Battles of the Frontiers | 21 Aug 1914

We’re now finishing the opening skirmishes and tipping headlong into the first major battles. In two days’ time, there’ll be heavy fighting on the Eastern Front, the Western Front, and in the Balkans all at once. Hold onto your hats, folks.

Western Front

General Joffre remains calm. Today his main attack to seize the initiative is underway. This is the Battle of the Ardennes, another component of the series of actions known as the Battles of the Frontiers.

Battle of the Ardennes

The French infantry fixes bayonets and marches boldly forward towards Neufchateau and Arlon. Soon they meet small German detachments, and the detachments fight brief delaying actions before falling back. German intelligence has seen the French 3rd and 4th Armies forming up, and the German Fourth and Fifth Armies have had plenty of time to choose a battlefield and prepare defensive positions. The critical day of fighting will come tomorrow.

Battle of Lorraine

The French 1st and 2nd armies are falling back out of Lorraine, east of Nancy, to a prepared line of fortifications. Here Generals Dubail and Castelnau hope to make a stand and reorganise to push themselves forward once more. The German advance in this sector is slow and cautious, and the French are given a full day to untangle themselves.

Battle of Charleroi

General Lanrezac’s worst fears all come true today. His 5th Army is attacked by the German Third and Second Armies between Charleroi and Dinant, and he’s unable to give any support to the critical Belgian fortress at Namur. Lanrezac has far too few men for the job, and his army is unable to prevent the Germans crossing the Meuse and the Sambre, detaching units to besiege Namur while the rest of the army marches on.

And, even better, his reconaissance is telling him about yet more Germans marching from Nivelles and Soignes towards Mons and Maubeuge to turn his still-unguarded left flank.


The BEF cavalry is now riding into Belgium, pressing forward. General Hubert Gough is in charge of one of their brigades, and he’s rather unhappy with things.

Responsible commanders should have been informed in the clearest manner of the general plan of campaign and of the positions of all forces operating near us. Yet too often we only received such general orders as, ‘March on X!’ ‘ “Assemble at Y!” the object of the movement being withheld.

A blindfolded man cannot move intelligently. Of the two dangers – the risk of one’s own orders falling into the hands of the enemy, or the lack of intelligent and coherent initiative in commanders due to the absence of information – the latter is far the more serious.

Eastern Front

With the German Eighth Army now falling back from Gumbinnen and the Russian 1st Army, General von Prittwitz has just received even more bad news. The Russian 2nd Army is now entering Prussia, pointing itself directly at his supply lines. Ordered to stand on the defensive and delay the enemy as long as possible, he’s succeeded only in doing the exact opposite.

von Prittwitz completely loses his nerve, and sends a modest proposal to General von Moltke; abandon all of east Prussia and more besides, with a full-scale retirement to the River Vistula. This is completely politically unacceptable, and von Moltke wastes no time in sacking the hapless general.

His replacement is General Erich Ludendorff, fresh from his impromptu success at the Siege of Liege. He’s now in the right place at the right time; a high-profile victor who doesn’t already have an army command. Nevertheless, it would be politicially impossible to appoint him to command the Eighth Army, so he’s instead pulled away from the siege of Namur to be its Chief of Staff. His boss will be an old, recently retired grandee, old enough to have been a junior officer in the Austro-Prussian War and the 1870 war with France. His name is Paul von Hindenburg, and he’s only just beginning his time of influence over Germany.

Meanwhile, General Rennenkampf’s 1st Army is pausing to regroup and resupply itself. Meanwhile, the 2nd Army is marching west, split from 1st Army by most of the Masurian Lakes.

Battle of Jaroslawice

In eastern Galicia, there’s a major cavalry battle between Russian and Austro-Hungarian donkey wallopers as the Russians continue crossing the border. There’s approximately 4,219 battles that have been declared “the last-ever cavalry battle” by some historian or other, and this is one. It is at least a good old-fashioned affair, fought chiefly with lance and sabre.

Battle of Cer

There’s another day of heavy fighting, and again it goes the way of the Serbian army. Slowly and methodically, the eastern bank of the River Drina is being cleared of invaders. The Austro-Hungarian commanders are desperate to hold onto as much territory as possible, and Sabac in particular continues holding out.

Meanwhile, General Potiorek is being rewarded for all this by being given an autonomous command in Serbia. No longer will he be subordinate to Conrad von Hotzendorf and the high command. This also provides him with a convenient excuse for why his armies are coming perilously close to being thrown out of Serbia altogether. Serious ructions are brewing in Vienna over this failure; not least from the Hungarian prime minister Count Tisza, who is now apparently worried about the possibility of a Serbian invasion of Hungary over the Danube. (The likelihood of which is in the region of “laughable”, but still.)

Actions in Progress

Battle of Mulhouse
Battle of Lorraine
Battle of Cer
Battle of the Ardennes
Battle of Charleroi

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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