World War I: Battle of Lorraine

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Marshal Joseph Joffre. Photograph Source: Public Domain

 Battle of Lorraine - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Lorraine was fought August 14-25, 1914, during World War I (1914-1918) and was part of the larger Battle of the Frontiers (August 7-September 13, 1914).

Battle of Lorraine - Armies & Commanders:

France

Germany

  • Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria
  • General Josias von Heeringen
  • Sixth & Seventh Armies

Battle of Lorraine - Background:

With the beginning of World War I, the nations of Europe began mobilizing and moving their armies towards the front.  In Germany, the army began putting into action a modified version of the Schlieffen Plan. Created by Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905, the plan was intended for a two-front war against France and Russia. In the wake of their easy victory over the French in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, Germany viewed France as less of a threat than its larger neighbor to the east. As a result, Schlieffen planned to place the bulk of Germany's military might against France with the goal of winning a rapid victory before the Russians could fully mobilize their army. With France defeated, Germany would be able to shift their attention to the east (Map).

Predicting that France would strike across the border into Alsace and Lorraine, which had been lost following the earlier conflict, the Germans planned to violate the neutrality of Luxembourg and Belgium to invade France from the north in a large-scale battle of encirclement.

German troops were to hold along the border while the right wing of the army circled through Belgium and past Paris in an effort to destroy the French army.  In the years leading up to the war, General Joseph Joffre, Chief of the French General Staff, sought to update his nation's plans for a war with Germany.

  Though he initially hoped to create a plan that had French forces move through Belgium, he was later unwilling to violate that nation's neutrality. Instead, he and his staff conceived Plan XVII which called for French troops to assemble along the German border and launch attacks through the Ardennes and into Lorraine.

Battle of Lorraine - Early Fighting:

With the start of the war, the Germans deployed the First through Seventh Armies, north to south, to execute the Schlieffen Plan.  Crossing into 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, leading the Fifth Army at the northern end of the French line, warned Joffre that the enemy was advancing in unexpected strength.  Activating Plan XVII, VII Corps from the French First Army pushed into Alsace on August 7 and captured Mulhouse.  Counterattacking two days later, the Germans were able to reclaim the town.  On August 8, Joffre sent General Instructions No. 1 to the First and Second Armies on his right.  This order directed them to advance northeast into Alsace and Lorraine on August 14.

Battle of Lorraine - Early Success:

Responding to Joffre's directive, General Auguste Dubail moved two corps from his First Army northeast towards Sarrebourg and another two into the Vosges Mountains.  To his left, General Noel de Castelneau advanced two corps from his Second Army northeast, while another corps and several reserve divisions pushed toward Morhange.  These latter forces were also to protect the offensive's flank against a German counterstrike south from Metz.  Gaining ground on the August 14, First Army did not encounter serious resistance until evening when initial attacks against Cirey were turned back.  To the north, Second Army had similar success, but increasingly reported stiffening German defenses.  Though the day had gone well, the topography of region led First Army to drift southeast creating a tenuous connection between Dubail and Castelneau's forces (Map).

Battle of Lorraine - The Tide Turns:

The next two days saw the French continue to make gains, but the advance slowed as heavy artillery support was required to dislodge the German defenders.  Grinding ahead, French forces succeeded in taking Sarrebourg.  Upon learning this, Joffre directed Castelneau to shift his advance north which led to an increasing loss of contact between First and Second Armies.  Opposing the French were the German Sixth and Seventh Armies operating under the combined command of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria.  Assessing the situation, he lobbied to be able to launch a major counterattack against the separated French armies on August 20.  This was approved and Rupprecht's men moved forward and were able to engage the two French armies separately.

Halting Dubail and Castelneau, Rupprecht commenced driving the French back.  In the fighting on the Second Army's front, only General Ferdinand Foch's XX Corps mounted serious resistance.  Elsewhere, successive attacks led to the French retreating in haste.  As the Germans were slow to pursue, Castelneau was able to rally his forces and establish a new line east of Nancy.  Extending south, he reestablished contact with First Army.  Attacking again on August 22, Rupprecht was able to push Second Army back around sixteen miles from where they commenced the battle on August 14.  To maintain contact, First Army withdrew as well.  Recovering from this blow, both French armies resumed the offensive two days later at Trouee des Charmes and were able to regain their line of August 14 by early September when trench warfare ensued.

Battle of Lorraine - Aftermath:

As the front in Lorraine was stabilizing a crisis emerged to the northwest as German forces attacked through Belgium.  Responding, Joffre moved Lanrezac's army north to the Sambre River while Field Marshal Sir John French's British Expeditionary Force extended the line west.  These two forces were overwhelmed in the Battles of Charleroi and Mons respectively and compelled to retreat south.

 Holding actions or unsuccessful counterattacks were mounted at Le Cateau (August 26-27) and St. Quentin (August 29-30), while Mauberge fell September 7 after a short siege.

Forming a line behind the Marne River, Joffre prepared to make a stand to defend Paris.  Stabilizing the front, Joffre opened the First Battle of the Marne on September 6 when a gap was found between the German First and Second Armies.  Exploiting this, both armies 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.              

Selected Sources