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Campaigns of World War One:
The Western Front  1914  pt1


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The German High command felt its army could beat that of France or Russia but could not adequately fight a two front war against both at once. It was decided that they would engage in a holding action in the East against Russia while they quickly knocked France out of the War to the West. If victory over France was achieved early enough, they could then transfer troops to the East before the slow moving Russians caused too much damage. The Germans however had few practical routes in which they could launch armies into France. The acquisition of Alsace and Loraine during the Franco-Prussian War helped to protect the German Rhineland against French aggression, but now the rough terrain severely limited offensive actions. The only obvious rout was up the Meuse Valley but the French heavily fortified the border, especially at the choke point at Verdun.

Since it was thought that a quick victory in the West was crucial for Germany’s survival, they adopted a plan that called for a fast sweeping attack through neutral Belgium, which would quickly carry their armies around the French flank. Germany demanded that Belgium grant them passage to the French border but Belgium already had secret agreements in place for Britain and France to come to her aid. Believing they could hold the Germans at bay until reinforcements arrived they declined the German demands. In the event of war France had only made offensive plans intending to attack into their former territories of Alsace and Loraine (Plan XVII). They believed the German reaction to this invasion would deny them the troops needed to advance deeply into Belgium.



1914


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In early August the first of the German armies under General Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, moved into Luxembourg and Belgium. Great Britain declared war on Germany the next day. The low countryside of Belgium was not easy to defend. Most efforts had gone into turning Liege, where the Germans had to cross the Meuse, into one of the most heavily fortified cities in Europe. The Germans had the heavy guns needed to reduce its forts but Belgian saboteurs delayed their arrival. It took their inexperienced army days to make a well coordinated attack and they suffered heavy casualties in the meantime. When all was finally in place, German guns quickly pounded the city’s forts into submission and they continued their advance.

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In many wars, each side of the conflict might give a different names to a single battle. This was often done because of different traditions such as naming these events only after towns as opposed to a geographical feature like a river. On other occasions this was nothing more than a difference in language. Sometimes propaganda played a role as the names of places can carry great meaning. German postcards refer to the Belgian city of Liege as Luttich, which was its Germanic name when part of the Holy Roman Empire.

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In the chaos of the first month of the War very little news of the battlefront reached the public back home in England or France. It was different on the German side; their victory at the siege of Liege was widely publicized on German postcards. It did not matter if they had no accurate depictions of the battlefield or that parts of the siege were ineptly handled, it was a victory all the same and the public clamored for any type of postcard that depicting it. The use of Zeppelins to bomb the city had a negligible affect on the battle, but this was the first time such weapons had been used in warfare, and it drew a lot of attention. Postcard publishers were more than happy to provide the public with many images of Zeppelins on the attack.

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Unaware of how fast the Belgian defense was collapsing, General Joseph Joffre, commander of the French army, did not immediately respond to the situation concentrating instead on his own offensive. He followed through on Plan XVII early in the War initiating three offensives under General Pau in what later came to be known as the Battles of the Frontiers. To guard the flank of their main offensive into Lorraine, an attack was first made into Alsace in which they easily captured Mulhouse from the German Home Guards (Landstrum). The Germans taking nearby mountaintops prevented the French from advancing further toward the Rhine, and when counterattacked, the French were driven back out of Mulhouse.

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Many postcards were produced depicting the fighting around Mulhouse even though this town held no real strategic value. It lay to far away from any viable routes that could place an army in a strategic position. Its initial capture, showing French troops back on Alsatian soil was more important as a propaganda victory. Likewise the recapture of Mulhouse was also important to German propaganda to send the message that foreign troops would not be tolerated on German soil. This became the basic model for military postcards; they were produced to project meaning into events, not report on facts.

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In late August the Germans seized the highest point in the northern end of the Vosges, Mont Donon. While only a minor affair that is little remembered today, it received a fair amount of attention from Germain publishers at that time. This probably wasn’t due to the battle’s significance as much as the classical temple like structure built on its summit that protected an ancient archaeological site. This structure was so distinctive that it easily separated this place from so many other anonymous battlefields, which may have enhanced sales of cards depicting it.

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The invasion of Lorraine, far from distracting the Germans from attacking Belgium, played into their strategy. It took awhile for the French advance into Lorraine to seriously engage the withdrawing Germans, and by that time they were no longer positioned well to assist in Belgium. French attacks on German defenses all ended as costly failures.

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The third French offensive through the Ardennes was expected to meet with little resistance, but they ended up collided head on with a German army that was launching an offensive of their own. In the fighting that ensued, the French were driven back and the Germans gained a toehold in the Argonne Forest. The entire French offensive into Alsace and Lorain had achieved none of its adjectives while their armies had suffered tremendous casualties.

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Namur was another heavily fortified river town that served as a backup to the Belgian defenses at Liege. By the time the Germans reached it, the Belgian army had learned to support their forts better but the Germans had also learned how to reduce them even more quickly. The Germans still having too many romantic notions about combat made many rash attacks. Even so the siege of Namur ended faster than that of Liege. As the Germans continued their southward advance toward the French border, the Belgian army began shifting westwards to concentrate at Antwerp.

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To stop the German advance through Belgium the French put their best colonial troops into the fray, but they were badly defeated near Sanbre. The British Expeditionary Force under the command of General John French slowly began to arrive in France a week after the Germans crossed the Belgian border and they were now massing around Maubeuge. Underestimating the size of the German force descending on him, French placed his men on the Mons canal where they were overwhelmed and forced to withdraw near the end of August. A rearguard action was then fought at Le Cateau to allow the British more time to escape envelopment. The collapsing Allied front offered the Germans a great opportunity to exploit but they were too unsure of the situation in front of them to take full advantage of it. Adding to their insecurity were all the small pockets of resistance they met with as a result of the confused Allied withdrawal.

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After the Battle of Mons the Allies had difficulty agreeing on a strategy so they both continued their withdrawal. Seeing that the British needed more time to regroup, Joffre ordered French troops to hold their ground. They counterattacked instead temporarily halting the German advance at St. Quentin (Guise). With their flanks endangered, French troops could not hold this position for long and they soon withdrew.

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While the rail center of Maubeuge lay along the Sambre River in France, its position placed it in line with the other heavily fortified cities of Belgium that the advancing Germans needed to overcome. As the British and French forces continued their retreat toward Paris, the garrison at Maubeuge was left isolated when the Germans maneuvered around it. A force was left behind to besiege it, and it would fall in early September when the Germans brought down their heavy guns from Namur.

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Allied postcards played a huge role in confusing the public as to what was actually happening on the Western Front. They often depicted the German advance through Belgium as an inept crawl that was continually hampered by a staunch Belgian defense, when in actuality the Germans were pushing the allies back faster than anyone thought possible partially due to an inept defense. The heroic defense of brave little Belgium. that critically slowed the Germans would become one of the Great War’s myths.

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The Germans having been largely successful in their campaign so far had little reason to exaggerate claims. Their publishers produced many cards depicting events as fast as they occurred for a news starved audience at home. Some cards even went so far as to have campaign maps printed on their backs with long descriptions of battles. They did however emphasize certain aspects of their offensive more than others such as highlighting the use of heavy artillery that played such a crucial role in reducing the Belgian forts. These big guns were romanticized on German postcards in great number while the Allies claimed they did not exist.

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Despite of the victories achieved by the German army, a number of publishers were not content with presenting the facts. Quite a number of cards were produced that show the Germans pushing back the French with ease in scenes that are more allegorical than real. Although these cards fit into the popular myth of an early victory, their generic qualities also gave them a longer shelf life as they were not constricted by current events. These types of cards however soon grew unpopular with the troops, for while their optimism was appreciated, they did not portray the hard fight that was fought or the sacrifices made. The German army might be advancing quickly through Belgium and France, but it came at a high cost in casualties.

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While German publishers had the luxury of depicting true victories, they were not immune to exaggeration. Even though Paris was never seen as a military objective by the German high command, many postcards were produced placing German patrols within sight of the Eiffel Tower, and some even showed the city under bombardment. While a German cavalry patrol reached the village of Luzarches about thirteen miles north of Paris, these cards were still presented as an optimistic insinuation that the war would soon be over with Germany victorious. As the war dragged on, these types of cards disappeared. Similarly themed cards show a mix of French civilians and soldiers fleeing Paris, though this was closer to the truth. Even French satirists used postcards to mocked their own government fleeing to the safety of Bordeaux in a panic.

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Despite its large population, Belgium only maintained a small army. When Germany quickly overran their kingdom, it left no time for further mobilization and the Germans wound up occupying a land containing many hostile able-bodied civilians. Since speed was essential to a German victory, and there were not enough spare troops to properly garrison the country, they became very fearful that unorganized warfare might erupt and slow their advance. When fear, hatred, and the inexperience of troops all combined to cause civilian massacres, German commanders did nothing to suppress it in hopes of intimidating resistance. The Allies seized on these atrocities and added to it as many fictionalized accounts of barbarity to it as they could. All these events were then combined to be promoted as the rape of Belgium, which was represented on a great number of postcards.

(See From Iberia to Syria dated May 7, 2014, in the archive of the websites Blog section for more information on this subject)

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The Germans weren't only accused of rape, murder, and massacre but cultural destruction as well. While these claims were not totally unfounded they were often blown out of proportion for propaganda purposes to show just how barbaric the enemy was. While the destruction in such places as Louvain had deliberation to them, all collateral damage that was suffered during fighting began to be seen as purposeful. Endless quantities of cards were produced showing the destruction across Belgium and then France. While many of these were artist drawn, most were photo based to enhance their documentary effect.

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Nowhere was this war on culture as well publicized on postcards as those that dealt with the damaged caused to the Gothic cathedral at Reims. After being hit by German shells there was endless debate over how much damaged they actually caused and the true rationale behind the bombardment. Even though the reasons behind this damage remained debatable, it was this single incident that worked the most to paint the Germans as killers of culture and stirred up protest throughout the world. Some notable Germans rose to defend this type of destruction but they found few sympathetic ears outside of Germany.

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When the Germans finally counterattacked the French army that invaded Loraine, they were driven all the way back to the River Meurthe. Instead of halting as planed to hold the French army in place, they were encouraged by their swift advance to launch further attacks. If Nancy fell the French right flank would be turned, but now they put up a stubborn defense at city’s fortifications that prevented the Germans from advancing further. Though the French were forced to take troops needed elsewhere to reinforce Nancy, their victory ended the German threat, which allowed them in turn to shift forces westward afterwards.

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By the time the German armies had entered France in September the Allies were in retreat, but they were not all retreating at the same rate. This began to cause wide gaps in their line, which did not go unnoticed by General von Kluck, commanding the 1st Army on the German right. Since Paris was not an objective that held any military significance, he turned eastward to gain the French left flank in hope of rolling up their entire front and possibly winning the War. The drawback to this plan was that he would leave the German flank open in the process of shifting his army, but he hoped that the British and French who were still l regrouping would not notice before he achieved victory. General Gallini, entrusted with the defense of Paris did notice, and before von Kluck could finish executing his move the French attacked the rear guard he had left behind on the Qurq. This attack was repulsed with great casualties, but von Kluck had lost the element of surprise.

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General Von Kluck might have still turned the French flank, but the German high command now grew very concerned over the gap he created in their own line and they ordered him to close it. As von Kluck shifted to meet up with von Bulow’s 2nd Army, the French tried to take advantage, which resulted in more heavy but inconclusive fighting at Les Deux Morind, and Marais St.Gond by the middle of September.

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After failing to turn the German flank in the west, the French line in the east began coming undone as the Germans attempted to pinch off Verdun. The fortifications here blocked German access to the Meuse Valley, and if they could be taken German armies would have a more direct route into France with a shorter supply line. While the French forts held them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive, the Germans began driving through a gap in the French line toward Revigny threatening to pocket an entire army group. Rushing in reinforcements, the French were just able to halt this advance but the situation remained perilous.

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Having advanced very far, the Germans now found themselves severely low on supplies and with a wide open flank. They had nearly outflanked the French line as planed, but they now came to realize that even if General Kluck was successful in rolling up the French line, this was not 1870; it is doubtful that France would have surrendered because one or more of their armies were surrounded. They were still in the process of mobilizing, and a new defense would just be thrown in front of the Germans. Modern armies had just grown to big for this time tested strategy to work. The inability to achieve a quick victory in the West might have resulted in a complete disaster for Germany had not their unexpected victories over the Russians on the Eastern Front eliminated the need to fight on a timetable. Instead of pressing their advantage further, a general withdrawal was then ordered to the highly defensible ground on the other side of the Aisne River above Rheims, and the attacks around Verdun were called off.

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Two great myths grew up around the opening phase of the Western Front. German commanders have been highly criticized for adopting the Von Schlieffen Plan that called for a sweeping movement through the low countries to gain the French flank when they knew they lacked the manpower to carry it out. They have then been further criticized by not properly following the plan by moving against the French army instead of surrounding Paris. These points have been expressed over and over again, and they might even be valid if this plan was ever adopted. There is no clear evidence the German General Staff ever based their operations on this plan; Belgium was the only route open to them if they were to achieve the quick victory they thought they needed. Their offensive was called off because they discovered the nature of warfare had changed beyond their expectations, and the were adapting to the new conditions before them.

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In the first months of fighting most of the best trained troops in the French and British armies had become casualties. Little of this was presented in the Allied press, and when news was finally released the propaganda war painted a rosy picture. It was no different when the German army advancing towards Paris halted their offensive and withdrew to higher ground that would aid their defense. This withdrawal was declared a major French victory and the bloody maneuvering and pursuit that led up to the reoccupation of lost territory was labeled the Battle of the Marne. After a continual string of defeats the Allies needed a victory whether it be real or imagined. The pullback handed the Allies a propaganda coup in which the Germans were said to have suffered so many casualties that they were on the brink of defeat. While the laurels were spread around, General Joffre got most of the credit for this dreamed up victory. Most historians have propagated this more traditional heroic narrative but there are others who believe this is one of the War’s great myths.

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While many French postcards were published to celebrate the great victory at the Marne, they lean toward generic depictions and allegory rather than showing specific events of battle. A notable exception is an unusually large black & white set published by Lucien Levy that depicts many of the actual places said to be fought over. They seem to present actual scenes of fighting that are extremely rare on printed photo-based cards, but if examined closely the discerning eye can see that the French soldiers are photo-montaged into an empty landscape.

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When armies started to be organized into regiments, they not only carried the flag of their nation but their regimental flags as well. These squarish flags were unique to the regiment and served as method of identification in the chaos of battle. Commanders could not only place their men by sight, these flags often became the rallying point for disorganized or wavering troops. There was usually a strong emotional attachment to these flags by the men of a regiment, and they would fight to the death to protect them. To lose a flag was a symbol of dishonor. These traditional military customs were still in place during the Great War, and many postcards depict soldiers running into battle with regimental flags or fighting in hand to hand combat over them. Some postcards even display captured flags to symbolize a defeated enemy. In this way a small incident could be used to represent a greater victory.

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Publishers did not picture their own nation’s defeats on postcards unless they could put a positive spin on the image. Even so, there seems to be a notable lack of German cards representing the Battle of the Marne beyond what would be expected. Did they not recognize the events taking place at this time as a major battle? There are however some interesting artist drawn cards that were published in the United States in 1914 with German-English captions that depict fighting at the Marne. While the action is rather generic, they still capture German soldiers in a heroic mood rather than one of desperation. These cards could have possibly been made as a response to French claims to a victory.

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Not all French postcards gave their generals credit for stopping the German advance. Many saw the miracle on the Marne in terms of a real miracle based on the strength of their religious faith. The turn around came the Feast of the Virgin’s Nativity, a day on which French soldiers rose from the dead (Debout les Morts) and drove out the Germans before them. This story of the Virgin’s help became renown. This was just one of many supernatural events that were claimed to have been seen during the War.

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The German withdrawal to the high ground north of Reims meant that they gave up a large swath of French territory, but they did not leave quietly. While this area suffered from some fighting, the Germans withdrew slowly enough to purposely inflict heavy damage on all the towns they passed through. This was a boon to French photographers that had not been let anywhere near the front line. This damage was presented on numerous postcards, attributing it to the senseless barbarity of Germans. While a certain amount of revenge may have been involved, this destruction may also have been a strategic military move to render the terrain behind the new French lines useless to the enemy. When the Germans advanced though this region again in 1918, the damage they previously caused would severely hamper their own movements.




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