Battles - The Battle of Charleroi, 1914

Karl von Bulow, commander of the German Second ArmyBattles: The Battle of Charleroi, one of the Battles of the Frontiers, was one of the key battles on the Western Front in 1914, and one of the early major German victories.

The battle comprised a major action fought between the French Fifth Army, advancing north to the River Sambre, and the German Second and Third Armies, moving southwest through Belgium.

Charleroi itself was a mid-size industrial town crossing the River Sambre, and was a battlefront stretching approximately 40 km west of Namur where the river joins with the Meuse.

France's pre-war strategy document, Plan XVII, determined that the French Fifth Army should join Third and Fourth Armies in an invasion of Germany through the Ardennes. This however assumed that Germany would not attempt an invasion of France further north, i.e. through Belgium. Whilst Lanrezac, Fifth Army commander, believed this a distinct possibility, particularly as he observed a massive build-up of German forces in Belgium, Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, refused to consider the possibility.

Joffre did however allow Lanrezac to extend his lines northwest to the Sambre on 12 August; but at the same time Lanrezac lost some of his Fifth Army troops, transferred to the Ardennes offensive; they were replaced by a corps from the Second Army in Lorraine.

Following repeated warnings by Lanrezac, Joffre agreed that he could concentrate his forces further north on 20 August. By this time however units of von Bulow's German Second Army were nearing Namur It was not a good time for the Allies: that same day the Germans marched into Brussels.

In authorising an attack across the river, Joffre expected the German forces to comprise of no more than 18 divisions, against which would be ranged Lanrezac's 15 divisions with reinforcements arriving from the BEF adding another three divisions Lanrezac however believed the German strength to be much higher, nearer in fact to the real figure of 38 divisions. Consequently he asked for a postponement of the attack on 21 August, preferring to wait for the arrival of the British.

However, detachments from the German Second Army attacked across the Sambre that same morning, establishing and then successfully defending two bridgeheads against repeated French counter-attacks. Thousands of Belgians fled from Charleroi and nearby villages.

Ruined gun turret of Namur fort, 1914Von Bulow renewed his attacks the following day, pitching three corps across the entire French front. Fighting was heavy but confused, continuing throughout the day and well into the next. The centre of the French lines, at Charleroi, suffered heavy losses and retreated, whereas the French corps west of Charleroi held its position, as did General Franchet d'Esperey's corps in the far east. Unfortunately the retreat of General Sordet's cavalry in the far west exposed the right wing of the late-arriving British Expeditionary Force, at Mons.

Von Bulow's forces managed to cross the Meuse but he chose not to position them across the French Fifth Army's rear in the south, instead ordering a full frontal attack against the French right. General d'Esperey's corps took position in trenches and cleared the Fifth Army's lines of retreat on 23 August.

Lanrezac, having difficulty communicating with d'Esperey, expected the lines of retreat to be closed at any moment. Whilst aware that the German Third Army had established a bridgehead across the Meuse to his south, he did not know that General Mangin's brigade had successfully held them back and was on the verge of a successful counter-attack.

Once news of the Belgian pull-out from Namur reached him, along with the retreat of the French Fourth Army from the Ardennes, Lanrezac ordered a general withdrawal of  his forces.

Lanrezac's decision to withdraw probably saved the French Army from destruction By retreating the French were able to hold northern France, but the French public at large - and Joffre - saw Lanrezac's action as simply lacking 'offensive spirit'. Given that Joffre had permitted the withdrawal his subsequent condemnation of Lanrezac - he blamed him for the failure of Plan XVII - looks opportunistic.

Click here to view a map of the Battle of the Frontiers.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website

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