Battle of Charleroi

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The Battle of Charleroi (French: Bataille de Charleroi), or the Battle of the Sambre, was fought on 21 August 1914, by the French Fifth Army and the German 2nd and 3rd armies, during the Battle of the Frontiers. The French were planning an attack across the Sambre River, when the Germans attacked first, forced back the French from the river and nearly cut off the French retreat by crossing the Meuse around Dinant and getting behind the French right flank. The French were saved by a counter-attack at Dinant and the re-direction of the 3rd Army to the north-west in support of the 2nd Army, rather than south-west.


By 20 August, the Fifth Army (General Charles Lanrezac) had begun to concentrate on a 40-kilometre (25 mi) front along the Sambre, centred on Charleroi and extending east to the Belgian fortress of Namur. The Cavalry Corps (General André Sordet) covered the Fifth Army's left flank and the concentration of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons.[2] The French had 15 divisions, after transfers of troops to Lorraine, facing 18 German divisions from the 2nd Army (General Karl von Bülow) and 3rd Army (Colonel-General Max von Hausen) moving south-west from Luxembourg towards the Meuse.

21 August

On the morning of the 21st, French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre reported to Lanrezac (and to the BEF) that German troops were moving west. In accordance with Plan XVII, the Third and Fourth armies further south were to move towards, respectively, Arlon and Neufchâteau, then seek to attack enemy forces in Belgian Luxembourg. The Fifth Army was ordered to cover the Meuse up to Namur, and the British were to cooperate in this action by moving in the general direction of Soignies, north-east of Mons. In accordance with this, Lanrezac positioned the Fifth Army on the Sambre, and reported his actions to Joffre later in the day, around 12:30. Unbeknownst to him at the time, German elements had clashed with his vanguards, between Namur and Charleroi. Lanrezac was made aware of this by a report from General Michel, commander at Namur, received at 14:00. Lanrezac was told by General Headquarters around 16:00 that the Germans were still moving west, and in consequence ordered his aviation to reconnoitre enemy troop movements and informed his subordinates that they should "be ready to launch an attack [...] by crossing the Sambre, towards Namur and Nivelles."[3] At 20:00, having reported only minor action on the 10th Corps front to Joffre at 19:00,[4] Lanrezac was instructed by the latter that he had total discretion to decide of the appropriate moment to start his offensive.[5]

By the evening, vanguards from the 19th Division, between Floriffoux and Jemeppe-sur-Sambre, had pushed back German assaults. However, reports from prisoners indicated that there was a strong German presence. Further west, Arsimont, guarded initially by a battalion and then reinforced by a regiment from the 20th Division, was abandonned by 21:00 and the easternmost elements were ordered to retreat by the corps commander, Defforges, who organized positions around Fosse in coordination with the 1st and the 3rd Corps. This meant the Germans had succeeded in crossing the Sambre.[6]

On the 3rd Corps front, outposts of the 5th Division were attacked around 15:00. Despite initial failures, the Germans continued with their attacks and forced a passage at Tamines, Roselies and Aiseau. A French counter-attack retook Aiseau, but failed in pushing the Germans back from any other bridgehead. At 23:00, corps commander Sauret reported to Lanrezac that the 5th Division was continuing efforts to retake the bridges.[7]

22-23 August

The Germans attacked again on 22 August, with three corps against the entire Fifth Army front. Fighting continued on 23 August when the French centre around Charleroi began to fall back.

The 3rd Army crossed the Meuse and attacked the French right flank, held by I Corps (General Louis Franchet d'Esperey). The attack threatened to cut the line of retreat of the Fifth Army but I Corps stopped the German advance with a counter-attack. With the evacuation of Namur and news of the Fourth Army retreat from the Ardennes, Lanrezac ordered the Fifth Army to withdraw, lest he be encircled and cut off from the rest of the French army. The German army was victorious.



German advance through Belgium, August 1914

The Fifth Army retreat after the Battle of Charleroi, arguably saved the French army from decisive defeat, as it prevented the much sought envelopment of the Schlieffen plan. After fighting another defensive action in the Battle of St. Quentin, the French were pushed to within miles of Paris. Lanrezac was sacked by Joffre on 3 September (four days after General Pierre Ruffey, the Third Army commander) and replaced by Lieutenant-General Louis Franchet d'Espèrey.[8]

The 1934 work by the French Fascist and writer Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, The Comedy of Charleroi, explores the author's role in the battle.


In 2001 Brose recorded 10,000 Fifth Army losses and in 2009, Herwig recorded that the 3rd Army had 4,275 casualties at Dinant.[9][10] On the western flank of the French, the BEF lost 1,600 men.[11]

Orders of battle

French forces

Details taken from the French official history unless specified.[12]

Fifth Army, commanded by Charles Lanrezac

German forces

Details from the British official history and Cron (2002) unless otherwise indicated.[14][15]

Each Cavalry Division consisted of 3 Brigades, each of 2 Cavalry Regiments (24 squadrons total), 3 horse artillery batteries (4 guns each) and an MG detachment (6 MGs).

1st Army, commanded by Generaloberst Alexander von Kluck.

2nd Army, commanded by Generaloberst Karl von Bülow.

3rd Army, commanded by Generaloberst Max von Hausen.



  1. ^ "Heavy casualties suffered in the Battles of the Frontiers – Aug 22, 1914". Retrieved 18 January 2018. 
  2. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, p. 473.
  3. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 471-475.
  4. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, Annexes, no. 763, p. 645.
  5. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, p. 479.
  6. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 476-477.
  7. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 477-478.
  8. ^ Herwig 2009, p. 195.
  9. ^ Brose 2001, p. 200.
  10. ^ Herwig 2009, p. 168.
  11. ^ Brose 2001, p. 201.
  12. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, pp. 468–469, 471–474.
  13. ^ Naërt et al. 1936, Annexes, no. 8, p. 33.
  14. ^ Edmonds 1922, p. 492.
  15. ^ Cron 2002, p. 299.


  • Brose, E. D. (2001). The Kaiser's Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870–1918. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-517945-3. 
  • Cron, Hermann (2002) [1937]. Imperial German Army 1914–18: Organisation, Structure, Orders-of-Battle. Appendix 1: The Field Army, 17 August 1914. Solihull: Helion. ISBN 978-1-874622-70-3. 
  • Edmonds, J. E. (1922). Military Operations France and Belgium, 1914: Mons, the Retreat to the Seine, the Marne and the Aisne August–October 1914. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. I. Appendix 6: Order of battle of the German Armies (1st ed.). London: Macmillan. OCLC 58962523. 
  • Herwig, H. (2009). The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-6671-1. 
  • Naërt, M. C.; Laxague, G. M. J. B.; Courbis, J. C. P.; Joubert, J.; Lefranc, eds. (1936). Les armées françaises dans la Grande guerre (in French). I. Paris: Imprimerie nationale. OCLC 461413445. Retrieved 15 March 2015. 
  • Tuchman, B. W. (1962). The Guns of August. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 978-0-345-38623-6. 

Further reading

  • Bloem, W. (2004) [1916]. "Vormarsch" [The Advance from Mons 1914: The Experiences of a German Infantry Officer] (Helion, Solihull ed.). Bremen: Grethlein. ISBN 978-1-874622-57-4. Retrieved 15 February 2015. 
  • Doughty, R. A. (2005). Pyrrhic victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. ISBN 978-1-874622-57-4. 
  • Edmonds, J. E. (1926). Military Operations France and Belgium 1914: Mons, the Retreat to the Seine, the Marne and the Aisne August–October 1914. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. I (2nd ed.). London: Macmillan. OCLC 58962523. 
  • Evans, M. M. (2004). Battles of World War I. Select Editions. ISBN 978-1-84193-226-2. 
  • Foley, R. T. (2007) [2005]. German Strategy and the Path to Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870–1916 (pbk. ed.). Cambridge: CUP. ISBN 978-0-521-04436-3. 
  • Humphries, M. O.; Maker, J. (2013). Der Weltkrieg: 1914 The Battle of the Frontiers and Pursuit to the Marne. Germany's Western Front: Translations from the German Official History of the Great War. I. part 1 (1st ed.). Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 978-1-55458-373-7. 
  • Porch, D. (2003) [1981]. The March to the Marne: The French Army, 1870–1914 (reprint ed.). Cambridge: CUP. ISBN 978-0-521-54592-1. 
  • Spears, E. (1999) [1968]. Liaison 1914 (2nd Cassell reprint ed.). London: Eyre & Spottiswoode. ISBN 978-0-304-35228-9. 
  • Strachan, H. (2001). The First World War: To Arms. I. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-926191-8. 
  • Tyng, S. (2007) [1935]. The Campaign of the Marne 1914 (Westholme Publishing, NY ed.). New York: Longmans, Green. ISBN 978-1-59416-042-4. 

External links

  • First World
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