for the officers. No other army shared the German army’s passion for tactical excellence.
The German army did not allow doctrine to be shaped by irrational considerations; their doctrine came from careful observation of the military situation and training was effective and thorough. The French, on the other hand, followed all sorts of false paths, such as red trousers or the notion that racial characteristics and past glory, not good training, were the paramount factors in combat.
The superiority of the German system was evident by the third week of the First World War. The German army more than compensated for its inferior numbers by the fact that, unit for unit, it generated far more combat power than its enemies. In a mobile battle, contact with a German unit was fatal; the surviving Entente units were thrown in headlong flight. The German army had reached a military pinnacle – it knew how to fight outnumbered and win.
Once a military culture has established itself, it develops its own momentum and becomes Truppenpraxis – the habitual, instinctive way that an army operates. The German army’s culture gave it superiority in the war’s initial mobile battles and allowed it to innovate and remain superior to Entente units when the fronts solidified into trench warfare. Indeed, the German army maintained its passion for tactical excellence – and military superiority – for the rest of the century. The power of the German model was so great that even the American army, which had adopted a defective system of Truppenpraxis from the British and French in the First World War, when faced with the Cold War problem of fighting outnumbered, converted to some degree in the 1980s to the German system.
It would have been unthinkable for the French to acknowledge that the German system was superior, nor did they. Instead of rationally analysing the Battle of the Frontiers to determine the causes of their defeat, the French invented much more comfortable fictions of German trenches and the offensive à outrance, which allowed them to retain their fundamental sense of innate superiority: the Battle of the Frontiers was an aberration. Having corrected the errors of the offensive à outrance, the French imagined that their natural superiority could and did reassert itself. Unfortunately for the French, it was their system that was at fault, as later defeats in the First World War and the 1917 mutiny demonstrated. During the inter-war period, in an era of increasing mechanization and mobility, the French adopted a doctrine of static defence. The French myths concerning the Battle of the Frontiers prevented them from recognizing the advantages of German offensive manoeuvre and virtually doomed them to defeat in 1940.
These same French myths had a baleful influence on American and British military history, which uncritically accepted the French fantasies concerning the Battle of the Frontiers. It was never considered necessary to check the French story against German sources. This was reinforced by an Anglo-Saxon weakness for armchair generalship – little maps and big arrows – which is nowhere more evident than in discussions of the Marne Campaign. The result is a recipe for ill-founded but persistent myth.