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The German Advance

French prisoners being moved, 1914. At least one is concealing his face with his hat.
Abtransport gefangener Franzosen.
French prisoners on the move.
Nr. 80
Kunst- u. Verlaganstalt Schaar & Dathe, Comm. Ges. a. Akt., Trier
Schaar & Dathe Art &  Publishing Company, Trier
Message dated December 17, 1914, field postmarked December 18.

French prisoners being moved, 1914. At least one is concealing his face with his hat.

Image text

Abtransport gefangener Franzosen.

French prisoners on the move.


Nr. 80

Kunst- u. Verlaganstalt Schaar & Dathe, Comm. Ges. a. Akt., Trier

Schaar & Dathe Art & Publishing Company, Trier

Message dated December 17, 1914, field postmarked December 18.

Other views: Larger, Back

August 23 to September 5, 1914

Western Front

The Allied Retreat

With their victories in the Battle of the Frontiers, the German First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Armies advanced on a line from their extreme right near Cambrai eastward to the fortresses of Verdun. Before them, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Fifth, Fourth, and Third Armies retreated across northern France.

Planning a counter-attack, General Joseph Joffre reconfigured his forces. To support his left wing, east of Arras on the British left, he created Groupe d'Amade, consisting of six reserve and Territorial (home guard) divisions. He dissolved the Army of Lorraine, and sent two of its divisions west to Amiens as the basis for a new French Sixth Army.

Buoyed by his success in France, and concerned by the events in East Prussia where Russia had won the Battle of Gumbinnen on August 20, German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke began sending two army corps to the Eastern Front on August 25, drawing strength from his offensive. Other units besieged the Belgian fortress at Antwerp and the French fortresses at Maubeuge and Givet, further weakening the forces pursuing the Allies. On the German right, the First, Second, and Third Armies retained only eleven of their original sixteen army corps.

The Battles of Le Cateau and Guise

On August 26, an exhausted British force under General Smith-Dorrien stopped and prepared to fight at Le Cateau, which had been the staging area for British troops on the continent. On his right, General Douglas Haig continued retreating, leaving Smith-Dorrien dangerously exposed on both flanks, as units of the Groupe d'Amade were on his left, but with a significant gap between the French and British. Von Kluck's attack drove in Smith-Dorrien's right flank, but a French cavalry corps reinforced his left flank. That night, after the battle, the British continued their retreat. In the Battle of Le Cateau, the British suffered 7,800 casualties in a force of 40,000.

Through August 27 and 28, the Allies continued retreating. To relieve pressure on the British, Joffre ordered Lanrezac, most of whose army was already south of the Oise River, to attack to the west, which would have required turning the French Fifth Army 90 degrees, and would have exposed its right wing. Before Lanrezac could reposition, the German Second Army (Bülow) struck the French on August 29 south of Guise. Their attack was blunted in the evening when General Franchet d'Esperey, commanding Lanrezac's First Army Corps, launched a successful counter-attack which drove the Germans back across much of the battle line.

Confronted by the German First Army on his left, the Second Army directly ahead of him, and the Third Army threatening his right flank and rear, Lanrezac requested, and was given, permission to retreat.

A week passed after the Battles of Le Cateau and Guise with little fighting on the Western Front. The German advance had driven the British and French forces out of Belgium, and continued driving them south. Joffre tried to find a natural line on which to stop the advance. The invaders had already crossed the Oise and the Meuse Rivers. The Aisne, the Vesle, the Ourcq, the Marne, the Petit Morin, the Grand Morin, the Seine all lay ahead. Commanding British forces in France, Sir John French had very poor relations with the French, and was ready to leave the field, and return to the coast and England. Joffre turned to his government to apply political pressure to assure Sir John's support. British Secretary of State for War Herbert Kitchener forced him to stay.

Von Kluck Turns

In command of the westernmost German First Army, on the extreme right of the German advance, General von Kluck did not use air reconnaissance, and his cavalry could not find the British after the battle at Le Cateau. He assumed they were retreating to the coast. Von Kluck also believed he had dispersed the French forces he had encountered in the area, Groupe d'Amade and elements of the new French Sixth Army that Joffre was forming under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury. On August 31, confident he had no concern on his right wing, von Kluck changed direction from southwest to southeast to envelop Lanrezac's Fifth Army, a move that put him on course to bypass Paris to the north.

Moltke, Joffre, and Gallieni

Some German generals were triumphant. They had substantially defeated Belgium, and the French and British were falling back, with the British seemingly leaving France altogether. But Moltke was concerned. German supply lines were over-stretched, particularly for those forces on the German right wing that had swept across Belgium most rapidly and traveled the farthest. Some of the general staff observed that the Allies were retreating in an orderly fashion, and that the Germans were taking few prisoners of war and little materiel. Although he advanced his headquarters from Coblenz in Germany to Luxembourg at the end of August, Moltke did not visit the front, and had poor communications with his commanders.

Retaining a calm demeanor through the retreat, Joffre traveled the front, reconfiguring his forces, sending troops to the French left, sacking generals, promoting others, calling some from retirement, negotiating with Sir John French to ensure British forces were engaged in battle, planning his counter-blow to the German advance, and asking his generals when they would be ready to attack. He created the French Sixth Army, and tried to stop the Allied retreat near the Somme River, but the force was too far forward to consolidate a position, and retreated. He created the French Seventh and Eighth Armies. He hoped to halt the retreat on the Aisne River, or further south on the Marne, or even further south on the Seine. He continued to ask his generals when they would be ready to attack.

Fearful of losing Paris, the government decamped to Bordeaux on September 2, putting General Joseph Gallieni in command of the garrison defending the fortified capital. Maunoury's Sixth Army retreated towards Paris even as it strengthened.

The Gap Between the German Armies

On August 31, von Bülow's Second Army remained in position for the day as von Kluck rapidly advanced to envelop the Fifth Army, which he thought constituted the French left wing. When von Bülow continued his advance on September 1, there was a thirty-mile gap between the two armies. Both of von Kluck's flanks were unprotected, with his right exposed to the French Sixth Army and the Paris garrison.

Further east, near Verdun and the center of the German line, the Crown Prince in command of the German Fifth Army pressed the fortress city. To its south, Prince Rupprecht's Sixth Army resumed the offensive in Lorraine.

As German forces continued advancing past the Marne River, the Allied realignment continued. The BEF fell back to the Seine River southeast of Paris. A detachment that General Ferdinand Foch had commanded between the French Fifth and Fourth Armies was augmented to become the French Ninth Army. Joffre removed Lanrezac from command of the Fifth Army and replaced him with Franchet d’Esperey who said he would be ready to attack on September 6. Northeast of Paris, the Sixth Army moved east and prepared its attack. On September 5, a German reserve corps following von Kluck encountered and attacked the Sixth Army, and recognized the threat it posed to the First Army. The French counterattack would no longer surprise the invader.



Events contemporaneous with The German Advance

Start Date End Date View
1914-08-02 1914-11-11 Turkey Enters the War
1914-08-04 1914-11-24 Germany Conquers Belgium
1914-08-07 1914-08-23 Battle of the Frontiers
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