THE BATTLE OF GUISE
Compiled by Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds
Edited by Macmillan & Co, 1933
THE BATTLE OF GUISE
(Called by the Germans, St. Quentin)
(See the French and German Official Accounts, the two official monographs, " Schlacht bei St. Quentin," I. and II., General Lanrezac's ," Le Plan de Campagne français, and General Rouquerols "" Bataille de Guise".)
29TH-30TH AUGUST 1914
As early as the 24th August, after the French defeats in the Battles of the Frontier General Joffre had proposed to make a counter-attack " in the centre " with the Fifth Army, ("Joffre et la Marne" p. 64, by Commandant Muller (General Joffre's officier d'ordonnance).) which, owing to the skilful leading of General Lanrezac, was still intact and unshaken. On the night of the 25th/26th, he postponed any action until he ," had constituted on the left by the junction of the Fourth, Fifth and British Armies, and forces drawn from the east, a mass capable of resuming the offensive. It was the intention of General Lanrezac himself to order a counter-attack directly he was clear of the enclosed and broken country of the Avesnes region, in which ", his intact artillery could not effectively support his infantry ". During the 27th his four corps, in line, crossed the Oise and its tributary, the Thon, his right being 25 miles east of Guise, and Valabregues group of two Reserve divisions, on his left, covering the passages near Guise. General Joffre, by telephone message, now urged the Fifth Army to take action, as the ground was suitable, adding, ," you need not pay attention to what the British do on your left."
For the 28th, therefore, General Lanrezac ordered his corps " to close on the left, so as to face north-west and be in position to attack any enemy columns which cross the Oise. " No sooner had these instructions been issued than he received from G.Q.G. (timed 10.10 P.M., date of receipt not stated), the following order :
"Front information received, it appears that parts of the German ¥VII and IX. Corps, forming part of the Second Army, opposed to you, have been left before Maubeuge. [Actually these corps had just been relieved by the VII. Reserve Corps.] It is therefore possible to come to the help of the British Army by acting against the enemy forces [X. Reserve, VII. and half IX. Corps] which are advancing against it west of the Oise. You will in consequence send your left to-morrow between the Oise and St. Quentin to attack any enemy force marching against the British Army."
At 9 A.M. on the 28th General Joffre himself visited General Lanrezac's advanced headquarters at Marle (13 miles south-east of Guise), and gave him the following written order :
," The Fifth Army will attack as soon as possible the enemy forces which advanced yesterday against the British Army. It will cover its right with the minimum of forces, sending reconnaissances to a great distance on that flank."
The Fifth Army, therefore, made some modifications in the destinations allotted to its corps.
Near Guise the Oise, running in a large valley cut into the general plain of northern France, makes a nearly right-angled bend : by Lanrezac's orders, under cover of the X. Corps facing northwards behind the east and west course of the Oise, the III. and XVIII. Corps were to continue the march westwards on the 29th, and, with Valabregues Reserve divisions, cross the lower, north and south reach of the river towards St. Quentin to fall on the flank of the German forces moving west of the river. The I. Corps and 4th Cavalry Division were to follow in reserve, the former well to the south.
On the evening of the 28th the advanced guards of the left wing of the German Second Army (the Guard and X. Corps) gained possession of the bridges of the upper reach of the Oise, General von Bülow being under the impression that he had in front of him there only weak French and British rear guards. His right wing (X. Reserve and VII. Corps) was nearly twenty miles ahead of his left, south of St. Quentin, and aligned facing south-west, abreast of Klucks Army Thus there were two distinct battles on the 29th August, fought on different sides of the Oise.
In the thick mist of the early morning of that day the columns of the French X. Corps moving westwards as covering force, came into collision with the heads of the two German corps pushing southwards uphill from the river to the plateau above, combats taking place in the various villages where the roads, on which both sides were marching, crossed. Thus what had occurred in the original advance of the French Third and Fourth Armies ten days earlier was now reversed, the German columns blundering head, on into the broadside of French columns crossing their front.
The X. Corps, supported as the day went on by the artillery and part of the 5th Division of the III. Corps, and later by the I. Corps, though at first in some difficulty, eventually held its own, and at night the French made a slight general advance, which sent the German Guard and X Corps back towards the Oise, and some portions of them over it : the commander of the Guard Corps being authorized, " after long and earnest discussion, to withdraw behind the Oise." Actually, only Hutier's 1st Guard Division on the eastern flank appears to have recrossed.
On the western wing, on the other battlefield, the advance of the heads of the French III. and XVIII. Corps and Valabregues Group equally came as a complete surprise to Bülow's scattered right wing, their camp fires of the previous night having been mistaken by the Germans for those of their own left wing. The G.O.C. X. Reserve Corps and five of his staff actually motored up to a village occupied by the French, and were all wounded. Had the British I. Corps been permitted by Sir John French to take part in the battle, if only by fire on the German front whilst the French continued their flank attack, an important defeat might have been administered to the Second Army. In view, however, of the German advance against the French right wing, and the inaction of the British, the movement of the left wing could not be persisted in. At 11 A.M. the G.O.C. III. Corps reported that, his 5th Division having faced north to assist the X. Corps in warding off the flank attack, he had suspended the passage of any more of the 6th Division across the lower reach of the Oise ; and the G.O.C. XVIII. Corps thereupon halted his division, which, after holding on all day, recrossed the river at night, the Reserve divisions having retired a little earlier.
For the 30th, General Lanrezac ordered his left wing to hold the line of the Oise, whilst the III., I. and X. Corps drove into the river what Germans remained south of the upper reach. In view, however, of the dangerous position of his Army, with both its flanks exposed and no hope of assistance on either side, General Lanrezac telephoned to G.Q.G. for further instructions, pointing out that if he delayed withdrawal his troops ran the risk of being surrounded. In the absence of General Joffre General Belin, his Chief of the Staff, would give no orders ; but at 10 P.M. a ciphered telegram was despatched to General Lanrezac : " The effect of the attack of the Fifth Army having made itself felt and disengaged in part the Sixth Army [in action that day with Kluck], the Fifth Army will take measures to break off the battle and retire behind the Serre. The breaking-off should take place before daylight." Unfortunately, according to the French 0fficial Account, this telegram went astray and the first General Lanrezac heard of its contents was at 7 A.M. on the 30th, when it was sent to him over the telephone.
Fortunately the Germans had received too severe a blow for this curious delay to be of any consequence. Bülow ordered the X. and Guard Corps to renew the attack on the 30th, but General von Emmich, commanding the former refused to advance, fearing that the French were about to fall upon him : it was not until about 2 P.M. that his 19th Division moved, and 4.30 P.M. before the 20th Division did so. It is not clear from German accounts what the Guard Corps did ; but it did not renew the attack, and seems to have taken up a flank position alarmed by the appearance of the French 51st Reserve Division, which had come up from the east to Voulpaix on the right of the Fifth Army.
The corps of the Fifth Army therefore retired practically unnoticed and unhindered. About 1.50 P.M. a German aeroplane discovered that French columns were streaming away. At 3.45 Bülow informed his Army of its victory, and ordered that the enemy should be pursued by "artillery fire and infantry detachments," but that on the 31st the Army would ", halt and rest." In commenting on the order for a rest day instead of a general pursuit, the German official monograph defends Bülow's consideration for his troops, recalling that after the Battle of St. Quentin in January 1871 General von Goeben had not ordered a pursuit. The weather conditions and length of daylight were, however, somewhat dissimilar on tile two occasions.