3 Reasons For French Weakness at the Battle of the Frontiers | History Hit

3 Reasons For French Weakness at the Battle of the Frontiers

Peter Curry

08 Nov 2018
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The Battle of the Frontiers was a series of battles fought along the eastern frontier of France and in southern Belgium between 6 August and 5 September 1914.

It pitted French Chief of Staff General Joseph Joffre’s Plan XVII against the German Schlieffen plan, commanded by Helmuth von Moltke.

The key battles, at Mulhouse, Lorraine, the Ardennes, Charleroi and Mons, were launched more or less simultaneously.

The German Plan to wheel through Belgium and launch a massive attack on the French left flank was delayed by the advance of the French forces and the intervention of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

Dan Snow takes an emotional journey through the key battlefields of the Western Front, from the memorial parks at the Somme to the formidable defences around Ypres.
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After ferocious fighting the Franco-British force was driven back into France, eventually making at stand at the Marne.

Despite determined resistance, the French in particular suffered catastrophic losses. Between 6 August and 5 September they suffered 329,000 casualties as well as swathes of land. They were subsequently engaged in a long struggle to drive the Germans out of France.

Three reasons contributed to the high death toll — sub-standard equipment, inferior reservists and ill-formed tactics.


Both German and French armies were formidable in terms of size, but the numbers disguise severe weaknesses in the French forces.

The French were equipped with the Lebel Model 1886 rifle, which as the name suggests, was an older rifle model by 1914, and it came with a bayonet which was 20 inches long, very thin and liable to snap.

It utilised a tube magazine, which was particularly slow to reload in comparison to other rifles of the period.

On 20 October 1803 the USA pulled off one of the best deals in the history of mankind by purchasing a third of modern America from Napoleon's France. This cost them just 50 million francs. At a stroke the country was transformed from an emerging power confined to the east coast to a huge territory controlling vast natural resources. With Louisiana in American hands, harnessing the wild west became possible.

An unstable history

The vast territory of Louisiana had already changed hands frequently throughout its relatively short history. Extending from what is now parts of Canada to the city of New Orleans, this vast territory had originally belonged to France, having been claimed by King Louis' nation in 1699. Such a vast wilderness was still sparsely populated in 1803, but some small settlements had sprung up along its main rivers. These hardy frontier people would unwittingly become part of the chessboard of 18th century international relations in 1762, when they were handed over to Spain following a French defeat in the Seven Years War. American relations with their new neighbour quickly became tetchy, particularly after they were barred from using the important port of New Orleans. However, this slight tension was nothing compared with the panic provoked by Napoleon's reclaiming of the territory for France in 1800. [programme id= "30299"]

The Little Corporal had big American ambitions...

Though Louisiana nominally remained in Spanish hands almost right up to its transfer to America, the ambitious Napoleon -at this point First Consul of France - had won it back with a Treaty secured from the Spanish. Aware that this man was aggressive and contemplating trying to restore French hegemony in America, American fears were further fed by a large transferal of French troops to New Orleans in 1801. Some Americans, including President Thomas Jefferson, considered siding with their old enemy Britain in order to combat this threat. However, subsequent events radically changed the situation. Napoleon's first act to regain control in the western hemisphere was to send an army to put down the infamous slave rebellion on the island of Sainte-Domingue (now Haiti.) Lead by charismatic ex-slave Toussaint L'Overture, the rebellion had been exceptionally bloody and had already resisted British and Spanish attempts to put it down. The loss of such a lucrative possession was costing France dearly, and in January 1802 General Leclerc set sail for the Caribbean. [caption id="attachment_21526" align="alignnone" width="650"] Slave leader Toussaint L'Overture.[/caption]

...but it was not to be

This expedition was a disaster. In the early 19th century tropical diseases meant that the Caribbean was a graveyard for Europeans (this is why African slaves were used in the first place) and many Frenchmen died without ever seeing a rebel slave. This, combined with the fanatical rebel resistance, meant that by November 1803 only a third of the French army remained alive, and the remainder had to be evacuated. Haiti, incidentally, was declared one of the world's only republics after victory in this war, though the United States refused to recognize it for fear that this would give their own slaves dangerous ideas. Meanwhile, this disaster convinced Napoleon that Europe, not the Americas, was the route to greatness. With this in mind, and wary of having to fight the British in North America, he began to consider selling his vast new territory of Louisiana. [programme id= "30363"]

France's failure was the States' opportunity

Jefferson's government were keen to get their hands on New Orleans and the surrounding area, but were astonished when French Treasury Minister Barbé-Marbois offered his American counterpart Livingstone the whole Louisiana territory for just $15 million. To put this in perspective, Livingstone's delegation had been preparing to haggle hard in order to bring the price of New Orleans alone down to $10 million. Even if the value of the dollar is inflated to its current level, that is only 42 cents paid per acre of land. Terrified that this extraordinary offer might be withdrawn at any time, the Americans wasted no time in signing the deal - and signed it on 30 April 1803 - just a few weeks after the idea of buying New Orleans had first been raised. The size of the United States of America doubled overnight. On 20 October 1803 the Senate finally ratified the Treaty by 27 votes to 4, and the following day Jefferson was authorised to take military possession of the Louisiana Territory. Subsequently, plans were formulated to explore the territory's wilderness - most famously that of Lewis and Clark. [caption id="attachment_21525" align="alignnone" width="650"] A painting of Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition.[/caption]

The best deal in history?

With the centre of the modern United States now in American hands, the opportunities to expand into the unexplored west now seemed limitless. The century which followed the acquisition of Louisiana was pivotal in the development of this young nation, which quickly grew, both territorially and industrially, into one of the world's great powers. Today, this is still the case, and one can walk all the way across the continent and be immersed in the United States of America. Thus, the importance of the Louisiana Purchase should not be underplayed or forgotten.    

Image Attribution: Early French uniforms were brightly coloured, while they were equipped with no helmets and an outdated rifle.

The French ‘poilu’ uniform was totally ill-suited to modern warfare, matching red trousers with a bright blue jacket in a style unchanged since 1870.

French prisoners would be openly derided by their German captors, who had uniforms designed to blend with a bleak landscape.

The French army had one advantage in that its field gun, the 75mm, was a modern piece of artillery. However, while the French artillery worked well in open warfare, it had too low a trajectory to trouble strong defensive installations and was doomed to lose in any counter-battery duel.


The roughly 4 million German reservists were by and large better equipped, better trained and better led than their French counterparts. Germany operated on a Prussian ideology of militarism, and even reservists treated their profession as a vocation of which to be proud.

The Germans drew extensively from the ‘Landwehr’ and ‘Landsturm’, and these reservists were trained to the competency of regular soldiers and equipped with robust weaponry.

By contrast the French reserves were far less competent. They did not undergo the same level of training as regular soldiers and were issued sub-par weaponry.

After the First World War broke out, Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson established a hospital in a vast and derelict old workhouse in Covent Garden's Endell Street. The medical marvel which sprung up treated 26,000 wounded men over the next four years, and was staffed entirely by women. Wendy Moore joined Dan on the pod to tell this remarkable story, and discuss the legacy of these pioneering women.
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All sides in the First World War suffered from a military culture based on the cult of the offensive and the short glorious war, but France suffered the most.

By the time the reality of industrial warfare had exposed redundant notions of classical warfare, and armies understood that modern weaponry favoured the defender, the Germans had established a foothold in France.

Before that, the idea that France’s best opportunity lay with in offence was hugely damaging.

Joffre committed large armies to reckless, chaotic advances that were cut down by a stronger German force. He failed to utilise the advantage of defence against an invading German force.

French intelligence, which was essential to the co-ordination of offensives, proved inaccurate. It underestimated the size of the German army in Belgium and the forces opposite the 3rd and 4th French armies.

The advantage of Plan XVII lay in seizing the initiative and making rapid, substantial gains. Errors such as this jeopardised the plan’s potential.

Image Attribution: Map depicting troop manoeuvres of both sides. The Germans advances are depicted in red, the French in Blue. The Battle of the Frontiers, August 1914. Credit: Lvcvlvs / Commons.

German war plans worked on the principle that units should be adaptable and able to work together. Infantry were trained to accurately fire individually and concentrate their collective fire on a single target.

They were also trained to work with machine gun units in defensive and offensive operations.

By contrast, the French often had no-one to liaise between different units, and suffered when attacking by not co-ordinating infantry surges with suppressing artillery fire. An excess of offensive spirit, generated to some extent by patriotism at home, exacerbated this failing.

Going on the offensive exposed the frailties and deficiencies in the French armed forces, and British reinforcements were never going to make a decisive difference to the outcome of the battles.

France’s offensives ultimately forced them backwards, and it was only British intervention that stabilised the French position, and forced the Germans into trench warfare and lengthy stalemates.

Peter Curry