Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | August 21, 2014

Blogging World War I: August 21, 1914: Marching Past History

BELGIUM — German forces entered Brussels the previous day. By August 21, 1914, elements of General Karl von Bülow’s Second Army had passed Wavre and were approaching Waterloo. General Karl von Einem, commander of VII Corps of Second Army, noted the occasion in his diary:

99 years ago all those people who today are our enemies defeated Napoleon and his Frenchmen there. We are now on historic ground and today will advance along the same roads that took Blücher and his victorious formations to Waterloo or Belle Alliance.[1]


On the same date, a few miles to the south, the French forces began a general offensive through the Ardennes. Tuchman writes about this particular choice of battlefield on the part of the French high command:

The terrain of the Ardennes is not suitable for the offensive. It is wooded, hilly, and irregular, with the slope running generally uphill from the French side and with declivities between the hills cut by many streams. Caesar, who took ten days to march across it, described the secret, dark forest as a “place full of terrors,” with muddy paths and a perpetual mist rising from the peat bogs. Much of it had since been cleared and cultivated; roads, villages, and two or three large towns had replaced Caesar’s terrors, but large sections were still covered with thick leafy woods where roads were few and ambush easy. French staff officers had examined the terrain on several tours before 1914 and knew its difficulties. In spite of their warnings the Ardennes was chosen as the place of breakthrough because here, at the center, German strength was expected to be least. The French had persuaded themselves of the feasibility of the ground on the theory that its very difficulty made it, as Joffre said, “rather favorable to the side which, like ourselves, had inferiority of heavy artillery but superiority of field guns.”[2]

[1] Diary entry quoted in translation from Holger H. Herwig, The Marne, 1914 (2009), 123.
[2] Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962), 235-38.

Image Sources: (1) US Military Academy Department of History; (2) CIA World Factbook via Wikimedia Commons.

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