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By Robert Beckhusen, War Is Boring
The weather was cold, wet and miserable when 100,000 German soldiers unloaded their rifles, fixed bayonets and charged the French army.
It was a desperate moment. By Sept. 10, 1914, the German armies closer to Paris were largely retreating after a combined Anglo-French offensive during the First Battle of the Marne.
The bayonet charge — one of the biggest of the modern era if not the largest — was the last hope for a German breakthrough before the war settled into a stalemate.
It ended in complete failure.
It’s impossible to imagine the scale of the attack. That it really happened — now a mere historical footnote — is a ghastly reminder of the rapid changes occurring on the battlefield during the early months of World War I.
This piece was first published in 2016.
Europe’s great powers had mobilized mass armies on an industrial scale and sent them into battle with rapid-fire machine guns, but the front lines were fluid and had not yet descended into the mire of blood and mud of the Somme and Verdun.
That would change after the Marne.
But on Sept. 10, Crown Prince Wilhelm, commander of the German Fifth Army, hoped he could still punch a hole in the French lines near Sainte-Menehould. His army was already in trouble — some 5,000 dead and more than 9,000 wounded after 10 days of fighting, according to Holger Herwig’s engrossing 2011 book The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World.
French artillery opposite the Fifth Army had decimated Wilhelm’s own long-range guns, destroying dozens of them. Wilhelm’s goal was to storm the French positions during the night and put those howitzers out of action.
A successful mass charge days before in another sector convinced him the plan could work.
“The charge, like that of George Pickett at Gettysburg in July 1863, was shattered by enemy artillery. Well into daybreak, the 75s of [Gen. Frederic] Micheler’s V Corps and [Martial] Verraux’s VI Corps poured their deadly fire into the packed gray ranks of German infantry. At 7:45 a.m., the French counterattacked a demoralized and decimated enemy. Some German units panicked; others ran about in the darkness leaderless and in utter confusion; few dared return the enemy’s fire for fear of shooting their own men. A large proportion of Fifth Army’s fifteen thousand casualties over the first ten days of September occurred that night. At the company and battalion levels, officer losses were as high as 40 percent.”
The details are harrowing. German units, bogged down during the advance, fired on each other in the darkness, Herwig wrote. The 12th Reserve Infantry Division stalled, blocking the 38th Reserve Infantry Regiment moving up from behind.
“In the confusion, the two units fired on each other almost at point-blank range,” Herwig added.
Others units which were able to advance found their flanks fired upon by German units which had halted. Entire divisions became entangled, making coordination on the battlefield impossible — all the while being pounded by the French guns and set upon by counterattacking soldiers.
By early afternoon, the Germans retreated.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Days earlier, another enormous bayonet charge carried out after midnight succeeded masterfully.
Gen. Max von Hausen’s Third Army waded through the Somme River then overran the French near Normee, to the west of Wilhelm’s upcoming disaster. Like Wilhelm’s troops, they charged with rifles unloaded and bayonets fixed.
But losses were high as some 20 percent of Hausen’s attacking troops became casualties. While the charge demoralized and routed France’s soldiers, the German troops worked themselves to exhaustion and outran their own artillery support — which was inadequate to begin with.
The offensive ended there, and Hausen would never replicate his relative success. He contracted typhus and was relieved by Gen. Helmuth von Moltke days later. Hausen lived out the rest of the war without a command and died in 1922.
But why did Hausen’s charge succeed — he called it “generally satisfactory” — when Wilhelm’s attempt to repeat it ended in misery? According to Herwig, it may have been a fluke.
For one, Hausen’s victory wasn’t much of one. Besides the heavy losses, Hausen failed to exploit the advance because of disorganization incurred during the battle.
“Yet even at the tactical level, its wisdom remains questionable in light of the fact that it was carried out across a river at night, without reconnaissance of enemy positions, without prior shelling, without artillery support during the advance, and with unloaded rifles,” Herwig wrote.
“At the operational level, it was even less spectacular.”
Wilhelm would discover why at Sainte-Menehould. As would thousands of men who lost their lives.