French and German armies fought World War I’s first major battles on the Western Front in Alsace and Lorraine.
The First Battle of the Marne, fought September 5-12, 1914, ended in Germany’s failure to knock France out of the war quickly. The battle, which cost the French approximately 260,000 casualties and the Germans 220,000, also marked the dual collapse of France’s War Plan XVII and Germany’s vaunted Schlieffen Plan. The Marne, however, was not the first major head-to-head clash between France and Germany in World War I. From August 7 to September 13, the now almost forgotten fighting south of Metz on Germany’s left wing claimed some 350,000 to 400,000 total casualties from both sides.
As soon as the German right wing in the north pulled back after its defeat at the Marne, the hunt was on in higher German military circles for a scapegoat for the catastrophe. Today that dubious distinction rests primarily on the shoulders of Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, chief of the German Great General Staff. But during the early years of the war, another leading candidate was Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, even though he had been the senior commander on the German left (southern) wing.
In December 1905, a few weeks before retiring as chief of the German Great General Staff, Colonel General Alfred von Schlieffen issued his famous Denkschrift, the memorandum that came to be known as the Schlieffen Plan. Addressing the problem of a two-front war, Schlieffen determined that Germany would have to defeat France in the west quickly and then turn east to concentrate all military power on slower mobilizing Russia. To deal with France, Schlieffen planned a huge turning movement, pivoting from the center of the German line and sweeping counterclockwise with the right wing in the north, through Belgium, around the west of Paris, pushing the French armies from their rear toward the east and against the wall of the German armies in the south, finally crushing the French in the jaws of the closing vice.
The key to Schlieffen’s plan was making the right wing as strong as possible and leaving only the minimum necessary force on the left. That, of course, meant the risk of temporarily giving up territory in the south. Although the former French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine had been German territory since the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, they were not among the 27 traditional kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms that had merged to form the German Reich. Rather than the broad local autonomy of the other German states, Alsace and Lorraine in 1914 were governed directly from Berlin as “Imperial Territories.”
According to critics, Moltke, as Schlieffen’s successor, “watered-down” Schlieffen’s master plan during the years leading up to the outbreak of the war by taking forces away from the right wing and adding them to the left wing. That, as the postwar wisdom runs, caused 1st German Army on the extreme right to pass east of Paris, rather than encircling the French capital around to the west, leading to Germany’s defeat at the Marne. Things were not, however, quite that simple.
Aside from defending the territory of France, the overriding French objective in a war with Germany was the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine. Assuming incorrectly that Germany would not put its mobilized reservists units into the front lines at the start of the war, French commander General Joseph Joffre concluded that his potential enemy did not have the forces necessary to mass in the north and come through Belgium. Therefore, Plan XVII – France’s plan for deploying its armies and conducting operations once war began – was based on thinly defending the border with Belgium while massing the majority of French forces in the center and south, anchored on the massively fortified defensive zones of Verdun and Toul-Nancy opposite Lorraine, and Epinal and Belfort in the south, opposite Alsace. The French main effort would be a pincer attack into Lorraine, with one arm advancing north of Germany’s Metz-Thionville fortified zone, and the other arm attacking around the south. German forces in the north crossed the Belgian border on August 4. Three days later, Joffre initiated the first major battle of the war when he ordered VII French Corps under
General Louis Bonneau to cross into southern Alsace. Bonneau’s mission was to take the city of Mulhouse, destroy the bridges over the upper Rhine, and thereby secure the right flank of the French main attack. Bonneau captured the city on August 7, but then 7th German Army under Colonel General Josias von Heeringen counterattacked immediately with its XIV and XV army corps, recaptured Mulhouse on August 10, and pushed the French back into the Vosges Mountains. Joffre responded immediately by committing five additional divisions to the south and establishing the 115,000-man strong Army of Alsace, commanded by General Paul Pau. That large force, however, was too far to the south to support the French main effort in Lorraine.
The German left wing included Heeringen’s weak 7th German Army on the far end of the line, with Rupprecht’s significantly stronger 6th German Army on its right. The 6th Army consisted of the entire field strength of the Bavarian army. Prussians and the Bavarians have never been especially fond of each other, and the tensions between those two old German tribal groups can still be felt today. The original intent of the Oberste Heeresleitung (German Army Supreme Command), or OHL, had been to assign Lieutenant General Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorff as Rupprecht’s chief of staff, giving OHL a “reliable” Prussian General Staff officer in the Bavarian headquarters. But when Kaiser Wilhelm II’s eldest son, German Crown Prince Wilhelm, assumed command of 5th German Army upon mobilization, he claimed his old military tutor Knobelsdorff as his own chief of staff. The officer originally slotted as 5th Army chief of staff was Major General Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen, the peacetime chief of the Bavarian General Staff. Thus, Knobelsdorff and Krafft swapped assignments, and in the process OHL wound up with Bavarian officers in the two key positions – Rupprecht as commander and Krafft as his chief of staff – at 6th German Army.
The two crown princes, Wilhelm and Rupprecht, had to be given major field commands because of their respective political positions as the future kaiser and the future king of Bavaria, the Reich’s largest state. But the similarities ended there. “Little Willy,” as the British called Wilhelm, was a pure military dilettante who relished prancing around in flashy uniforms. Rupprecht, however, was a real soldier who had spent most of his adult life studying and practicing his profession. He was a commander widely respected by his subordinates for his competence and his dedication to his duties.
The Prussian-Bavarian fault line caused one additional major problem in the south. Since the left wing was the tertiary sector of the entire German operation, OHL preferred to work through a single overall commander in the south, freeing it to focus more directly on the individual field army commanders on the critical right wing. Rupprecht was the slightly senior in rank of the two army commanders in the south, so he was designated senior commander in the Imperial Territories sector. Heeringen, however, was not especially happy about serving under a younger commander and a Bavarian on top of that. Rather than going through Rupprecht’s headquarters, Heeringen went directly to OHL every chance he got.
According to the deployment directive issued by the German General Staff, the primary mission of 6th and 7th German armies was to tie down as many French forces as possible and prevent them from intervening in the decisive battle in the north. If the French did penetrate into Alsace, 7th German Army had orders to draw them in as far as the Strasbourg fortified zone and then hold the line there. In the event that the French did not attack in the center and south, then most of 6th German Army augmented by elements of 7th Army would cross the Moselle River south of Metz, advance west into France, and establish the anvil against which the sweeping German right wing would hammer the French. Thus, OHL abdicated much of its operational command responsibility in the south by ordering the left wing to adapt to the actions of the enemy. The intelligence picture regarding the French, however, was anything but clear during the early days of August.
On August 7, the same day the French first attacked into southern Alsace, 6th German Army headquarters staff left Munich by train for the front. On August 9, Rupprecht’s headquarters became operational at St. Avold, and the next day Rupprecht formally assumed operational command of all German forces in the Imperial Territories. On August 11, 6th Army units supported 7th Army in pushing the French in Alsace back into the Vosges Mountains.
By August 13, German intelligence estimated 6th and 7th German armies were facing 10 French corps, which was almost half of the French army’s 21 active corps. Unlike the Germans, the French were not yet ready to commit their corps composed of mobilized reservists to front-line combat. German intelligence also projected that the French opposite Lorraine would be at a state of operational readiness no later than August 11, at which point they would attack. But by August 13 the French still had not made their move in Lorraine. Nonetheless, Rupprecht, who was receiving little direct guidance from OHL, intended to attack no matter what the French did.
Ignoring the setback at Mulhouse and what was now obviously the German main attack – the German right wing coming through Belgium – Joffre ordered the Lorraine offensive, the southern arm of Plan XVII, for August 14. On the right, General Auguste Dubail’s 1st French Army crossed into southern Lorraine with Sarrebourg as its initial objective. General Noël de Castelnau’s 2d French Army to the north crossed just south of Metz and advanced toward Morhange. Dubail and de Castelnau estimated they were facing no more than six German corps, when they actually faced nine.
The French believed that the Germans would attempt to fight a delaying defense, and for several days it appeared they were doing just that. On August 15, OHL “suggested” but did not order 6th German Army to evade behind the Sarre River south of Saarbrücken, to force the French to overextend their lines of communications and pull them into a trap. Conducting a fighting withdrawal, the Germans hit the French with continuous artillery fire, as the invaders pushed forward over poor roads and difficult terrain. By August 17, the French had advanced as far as 25 miles into German territory and 1st French Army took Sarrebourg. But then the German defense grew stronger as the French crossed the Sarre River.
French field artillery units at the start of the war were armed almost exclusively with the light 75 mm field gun, while German units had a far greater proportion of heavier guns and howitzers. German units also had more machine guns. The massive German firepower now began to tear large holes in the French ranks, forcing them to fall back on Sarrebourg. During the withdrawal, 1st and 2d French armies lost contact with each other. Dubail then ordered an attack for the night of August 19-20 to re-establish the continuity of the French front and to start the offensive moving forward again.
OHL, meanwhile, continued waffling by sending liaison officer Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm von Dommes to Rupprecht’s headquarters on August 17. Dommes strongly suggested that 6th German Army pull back even farther, behind the line of the Nied River. Rupprecht objected. He insisted that the continual withdrawal would hurt the morale of his troops, and that if he pulled back any farther he would break contact with 7th German Army. Rupprecht and Krafft told Dommes that unless OHL gave them a direct order to the contrary, 6th Army would attack.
OHL refused to endorse the 6th Army attack, but it also specifically declined to prohibit it. Several postwar critics, however, suggested unfairly that the attack was made solely to enhance the dynastic prestige of the Bavarian crown prince. The attack was probably the right course of action in principle, but the terrain and the enemy position meant that it would have to be conducted as a frontal attack. With the French trying to move forward again, the two forces collided in a huge meeting engagement on August 20. By late that afternoon, 1st French Army had been forced out of Sarrebourg and back across the Meurthe River. Sixth German Army then turned to the right to attack 2d French Army near Morhange. By August 22, that French force had been soundly beaten and pushed back across the Meurthe, where it dug into positions in the heavily fortified Couronné de Nancy defensive zone.
That same day, Joffre ordered the second phase of Plan XVII by sending 3d and 5th French armies north of Metz through southern Belgium and Luxembourg to envelop Lorraine from the north. Encountering German Crown Prince Wilhelm’s 5th German Army, the French quickly bogged down in the difficult terrain of the Ardennes, although the fighting there dragged out until the end of August.
De Castelnau, meanwhile, seriously considered abandoning the Couronné de Nancy, but his XX Corps commander, General Ferdinand Foch, protested violently. Joffre, too, insisted that de Castelnau hold Nancy to continue to tie down German forces. Sixth German Army, however, brought its attack up short, reluctant to get overextended and mired in the French fortified zone.
On August 22, Krafft called OHL for instructions on how to proceed. For once Moltke issued a specific order, directing 6th German Army to exploit its victory over the French by pursuing in the direction of Epinal. That order caused a great deal of consternation and confusion at Rupprecht’s headquarters. By sending 6th and 7th German armies farther to the south, OHL seemed to be abandoning the operational concepts of the Schlieffen Plan almost two weeks before the Battle of the Marne started. That maneuver also would take the Germans straight into the Charmes Gap, where generations of French strategists had hoped to lure any attackers from the east to their destruction. Finally, the turn south also opened up an exposed German right flank to the heavily defended French fortified zones, which in turn forced the Germans to divert more of their combat power to screen that flank.
The French counterattacked on August 24. On the 2d French Army’s left, Foch’s XX Corps hit the rear of the German advance, forcing the attackers to concentrate on that threat. Although 6th German Army beat back the French counterattack by the next day, the German attack effectively stalled. Then, late on August 25, OHL ordered 6th and 7th German armies to cross the Moselle between Toul and Epinal and advance deeper into the Charmes Gap. Because of the tactical situation on the ground, however, such an attack was quite impossible. A couple of days later OHL gave 6th German Army a new order, without countermanding the previous order. Now, in addition to crossing the Moselle, 6th Army was supposed to bring the Couronné de Nancy under heavy artillery bombardment. But that order was moot as well, because 6th Army did not have any siege guns.
The Germans dug in. The French remained deeply entrenched in their fortified zones, which included massive supply depots stocked with seemingly unlimited quantities of ammunition, rations and other warfighting essentials. The first indicators of trench warfare were starting to appear on the Western Front. Joffre, meanwhile, used the stalemate in Lorraine to start shifting divisions from 2d French Army north to 3d French Army. Operating on interior lines, that was easier for the French to do. With the Germans operating on exterior lines, it was almost impossible for them to shift forces from Lorraine to their own right wing in sufficient time.
Completely out of touch with reality, OHL continued to demand that 6th and 7th German armies penetrate into the Charmes Gap and cross the Moselle. Frustrated by the inaction in the south, OHL did a flip-flop a few days later and “recommended” that Rupprecht’s 6th Army take the Couronné de Nancy. But again, OHL abdicated the final decision to 6th Army. At a meeting of 6th Army’s corps commanders on August 31, they all argued against the offensive. Rupprecht reluctantly postponed the attack, but the next day Krafft went to OHL personally and finally obtained what he thought was OHL’s endorsement. Furthermore, OHL made 66 batteries of heavy artillery available for the attack – guns that might have been used more effectively by the German right wing in the north in September 1914.
The lack of cooperation between 6th and 7th German armies only got worse. Just as 6th Army headquarters did not believe that OHL understood the situation on the ground in Lorraine, 7th Army likewise thought that 6th Army headquarters didn’t understand the situation or the terrain in Alsace and the Vosges. Meanwhile, the Germans started to receive reports of British forces arriving on the Continent in the north. OHL reacted by ordering Heeringen and his staff to shift to the north and to re-establish 7th Army between 1st and 2d German armies. The re-established 7th Army in the north would consist of one 7th Army corps plus a corps from 6th Army. The remaining 7th Army units in Alsace would be reassigned to Rupprecht’s 6th Army. However, the reestablished 7th Army did not take up its new position until after the Germans lost the decisive Battle of the Marne.
Sixth German Army, with its headquarters now in Dieuze, started its attack on the Couronné de Nancy (also known to the French as the Grand Couronné) on September 4 with a massive artillery bombardment. By September 7, de Castelnau was again recommending the abandonment of Nancy to prevent the destruction of his 2d French Army. With the Battle of the Marne now in full swing, Joffre again refused, telling de Castelnau that he had to hold out for at least another 48 hours. OHL, meanwhile, changed its mind once again. But rather than directly ordering a halt to the German attack, OHL on September 8 imposed artillery ammunition expenditure restrictions on Rupprecht’s 6th Army that would force the German offensive to grind to a halt. While that slow tragedy was playing out, however, the German infantrymen attacking Nancy frontally continued to die in large numbers.
Meeting on September 9, German 6th Army’s corps chiefs of staff recommended stopping the attack. Rupprecht agreed. Three days later, 6th Army started to withdraw to the east under the cover of its own artillery fire. The French followed cautiously, retaking Pont-à-Mousson and Lunéville without a fight on September 13. The French advance came to a halt on the Seille River, where the front line in that sector stabilized for the remaining four years of the war.
What the French called the “Miracle of the Marne” was an unmitigated disaster for the Germans. Even before Moltke was relieved as chief of the General Staff and replaced by Prussian War Minister General Erich von Falkenhayn on October 25, he started looking for someone to blame, and that someone was Rupprecht. Some members of Moltke’s inner circle agreed with him, but most of the German senior leadership saw clearly that the fault lay with Moltke himself.
After the war, Moltke’s “watering down” of the sacrosanct Schlieffen Plan became the common wisdom answer to what had gone wrong in 1914. But if Moltke’s and OHL’s remote and inept handling of the German left wing is any indication of how they managed the right wing in August and September 1914, the outcome at the Marne is hardly surprising. Almost from the time that Moltke took over as Schlieffen’s successor in 1906, his weak personality was a well-known liability. As early as a week before the start of the Battle of the Marne, Falkenhayn thought that Moltke was already a psychological wreck.
Throughout most of the battle, the OHL staff continued to believe that 6th and 7th German armies were facing only minimal opposition and that their inability to make any progress was a function of poor overall leadership and the general unreliability of 6th Army’s Bavarian soldiers. They only began to accept the real situation when in early September Heeringen passed through OHL in transit to establish his new command, and he delivered a detailed report on the situation in the south. When Rupprecht and Krafft learned about it several days later, they felt a certain sense of umbrage that OHL had not believed them but rather had to hear it from a Prussian officer first.
After OHL imposed the restrictions on artillery ammunition expenditure on September 8, a frustrated Rupprecht seriously considered resigning his command. Krafft talked him out of it, but by late September the Bavarians were still seen as being largely to blame for the failures of the past several weeks – despite Heeringen’s report to OHL. The War Ministry in Berlin made the decision to break up 6th Army as an all-Bavarian unit, dispersing the Bavarian corps and divisions throughout the rest of the German army. Rupprecht continued to command 6th Army, but as the war progressed the unit almost completely lost its Bavarian character.
Rupprecht continued serving in senior command positions for the remainder of the war. Ironically, he ended the war with a better reputation than almost all of the German Western Front commanders of 1914. In August 1916 he was promoted to field marshal and he assumed command of Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht, opposite the British on the northern end of the German line. He never did ascend to the throne because the Bavarian monarchy was abolished after World War I. During the Third Reich period, Rupprecht was a staunch opponent of the Nazis. He spent most of World War II in exile outside of Germany, but his oldest son and heir, Albrecht, was imprisoned in both Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. When Rupprecht died in Bavaria in 1955, he was treated like the monarch he never became. He received a state funeral and was buried in the Wittelsbach family crypt in the Theatinerkirche (Theatine Church) in Munich. He was the last of Germany’s senior World War I commanders.
David T. Zabecki, PhD, is a retired major general of the United States Army, Weider History Group senior historian, and editor emeritus of “Vietnam” magazine. His books include “On the German Art of War: Truppenführung – German Army Manual for Unit Command in World War II,” with co-editor Bruce Condell (Stackpole, 2008), and the two-volume “Chief of Staff: The Principal Officers Behind History’s Great Commanders” (Naval Institute Press, 2008).
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Armchair General.