August 22, 1914: The bloodiest day in French military history
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The Battle of the Frontiers, fought at the outset of World War I, doesn’t have the same historical notoriety as Verdun or Somme, but it saw in one day more French soldiers die than in any other day in history.
Exactly 100 years ago this Friday, 27,000 French soldiers died in less than 24 hours.
It remains France’s highest ever death toll in a single day, despite being followed by four years of brutal and bloody conflict.
As many French lives were lost on August 22, 1914, as during the entire Algerian War, fought between 1954 and 1962.
Jean-Michel Steg, a historian who has written extensively on this military catastrophe – which nevertheless stopped the German “Schlieffen Plan” in its tracks – says he is as “haunted” by the fateful date as he is perplexed as to why it has slipped from the national consciousness.
FRANCE 24: What exactly happened on August 22, 1914?
Jean-Michel Steg: The deadliest months of the war were the first ones, between August and October, 1914. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, an incredible number of soldiers were mobilized at the same time. Hundreds of thousands of troops from both sides were exposed to death that day.
France had five armies positioned from east to west, from Alsace and Lorraine to the Belgian border. For different reasons, all of these armies fought on that same day as part of 15 different assaults, with no coordination between them.
In each case, the French lost a lot of ground and left many of their wounded behind because they were not adequately trained in defensive warfare and because their artillery was badly exploited.
There were many painful lessons to be learned in static warfare that still had to be learned. Sadly, this inexperience would cost many lives.
The army also had a class of officers which, while being extremely courageous, were willing to sacrifice their lives – and those of their men – rather than withdraw strategically, as they should have done.
F24: The day’s fighting at the Belgian village of Rossignol stands out…
J-M S: A division of colonial infantry – made up mostly of men from Brittany and southern France, not of colonial troops – found itself in dire straits. Its commander, General Raffenel, had gone mad. He went off into the battle on his own and was soon killed. His subordinates didn’t know what to do and the men of the division, without orders, stayed where they were and were annihilated as they fought the German encirclement. It was a total disaster. Up to 7,000 men were killed in that small zone, and many more killed at Charleroi further north.
F24: Who bears the ultimate responsibility for this carnage?
J-M S: Tactically, the Germans had the upper hand. Both sides were engaged in chaotic face-to-face fighting. And while the credo of the French army was to attack, the Germans were quickly able to put up strong defensive positions. They would sit tight, observe the French dispositions and use their artillery to devastating effect, forcing the French to manoeuvre rapidly under fire.
The French army of the time also had a very rigid and strict hierarchy. Nothing could be done without sending runners for orders and this took a long time. The German army had a less centralised command structure, and junior officers were informed of battle plans and were given more autonomy to use their own initiative. Individual German units could therefore manoeuvre more quickly, giving them the distinct upper hand.
F24: A lot is said about civilian casualties at the beginning of the war...
J-M S: When the German army entered Belgium, atrocities against civilians were indeed committed. Several thousands were killed during the summer 1914 offensive. At Rossignol there was a feeling among the Germans that the civilian population had collaborated with the French and shot at German soldiers. This was not true. Nevertheless, the Germans herded scores of civilians into a field and kept them there without food for two days. They were then packed into cattle trucks to be sent east where they were killed. What happened next was a chilling precursor to what would happen in Poland in the Second World War. The civilians were initially to be held hostage to insure the cooperation of the local Belgian population. But when it was impossible to find locomotives to transport the cattle trucks, one officer decided to have them all shot.
F24: Why has this date in history been eclipsed by other battles, such as the Marne and Verdun?
J-M S: It’s shocking, but there isn’t really an answer to this question. Recently it’s been talked about in a France2 TV documentary titled “Apocalypse”, and French President François Hollande mentioned it when he spoke at Liège in Belgium to mark the centenary of the beginning of the war. I’m glad he did, because at the village of Rossignol itself, there is no memorial to the thousands of French soldiers who died there. I will be going there on August 22, with the grandson of one of the soldiers who fought and died there, to lay a wreath at the Orée du Bois cemetery where thousands of young Frenchmen are buried. It’s a terrible, haunted place and full of ghosts. I always leave there with a terrible feeling of anguish.