World War I: Battle of Charleroi

General Charles Lanrezac during World War I
General Charles Lanrezac. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Charleroi was fought August 21-23, 1914, during the opening days of World War I (1914-1918) and was part of a series of engagements collectively known as the Battle of the Frontiers (August 7-September 13, 1914). With the start of World War I, the armies of Europe began mobilizing and moving towards the front. In Germany, the army commenced implementing a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan.

The Schlieffen Plan

Conceived by Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905, the plan was designed for a two-front war against France and Russia. Following their easy victory over the French in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, Germany saw France as less of a threat than its larger neighbor to the east. As a result, Schlieffen sought to mass the bulk of Germany's military might against France with the goal of winning a quick victory before the Russians could fully mobilize their army. With France eliminated, Germany would be able to focus their attention to the east (Map).

Predicting that France would attack across the border into Alsace and Lorraine, which had been ceded following the earlier conflict, the Germans intended to violate the neutrality of Luxembourg and Belgium to attack the French from the north in a large-scale battle of encirclement. German troops were to defend along the border while the right wing of the army swept through Belgium and past Paris in an effort to crush the French army.

 

French Plans

In the years prior to the war, General Joseph Joffre, Chief of the French General Staff, moved to update his nation's war plans for a conflict with Germany. Though he initially desired to create a plan that had French forces attack through Belgium, he was later unwilling to violate that nation's neutrality.

Instead, he and his staff designed Plan XVII which called for French troops to mass along the German border and mount attacks through the Ardennes and into Lorraine.

Armies & Commanders:

French

  • General Charles Lanrezac
  • Fifth Army

Germans

  • General Karl von Bülow 
  • General Max von Hausen
  • Second & Third Armies

Early Fighting

With the beginning of the war, the Germans aligned the First through Seventh Armies, north to south, to execute the Schlieffen Plan. Entering Belgium on August 3, First and Second Armies drove back the small Belgian Army but were slowed by the need to reduce the fortress city of Liege.  Receiving reports of German activity in Belgium, General Charles Lanrezac, commanding the Fifth Army at the northern end of the French line, alerted Joffre that the enemy was advancing in unexpected strength.  Despite Lanrezac's warnings, Joffre moved forward with Plan XVII and an attack into Alsace.  This and a second effort in Alsace and Lorraine were both pushed back by the German defenders (Map).   

To the north, Joffre had planned to launch an offensive with the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Armies but these plans were overtaken by events in Belgium. On August 15, after lobbying from Lanrezac, he directed Fifth Army north into the angle formed by the Sambre and Meuse Rivers.

Hoping to gain the initiative, Joffre ordered Third and Fourth Armies to attack through the Ardennes against Arlon and Neufchateau.  Advancing on August 21, they encountered the German Fourth and Fifth Armies and were badly defeated. As the situation along the front developed, Field Marshal Sir John French's British Expeditionary Force (BEF) disembarked and began assembling at Le Cateau.  Communicating with the British commander, Joffre requested that French to cooperate with Lanrezac on the left.

Along the Sambre

Responding to Joffre's order to move north, Lanrezac positioned his Fifth Army south of the Sambre extending from the Belgian fortress city of Namur in the east to just past the mid-size industrial town of Charleroi in the west. His I Corps, led by General Franchet d'Esperey, extended the right south behind the Meuse.

To his left, the cavalry corps of General Jean-François André Sordet linked Fifth Army to French's BEF. 

On August 18, Lanrezac received additional instructions from Joffre directing him to attack north or east depending upon the enemy's location. Seeking to locate General Karl von Bülow's Second Army, Lanrezac's cavalry moved north of the Sambre but were unable to penetrate the German cavalry screen.  Early on August 21, Joffre, increasingly aware of the size of German forces in Belgium, directed Lanrezac to attack when "opportune" and arranged for the BEF to provide support.

On the Defensive

Though he received this directive, Lanrezac adopted a defensive position behind the Sambre but failed to establish heavily-defended bridgeheads north the river. Additionally, due to poor intelligence regarding the bridges over the river, several were left completely undefended. Attacked later in the day by the lead elements of Bülow's army, the French were pushed back over the river. Though ultimately held, the Germans were able to establish positions on the south bank.

Bülow assessed the situation and requested that General Freiherr von Hausen's Third Army, operating to east, join in the attack on Lanrezac with the goal of executing a pincer. Hausen agreed to strike west the next day.  On the morning of August 22, Lanrezac's corps commanders, on their own initiative, launched attacks north in an effort to throw the Germans back over the Sambre. These proved unsuccessful as nine French divisions were unable to dislodge three German divisions.

The failure of these attacks cost Lanrezac high ground in the area while a gap between his army and Fourth Army began to open on his right (Map). 

Responding, Bülow renewed his drive south with three corps without waiting for Hausen to arrive. As the French resisted these assaults, Lanrezac withdrew d'Esperey's corps from the Meuse with the intent of using it to strike Bülow's left flank on August 23. Holding through the day, the French again came under attack the next morning. While the corps to the west of Charleroi was able to hold, those to the east in the French center, despite mounting an intense resistance, began to fall back.  As I Corps moved into position to strike Bülow's flank, the lead elements of Hausen's army began crossing the Meuse. 

A Desperate Situation

Recognizing the dire threat this posted, d'Esperey counter-marched his men towards their old positions.  Engaging Hausen's troops, I Corps checked their advance but could not push them back across the river. As night fell, Lanrezac's position was increasingly desperate as a Belgian division from Namur had retreated into his lines while Sordet's cavalry, which had reached a state of exhaustion, needed to be withdrawn. This opened a 10-mile gap between Lanrezac's left and the British.

Further west, French's BEF had fought the Battle of Mons. A tenacious defensive action, the engagement around Mons had seen the British inflict heavy losses on the Germans before being forced to give ground. By late afternoon, French had ordered his men to begin falling back.

This exposed Lanrezac's army to greater pressure on both flanks. Seeing little alternative, he began making plans to withdraw south.  These were quickly approved by Joffre. In the fighting around Charleroi, the Germans sustained around 11,000 casualties while the French incurred approximately 30,000.

Aftermath:

Following the defeats at Charleroi and Mons, French and British forces began a long, fighting retreat south towards Paris. Holding actions or failed counterattacks were conducted at Le Cateau (August 26-27) and St. Quentin (August 29-30), while Mauberge fell September 7 after a brief siege. Creating a line behind the Marne River, Joffre prepared to make a stand to save Paris. Stabilizing the situation, Joffre began the First Battle of the Marne on September 6 when a gap was found between the German First and Second Armies. Exploiting this, both formations were soon threatened with destruction.  In these circumstances, the German Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, suffered a nervous breakdown. His subordinates assumed command and ordered a general retreat to the Aisne River. 

 

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Battle of Charleroi." ThoughtCo, Dec. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/battle-of-charleroi-2360462. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, December 7). World War I: Battle of Charleroi. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-charleroi-2360462 Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Battle of Charleroi." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-charleroi-2360462 (accessed December 11, 2017).