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Webmatters : 1914 The French offensive in the Ardennes
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Ardennes 1914

The French advance into Belgium

To try help distinguish between the two forces, the French are given in their own notation, 3e, 4e, 5e Armée and the Germans as 3rd, 4th, 5th Army etc. Note that in French, 1st can be either 1er (m. Corps) or 1re (f. Armée).

On the 20th August the French 3e Armée (Général Ruffey) was ordered across the border towards Arlon and to counter attack any attempt made to gain the right flank of the 4e Armée.

The 4e Armée under Général de Langle de Cary was ordered to send a strong advanced guard that night towards Tintigny to allow the crossing of the Semois River with his main force in the direction of Neufchâteau.

The war memorial at Tintigny

The war memorial at Tintigny

The Ardennes is a densely forested area with few villages or towns to supply provisions. The road network is poor and the rivers and streams run east-west forming natural obstacles to the French who were trying to advance south-north. Whilst the terrain did not particularly favour either side, better reconnaissance on their behalf meant that German commanders had a more accurate idea as to where the enemy were.

By the 20th August Lanrezac’s 5e Armée was positioned with two Corps on the Sambre and his third as a flank guard between Givet and Namur.

Joffre seems to have stubbornly ignored all reports from Lanrezac to the effect that the Germans were continuing their march westwards.

 

German and French movements

At this stage the German 3rd, 4th and 5th Armies had begun their advance into Belgium. The 3rd Army was marching in the direction of Namur, the 4th Army towards Givet and the 5th Army towards Arlon.

Although the 4e Armée under Langle de Cary was moving slowly into position ready for its advance into Belgium, Lanrezac’s right flank remained highly exposed as he was some fifty kilometres further forward.

That evening Joffre confirmed the advance into Belgium against the German flank.

The 2e CA (Corps d’Armée — 2nd Corps) would be the advanced guard of the 4e Armée.

The War Diary of the 2e CA mentions the fact that:

Ils n’est signalé dans les bois du Luxembourg Belge que des patrouilles de cavalerie. La direction donnée au CA après le passage de la frontière belge est Nord.

Only cavalry patrols have been reported within the Luxembourg (Belgium) forests. Having crossed the frontier the Corps will move north.

At 0345 hours on the 21st August they received a modified set of instructions which proscribed that the 4e DI (Division d’Infanterie — 4th Infantry Division) would provide the advanced guard crossing the border to the north of Montmédy and were to camp at Villers la Loue with its lead detachments. The remainder of the division would be stretched between there and Sommethonne.

The 3e DI would occupy the area around Montmédy whilst the Divisional Cavalry the 19e Chasseurs à Cheval would be sent ahead to scout Bellefontaine inside the Belgian border.

By the afternoon the Corps had received yet more instructions, ordering it to ensure that its advanced guard reached Bellefontaine with the main body at Meix devant Virton.

In theory the 4e DI was supposed to advance with its 7e Brigade d’Infanterie in the lead (their advanced guard moving to Bellefontaine) and the 87e Brigade billeting in and around Meix.

Opposing them, the German 5th Army (Commanded by the Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm) had recognised the danger as they marched on Virton and requested the 4th Army (Duke Albrecht of Württemberg) to pivot their left flank, the 6th Army Corps southwards.