French Finalize War Plan with Fatal Flaws

Getty Images
Getty Images

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 115th installment in the series.

May 1, 1914: French Finalize War Plan with Fatal Flaws

In April 1913, the chief of the French general staff, Joseph Joffre, presented the basic elements of his plan for war with Germany to the Supreme War Council. In its broad outlines, Plan XVII (so-called because it was the seventeenth war plan adopted by the council) envisaged a vigorous offensive by four French armies ranged along the Franco-German frontier, with one army held in reserve for follow-up attacks. The Supreme War Council approved Plan XVII shortly thereafter, and over the next year Joffre fleshed it out with general directives for each of the five armies. On May 1, 1914, the designated commanders received their final orders under Plan XVII.

Military Photos

Furthest south, the French First Army under General Auguste Dubail would strike east from an area straddling the headwaters of the Moselle River, near Epinal, into southern Alsace, one of the “lost provinces” annexed by Germany following its victory over France in 1871. Meanwhile, the Second Army under Noël Édouard de Castelnau, starting around Nancy, would move northeast into Lorraine, the other “lost province,” in the general direction of Sarrebrücke. This thrust would be supported by the Third Army under Pierre Ruffey, heading due east from Verdun towards Metz. Meanwhile the Fourth Army under Fernand de Langle de Cary would be held in reserve west of St. Mihiel as a “masse de manoeuvre,” to be thrown into battle to exploit openings created by the advance of the Second and Third Armies, as Joffre saw fit. Finally the Fifth Army, under General Charles Lanrezac, was left alone in the north to face whatever German forces might advance through Belgium, to be followed by an advance into Luxembourg and maybe even Germany itself.

Riboulet

As this frequently ambiguous wording suggests, Plan XVII was not a detailed plan of campaign, but rather a general scheme for mobilization and concentration that also contemplated some basic opening moves. Joffre, who fully realized that war is unpredictable, intended Plan XVII to be flexible, allowing improvisation to respond to the enemy’s movements. But even in outline this strategy had fatal flaws.

First of all, Joffre—like most other European generals of his day—believed that bold offensives were the key to victory, enshrining relentless all-out attack (offensive à outrance) as a sacred principle; according to this view, troops could overcome any obstacle as long as they were sufficiently imbued with intangible qualities of spirit and will. Thus Plan XVII opened, “Whatever the circumstance, it is the Commander-in-Chief’s intention to advance with all forces united to the attack of the German armies,” and the French infantry regulations adopted on April 20, 1914 declared that French troops would achieve the best results by rushing the enemy and relying on their bayonets for hand-to-hand combat, adding, “the French Army has returned to its old traditions, and no longer recognizes any law in the conduct of operations but that of the offensive.” But the French, along with the rest of Europe, were about to learn that their “law” held no sway on the modern battlefield, where machine guns, barbed wire, rapid-fire rifles, and heavy artillery made mincemeat of men’s valor.

Even worse, Plan XVII assumed that any German attack through Belgium would be confined to the country’s southeast corner, advancing on Sedan in northern France, the scene of the decisive Prussian victory in 1870. This assumption was questioned by Joseph Gallieni, the original commander of the Fifth Army designated to face the Germans in Belgium, who correctly predicted that their invasion would reach much further north and west, passing by Namur and Dinant, allowing them to threaten French forces with a huge envelopment from behind; however Joffre refused to shift the French armies west to face the threat, and Gallieni eventually resigned in protest. Tellingly, Joffre’s first choice to replace Gallieni, General Alexis Hargon, refused to command the Fifth Army on the same grounds.

Charles Lanrezac, who ended up accepting the command, was no more confident in Plan XVII’s strategy of concentration, echoing Gallieni’s suggestion that Fifth Army and at least some other French forces should be deployed further west along the Belgian border to counter a German invasion in depth. Lanrezac also criticized the decision to send Fifth Army into southeast Belgium, noting in a letter to Joffre, “Clearly, once the Fifth Army is committed to an offensive in the direction of Neufchateau it will be unable to parry a German offensive further north.” 

Considering his earlier obstinacy towards Gallieni and Hargon, it’s highly unlikely that Joffre would have given Lanrezac’s concerns any hearing, even in peacetime. But by the time he received Lanrezac’s letter, on August 1, 1914, war was upon them and it was too late for revisions anyway. In the weeks that followed Joffre’s stubborn refusal to face the facts—especially evidence of a massive German invasion through northern and central Belgium—would bring France to the brink of disaster.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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A New Documentary Investigates West Virginia’s Infamous Mothman

The Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
The Mothman statue in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.
Jimmy Emerson DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The continuing impact of the Mothman on Point Pleasant, West Virginia, is hard to overlook. The town plays host to a statue, a museum, and an annual festival that all celebrate the red-eyed flying beast who first showed up on the scene in 1966.

In November of that year, two couples spotted a winged, vaguely man-shaped monster near the so-called “TNT area,” a collection of abandoned bunkers where explosives were stored during World War II. After the Point Pleasant Register reported on their harrowing ordeal, other sightings started rolling in. When nearly four dozen people were killed in a bridge collapse on December 15, 1967, many believed the Mothman was somehow involved.

The infamous cryptid’s popularity endured over the ensuing decades with the help of John Keel’s 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies and the 2002 movie adaptation starring Richard Gere and Laura Linney. While glimpses of the Mothman himself definitely peaked during the ’60s, close encounters with a strange creature in West Virginia still surface to this day.

In his new documentary The Mothman Legacy, director Seth Breedlove delves into the history of the Mothman, investigating its long legacy in Pleasant Point and interviewing more recent eyewitnesses. It’s not Breedlove’s first film on the matter; he also directed 2017’s The Mothman of Point Pleasant, which focuses on the Mothman’s heyday from November 1966 to the bridge catastrophe a year later.

His latest project features Jeff Wamsley, who has written two books on the subject and also founded the town’s Mothman Museum. As The Daily Beast reports, The Mothman Legacy doesn’t exactly try to solve the mystery of the Mothman or debunk all the theories about it. Instead, it’s more of a celebration of the urban legend, complete with spooky CGI reenactments and plenty of eerie accounts of alleged run-ins with the monster. In short, it’s ideal fodder for your Halloween movie marathon—and as narrator Lyle Blackburn points out in the film, “an absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily indicate an evidence of absence.”

The documentary is now available to buy on VOD through Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other streaming platforms.

[h/t The Daily Beast]