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  • James Houser

August 14, 1914 - The Battle of the Frontiers

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

August 14, 1914. Guns of August – Part 2. The Great War is only two weeks old as enormous French and German armies collide all along their borders in the Battle of the Frontiers. France’s undeniable bravery and zeal for the offensive almost costs them the war, as everyone discovers the true nature of modern firepower and the unprecedented cost of the conflict. The German steamroller advances to Paris. Can anyone stop it?

This is another entry in my little “Guns of August” series that tracks the first few weeks of World War I. On July 28, I described the chain of events that sparked mankind’s descent into a half-century of madness, and on August 5 I explained how the initial German attack into Belgium was slowed down by unexpected Belgian resistance. The German strategy, famous as the “Schlieffen Plan,” placed the weaker German armies along the French-German border. The massive German right hook, consisting of three field armies with 1.7 million men between them, was marching across the Belgian border intent on outflanking the French armies, surrounding them, and destroying them within six weeks.

So now we talk about the French. In the years following its defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the French Third Republic had once again begun to build up its army to confront its nemesis. For most of the 1880s and 1890s, their strategy revolved around building up large fortresses along the Franco-German border as bases for the inevitably required attacks. This defensive mindset was common among many European armies at the time. This was especially apt for France, since the late 19th Century was full of internal political turmoil and strife exemplified by the Dreyfus Affair and a subsequent loss of trust in the Army. Militarism was at a low ebb in France in the 1890s.

By the 20th Century, though, French military theory was running in an increasingly aggressive direction. Multiple diplomatic clashes with Germany, the new Franco-Russian treaty, and a burst of nationalistic fervor caused the French to think of not only defending their lands from Germany but attacking to retake the lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine which they had lost to Germany in 1871. By 1914, the French plan in case of a war with Germany was known as Plan 17 and envisaged a massive, concentrated strike against the German defenses in Lorraine and their predicted attack through southern Belgium. The German and French war plans, then, almost mirrored each other, with the French punching east in the southern sector while the Germans punched west in the northern sector. The Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, the implacable and admired Joseph Joffre, was the architect of Plan 17 – his own plan – which had only been made the French war plan in the last few years before World War I broke out.

This was a risky strategy for France, since their army was not as big, not as tactically efficient, nor as well endowed with heavy artillery as the German army. Even worse, Belgian neutrality (which Germany didn’t give a crap about, obviously) meant that any French attack would have to strike the prepared positions in Alsace and Lorraine. The French military simply did not have the strength to muscle through the German fortresses in their path.

Despite this, the French were committed to the offensive strategy and tactics of massed attack. This orthodoxy became so rigid and unquestioning that it became something like a cult – “the cult of the offensive.” It was a widely held belief in the French Army (and in many other parts of the world, to be fair) that highly motivated infantry could overcome any obstacle through sheer will and determination, and that the superior patriotism and courage of the French poilu (regular soldier) was the foremost factor in France’s eventual victory. The Germans, Americans, Austro-Hungarians and Russians would all subscribe to the cult of the offensive during the war, but the French took it to another level.

Officers of the Army were indoctrinated that “The French Army, returning unto its traditions, no longer knows any law other than the offensive.” An overreliance on field fortifications, heavy artillery and machine guns were criticized as dampening the “offensive spirit” and being harmful to morale. This coltishness extended even to equipment. The French Army’s blue coat, red kepi and red trousers were a traditional uniform and proud symbol of patriotism that was badly outdated in an era of machine guns and long-range rifle fire.

When some officers looked at the Boer War and the Balkan Wars and recommended that the French soldier wear subdued grey-green or gray-blue uniforms instead of his bright uniform, he raised a howl of injured protest. The French Army hated the idea of giving up its red trousers almost as much as it hated the idea of trenches or heavy guns. They could not clothe the French patriot in some muddy, inglorious color. A former War Minister even said, “Eliminate the red trousers? Never! The red trousers ARE France!”

Of course, none of that was going to be very helpful when the Guns of August began to boom over the landscape.

Even as the Germans were still hammering away at the fortress of Liege, trying to force passage through Belgium on their way to Paris, the French struck an early blow. The mobilization process in France, like the mirror processes happening all over Europe, took almost two weeks, but even early in the operation the French were able to begin launching limited strikes to retake the lost provinces of the Fatherland. On August 7, a small French force seized the border town of Altkirch in Alsace with a bayonet charge and occupied the city of Mulhouse the next day. This “victory” was accompanied by parades, toasts, cheering and speeches from the French-supporting residents of Mulhouse – which was all very embarrassing when the Germans threw the French back out a few days later.

In the meantime, General Joffre’s troops – most of the French active Army, along with the hordes of reservists called up to active duty – was forming in a huge mass in eastern France, prepared to strike over the border into Lorraine. Again, everyone expected the war to be over in a matter of weeks in August 1914 – the Germans, the Russians, the French, everyone. So their conduct was…less than apprehensive. They didn’t know what lay ahead.

On August 14, 1914, General Joffre’s armies crossed the frontier into German territory, and the first great contest of World War I on the Western Front began. It has gone down in history as the “Battle of the Frontiers,” but in reality it consisted of a great series of battles that lasted for most of August all along the frontline, from the southern reaches of Belgium to the Swiss border. This violent, traumatic series of clashes was fought by armies that looked like they could have marched alongside Napoleon or Frederick the Great: huge masses of men with big mustaches, long bayonets and greatcoats, the cavalry mounted on great stallions with shining breastplates, and artillery used in the direct-fire role at visible targets within eyeshot. The Battle of the Frontiers, despite being the least modern of World War I’s great combats, was also among the costliest. Armies tried to fight in old ways with new, terrible weapons.

The French marched into Lorraine as liberators and conquerors, bands playing, and colors unfurled. The thought that the Germans might have their own plans for them appears to have never crossed General Joffre’s mind. French intelligence badly underestimated German strength and incorrectly assumed that they would fight on the defensive. The French 1st and 2nd Armies advanced abreast into Lorraine, facing the German 6th and 7th Armies under the Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. The 6th and 7th Armies were purposely left weak, since they were only meant to hold ground in the south while the main German attack crashed through Belgium and into Paris from the north. The Germans planned to strike the French a weighty counterblow as soon as they overreached.

For four days the Germans fell back with sharp skirmishing actions rather than firm opposition. Soon the French were 25 miles into their lost territory. By August 18, though, the German defenses stiffened, and the Bavarian Prince prepared a counterattack when he saw the French command fall into disorder. Across the hot plains of eastern France, the Germans boiled over into their prepared counteroffensive. The night of August 20 saw the superior German heavy artillery crash into and stun the desperate French infantry as they tried to attack en masse, bayonets fixed, just as they had been taught. The German infantry took heavy losses as they advanced against dramatic French bravery, but the heavy artillery drove the poilu from one position after another. Soon the French were running, with only a rearguard standing to protect their retreat. Its commander, General Ferdinand Foch, would be heard from again.

The French retreated into their own territory after their shattering defeat in Lorraine, to reform behind Foch’s new position on the Meurthe. Rupprecht begged the German high command for permission to go over to the attack, in violation of the original Schlieffen Plan, and finally his demands were met. Rupprecht’s forces attacked the new French line on the Meurthe River, and now it was the German turn to get hammered. The French defensive positions slaughtered the German landsers with machine guns and light artillery fire. Whatever else was happening, the Germans were making no further progress in the south in late August. The Battle of Lorraine had no other effect than to make the fields run red with blood – and the precious French trousers.

Things had gone even worse in the north. When Joffre learned that the Germans were marching through Belgium, he reasoned that they would expose their left flank on their wide swing. If that proved to be the case, they could be vulnerable to a sudden attack from the south. He diverted two large French armies – the 3rd and 4th – to cut off the head of the German snake. They would attack through the dense forest in southern Belgium known as the Ardennes.

The two French armies would attack across a front of about 25 miles, and two factors would make this one of the worst days of the First World War. The first was that the Ardennes Forest (a prime piece of terrain in two World Wars) was very obviously a defender’s country, with tangled woods, steep hillsides and wet valleys that would slow any advance and restrict it to a few narrow roads. The same factors that would let the American paratroopers fend off German tank attacks in 1944 would work equally well in 1914 for the Germans. The second factor is that Joffre was not attacking a barely screened, undefended flank as he expected; his attack was about to run into the brick wall of two German field armies, the 4th and 5th, deployed to protect the Schlieffen Plan’s hammer as it swept through Belgium on its way to Paris. The French were totally unaware of these units’ presence. The expectations versus reality of the French attack would be like stepping on a nail barefoot.

The French attack that was supposed to destroy the Germans would almost destroy the French themselves. On August 22, the French 3rd and 4th Armies launched their infantry in heroic masses against the German positions, their flags flying and blue coats soaked in the heavy rain. They immediately ran into a wall of steel and lead. The Germans were dug in, supported by artillery, and waiting. The first few attacks were blasted apart by the heavy guns and the French infantry panicked into flight. The attacks kept coming, though, and kept coming…and kept coming. The French commanders were determined not to vacillate, show weakness, or admit defeat at the critical moment, imbued with the righteousness of their cause and convinced that superior spirit and courage could win the day. As the battle went on, the experience became something like placing your hand into a circular saw over and over again – maybe THIS time you can stop it with your shattered stump.

The only unit to come close to breaking the German position was the Colonial Corps, composed of long-service mixed-race units that in peacetime garrisoned the French Empire in Africa. Its soldiers were hardened and experienced veterans, and that was to cost them dearly. As the conscripted units melted around them, the Colonial Corps pressed forward with a determination the rest of the army could not match, and rapidly found itself in far greater danger than any other unit. Five of its battalions advanced on a front only 600 yards wide, only to be torn into bloody fragments by concentrated rifle, machine gun, and artillery fire. Their repeated bayonet attacks barely scratched the German defenders as the Corps suicided itself into the Kaiser’s men. By evening on August 22, the 3rd Colonial Division had lost 11,000 men killed or wounded out of 15,000. The effective destruction of the Colonial Corps spelled an end to the French attack in the Ardennes on August 22.

August 22 wasn’t just a disaster for the Colonial Corps. The French lost a staggering 27,000 men killed on this terrible day of the Battle of the Frontiers, and when the guns went silent in 1918 it would still be the French Army’s bloodiest day of World War I. The first round of the Great War on the Western Front proved the complete madness and folly of the “Cult of the Offensive” as the prewar French Army burnt itself to a crisp in massed bayonet attacks against well-defended German lines.

The Battle of the Frontiers was an early, shocking wakeup call to the grim realities of World War I on the Western Front. General Joffre spent the whole battle ordering his generals to attack, and attack, and attack again – but after two weeks of the most terrible fighting in French history, even he had to recognize that the poilu no longer had any chance of breaking through the German lines. The fight now would not be to defeat Germany in six weeks, but to save France from complete destruction as the true threat of the Schlieffen plan became apparent. Forget retaking the lost territories; could the French save Paris? August 1914 swung in the balance.

By the end of the Battle of the Frontiers, the French Army was reeling back in defeat all along the border – and the worst was yet to come. That descending battleaxe of a German army was still marching through Belgium, destination: Paris, and it had yet to meet serious resistance. But it would. The day after the terrible slaughter in the Ardennes, on August 23, the Germans would run into an unwelcome surprise at Mons. The British are coming.

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