3 Reasons For French Weakness at the Battle of the Frontiers

Peter Curry

3 mins

08 Nov 2018

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).

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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.

Equipment

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.

Early French uniforms were brightly coloured, while they were equipped with no helmets and an outdated rifle.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

Reservists

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.

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Tactics

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.

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.