Charles Lanrezac

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Charles Lanrezac
Charles Lanrezac.gif
Born31 July 1852 (1852-07-31)
Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe
Died18 January 1925 (1925-01-19) (aged 72)
Neuilly-sur-Seine, France
Allegiance Flag of France.svg France
Years of service1869–1914
Rank Général de Division
Commands held 11th Army Corps
Fifth Army
Battles/wars Franco-Prussian War
World War I
Awards Grand cross of the Légion d'honneur
Grand cross of the Order of the Crown (Belgium)

Charles Lanrezac (31 July 1852 – 18 January 1925) was a French general, formerly a distinguished staff college lecturer, who commanded the French Fifth Army at the outbreak of the First World War.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.


His army, originally intended to strike the Germans on their western flank, faced the brunt of the German march, stronger and further west than anticipated, through Belgium at the Battle of Charleroi. He was frustrated by the reluctance of his superior, General Joseph Joffre, who was initially preoccupied by French attacks into Lorraine and the Ardennes, to appreciate the danger of the German march through Belgium. Forced to retreat, at Joffre's insistence he made a successful counterattack at the Battle of Guise, but his apparent reluctance to counterattack led him to be relieved of command prior to the Battle of the Marne.

Battle of Charleroi A battle during the First World War

The Battle of Charleroi, or the Battle of the Sambre, was fought on 21 August 1914, by the French Fifth Army and the German 2nd and 3rd armies, during the Battle of the Frontiers. The French were planning an attack across the Sambre River, when the Germans attacked first, forced back the French from the river and nearly cut off the French retreat by crossing the Meuse around Dinant and getting behind the French right flank. The French were saved by a counter-attack at Dinant and the re-direction of the 3rd Army to the north-west in support of the 2nd Army, rather than south-west.

Joseph Joffre French general who served as Commander-in-Chief of French forces on the Western Front from the start of World War I

Marshal Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre, was a French general who served as Commander-in-Chief of French forces on the Western Front from the start of World War I until the end of 1916. He is best known for regrouping the retreating allied armies to defeat the Germans at the strategically decisive First Battle of the Marne in September 1914.

Battle of the Ardennes one of the opening battles of World War I

The Battle of the Ardennes was a battle of the First World War fought on the frontiers of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg from 21 to 23 August 1914. The German armies defeated the French armies and forced the French armies to retreat. The battle was part of the larger Battle of the Frontiers, the first battle of the Western Front.

He is particularly remembered in British writing as his army fought on the right of the small British Expeditionary Force, with whose commander-in-chief, Sir John French, he had a poor relationship.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the British Army sent to the Western Front during the First World War. Planning for a British Expeditionary Force began with the Haldane reforms of the British Army carried out by the Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane following the Second Boer War (1899–1902).

John French, 1st Earl of Ypres Anglo-Irish officer in the British Army

Field Marshal John Denton Pinkstone French, 1st Earl of Ypres,, known as Sir John French from 1901 to 1916, and as The Viscount French between 1916 and 1922, was a senior British Army officer. Born in Kent to an Anglo-Irish family, he saw brief service as a midshipman in the Royal Navy, before becoming a cavalry officer. He achieved rapid promotion and distinguished himself on the Gordon Relief Expedition. French had a considerable reputation as a womaniser throughout his life and his career nearly ended when he was cited in the divorce of a brother officer whilst in India in the early 1890s.

Early life

Lanrezac was a Marquis, but did not use his title. [1] He was of swarthy appearance (he had a “a dark creole face” in Barbara Tuchman's description) and was a native of Guadeloupe. [2] [3]

Creole people are ethnic groups which originated during the colonial-era from racial mixing between Europeans and non-European peoples, known as creolisation. Creole peoples vary widely in ethnic background and mixture, and many have since developed distinct ethnic identities. The development of creole languages is sometimes mistakenly attributed to the emergence of creole ethnic identities; however, they are independent developments.

Guadeloupe Overseas region and department in France

Guadeloupe is an overseas region of France in the Caribbean. It consists of six inhabited islands, Basse-Terre, Grande-Terre, Marie-Galante, La Désirade, and the Îles des Saintes, as well as many uninhabited islands and outcroppings.

Lanrezac attended the military school at Saint-Cyr in 1869 but when the Franco-Prussian War started in 1870, he was sent to fight as a lieutenant. He fought with the Armée de la Loire at Coulmiers and in the campaign around Orléans. In January 1871 he was transferred to the Armée de l'Est and following the failure of its campaign, he was interned in Switzerland. By 1876 he had been promoted to captain. He graduated from the École Militaire in 1879. During the following years Lanrezac served in various staff functions in the 113th Infantry Regiment and on a brigade staff in Tunisia. Lanrezac was promoted to colonel in 1902 and given command of the 119th Infantry Regiment. He became a brigadier-general in June 1906, commanding the 43rd Infantry Brigade stationed in Vannes. He served under Joffre with 6th Infantry Division and became Joffre's protégé. [4] After this brigade command he was made a professor at the École Militaire. He was a brilliant lecturer, but caustic and ill-tempered. He became known as “the lion of the French Army”. [5] [6] Lanrezac was an opponent of Foch’s theories of offensive a l’outrance, writing that “if every subordinate commander has the right to ram home an attack on the first opponent he sees, the commander in chief is incapable of exercising any form of direction”. [7]

The École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr is the foremost French military academy – often referred to as Saint-Cyr – located in Coëtquidan in Guer, Morbihan, Brittany, along with the École militaire interarmes. Its motto is Ils s'instruisent pour vaincre, literally meaning "They study to vanquish" or, more freely put, "Training for victory". French cadet officers are called saint-cyriens or cyrards.

Franco-Prussian War significant conflict pitting the Second French Empire against the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies

The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War, often referred to in France as the War of 1870, was a conflict between the Second French Empire and later the Third French Republic, and the German states of the North German Confederation led by the Kingdom of Prussia. Lasting from 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871, the conflict was caused by Prussian ambitions to extend German unification and French fears of the shift in the European balance of power that would result if the Prussians succeeded. Some historians argue that the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck deliberately provoked the French into declaring war on Prussia in order to draw the independent southern German states—Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt—into an alliance with the North German Confederation dominated by Prussia, while others contend that Bismarck did not plan anything and merely exploited the circumstances as they unfolded. None, however, dispute the fact that Bismarck must have recognized the potential for new German alliances, given the situation as a whole.

The Armée de la Loire was a French army of the Franco-Prussian War. It was formed in October 1870 by Léon Gambetta, interior minister and minister for war in the Government of National Defence, then taking refuge in Tours after the French defeat at Sedan on 2 September 1870 had destroyed the Imperial field army. The newly raised force was formed out of francs-tireurs, provincial Gardes Mobiles (territorials), naval forces, zouaves and tirailleurs from Algeria, plus regular soldiers in depots and reservists. Together these diverse units formed the 15th army corps under Joseph Édouard de la Motte Rouge. Apart from the North African units, the Army had few officers with fighting experience, insufficient artillery, and its troops were under-trained. It fought at the Battle of Orléans (1870) and Battle of Le Mans (1871) and was dissolved on 14 March 1871.

He was made a Général de Division in 1911 and Joffre, who thought him “a veritable lion”, included him on the shortlist of three for Deputy Chief of the General Staff that year. [8] [9] In 1912 he was appointed to command of the 11th Army Corps in Nantes. Henry Wilson claimed – in an after dinner speech when he observed XX Corps manoeuvres in September 1913 – that Lanrezac had told him that he only knew the English phrases “Beautiful woman”, “kiss me quick” and “beefsteak and potatoes”, but that these were enough to travel the world. [10]

The 11th Army Corps was a unit of the French Army that was created in 1870 and fought in the Franco-Prussian War, the First World War and in the early battles of the Second World War.

Nantes Prefecture and commune in Pays de la Loire, France

Nantes is a city in Loire-Atlantique on the Loire, 50 km (31 mi) from the Atlantic coast. The city is the sixth-largest in France, with a population of 303,382 in Nantes and a metropolitan area of nearly 950,000 inhabitants. With Saint-Nazaire, a seaport on the Loire estuary, Nantes forms the main north-western French metropolis.

Sir Henry Wilson, 1st Baronet British Army staff officer of the World War I

Field Marshal Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, 1st Baronet, was one of the most senior British Army staff officers of the First World War and was briefly an Irish unionist politician.

World War I

Concerns about left flank

In April 1914 Lanrezac succeeded Joseph Gallieni as a member of the French Supreme War Council and was designated as the commander of the Fifth Army in the event of war. He had the same doubts as Gallieni about Joffre's plans. [11] Fifth Army, holding the extreme left of the French line, had to meet the enveloping right-wing of the German Army as it marched through Belgium, whilst co-operating with the allied British Expeditionary Force on his left flank. When given details of his portion of Plan XVII in May 1914, he was deeply concerned that the Germans would come in strength west of the Meuse. [12] A letter which he wrote to the Governor of Maubeuge on 23 June suggests he thought the Germans would not come west of the River Sambre (i.e. that they would make a wider turning movement through Belgium than Joffre was assuming, but less so than they would actually attempt in the event). [13] Historian Sewell Tyng later wrote that Lanrezac had “the gift of Cassandra”. [14]

Lanrezac warned on 31 July (just before mobilisation) that the Germans might come further west through Belgium, although he still thought Sedan their likely objective. [15] His report of July 1914 warned that he had too few troops to advance into Belgium as planned, and cited a German wargame of 1911 which called for three German armies to march through Belgium. Lanrezac later claimed that Joffre paid no attention to his report, but the report did not in fact reach Joffre until 1 August, and Joffre later wrote that it would have been “premature” to discuss things with Lanrezac while the strategic situation was still unfolding. [16] A fellow officer described the letter, which was to become a key source in the recrimination after the war, as being like a professor's critique of a B- thesis. [17]

Advance into Belgium

Fifth Army contained I, II, III, X and XI Corps, the 4th Cavalry Division and two reserve divisions. [18] Between 8 August—when Lanrezac sent his chief of staff General Hely d’Oissel to warn them—and 10 August, GQG scoffed at reports of strong German forces being spotted at Huy in Belgium, arguing that the Germans did not have enough troops for this to be likely and that the reconnaissance was unreliable. [19]

Lanrezac was already sufficiently concerned (11 August) about the German movement into Belgium to obtain permission to deploy one of his corps at Givet on the Meuse. [20] Liège fell on 12 August, on which day senior British generals were still arguing, in London, as to how far forward the BEF should be deployed. That same day Joffre ordered Lanrezac to move his left corps—Franchet d’Esperey’s I Corps—up to Dinant. [21] [22]

Lanrezac visited his superior, General Joseph Joffre on 14 August, and begged him not to have Third and Fourth Armies attack into “that death trap of the Ardennes” and to be allowed to deploy his own army facing north rather than northeast, so as to face a German march westwards through Belgium. Joffre was pleased at the good progress which the French were making into Alsace-Lorraine, and unwilling to listen. Lanrezac later wrote that he had “left with death in my soul.” [23] [24] [25] [26]

At 7pm on 15 August, after German cavalry had been spotted at Dinant on the Meuse, Lanrezac at last obtained permission to redeploy from opposite the Ardennes. On that day Joffre issued his Instruction Particuliere No 10, stating that the main German effort would come through Belgium. Lanrezac was ordered to deploy into the angle of the Rivers Sambre and the Meuse, requiring him to make a march of 120 kilometres in 5 days. He was also required to hand over command of Eydoux's XI Corps—men from Brittany—to Fourth Army in the Ardennes. [27] [28] [29] [30]

Meeting with Sir John French

The British liaison officer Edward Spears later wrote that Lanrezac's reputation as an academic lecturer made him “the star turn” of the French Army. The British commander Sir John French, at his meeting with Joffre on 16 August, was advised to hurry up and join in Lanrezac's offensive, as he would not wait for him to catch up. [31] On 16 August, in exchange for the loss of XI Corps, Joffre transferred XVIII Corps to Lanrezac. Lanrezac received three reserve divisions, containing men from Bordeaux, Gascony and the Basque Country, and two extra divisions of French settlers from Algeria. [32] [33]

Spears described Lanrezac as “a big flabby man” with a habit of hitching his spectacles behind his ear, whilst Sir John, who disliked him, later described him as “a Staff College pedant” with no practical ability at command in war. [34] Sir John had an infamous meeting with Lanrezac at Rethel (17 August), at which he attempted to speak in French, despite not being able to do so well. When he asked whether the Germans spotted at Huy were crossing the river, his attempt to pronounce the name "Huy" caused Lanrezac to exclaim in exasperation that the Germans had probably gone there to fish. Not only did they form a mutual dislike, but Sir John also believed Lanrezac was about to advance further, whereas in fact Lanrezac wanted to fall back from his strong position behind the angle of the Rivers Sambre and Meuse, but was forbidden to do so by Joffre. [35] Concerned at having to guard against a German Meuse crossing south of Sedan, at Mezieres, or (most likely) at Namur north of Givet, Lanrezac urged that he be allowed to retreat to Maubeuge to avoid being flanked. [36]

At the Rethel meeting on 17 August Lanrezac also thought that Sir John French, whose BEF only consisted of four infantry divisions rather than the planned six, intended to use the British cavalry on foot (it is thought likely that he had misunderstood Sir John's intention to keep his cavalry in reserve). [37] Whereas Sir John wanted Sordet's French cavalry to cover the assembly of the BEF, Lanrezac wanted them to gather tactical intelligence and was told by Joffre's deputy chief of staff Berthelot on 17 August that this took priority. Nonetheless Joffre ordered Sordet to move up to Namur and Louvain to try to prevent the Belgians falling back on Antwerp. GQG were unfairly angered at Sordet's “dilatoriness”, even though his horses were too tired to do more than walk. Lanrezac demanded to Joffre on morning of 18th that he have use of Sordet's corps. [38]

Although Joffre was aware (18 August) that as many as fifteen German corps were moving through Belgium (in fact it was sixteen, and twenty-eight if the German Fourth and Fifth Armies in the centre are also included), he believed that only a few of these would come west of the Meuse, where he believed they could be held by the British and Belgians. French Third and Fourth Armies, on Lanrezac's right, were preparing to attack into the Ardennes in accordance with Plan XVII, and Joffre wanted Lanrezac's Fifth Army to attack the bulk of the German right wing on its west flank as—it was assumed—it attacked the left flank of French Fourth Army. Lanrezac, forbidden to retreat by Joffre, reported that he would be ready to attack by 20 August. [39] Lanrezac began to move north on 19 August, leaving a gap between his army and Fourth Army on his right. [40]

Joffre believed (20 August) that Liège was still holding out (in fact the last of the Liège forts had fallen on 16 August [41] and by 20 August Brussels had fallen and the Belgians were falling back on Antwerp [42] ), and hoped that Lanrezac would be able to link up with Namur, which was expected to hold out for even longer. [43] On 20 August Gallwitz persuaded von Bulow (commander, German Second Army) to attack Lanrezac to pin down his army and prevent him marching to the relief of Namur. [44]

Battle of Charleroi

Joffre's Instruction 13 mentioned that the Germans had thirteen or more corps in Belgium, of which eight were north of the Meuse. If these turned south then Lanrezac was to leave his position to the British and Belgians and attack into the Ardennes, as Joffre wrongly believed that a strong German thrust through Belgium would have left the German centre (in the Ardennes) weak. [45]

Lanrezac declined to attack as Joffre wished on 21 August as the BEF were not yet in position on his left. [46] [47] With the French Third and Fourth Armies now attacking into the Ardennes, Lanrezac also declined to send reinforcements to Namur, which he had been warned would not hold out. On 22 August Lanrezac attempted to drive the Germans across the Sambre and failed. [48] Later that day the German Second Army attacked the French Fifth Army and forced bridgeheads across the Meuse. Within a fortnight, Joffre had sacked one of the French corps commanders—General Sauret of III Corps, who had disappeared during the battle, leaving the corps artillery commander to take charge—and three of the four division commanders involved. [49] Lanrezac had 193 battalions and 692 guns. [50]

The French III and X corps counterattacked but were beaten further back. [51] Lanrezac's countermanding orders never reached X Corps. [52] Lanrezac's Fifth Army was now attacked on its right by the German Third Army; although these attacks were held, Lanrezac asked Joffre for permission to retreat. Lanrezac asked for the BEF to attack the German Second Army in flank, although, contradicting himself, he also reported that the BEF was still in echelon behind his own left flank, which if true would have made it impossible for the BEF to do as he asked. Sir John, who had cancelled his own planned advance on news that Lanrezac had asked to fall back, agreed to hold his position. [53]

23 August was the third day of the Battle of Charleroi. A more aggressive commander than von Bülow might have been able to drive in III and X Corps in the French centre, but despite repeated pleas from 10am onward, Lanrezac refused Franchet d’Esperey's I Corps permission to counterattack from the French right. [54] He also vetoed an attack by XVIII Corps on his left to relieve pressure on the British. The Fifth Army was attacked again, this time also on the flanks, by Bülow’s German Second Army to the north and Hausen’s German Third Army to the east. Hausen, attacking at Onhaye, south of Dinant, was thrown back by Mangin’s brigade, but was prevented from driving southwest to cut off the French retreat only by several entreaties by von Bülow to attack westwards to draw off French strength from von Bülow's front. Learning that de Langle's Fourth Army was falling back on his right flank, Lanrezac fell back, worried of another Sedan. [55] [56] With his left and centre driven from the Sambre and the Germans threatening a Meuse crossing on right, [57] in Holger Herwig's view, Lanrezac's retreat from Charleroi may well have saved Fifth Army from annihilation. [58]

Lanrezac was impressed by the performance of the French 75mm guns, and devoted time to finding appropriate places to deploy them. [59]

Retreat from Charleroi

Lanrezac's retreat after the Battle of Charleroi (21–3 August) arguably saved the French army from decisive defeat as it prevented the much sought envelopment of the Schlieffen plan. In the small hours of 24 August, just after the Battle of Mons, the BEF was forced to retreat on news that Lanrezac was falling back, which disgusted Sir John French, and that the French Third and Fourth Armies were also falling back after being defeated at Virton and Neufchâteau. [60]

Churchill later wrote:"The French Fifth Army had no sooner completed with severe exertions its deployment on the Sambre, and the British Army by forced marches had no sooner reached the neighbourhood of Mons, when the overwhelming force of the German turning movement through Belgium fell upon them ... [Sir John French] accepted [Joffre's wish to attack, even on the left] with implicit faith. Lanrezac, sure that Joffre was utterly adrift from facts, watched with insolent distrust the impending disaster. But even he never imagined the weight and sweep of the German enveloping wing. The two armies of the left only escaped disaster by the timely retreat which Lanrezac and Sir John French each executed independently and on his own initiative ... Lanrezac's grasp of the situation and stern decision to retreat while the time remained has earned the gratitude of France. It was a pity he forgot to tell his British Allies about it." [61]

Sordet, whose cavalry were holding the gap between the two forces, had telegraphed to Lanrezac at 8pm on the 23rd that Sir John was pulling back to the line Bavai-Maubeuge (in fact this was a slight misunderstanding, as he was just making inquiries about the possibility doing so), and asked if he should “keep to [his] mission on its left”. Edward Spears argued that this may have been the source for the “legend” that Lanrezac pulled back because the BEF was doing so. He wrote that in fact Lanrezac pulled back before receiving the message and answering it at 11.30pm. [62] Tuchman disagreed, citing Lanrezac's later writing that he had “received confirmation” of Sordet's message. She also scoffed at Spears’ claim that “no evidence” had been found, observing that Adolphe Messimy testified at the postwar Briey hearings that there were 25 to 30 million relevant documents for the period in the archives. [63]

On the morning of 26 August, while the BEF II Corps was engaged at the Battle of Le Cateau, Sir John French had a hostile meeting with Joffre and Lanrezac at Saint-Quentin. Lanrezac was only reluctantly persuaded by his chief of staff to attend, and before Joffre's arrival he was observed loudly criticising both GQG and the BEF, making a poor impression on the junior officer who witnessed it. Lanrezac had his pince nez hanging from his ear “like a pair of cherries” and gave the impression of being bored whilst Joffre was speaking. However, he assured Joffre that Fifth Army would be ready to counterattack as soon as he was out into open country where he could use his artillery. French complained of Lanrezac's behaviour, to which Lanrezac shrugged and gave a vague and academic reply. Joffre stayed for lunch (Lanrezac declined to do so), at which the atmosphere improved, as Joffre confessed that he too was dissatisfied with Lanrezac. [64] [65] [66] [67]

Battle of Guise

At the meeting with Joffre and Sir John French on 26 August, Lanrezac had expressed a willingness to counterattack, but only after he had first retreated to a better position. [68] Colonel Victor Huguet, the liaison officer, reported (10:15pm on 26 August) that the British had been "defeated" at Le Cateau and would need French protection to recover cohesion, and Joffre decided to order an attack by Fifth Army to relieve the British. [69] Joffre later claimed that he had suffered two sleepless nights as he contemplated sacking Lanrezac before the battle of Guise. [70]

At 6:30am on 27 August Joffre sent Lanrezac an urgent message reminding him of his promise to counterattack. This angered Lanrezac, who spent the day—both on the telephone to GQG and in conversation with Lt-Col Alexandre of GQG, who had visited him at his HQ at Marle twice—arguing against the order, and he again demanded to be permitted to fall back when he learned that the BEF intended to retreat again on 28 August. After a tense discussion Lanrezac agreed to attack from Guise rather than first retreat further to Laon, and as soon as his forces were on open ground where they could use their artillery—which Lanrezac had told Joffre was the key factor—and to take no account of what the British on his left were doing. At 8:10pm on 27 August Joffre ordered him to relieve the British by attacking west rather than northwest. Lanrezac objected strenuously, reluctant to undertake a 90-degree turn in the face of enemy forces. Lanrezac sent Lt-Col Alexandre back with the words “before trying to teach me my business, sir, go back and tell your little strategists to learn their own.” [71] [72] [73] [74]

Joffre visited Lanrezac at 8:30am on 28 August, and ordered Lanrezac to attack to the west, against the forces engaging the BEF. He later recorded that he had been struck by Lanrezac's tired appearance, and that he had a “yellow complexion, bloodshot eyes,” and that a “heated” discussion ensued. Lanrezac criticised Joffre's plan, without mentioning that he had already reordered his corps as Joffre had ordered. Spears recorded that Joffre, painfully aware that he could not allow the BEF to be crushed on French soil, exploded with rage. At last Lanrezac agreed to obey, at which point Joffre had his aide Major Gamelin draw up a written order and signed it in Lanrezac's presence. President Poincaré recorded rumours that Joffre had threatened to have Lanrezac shot. [75] [76] Joffre later wrote of the difference in aggression between Lanrezac and de Langle de Cary, whose Fourth Army, originally intended to be the spearhead of the attack into the Ardennes, was a strong force and had made several counterattacks. [77]

French refused Haig (commanding British I Corps) permission to join in an attack by Lanrezac (28 August), who wrote "c’est une felonie" and later wrote of French's “bad humour and cowardice.” The BEF also did not join in Lanrezac's attack on the German Second Army at Guise (29 August). Joffre spent the morning at Lanrezac's headquarters to supervise his conduct of the battle (29 August), willing to give Lanrezac a final chance but if necessary to sack him there and then. In the event he was impressed by Lanrezac's cool demeanour and handling of the battle, before departing for an afternoon meeting with Sir John French. Joffre later wrote that Lanrezac had shown “the greatest quickness and comprehension” in ordering the westward attack towards Saint-Quentin to be broken off, so as to concentrate on the successful attack by Franchet d’Esperey's I Corps in the north at Guise. [78] [79] [80] [81]

As a result of the battle of Guise, von Kluck's German First Army broke off its attacks on Maunoury’s Sixth French Army and swung southeast, inside of Paris. [82] However, Lanrezac’s victory had left him in an exposed forward position, and he had a telephone conversation with General Belin at GQG, warning him that he had been directly ordered to hold his position and attack if possible, and that his army was in danger of being cut off and encircled. Permission to retreat finally reached him at 7am the next morning. [83] Although Terraine sees Guise as a French tactical victory, Herwig is critical of Lanrezac for holding back Franchet d’Esperey’s I Corps for much of the day, and for failing to exploit the gap between German Second and Third Armies. However, he is more critical of von Bülow (commander of German Second Army and effectively Army Group commander over von Kluck’s First Army in the west and Hausen’s Third Army to his east) for failing, for the second time, to encircle and destroy Lanrezac’s Army. [84]

On 31 August, German cavalry, hampered by lack of fresh horseshoes and nails, almost penetrated behind French Fifth Army, almost capturing the British politician J.E.B. Seely then serving as a liaison officer, and came close to capturing the Aisne bridges, which would have cut off its retreat. [85] On 1 September Fifth Army retreated across the Aisne in some confusion, with Lanrezac at one stage being heard to exclaim “Nous sommes foutus! Nous sommes foutus!” (roughly: "We're shafted!"). [86]


Lanrezac's harsh criticism of his superiors in the Staff Corps overshadowed his impressive ability to avoid envelopment by the Germans, and he was replaced by Louis Franchet d'Espérey just before the opening of the First Battle of the Marne. Joffre later recorded that ever since the Battle of Guise, Lanrezac's normal tendency to criticise and argue about his orders had been exacerbated by fatigue, to the detriment of Fifth Army staff's morale. Lanrezac's staff were bickering among themselves. [87] As he could not be counted upon for the planned counterstroke, it was necessary to relieve him on the afternoon of 3 September. The eyewitness accounts of Lanrezac (who claimed that he protested that events had proved him right about most of the issues under dispute, but that Joffre refused to meet his gaze, so that it was clear that he had exhausted Joffre's confidence), Joffre (who claimed that Lanrezac immediately agreed and cheered up when relieved of command, in his own office) and Spears (who recalled seeing them having a lengthy and strained conversation in the playground of the school where Fifth Army HQ was currently based) differ somewhat. [88] [89] [90]

Joffre and Spears both claimed in their memoirs that, whatever his intellectual accomplishments, Lanrezac had been overwhelmed by the strain of command, Spears adding that he had done little to prepare the Charleroi position for defence and had never once in the entire campaign willingly engaged the enemy. [91] [92] Much of Lanrezac's poor reputation in English comes from Spears' memoirs (Liaison 1914) published in 1930. Coming after criticism of the British in the memoirs of Huguet and Foch, the book was a great success, Harold Nicolson writing that he had especially enjoyed the "satirical" portrait of the "conceit(ed) ... arrogant and obese" Lanrezac. However, General Macdonogh, who had been Head of BEF Intelligence in 1914, thought Spears had been unfair to Lanrezac, whilst Lanrezac's son disputed the accuracy of his account of the Rethel meeting, writing that Lanrezac's most scathing comments about the British had been directed at his own staff afterwards. Sir John French had in fact been complimentary about Lanrezac in his diary after the meeting, although his feelings appear to have soured thereafter. [93]

Lanrezac stayed in retirement for the rest of the war, refusing an offer of re-employment in 1917. In 1921, he published a book on the campaign—"Le Plan de campagne français et le premier mois de la guerre, 2 août-3 septembre 1914."

In recognition of his initially unappreciated prudence in the opening month of the war that helped save France, he was made an officer of the Légion d'honneur in July 1917, awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown by Belgium in 1923, and awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur in 1924.

Following his death in January 1925, he was, at his request, buried without military honours.

The city of Paris honored Lanrezac by naming a street after him near the Place de l'Étoile. The Rue du Général Lanrezac, one block from the Arc de Triomphe, is a side street connecting Avenue Carnot with Avenue MacMahon. Other streets bearing Lanrezac's name are to be found in Marseilles, Nantes, Neuilly-sur-Seine and Saint-Malo.

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First Battle of the Marne First World War battle

The Battle of the Marne was a World War I battle fought from 6–12 September 1914. It resulted in an Allied victory against the German armies in the west. The battle was the culmination of the German advance into France and pursuit of the Allied armies which followed the Battle of the Frontiers in August and had reached the eastern outskirts of Paris. A counter-attack by six French armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along the Marne River forced the Imperial German Army to retreat northwest, leading to the First Battle of the Aisne and the Race to the Sea. The battle was a victory for the Allied Powers but led to four years of trench warfare stalemate on the Western Front.

Battle of Mons battle during World War I

The Battle of Mons was the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War. It was a subsidiary action of the Battle of the Frontiers, in which the Allies clashed with Germany on the French borders. At Mons, the British Army attempted to hold the line of the Mons–Condé Canal against the advancing German 1st Army. Although the British fought well and inflicted disproportionate casualties on the numerically superior Germans, they were eventually forced to retreat due both to the greater strength of the Germans and the sudden retreat of the French Fifth Army, which exposed the British right flank. Though initially planned as a simple tactical withdrawal and executed in good order, the British retreat from Mons lasted for two weeks and took the BEF to the outskirts of Paris before it counter-attacked in concert with the French, at the Battle of the Marne.

Race to the Sea period early in the First World War on the Western Front

The Race to the Sea took place from about 17 September – 19 October 1914, after the Battle of the Frontiers and the German advance into France, which had been stopped at the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September) and was followed by the First Battle of the Aisne (13–28 September), a Franco-British counter-offensive. The term describes reciprocal attempts by the Franco-British and German armies to envelop the northern flank of the opposing army through the provinces of Picardy, Artois and Flanders, rather than an attempt to advance northwards to the sea. The "race" ended on the North Sea coast of Belgium around 19 October, when the last open area from Dixmude to the North Sea was occupied by Belgian troops who had retreated after the Siege of Antwerp. The outflanking attempts had resulted in a number of encounter battles but neither side was able to gain a decisive victory.

<i>Plan XVII</i> Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the France Army

Plan XVII was the name of a "scheme of mobilization and concentration" that was adopted by the French Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre from 1912–1914, to be put into effect by the French Army in the event of war between France and Germany. Though it was not "a prescribed narrative for the campaign" or battle plan, the deployment made possible a prompt invasion of Germany and/or Belgium before Germany could mobilise its reserves, simultaneous to a Russian invasion of East Prussia. The plan was implemented from 7 August 1914, with disastrous consequences for the French, who were defeated in the Battle of the Frontiers (7 August – 13 September) at a cost of 329,000 casualties. The French northern armies were forced into a retreat as far as the Marne river, where in the First Battle of the Marne (5–12 September), the German armies were defeated and forced back to the Aisne river.

Joseph Gallieni French soldier

Joseph Simon Gallieni was a French soldier, active for most of his career as a military commander and administrator in the French colonies. Gallieni is infamous in Madagascar as the French military leader who exiled Queen Ranavalona III and abolished the 350-year-old monarchy on the island.

Louis Franchet dEspèrey Marshal of France

Louis Félix Marie François Franchet d'Espèrey was a French general during World War I. As commander of the large Allied army based at Salonika, he conducted the successful Macedonian campaign, which caused the collapse of the Southern Front and contributed to the armistice.

Battle of the Frontiers series of battles; part of the Western Front of World War I

The Battle of the Frontiers was a series of battles fought along the eastern frontier of France and in southern Belgium, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. The battles resolved the military strategies of the French Chief of Staff General Joseph Joffre with Plan XVII and an offensive interpretation of the German Aufmarsch II deployment plan by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. The German concentration on the right (northern) flank, to wheel through Belgium and attack the French in the rear, was delayed by the movement of French Fifth Army towards the north-west to intercept them and the presence of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on his left flank. The Franco-British were driven back by the Germans, who were able to invade northern France. French and British rearguard actions delayed the German advance, allowing the French time to transfer forces on the eastern frontier to the west to defend Paris, resulting in the First Battle of the Marne.

Battle of St. Quentin (1914) A battle during the First World War

The Battle of St. Quentin (also called the First Battle of Guise was fought from 29 to 30 August 1914, during the First World War.

Great Retreat fighting retreat by Allied forces early in the First World War

The Great Retreat, also known as the Retreat from Mons, is the name given to the long withdrawal to the River Marne, in August and September 1914, by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Fifth Army, Allied forces on the Western Front in the First World War, after their defeat by the armies of the German Empire at the Battle of Charleroi and the Battle of Mons. A counter-offensive by the Fifth Army, with some assistance from the BEF at the First Battle of Guise, failed to end the German advance and the Franco-British retreat continued to and beyond the Marne. From 5 to 12 September, the First Battle of the Marne ended the Allied retreat and forced the German armies to retire towards the Aisne river and fight the First Battle of the Aisne (13–28 September). Reciprocal attempts to outflank the opposing armies to the north known as the Race to the Sea followed (17 September – 17 October).

Michel-Joseph Maunoury Marshal of France

Michel-Joseph Maunoury was a commander of French forces in the early days of World War I.

Archibald Murray British army officer, 1860 –1945

General Sir Archibald James Murray, was a British Army officer who served in the Second Boer War and the First World War. He was Chief of Staff to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1914 but appears to have suffered a physical breakdown in the retreat from Mons, and was required to step down from that position in January 1915. After serving as Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff for much of 1915, he was briefly Chief of the Imperial General Staff from September to December 1915. He was subsequently Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force from January 1916 to June 1917, in which role he laid the military foundation for the defeat and destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant.

Pierre Ruffey French general

Pierre Xavier Emmanuel Ruffey was a French Army general who commanded the Third Army during the opening of World War I.

Henri Mathias Berthelot French general

Henri Mathias Berthelot (1861–1931) was a French general during World War I. He held an important staff position under Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, at the First Battle of the Marne, before later commanding a corps in the front line. In 1917 he helped to rebuild the Romanian Army following its disastrous defeat the previous autumn, then in summer 1918 he commanded French Fifth Army at the Second Battle of the Marne, with some British and Italian troops under his command. In the final days of the war he again returned to Romania, and then briefly commanded French intervention forces in southern Russia in the Russian Civil War.

Adolphe Messimy French general and politician

Adolphe Marie Messimy was a French politician and general. He served as Minister of War in 1911-12 and then again for a few months during the outbreak of and first three weeks of the First World War. Having begun his career as an army officer, he returned to the Army and successfully commanded a brigade at the Battle of the Somme, and later a division. Defeated for re-election to the Chamber of Deputies in 1919, he served as an influential senator from 1923 until his death in 1935.

Battle of Dinant

The Battle of Dinant was an engagement fought by French and German forces in and around the Belgian town of Dinant in the First World War, during the German invasion of Belgium. The French Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) advanced into Belgium and fought the Battle of Charleroi (21–23 August) and Battle of Mons (23 August), from the Meuse crossings in the east, to Mons in the west. On 15 August 1914, German troops captured the Citadel of Dinant which overlooked the town; the citadel was recaptured by a French counter-attack during the afternoon. French troops spent the next few days fortifying the Meuse crossings and exchanging fire with German troops on the east bank.

André Sordet

General Jean-François André Sordet was a senior officer of the French Army. During the First World War his cavalry corps operated in close proximity to the British Expeditionary Force during the Battle of the Frontiers and during Great Retreat of August 1914.


  1. Egremont 1997, p121-5
  2. Tuchman 1962, p232
  3. Herwig 2009, p63
  4. Herwig 2009, p135-8
  5. Tuchman 1962, p181
  6. Herwig 2009, p63
  7. Clayton 2003, p38
  8. Tuchman 1962, p181
  9. Herwig 2009, p135-8
  10. Jeffery 2006, p104
  11. Doughty 2005, p41
  12. Tuchman 1962, p181
  13. Spears 1930, p. 56-7
  14. Herwig 2009, p135-8
  15. Spears 1930, p. 56-7
  16. Doughty 2005, p41
  17. Tuchman 1962, p181
  18. Greenhalgh 2014, p.27
  19. Tuchman 1962, p188-9
  20. Terraine 1960, p43
  21. Clayton 2003, p46
  22. Tuchman 1962, p232
  23. Tuchman 1962, p232
  24. Clayton 2003, p47
  25. Terraine 1960, p43
  26. Herwig 2009, p135-8
  27. Tuchman 1962, p232
  28. Clayton 2003, p47
  29. Terraine 1960, p43
  30. Herwig 2009, p135-8
  31. Terraine 1960, p46
  32. Herwig 2009, p88 XVIII Corps was commanded by General Jacques Marie Armand de Mas Latrie. Herwig states that Lanrezac was given "Arthur Poline's XVII Corps", which is not consistent with other accounts and published maps and appears to be an error. XVII Corps was in the Ardennes sector at the time.
  33. Clayton 2003, p47
  34. Terraine 1960, p47-9
  35. Holmes 2004, pp208-11
  36. Greenhalgh 2014, p.42
  37. Spears 1930, p. 78
  38. Spears 1930, p. 93, 101-2
  39. Terraine 1960, p54-5
  40. Greenhalgh 2014, p.42
  41. Terraine 1960, p47
  42. Greenhalgh 2014, p.42
  43. Terraine 1960, p61
  44. Herwig 2009, p129
  45. Clayton 2003, p48
  46. Greenhalgh 2014, p.42
  47. Doughty 2005, p74
  48. Doughty 2005, p74
  49. Terraine 1960, p64-5
  50. Herwig 2009, p132-3
  51. Terraine 1960, p72
  52. Clayton 2003, p49
  53. Terraine 1960, p75
  54. Terraine 1960, p87-8
  55. Tuchman 1962, p273-4
  56. Terraine 1960, p97
  57. Greenhalgh 2014, p.42
  58. Herwig 2009, p140-5
  59. Terraine 1960, p112
  60. Holmes 2004, pp216-8
  61. Churchill 1938, p219
  62. Spears 1930, pp.172-3
  63. Tuchman 1962, p. 466 Herwig, a more recent writer, attributes Lanrezac's retreat to events at Charleroi and does not appear to lend much credence to Tuchman's argument
  64. Terraine 1960, p129
  65. Holmes 2004, pp225-6
  66. Herwig 2009, p175-6
  67. Tuchman 1962, p351
  68. Doughty 2005, p78-82
  69. Terraine 1960, p146, 148-9
  70. Tuchman 1962, p358
  71. Herwig 2009, p184
  72. Doughty 2005, p78-82
  73. Terraine 1960, p147
  74. Doughty 2005, p78-82
  75. Herwig 2009, p185
  76. Terraine 1960, p152
  77. Terraine 1960, p153
  78. Terraine 1960, p159-60
  79. Holmes 2004, pp227-8
  80. Herwig 2009, p185
  81. Tuchman 1962, p369
  82. Terraine 1960, p163
  83. Terraine 1960, p162
  84. Herwig 2009, p189
  85. Terraine 1960, p169
  86. Terraine 1960, 76-7
  87. Tuchman 1962, p403
  88. Tuchman 1962, p405
  89. Terraine 1960, p181-3
  90. Spears 1930, p243 Spears, remarking on the discrepancy between the accounts of Joffre and Lanrezac, adds his own commentary on the unreliability of memories, mentioning that he revisited the school whilst researching his book and was able to reconcile some but not all of his recollections with the layout of the buildings
  91. Terraine 1960, p181-3
  92. Spears 1930, pp177-81
  93. Egremont 1997, p121-5