The Battle of Charleroi - August 1914 (Baldin / Saint-Fuscien)

In this book, Damien Baldin and Emmanuel Saint-Fulscien, both teachers at EHESS, offer us a study of Battle of Charleroi (21-23 August 1914) one of the first great Franco-German shocks of WW1 and one of the bloodiest. Often relegated to the shadow of the Battle of the Marne which it precedes, the Battle of Charleroi is nevertheless rich in lessons. It is in many ways the “first battle of the 20th century”.

Context and progress of the battle of Charleroi

On both sides of the Rhine, the beginning of August 1914 was devoted to the immense task of mobilizing armies, which were by far the most important ever raised in Europe (about 1,300,000 men, divided into 87 divisions and five armed forces on the French side). This process of mobilization, moreover, very well described by the authors, is already indicative of the complexity of the conflict that looms. The warlike enthusiasm displayed by the propaganda images of the time does not stand up to a study of the facts, although neither can one speak of refusal to fight. Many soldiers go to the front, determined to fulfill their duty, a task that everyone hopes will be short.

Once the troops are mobilized, it is still necessary to route them to the front, then concentrate them for an offensive. While the railways are obviously the preferred infrastructure for this, they do not have the capacity (especially on the French side) to take it on completely. So in the stifling heat of August, impressive columns of men and animals move along the roads of eastern and northern France. Drowned in the dust raised by their comrades and the 800,000 horses that allow the French army to move, many combatants will arrive in the combat zone exhausted, dehydrated, unfit for action. Others will die simply from exhaustion ...

Both in Berlin and Paris, the general staff have opted for resolutely offensive plans. Joffre envisages two decisive offensives towards the Moselle, on the left by the Ardennes and on the right by Lorraine. In this shot, the 5e general's army Lanrezac, the one who will fight in Charleroi, is placed in the far north. In conjunction with the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) and a cavalry corps, it must contain a German advance in Belgium before supporting the offensive in the Ardennes. On the German side, General's 2nd Army Von Büllow and General's Third Army Von Hausen, supported by two cavalry corps, their mission is to cross Belgium and then to fall back west to envelop a French army contained at the borders. This is the famous plan Molkte inspired by the battle of Cannes won by Hannibal (principle of the battle of wings by absorption). In total, nearly 200,000 to 300,000 men will clash when its two masses collide.

The fact is that neither the Germans nor the French plan to wage any significant fighting in the Charleroi region. The battle that will unfold there will be essentially a battle of encounter, fought on terrain that makes the fighting chaotic. Not only does the region offer jagged relief, but more clashes will take place in urbanized and highly industrialized areas, in the midst of residential developments and factories.

While many French units arrive in battle already exhausted by a long march, the German soldiers have already had a problem with the Belgian army, which offers them great resistance. The disbelief of the German command in the face of this resistance and the appearance of the first French reinforcements (from the Sordet cavalry corps), led to the emergence of the famous myth of the "francs tireurs" (reminiscent of the war of 1870) and its procession of atrocities committed against Belgian civilians (massacre of Tamines especially.). The Germans, however, have had some experience with fire there and will be more careful in their attacks.

The first battles of the Battle of Charleroi took place in the region of Tamines then Namur and saw the French descend from the heights of the Sambre to keep control of the bridges which the Germans were trying to seize. It is a massacre from the outset. Pounded by superior German artillery, the columns of French infantry were swept away by machine gun fire.

The next day, the French counteroffensives carried out to halt the inexorable German advance continued to be carried out according to the regulations in force at the time, that is to say by opposing the "momentum" and courage of the combatant to the bursts of the enemy's automatic weapons. After a few hours they all turn out to be resounding failures. Von Büllow then believing Lanzerac's army to be broken, tries to exploit the situation by outflanking the French by the west of Charleroi.

Only this time it is the French who are in a defensive position on the heights of the Sambre. And no more than the hexagonal momentum is Prussian discipline capable of breaking the curtain of fire imposed by modern artillery and machine guns. Nowhere did Von Büllow's offensives prove decisive. However, Lanzerac, aware of the exhaustion of his men and the fact that the other French armies were retreating (as well as the British), wisely decided to fall back some twenty kilometers on the evening of 23 August. A decision which will not be for nothing in the defensive success of the fighting in Marne in September.

In just under three days of unanticipated clashes, around 25,000 German and French soldiers lost their lives. August 22 is certainly one of the longest days in the history of the French army, with perhaps more than 5,000 dead. For example the 3e battalion of the 75e RI suffered a staggering 70% loss rate that day ... Thus in many ways the battle of Charleroi foreshadows the bleeding of the Somme or Verdun.

Our opinion

All fans of military history will be delighted to read this concise and insightful book. Beyond the purely descriptive aspect of the battle studied, the authors provide us with quality analyzes. One of the main theses of the book, namely the inadequacy of French and German military tools to the conditions of modern warfare, has been amply demonstrated.

Thus we discover on both sides of the Rhine, high commands and general officers who will quickly prove to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the conflict. Both Von Büllow and Lanzerac are constantly misinformed about enemy devices and sometimes ignore which units they are up against. Their corps or division commanders are overwhelmed by the scale of the task (especially on the French side, which explains the famous dismissals that will follow) and are not sufficiently responsive. On either side are ultimately the junior officers and non-commissioned officers who assert themselves as command figures, during chaotic and fragmented battles.

All in the spirit of the offensive, Germans and French alike, underestimate the firepower of modern weaponry, despite the lessons they could have drawn from the Russo-Japanese conflict. On the other hand, innovations such as aviation (we will appreciate the few anecdotes showing French and German soldiers shooting their own planes out of fear.) Or new means of communication are far from being mastered.

From this reading, there emerges an impression of great disorder inherent in any encounter battle. Logistics are outmoded, so are health services, and battles are often fought at random at the initiative of courageous little leaders. We are a long way from the war that resulted from the 19th century as dreamed of by the staffs. With Charleroi we truly enter the 20th military century.

The book could be criticized for having put too much emphasis in its introduction on the testimonies of combatants who for some will not take part in the battles of the battle concerned (such as De Gaulle, then captain and wounded on August 15) or whose writings will remain underexploited (like those of Drieu La Rochelle).

Anyway this Charleroi 21-23 August 1914 constitutes a very pleasant reading, which has the merit of highlighting an episode 1time world war often overlooked by historiography, a battle that will have important consequences for the rest of the war.

D BALDIN and E SAINT-FUSCIEN, Charleroi 21-23 August 1914, Tallandier, Paris, 2012.

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