General Lanrezac, commander of the French Fifth army, had been unable to persuade his superior Joseph Joffre, of the danger that the German armies would swing down upon from the North not only upon his army, but upon the greater part of France as well, including Paris. In defiance of Joffre’s orders, Lanrezac moved his army to the North, hoping to intercept the German right wing. What he received was indeed a portion of the right wing, commanded by Karl von Bülow.
Von Bülow army sought a crossing of the Sambre River near Charleroi, Belgium. On August 21, he successfully established bridgeheads, and began to push forwards. Meanwhile Lanrezac had taken the extremely unorthodox (for the French) precaution of preparing defenses. When the Germans advanced from their bridgeheads, they found Lanrezac well entrenched and could not easily sweep him away. Unfortunately, Lanrezac had neither a significant number of artillery pieces, nor could he count on the support of another French army.
The lack of artillery meant that although Lanrezac knew the location of the German bridgeheads, he could do little to punish them while they moved through the area.
The lack of a supporting French army meant that no French forces protected Lanrezac’s left and right flanks from being attacked by the Germans. Indeed, the French army just to his right soon pulled out of the Ardennes, leaving Lanrezac not only unsupported, but completely without hope of holding the Germans in place. Weighing the possibility that he might be cut off and surrounded, Lanrezac soon ordered a retreat.
Lanrezac had moved North precisely in order to intercept the German right wing. For as far as he moved, however, he had only made contact with the German Second army . . . an entire German army, the First, yet lay even farther to the North and West, so far completely unopposed by the French.
Fortunately, Tommy would provide a bit of support very soon.
. . .
Elsewhere, Joffre’s attacks on the German’s in Lorraine remained unsuccessful, a massive disappointment to Joffre and other’s who subscribed to the cult of the offensive (a belief that unrestrained offensive warfare aided morale, and was therefore invincible). Indeed, on the next day alone, over 27,000 Frenchmen would die in Joffre’s attacks.
A member of these attacks, Charles De Gaulle, later remarked that “In a moment it is clear that all the courage in the world cannot prevail against gunfire.”
Clearly, the French had woefully prepared themselves, ideologically and strategically, for the war with Germany.