On August 22, 1914, as French and German forces face off on the Western Front during the opening month of the First World War, the isolated encounters of the previous day move into full-scale battle in the forests of the Ardennes and at Charleroi, near the junction of the Sambre and Meuse Rivers.
A German soldier’s diary entry captures the horrifying chaos of that day on the front lines in Tintigny, near Ardennes, where the German 4th and 5th Armies were squaring off against the French 3rd and 4th. “Nothing more terrible could be imagined….We advanced much too fast—a civilian fired at us—he was immediately shot—we were ordered to attack the enemy flank in a forest of beeches—we lost our direction—the men were done for—the enemy opened fire—shells came down on us like hail.”
The Battle of the Ardennes was the second of the so-called Battles of the Frontiers—four bloody conflicts fought over the course of as many days between German, French and British forces on the Western Front in France. After French forces were destroyed by the advancing German left wing in Lorraine on August 20, two simultaneous actions were launched on August 21 and 22, in the Ardennes and further north, at the village of Charleroi. The Battle of Charleroi saw General Charles Lanrezac and the French 5th Army take on General Karl von Bulow’s 2nd German Army.
Over the course of a single day, August 22, some 27,000 French soldiers died at Ardennes and Charleroi. In the latter battle, von Bulow’s men were joined by the German 3rd Army, led by General Max Klemens von Hausen, which over the night of August 22 brought four fresh corps and 340 new guns into action. The French 5th Army, in turn, was due to be supported by the newly arrived British Expeditionary Force (BEF); a British delay and poor relations between Lanrezac and the BEF’s commander, Sir John French, however, meant that instead of supporting the French at Charleroi, the British were forced to fight their own action, the Battle of the Mons, beginning on August 23, as Lanrezac’s men continued to fight alone.
At Charleroi, with the roads swollen with Belgian refugees heading for French army headquarters, Lanrezac learned on August 23 that the French army was collapsing all along the line, from Lorraine to the Meuse. With his own army pushed to its limits at Charleroi, he made the decision, without consulting French headquarters, to order a general retreat. According to his own written account, Lanrezac believed that destruction of the 5th Army would mean catastrophe for France, as he told one of his officers. “We have been beaten but the evil is reparable. As long as the 5th Army lives, France is not lost.”
Though Joffre and GQG, the headquarters of the French army, did not question Lanrezac’s decision at the time, thereby tacitly authorizing it, the general of the 5th Army was later made a scapegoat for the failure of France’s offensively minded Plan 17 strategy during the Battles of the Frontiers. It was a costly failure indeed for France: some 70 divisions, or about 1.25 million men, saw combat over the course of four days, with total casualties of 140,000 (twice the number of the entire BEF in France at that time).
Joffre, however, would admit no inherent flaw in the purely offensive spirit behind Plan 17—instead, he blamed failure on a “false understanding” of that spirit. In a “Note for All Armies” issued on August 24, he determined that land captured by the French should be immediately organized for occupation and defense, and entrenchments should be dug. The lack of coordination between artillery and infantry must be remedied, Joffre insisted, and the French “must copy the enemy in using airplanes to prepare artillery attacks.” As the French president, Raymond Poincare wrote in his diary that same day: “We must make up our minds both to retreat and to invasion. So much for the illusions of the last fortnight. Now the future of France depends on her powers of resistance.”