1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Guise, Battle of
GUISE, BATTLE OF. The name of the battle of Guise is given to the battle fought by the French V. Army on Aug. 29 1914, during the first Allied retreat, with the object of delaying the advancing Germans so as to take pressure off the British and to gain time for the debouchment of the newly formed French VI. Army.
By Aug. 25 the succession of battles fought in Lorraine, the Ardennes and on the Sambre had produced an atmosphere of optimism at German general headquarters. The Supreme Com- mand was, however, led astray by the magic of imagination and mistook the shadow of victory for the reality, although it is true that the Germans were somewhat in advance of their time- table. Gen. von Moltke considered that the great decisive battle in the W. had been fought and ended in Germany's favour, and that the moment had arrived when forces might safely .be sent to the eastern front. It was decided to send two corps from France to reinforce the VIII. Army in East Prussia. Gen. von Moltke's first intention had been to take these reinforcements from his left wing, but both the VI. and VII. Armies reported that they were opposed by superior numbers, and it was there- fore decided to send two corps from the right. Accordingly the XI. and Guard Reserve Corps and a cavalry division received orders early on the 26th to proceed to the eastern front.
The bracing atmosphere of optimism breathed by Supreme Headquarters in their peaceful hotel at Coblentz, some 200 m. from the battlefield, had at least one rarefied " pocket " in the front line. On Aug. 26 Gen. von Billow, the commander of the II. Army, was bewailing the fact that the III. Army on his left was not conforming to the south-westerly wheel of the II. Army, and that there was an awkward gap between the two. Further, on the 27th, the I. Army (which since Aug. 20 had been under Gen. von Billow's orders) was suddenly removed from the control of the II. Army by order of the Supreme Command, thereby making the cooperation of the three right-wing armies still more difficult. On the side of the Allies, neither far behind the fighting nor in the front line was there any optimism, and indeed there was little to suggest a roseate view of the situation. Failure had dogged their early efforts, and the whole left and centre were being forced back. This circumstance, however, was not without its advantages, for it ensured that the Allied com- manders-in-chief were in far closer touch with their forces than was the case on the German side. Far from attempting to deal with the situation from a couple of hundred m. in rear, Gen. Joffre and Field-Marshal Sir John French were on Aug. 26 deliberating within sound of the guns, and with the assistance of the French army commander most nearly concerned. The meeting took place in the billiard room of the house at St. Quentin which was serving as the headquarters of the British commander- in-chief. The moment was one of particular anxiety for Sir John French, for while awaiting the arrival of Gen. Joffre and Gen. Lanrezac the commander of the French V. Army the British field-marshal received the news that his II. Corps had not been able to comply with his orders to fall back from the line Cam- brai-Le Cateau, and was now committed, and alone, to a battle. Staff officers were sent to Gen. Smith-Dorrien with peremptory orders to break off the fight and to resume the retreat forthwith. It was now nearly eleven o'clock, and shortly afterwards Gen. Joffre arrived with his chief-of-staff. He was followed by the commander of the French V. Army, and a discussion of the situation immediately began.
During the night which had preceded the conference Gen. Joffre had issued a new directive, to the effect that, the offensive which he had projected having proved incapable of realization,
" further operations would be carried out with a view to forming a mass of manoeuvre on the left flank to carry out an offensive." This mass of manoeuvre was to be made up of the French IV. and V. Armies and the British, plus a new army the VI. to be made up of units moved by rail from other sectors, chiefly from the right. In theory these orders formed the basis of the dis- cussions at the conference, though, as it happened, the rapid march of events had prevented orders being thoroughly assimi- lated by some of the recipients. Nothing very definite indeed seems to have been decided at the meeting beyond the under- standing that the retreat was to be continued as slowly and deliberately as possible, until the Allies should find themselves in a favourable position to make a firm stand and take the offensive. Immediately after the conference Sir John French set out to ascertain the fate of his II. Corps, and, having learnt of the hard fighting which it had experienced at Le Cateau (see FRONTIERS, BATTLES OF: Sec. 5), he issued orders for the British army to fall back to the line La Fere-Noyon, and during the evening shifted his headquarters to the latter town.
From the evidence of his own published account it is clear that Sir John French felt strongly on two matters. The first was the action of the French V. Army on his right. He considered that the British had been placed in a position of isolation both at Mons and immediately afterwards " by the very sudden change of plan and headlong retirement of the V. Army." He had indeed pointed this out to Gen. Joffre, in the presence of Gen. Lanrezac, at the conference at St. Quentin. The other factor on which he had formed decided views was " the shattered condition of the troops which had fought at Le Cateau." In a further interview between the two commanders-in-chief on Aug. 27 Gen. Joffre showed himself most sympathetic and " understanding " in reference to the special position of the British, and promised that the French V. Army would be directed to take energetic action to take the pressure off it.
It was now the forenoon of the 2yth, and the French V. Army, in accordance with Gen. Joffre's directive of the 25th, was retiring over the Oise above Guise; and orders had actually been drafted for the continuance of the retirement next day to the line Mont- cornet-Marles-Ribemont. Shortly before one o'clock on the 27th, however, an officer arrived from French general headquarters with verbal instructions to the effect that Gen. Lanrezac was at once to attack towards St. Quentin with vigour, " sans s'oc- cuper des Anglais." As the V. Army was retiring almost due S., and in several columns, it would necessarily take some time to effect the change of front required for the offensive ordered, and this was pointed out to the envoy. The envoy made an irritating innuendo; a discussion of rather a tart nature ensued; Gen. Lanrezac's exasperation triumphed over his prudence, and he expressed himself rather freely on what he considered the in- different work of French general headquarters.
Nightfall of the 27th found the French V. Army behind the Oise and Thon, with its left below Guise and its right about Rumigny, facing north-east. Before the offensive against St. Quentin could be carried out it was necessary to transfer the bulk of the army below Guise and to establish it opposite its objective; that is to say, facing west. This preliminary move- ment, which would entail a flank march within range of the enemy, and was further complicated by a change of front of more than a right angle, was undoubtedly a most delicate opera- tion. A further difficulty was added by the fact that the Oise would give only a limited protection to the movement, inasmuch as it was not a serious obstacle above Guise. Again, the more the V. Army closed in to its left the wider would become the gap between it and the IV. Army on its right. These factors ruled out of court any prospect of an offensive before the igth.
On the 28th the headquarters of the V. Army were at Marie, and there about noon Gen. Joffre came to see Gen. Lanrezac. The latter described to his chief the dispositions he was making, pointing out at the same time the exposed situation in which his right flank would find itself while his main body was committed to the offensive against St. Quentin. These observations do not appear to have been taken in good part by the commander-in
chief, who became very angry. He peremptorily ordered the V. Army commander to proceed with the offensive against St. Quentin; and menaça le général Lanrezac de lui enlever son commandement.
Before discussing the battle of Guise from the tactical point of view it is necessary to have a clear idea of the position of the forces engaged on either side. On the evening of the 27th the front of the V. Army from right to left was generally on the line Rumigny–Etreaupont–Guise–Origny St. Benoite. The main body, consisting of the I., X., III. and XVIII. Corps (in this order from right to left), lay between Aubenton and Guise, covered on the right by the reserve division of Gen. Bouttegourdand the cavalry of Gen. Abonneau, the latter being between Rumigny and Rozoy. On the left were two reserve divisions under Gen. Valabregue holding the passages over the Oise at Guise and below that town. To bring about the transfer of strength to the left, and to effect the change of front required for the offensive ordered, orders were given for the following movements to take place on the 28th. Gen. Valabregue was to close to his left and hold the left bank of the Oise S. of Moy. The III. and XVIII. Corps, each rcenforced by an African div., were to take post along the Oise between Origny St. Benoite and Moy. The I. Corps was to move to Sains and form the army reserve. The X. Corps was to take post along the Oise E. of Guise. The cavalry of Gen. Abonneau, to which was to be attached the reserve division of Gen. Bouttegourd, was still to operate on the right. On the left of the French V. Army the British were, throughout the 28th, continuing their retirement, and by the evening of that day were on the line La Fère–Noyon, with a gap between the I. Corps on the right and the II. on the left.
To turn now to the Germans, the two armies likely to come into collision with the French V. Army were the I. and II., of which the former under Gen. von Kluck was on the right. After the battle of Le Cateau that army, by the evening of the 26th, was on the line Hermies–Crèvecceur–Caudry–Busigny, and by the evening of the following day it was, generally speaking, on the front Combles–Estrées. Unlike Gen. von Bülow, the commander of the I. Army was being affected by the heady atmosphere of optimism. The victory of Le Cateau obviously required following up, but a more grandiose scheme was selected, and Gen. von Kluck's one idea now seems to have been to march S.W. until he should overlap the Allied left. Accordingly on the 28th his army switched off from the pursuit of the British II. Corps, moved in the direction generally of Peronne, and by evening was in possession of the passages over the Somme between Feuillieres and St. Christ. Thence he moved still S.W., becoming involved in fighting with French forces of Gens. d'Amade, Maunoury and Sordet, missing his chance of “eating up” the British II. Corps, and incidentally vanishing from the picture so far as the battle of Guise is concerned.
As for the German II. Army, on the evening of the 2yth it was on the line St. Souplet–Wassigny–Etreux–Laschelle–Buironfosse–La Capelle, with its corps (working from right to left) disposed as follows:—VII. (less 13th Div.), X. Reserve, X. and Guard. During the day the order which had put the I. Army under the orders of the commander of the II. was cancelled by Supreme Headquarters, and Gen. von Bülow was beginning to feel somewhat isolated. On his right Gen. von Kluck had begun his eccentric march, while on the left the III. Army was being sucked eastwards to assist the IV. which was in difficulties. In these circumstances Gen. von Bülow at first determined to throw forward his right so as to keep touch with the I. Army, while keeping his left in position; but early on the 28th more favourable news from the III. Army on his left led him to order the X. and Guard Corps to cross the Oise. On this day Gen. Lanrezac was making a flank march behind that river, and changing front from north-east to west. Thus the French V. Army, from being in a position to get in its blow against St. Quentin, was likely to have its own right flank attacked by the II. Army of the Germans.
Gen. Lanrezac's orders for the attack on St. Quentin on the apth were to the effect that while the X. Corps and Gen. Abonneau's cavalry should maintain their position, the main body (III. and XVIII. Corps) was to cross the Oise below Guise and march on St. Quentin, left in front, with orders to attack the enemy wherever found. Liaison officers brought the welcome intelligence that the British I. Corps would cooperate, and accordingly Gen. Lanrezac added a paragraph to his orders to the effect that the British I. Corps would debouch from Laon at 5 a.m. and move against St. Quentin. About 2 a.m. on the 29th, however, a telephone message was received to the effect that such cooperation was impossible, and accordingly Gen. Lanrezac ordered the reserve divisions of Gen. Valabregue to flank the left of the XVIII. Corps.
At daybreak on the 2gth the main body of the V. Army began to cross the Oise above and below Origny. For a time all went well, but at nine o'clock a telegram from the X. Corps announced the fact that it had been heavily attacked by German troops from the line GuiseEnglaucourt; in other words, by the German X. and Reserve Corps. The message went on to say that the left of the X. Corps was holding its own but that the right had been compelled to give ground. Gen. Lanrezac had again to modify his plan and to issue new orders, of which the tenor was as follows. The objective was still to be St. Quentin, but first of all the enemy attacking the X. Corps was to be thrown back over the Oise. The left flank was still to be protected by the reserve divisions of Gen. Valabregue. The XVIII. Corps was to continue its advance towards St. Quentin but was to avoid serious engagements with superior forces. The III. Corps was to maintain its advanced troops W. of the Oise, so as to facilitate the eventual crossing of the river and the connexion with the XVIII. Corps on its left. The main body of the corps was, however, now to face N. and attack Guise. The X. Corps was to attack on the right of the III. Corps. The I. Corps now in reserve about Sains was to be ready to assist the X. Corps. The right flank was still to be protected by Gen. Abonneau's cavalry division.
It was, however, impossible to carry out this new plan, for by the time the orders had reached the various commanders the X. Corps had been driven back too far to allow of an attack upon St. Quentin. Gen. Lanrezac accordingly decided to renounce definitely all idea of attacking that place and to confine his efforts to dealing with the Germans who were harassing the X. Corps. To this end he issued the following order shortly before 11 a.m.:—
In view of the large number of Germans who have appeared E. of Guise the project of attacking St. Quentin is now renounced. It is now a question of defeating the enemy E. of Guise, and of either destroying him or at any rate of driving him back across the Oise. The XVIII. Corps and the Reserve Divisions of Gen. Valabregue will mask St. Quentin, while the main body (III., X. and I. Corps) will make a determined attack to the north. Gen. Abonneau will leave a mixed detachment to maintain connexion with the IV. Army on the right and will then move the main bodies of his own cavalry division and of Gen. Bouttegourd's Reserve Division to Vervins ready to act against the enemy's left flank which has crossed the Oise W. of the Vervins—Avesnes road.
Gen. Joffre was present when the above instructions were drawn up, and gave them his tacit approval.
The French V. Army was now committed to two separate operations, in both of which the fighting was destined to be severe, for Gen. von Bülow had by now received definite orders from Supreme Headquarters to advance on Paris via the line Laon–La Fere. To take the fighting E. of Guise first, on the side of the Germans the Guard and X. Corps were facing the sist Reserve Div., the X. and I. Corps and the 4th Div. of Cavalry, to which were subsequently added the bulk of the III. Corps. The German Guard Corps was operating from the line Etreaupont–Flavigny; the X. from Flavigny to Macquigny by Guise.
The morning of the 29th was ushered in by a thick mist which limited visibility for some time to three or four yards. The French X. Corps had been ordered to take Audigny, and accordingly the 20th Div. on the left moved forward against that village, while the igth Div. followed in support on the right. The advanced guard of the 20th Div. entered Audigny, but was almost immediately attacked on its right flank, and after some stubborn fighting the French effort to hold Audigny broke down; the fighting drifted back to the neighbourhood of Sains, and it was the intelligence of this set-back which led Gen. Lanrezac to give up the attack upon St. Quentin. The German Guard Corps was endeavouring to outflank the right of the X. Corps, and by three o’clock in the afternoon the situation for the French was distinctly unfavourable. Relief, however, was afforded partly by the action of Gen. Abonneau on the right, and still more by the intervention of the I. Corps, which came into action on the left and in front of the X. Corps and eventually got into touch with the III. Corps on the left and with Gen. Abonneau on the right. The situation of the French was now sensibly relieved as a result of the orders issued by Gen. Lanrezac about 11 a.m., and about five o’clock the general offensive prescribed therein took place along the 18 m. from Origny-Vervins towards Guise. Success crowned the efforts of the French. Bertaignemont, Clanlieu, Pusieux, Richaumont and Colonfay were retaken, and the Germans were driven back towards the Oise, although on their left they still held out stubbornly. During the night the two German corps fell back across the river.
This success was, however, neutralized by the events between the Oise and St. Quentin, where the situation took an unfavourable turn for the French. The reserve divisions of Gen. Valabrègue occupied Urviller, but were in turn attacked and forced to fall back behind the Oise. The leading units of the XVIII. Corps had meanwhile reached the neighbourhood of St. Quentin, but as its left was uncovered by the retirement of the reserve divisions Gen. de Las Latrie deemed it advisable to make preparations for a withdrawal of the XVIII. Corps to the Oise, an operation which was carried out by evening.
When morning broke on the 30th Gen. Lanrezac was under no illusions as to his position. The British army had been compelled to rest throughout the 29th on the line Noyon–La Fère, and was not likely to assume the offensive on the 30th; while on the right it was probable that the French IV. Army was again in retreat. If, therefore, the V. Army should remain during the 30th in the region Vervins-Guise-Ribemont it might find itself isolated with its flanks uncovered, and also forced to face simultaneously north. west and east. Gen. Lanrezac was prepared to take the risk, but in the evening of the 30th a telephonic message (apparently in confirmation of a written order which had gone astray) arrived directing the V. Army to fall back. The commander of the V. Army therefore issued orders for his troops to gain during what was left of the 30th the high ground N. of the lower Serre and Souche. This was carried out and by the 3ist the V. Army was disposed in a great semicircle round Laon.
It is admitted that the French V. Army ably carried out its task of delaying the Germans; and Sir John French, writing of the battle later, said: “On the 29th (August) a very brilliant and successful attack by the French V. Army at Guise heavily defeated three German corps and threw them back with severe loss. This had a great effect in assisting the retreat, for it not only enabled the V. Army to hold its own for some time on the Oise, between Guise and La Fère, but it considerably relieved hostile pressure on the British and on the French troops on our left.” Gen. Lanrezac, however, was apparently not in favour with French general headquarters, and within a few days he was relieved of his command. (F. E. W.*)