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Remembered Today:

101 years on, the anniversary of the Battle of the Frontiers


SteveMarsdin
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Last year saw the centenary of the Battle of the Frontiers, the bloodiest day for the French Army in the Great War

 

The events had been commemorated for many years already in the local Gaume area in the south of Belgium but, as expected, last year's commemorations were very special (see the thread above). I am pleased to note that the commemorations will continue this year, 101 years later; I hope to attend them this weekend. If you're in the area I've attached details below:

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- technically it's only the 100th Anniversary. (the 1st Anniversary was in 1915).

Cheers,

Tim L.

Good point Tim !*

I notice I'd spelt anniversary wrong too, so I've taken the opportunity to amend the title and post

Cheers

Edit 09.16 20/08/2015

*Actually Tim, on reflection I was right originally: if the 1st anniversary was 1915 the 101st anniversary will be 2015 !

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Today (20 August) is the centenary of the Battle of Hamipre (sometimes known as the Battle of Longlier). A large scale encounter involving several régiments, it was the biggest engagement in this area up to that point and should have told the French that the Germans were closer than they were in force. A battalion of the 87e RIF, there in support of the French cavalry, suffered huge losses.

:poppy:

Further information on that battle can be found in this blog,(in French) http://musee50bornes.skyrock.com/4.html

(The blog also illustrates this fantastic private collection of early WW1 militaria)

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Steve,

Research has revealed the catastrophic effects of the 1914 battles on the BEF, especially on its officer contingent.

At the risk of making a rather broad and generalised statement, I would guess that French battle casualties in 1914 were ten times the number suffered by the British. I wonder how they compared in proportionate terms ; more especially, what was the impact on the officer contingent ?

There were far fewer officers in proportion to enlisted men in the French army than there were in the British. Four or five thousand French officer casualties implied at least two hundred thousand for the men they led.

If you have any data about the effects of the Battles of the Frontiers on the French officer corps, and as to how this impinged on tactical doctrine, I would be grateful for the chance to reflect and discuss.

Phil (PJA)

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Hi Phil,

The short answer is "No" but if you read Simon House's thesis https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/files/12690581/Studentthesis-Simon_House_2012.pdf he does make the point that because of the French system of conscription, many of the officers and men from the reserves that made good the losses, were actually more experienced than those that had been killed.

Another point is that the war had interrupted Joffre's purging of the officer class and in August 1914 he was fully aware that he didn't have the right men for many of the leadership roles. The battles of August 1914 and subsequent widespread "limogeages" accelerated this process of replacement.

Thirdly, In August 1914 the French went into battle to fight an offensive war of movement and everything from the reliance on the 75mm to the huge amount of cavalry was shaped around that. The tactics of a defensive static war that developed at the end of 1914 were largely new to them and it was a steep learning curve for most (new and old), including Joffre.

Cheers,

Steve

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Many thanks for that link, Steve.

Heavens ! What a tour de force.

Very challenging in historiographical terms ; it calls into question so many of the cherished depictions about that fighting.

I browsed through it very quickly, stopping at things which caught my eye.

French doctrine and strategy not so daft after all ; flawed in application, undermined by socio political developments. Germans displayed superior adherence to doctrine and combined this with great reflexive skill.

Great French chance wasted by inept leadership at tactical level.

The " red trousers" syndrome must be reconsidered.

Phil (PJA)

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Staggering variation in the reported French casualty figures for these battles.

According to Armee Fancaise, August and September 1914 combined cost 419,959 casualties, of whom the majority - 229,529 - were posted as killed or missing.

A document presented to the French Parliament in 1920, tabulating losses throughout the war, gave an even worse rendition, including 313,000 in killed or missing alone, without counting officers.

There is no separate return for wounded for those two months in that estimate, but they must have exceeded a quarter of a million.

Very important to remember that the figures for killed and missing in that phase included great numbers of prisoners. Perhaps half of the 313,000 soldiers counted as killed or missing in the parliamentary document mentioned above were prisoners.

Simon House makes that point when he alludes to one particular episode when a French infantry regiment lost 2,800 men : this virtual annihilation implied that a large part of the loss consisted of prisoners.

There are too many commentators who do not recognise this, and assume that the conflation of killed and missing meant death to all of them.

All the same, it meant death to twenty six or twenty seven thousand Frenchmen on this day one hundred and one years ago.

Phil (PJA)

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Hi Phil,

I consider Jean-Claude Delhez' 2 volume work the best overall book(s) on the battle and immediate aftermath but it is in French. It was the culmination of many years research, including a detailed analysis of how he calculated the losses. I was pleased to see that independently of Delhez, Simon House makes many of the same points and draws similar conclusions, in his work. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jean-Claude is of the opinion that Simon's is the best English language analysis.

I'm in Jamoigne at the moment. This year the 22nd falls on a Saturday like in 1914 and apart from the absence of an early morning mist which played an important role in many of the battles, particularly Ethe, the temperature is similar to that that day, i.e a very hot continental type climate, late 20°s, early 30°s. I was exhausted as I cycled around the Semois valley part of the battlefield (Bellefontaine, Rossignol) this morning, it must have been so tiring for the combatants in 1914.

Remembering the approximate 40,000 French and Germans, who died today in 1914, as well as the many civilians who lost their lives.

:poppy:

At Radan, Bellefontaine

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At Rossignol

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Steve,

For some reason I was particularly impressed by a vignette cited by House : when he was discussing the legendary conspicuousness of the French red trousers, he mentioned how Erwin Rommel was able to discern the pantaloons, but was more struck by the glint from the mugs and other eating/cooking implements that the enemy soldiers had stacked on the tops and backs of their packs. That did move me, and added a pathos to the dreadful story. As you remind us, the ordeal of marching and deploying in that heat must have been hard ; the little pots and pans of the French soldiers increasing their burden, and testifying to their personal needs, a domestic touch that rendered them even more vulnerable. It brings a touch of humanity that makes the whole story more poignant.

Phil (PJA)

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Very nice thread, but I think it's also important to remember that the Germans didn't win the battles along the frontier without taking major casualties themselves, even Mr. Zuber admits to some German units taking heavy losses (if I remember correctly, one battery was caught unlimbering in a clearing by an avalanche of 75 mm shells and destroyed). I believe all the fighting done by the French, British and Belgians between the Meuse and the Marne contributed to Joffre's eventual victory, but 3rd and 4th Armies definitely paid the highest price in blood and should be remembered for their sacrifice.

Dave

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Yes, Dave, you're right...although we can only make an informed guess as to what those German casualties actually were.

From what I've read of Zuber, while he extolls German tactical superiority, he never shies away from candid reckonings of heavy German casualties : he often cites regimental histories that give plenty of evidence about the shattering experience of individual units.

He cites the estimates of German burial squads who cleared up after some of these battles ; they stated that for every two of their own men, they buried five or six Frenchman. I would place some trust in that estimate. I suspect that Germans who were wounded in that fighting stood a better chance of staying alive than their French counterparts. A higher proportion of French wounded were abandoned and left to die ; the experience of being repeatedly hit by enemy fire was probably more the fate of the French than it was of the Germans.

Consequently, if the Germans suffered only forty per cent of the number killed that the French lost, they might well have sustained a loss in wounded that was much more comparable. A loss of, say, ten thousand killed and several times that number wounded on that single day is grievous enough.

Phil (PJA)

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Exactly, Dave,

I quoted a figure of approximately 40,000 for both sides as German casualties are hard to discern but most estimate them to be 40% (Zuber) to 60% of the French figure; either way as a percentage of 26-27,000 it is still very high and is the main reason why there was no real pursuit of the retreating French. The largely orderly retreat contributed to the victory within three weeks on the Marne.

Your point about the much maligned 75s may relate to an incident north of Ethe, although there were several. The Corps artillery of the two French divsions fighting at Virton and Ethe was sited on hills to the south and south-west of Virton and contributed largely in the fighting at Virton. Later in the day they looked further afield and identified the HQ of a German artillery regiment (and batteries); firing at long range but at up to 15 rounds per minute they caused over 80 casualties including the regimental commander.

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the legendary conspicuousness of the French red trousers

Hi Phil,

Yes, it may have been a small advantage but wasn't a significant factor: remember the Colonial Corp suffered the greatest losses and they didn't wear les pantalons rouge ! At Rossignol the Germans remarked how easier it was to pick out (and pick off) the French commanders because of all the gold braid on their képis.

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Steve,

Another rather biting comment by House is worthy of note : if those French red trousers were as fatally conspicuous as legend has it, then the significant number of French victims of friendly fire is hard to account for.

Phil (PJA)

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I'll have to read House's thesis again, can't remember the quote about friendly fire (read it a couple of years ago). Isn't it strange that his work has not been expanded into a book? I suppose it's the general lack of interest in the early part of the war and the French involvement in it.

Dave

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I'll have to read House's thesis again, can't remember the quote about friendly fire (read it a couple of years ago). Isn't it strange that his work has not been expanded into a book? I suppose it's the general lack of interest in the early part of the war and the French involvement in it.

Dave

Rather like Hamlet without the Prince !

Such a huge and bewildering series of engagements. I find it hard to assimilate. I get the impression that, by and large, the French people themselves show little interest in the Great War, let alone the catastrophic opening battles.

Phil (PJA)

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I'm trying to take it in slices; Virton, Rossignol, Maissin, Neufchateau etc., it's easier that way. Problem is I am constantly side-tracked; I'll start out following a French unit into the forest and before long I'm trying to find an order of battle for the Germans that opposed them, Zuber's book definitely helps but you have to put aside the constant comments about the excellence of all things German. A book that I found to be particularly helpful about Virton is "My 75" by Paul Lintier, you can follow him from mobilisation into the Ardennes. Ironically, the corps artillery regiment he fought with seemed to spend most of the battle being held up by other troops and sitting on their hands, while the German guns were destroying entire brigades of Frenchmen. The book was translated from French into English during the war so there are numerous editions available and it is also online at the Internet Archive.

Dave

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This winds me up a bit.

Here's a good example of the mistaken take on French casualty figures that I alluded to earlier on.

This is from Elizabeth Greenhalgh's book THE FRENCH ARMY AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR.

She writes :

"The post-war record of deaths ( on the battlefield or later in hospital ) for the period to the end of November 1914 is 454,000..."

NO !

That figure is for killed and died, missing and prisoners. The prisoners herein account for more than a third of those 454,000.

This is all the more disappointing because Greenhalgh's book is a pretty superb effort.

She's tried hard to get those figures right, and yet she's made that same old mistake.

Phil (PJA)

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I think there is one other mistake in her book, see http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=228961 post #8 etc. There are obviously others on the forum that don't agree with me, but I just don't see how the Germans were able to dig "entrenchments" while continuously moving forward. They certainly would have used the terrain to their advantage and dug individual "fox holes" when they could but because both sides were in motion I think the series of battles known collectively as the "Battle of the Frontiers" were classic meeting engagements.

Dave

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Hi Dave,

I was at the commémorations at the cemetery at Virton Bellevue yesterday evening. It is the largest in the area, and just south of the Ferme de Bellevue (from which it takes its name) and is on the plateau north of Virton, the centre of the fighting in the Battle of Virton. They installed a new information board at the centenary; it is clearly headed up a "Bataille de rencontrer"

Steve

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This is a fine thread! Thank you all. My interest is north of there but they all make for fascinating reading. I find a lot of bravado in some of the German regimental histories. Some are better than others.

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Joe,
I don't think you can look at the post-war histories of any of the combatants and not find at least some "bravado", it's human nature. In defense the flanks (held by other units) always cave in first and on offense the supports (again other units) never arrive in time.

Steve,
The French (at least those with an interest in la Grande Guerre) seem to be coming around to the idea that their defeats were not a result of German entrenchments, do you think Jean-Claude Delhez' books are a factor?

Dave

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Hi Joe,

I haven't got your Haelen book in front of me as I am in Belgium so I can't quote the German name for it but one of the points you brought out was the German ability (training ?) for soldiers of all ranks to use combat initiative, particularly when their commanding officers were lost. This contrasts greatly with many examples in the French ranks on the 22nd, when the loss of an officer often resulted in disarray.

Hi Dave,

I'd like to say yes but in all honesty I think it is just a gradual process (as I mentioned in the earlier thread, even Grasset had realised that they were encounter battles by his Rossignol book) and (in the case of the panel) who the relevant authorities take their advice from. The regional tourist authority produced this excellent guide, with contributions from Jean-Claude: http://www.luxembourg-belge.be/fr/pratique/guide-traces-et-memoire.php but on the commemorative walk at Ethe that I participated in today, there were still those that believed that the Germans were dug-in, and their artillery ranged in, north of Ethe for 2 days prior to the battle :whistle: !!!

Steve

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Steve,

Auftrgstragstactik was a solid building block of all their training. It worked exceptionally well all the way up but not so much at the highest levels. AKA The disagreements between first and second Army in August/September 1914. This is laid out in some detail in The Great War Dawning. Chapter 17 for sure by want to say an earlier chapter also. What you are describing as French sounds a lot like the Soviet method. We were really shocked to see how "one leader oriented" their forces seemed to be.

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