The Lorraine Gap of 1914

Kaiser Wilhelm II Observing Prewar
Maneuvers in Lorraine

We continue our coverage of the early 1914 campaign on the Western Front with an examination of one of those small, accidental consequences of a larger scale dynamic that turns out to have major and lasting influence. Last month's issue focused on the best-known result of the dual-failure of Germany's Schlieffen Plan and France's Plan XVII, the somewhat mislabeled "Race to the Sea." Next month, the spotlight will be on Flanders in October 1914 when the trench warfare of the next 41 months got locked in for the entire Western Front. In this issue, we are temporarily shifting focus to eastern France, where in the fall of 1914, a 40-mile gap, nearly void of attackers or defenders, opened there for a short period of time that no one seemed to have anticipated. In the following scramble the gap would be closed, but the stabilized section of the front would create a lasting threat for both sides. American sources call the St. Mihiel Sector and most other parties refer to it as the Woëvre Plain. For the Allies the final line formed a threatening salient into their defenses; for Germany, it was a back door to the Rhine and the heart of the Fatherland. So, this month, we examine the consequences of what I have named the "Lorraine Gap."   MH

The Gap Evolves

Key Commanders in the 1914 Lorraine Battles
Noel Castelnau and Crown Price Rupprecht of Bavaria

French war Plan XVII made the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine a central plank of French strategy. This much was known to Germany before the First World War began, and was consequently factored into the German Schlieffen Plan. One of the Battles of the Frontiers, the Invasion of Lorraine (also known as the Battle of Morhange-Sarrebourg) began with the French First and Second Armies entering the city on 14 August 1914, despite the failure of General Paul Pau's 8 August offensive at the Battle of Mulhouse, another key target near the Swiss border, with his "Army of Alsace". The French First Army, under General Auguste Dubail, intended to take Sarrebourg, east of Nancy, a strongly defended town, with General Noel de Castelnau's Second Army taking Morhange, similarly fortified The task of defending these towns fell to German Crown Prince Rupprecht. Initially, his strategy, consistent with Germany's Schlieffen Plan, was to give way and counterattack from a position of strength. His plan proved successful and he lobbied Moltke for permission to mount another assault, directed at Nancy to make a major breakthrough. Subsequently, the French Second Army, which was situated on a complex of hills northeast of Nancy named the Grande Couronne, was under orders from Joffre to hold the line while his plans for a major battle along the Marne unfolded. By early September the German attack fizzled out. The line in the lower Lorraine that had been established would remain fixed for the remainder of the war.

French Defenders of Fort de Troyon

During this same period, however, a different dynamic was unfolding in northern Lorraine. In the opening weeks of the war, a second German army had been heading in the direction of Lorraine—the Fifth commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm, which was focusing on capturing Verdun. Through August, he had been stymied by the forts around the city, so his staff devised a flanking movement to capture the city by crossing the Meuse to the south and attacking it from the rear. The French, however, had long planned to defend the Meuse and had built a series of forts on the east side of the river, positioned to bombard any troops attempting to cross it. One of these forts would play important roles in the ensuing events: Fort de Troyon north of St. Mihiel directly in the path of the Crown Prince's flanking movement, commanded the river just north of St. Mihiel would play a critical role in halting the enemy, arguably saving France from a decisive defeat.

On 8 September, as the titanic Battle of the Marne was being waged to the west, Fifth Army's 5th Corps arrived on the Meuse Heights with the mission of punching across the Meuse. All that opposed them was a cavalry division on the other side of the river and the 450 defenders and four 120mm and 12 90mm artillery pieces at Fort de Troyon below them. For five days and nights their guns hammered away at the fort, with only occasional intervals. At one point a large German shell set off 60 90mm shells in a magazine. But the French held, with the fort's gunners, engineers, and infantrymen repulsing five separate assaults. Fifth Army could not force the crossing and was bringing up reinforcements and more artillery to force the crossing when a decision was reached on the Marne. Joffre's plan had worked. The prince was ordered to withdraw to the north of Verdun and into the Argonne Forest, in rough alignment with the other German armies deployed north of Reims and along the Aisne River farther west.

Consider the big picture as the bulk of the German forces are withdrawing north, with the bulk of the Allied forces in pursuit. (See map in right column). They are all to the north of Verdun. In the south, the remaining forces have dug in between Nancy and the Swiss border. Between Verdun and Nancy, there is. . .nothing. The existence of this 40-mile "Lorraine Gap," though, will be fleeting.

Filling the Gap

German Troops Occupying the Woëvre Plain

A strategic opportunity, thus, was opening up between Nancy and Verdun, involving this piece of real estate no one seemed to want for the first six weeks of the war. This Lorraine Gap had some interesting features. Of roughly rectangular shape, it was initially defined by four towns: Verdun and Metz in the north, St. Mihiel and Pont-à-Mousson in the south. Its western boundary is defined by the Meuse River connecting Verdun and St. Mihiel, the eastern boundary by the Moselle flowing between Pont-à-Mousson and Metz. Both rivers have heights (low ridges) on their eastern sides, but the major feature of the region (about ¾ of 150 square miles) is the mostly flat, but in places undulating, flood-prone Woëvre Plain, lying between the Meuse Heights and Metz to the northeast.

Prewar, although three of the four towns, the heights, and most of the plain itself were in French territory, France's planners left the Woëvre undefended, considering the plain impassible. They were satisfied that the line of fortresses along the Meuse Heights and south of the plain provided adequate insurance against a surprise sortie out of Metz to force the Meuse. Indeed, one of these forts, Fort de Troyon, had prevented just such a crossing by the Fifth Army near the end of the Battle of the Marne.

Early German Trenches in the Sector

Germany would seize the opportunity. On 19-20 September, the remaining detachments from Rupprecht's Sixth Army that had not yet been ordered west for the Race to the Sea sallied forth from Metz over the Woëvre Plain. The French covering forces were rolled back and in nine days of ferocious fighting the German Army had compensated somewhat for their strategic defeat in the Battle of the Marne. Much of the plain and the most defensible positions on the Meuse Heights between Verdun and St. Mihiel had been captured and quickly strengthened. Only late reinforcements out of Nancy prevented the German forces from going even farther, getting into the French rear and really causing havoc. While it was brilliant to seize this opportunity, the assault on the Woëvre was made on a shoestring. Had the German high command retained sufficient forces available to force a crossing of the Meuse River, say, the bulk of the Sixth Army, the course of the war would have changed, maybe decisively. In any case, the shape of the front had quickly morphed from an undefended rectangle to a German salient that threatened Verdun and the rail network of eastern France.

Sources: Over the Top December 2013

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Different Perspectives

Here are some helpful supplemental sources on the early 1914 campaign in eastern France available online.

Prewar Military Planning

First Shots and First Fatalities

The Great War on the Vosges Front

The Battle of Mulhouse, 7–10, 14–26 Aug 1914

Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria

U.S. Army Study of the Battle of Morhange-Sarrebourg, 20-23 Aug 1914

Battle of Nancy, 31 Aug–6 Sep 1914

Two Days in the Rain at the Tranchée de Calonne

Lorraine Gap Map

Click on Link to Open Large Version in New Window

Germany's Vulnerable Point Was Lorraine
Therefore it is obvious that the enemy will attempt to find a vulnerable point, not only of our front but of our country, which can be reached more easily and quickly. Such an opportunity would be offered by invading LORRAINE against the Nineteenth Army. The enemy would be on coveted soil which he wants to liberate, he would threaten one of our most important lines of communication, as well as the SAAR coal and industrial region. Moreover, a sally from the region of VERDUN offers the prospect of paralyzing our utilization of the BRIEY Basin and would likewise endanger one of our most important lines of communication. The two operations combined, enveloping METZ, would drive a wedge into our country which would not only be effective, but which also would seriously influence the conduct of the fighting on the northwest front, in a manner that would prove to be less expensive to the enemy than an attack on that front."

Army Group Commander Max von Gallwitz, 11 Sep 1918

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The Zabern Affair

Although by 1914, the retaking of Alsace-Lorraine was not a sufficient casus belli for France, there was one indication that the locals themselves were hoping for liberation just before the war actually broke out. Remembered as the 1913 "Zabern Affair," it started with civil disturbances in the Alsatian garrison town of Zabern. It was caused when, more than four decades after Alsace's occupation by the Germans, an idiot German Second Lieutenant, Günter von Forster, openly insulted the local population at least twice. This led to popular unrest, which was quelled with brutal means.

A broader German-centered political crisis was fuelled by the support given by senior army figures and the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg to the behavior of the military in suppressing the protests. On 4 December the German parliament accepted a vote of no confidence in the Chancellor by a huge majority. This unprecedented move remained without effect as, in the German Empire, the Chancellor was appointed by the Emperor and needed his support only. The parliament was ultimately half-hearted in its attempts to increase its power against the executive. Lt. von Forster would be killed on the Eastern Front in August 1915.

Source: Oxford Reference

Tuchman on the Decisive Moment in Lorraine

OHL had convinced itself that a forcing of the Charmes Gap between Toul and Epinal was feasible and would obtain, in Tappen’s words, “encirclement of the enemy armies in grand style and in the event of success, an end to the war.” In consequence, the left wing under Rupprecht was retained in its full strength of twenty-six divisions, about equal to the diminished numbers of the three armies of the right wing. This was not the proportion Schlieffen had in mind when he muttered as he died, “Only make the right wing strong.”

On August 24, having massed 400 guns with additions brought from the arsenal at Metz, Rupprecht launched a series of murderous attacks. The French, now turning all their skills to the defense, had dug themselves in and prepared a variety of improvised and ingenious shelters against shellfire. Rupprecht’s attacks failed to dislodge Foch’s XXth Corps in front of Nancy but farther south succeeded in flinging a salient across the Mortagne, the last river before the gap at Charmes. At once the French saw the opportunity for a flank attack, this time with artillery preparation. Field guns were brought up during the night. On the morning of the 25th Castelnau’s order, “En avant! partout! à fond!” launched his troops on the offensive. The XXth Corps bounded down from the crest of the Grand Couronné and retook three towns and ten miles of territory. On the right Dubail’s Army gained an equal advance in a day of furious combat.

. . . For three days of bloody and relentless combat the battle for the Trouée de Charmes and the Grand Couronné continued, reaching a pitch on August 27. Joffre on that day, surrounded by gloom and dismay elsewhere and hard put to find anything to praise, saluted the “courage and tenacity” of the First and Second Armies who, since the opening battles in Lorraine, had fought for two weeks without respite and with “stubborn and unbreakable confidence in victory.” They fought with every ounce of strength to hold the door closed against the enemy’s battering ram, knowing that if he broke through here the war would be over. They knew nothing of Cannae but they knew Sedan and encirclement.

Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

Minding (the Former) Gap

Éparges Spur on the Meuse Heights Would Be
an Epic Battleground for the Entire War

Rupprecht's single action during the post-Marne Second War of Movement influenced the course of the long war to follow, substantially lengthening the butcher's bill for both sides. The Kaiser's troops had seized a substantial enough portion of the Meuse Heights, the town of St. Mihiel and its adjacent fort, Camp du Romans, to eliminate any traffic, river, rail, or road, into Verdun from the south, and their forces had dug in on the south edge of what came to be known as the St. Mihiel Salient, to make their position impregnable - at least for the next four years.

In 1915, the French, now appreciative of the threat presented by the Salient—they came to call it "The Hernia"—made a concerted effort to drive out the defender but failed with heavy losses. Once the basic lines of the Salient were set, intermittent fighting for local advantage took placel almost everywhere along the perimeter with a shift from fighting on the move to siege-style warfare as more artillery units arrived on the scene. By January 1915, General Joffre had concluded that the German occupation of the right side of the Meuse had effectively neutralized Verdun as a base for future offensive operations, and he needed to reduce the general threat it presented to his position in eastern France. He ordered increased French attacks on the Meuse Heights initially, but these did not yield satisfactory results. A new offensive against the Salient was ordered and then launched at the end of March.

Peculiarly, this battle does not seem to have—at least in English language sources—a commonly recognized name. References can be found to its components, Les Éparges Spur, the Forest of Apremont, and to the fighting between Apremont and Pont-à-Mousson, sometimes called the Battle of the Woëvre, but very few works address it as a whole.

The new offensive was an all-out assault on both sides of the Salient in a massive attempt to eliminate it. There were attacks on the shoulders at Éparges and a hilly wood just east of Pont-à-Mousson called Bois-le-Prêtre (or Priesterwald by the Germans), near its tip west of Apremont and down the Tranchée de Calonne, and attempts to penetrate the rear of the German front lines launched out of Seicheprey and Flirey on the middle of the southern face. The Germans were able to defeat all these efforts in detail through their superior selection and use of terrain and heavier application of machine guns and larger artillery.

Concrete German Trenches in the Sector—They Were Planning to Stay

Except for some local successes, the Salient was unchanged by mid-1915 after some of the worst fighting ever on the Western Front, while the French Army found itself, in a quite literal sense, decimated. The English-speaking world still awaits a first-class treatment of all the French operations of 1915, including this tragic battle. Bookstores are full of volumes about Flanders and Gallipoli in 1915, but little on Champagne, Artois, or Lorraine.

For the past century, however, the sheer horribleness of the 1915 campaign has been on display, accessible to the public in most cases. The battlefields of St. Mihiel, surprisingly, have remained untouched except for some minor restoration work and the addition of appropriate memorials and informational kiosks at places of desperate fighting like Les Éparges, Tranchée de Calonne, Bois d' Ailly, Bois Brûlé, Flirey Village, Bois de Mort Mare, and Bois-le-Prêtre.

After the stupefying losses of 1915, the next two years featured a scaling down, but not the elimination, of the attrition in the sector. Since the capture of the Woëvre and the Heights constricted the supply lines into Verdun, an assault on the city was much more attractive to the German high command, and that battle occupied everyone's attention. In 1917, the Germans were on the defense in the west, and the post-mutiny French Army wanted to fight anywhere but near Verdun. The former Lorraine Gap, however, would heat up again in 1918 with the arrival of the Yanks, who would refer to the impending battleground as the St. Mihiel Salient.

What the Gap Led to in 1918

American Forces Advancing During the Opening of the
St. Mihiel Offensive

General Pershing had a deep interest in St. Mihiel. He saw the St. Mihiel-Metz corridor as the royal road into Imperial Germany and had it assigned as his main operating and training area. In 1918 he started sending a number of his divisions to the Salient to train. The deployments of the 1st ("First to Fight") and the 26th (New England National Guard)divisions around Apremont and Seicheprey were particularly notable. First Division was Pershing's model unit and many of its officers would transfer to other AEF units still being formed. By mid-year, with 10,000 American troops arriving each day, Pershing's force was ready to operate on its own. His troops, under French command in the Second Battle of the Marne, were just wrapping up the largest-scale fighting by the United States since the Civil War. An independent American army was now feasible. The Germans suspected that an attack in the Lorraine was being prepared but believed that it would not take place until late in September. In anticipation of this attack, and to shorten their front line because their reserves on the Western Front were being depleted, the German High Command issued orders on 11 September for a gradual withdrawal from the Salient and the destruction of all things of military value that could not be moved. However, heavy rain was moving into the area, so most of the withdrawal was not initiated. The rain also masked the last-minute movement of the U.S. troops into attacking positions.

An intense bombardment of the hostile positions began at 0100 on 12 September and lasted for four hours. At 0500 the infantry of the main attack on the south face jumped off. The attack in the forests of the Meuse Heights was launched three hours later. The offensive concept for St. Mihiel was that these two attacks would converge as soon as possible, cutting off the Salient and trapping most of the German defenders. Thanks to additional artillery furnished by the French, the First Army had nearly 3,000 guns to support the attack. French and British reinforcements brought the total number of airplanes up to nearly 1500, which was the greatest concentration of airpower up to that time.

Your Editor at the Lorraine-American Memorial, Flirey, France

As a limited offensive, the St. Mihiel operation would be a striking success. The First Army took 15,000 prisoners and 257 guns at a cost of about 7,000 casualties. The battle was the largest in the history of the United States to that time. The success was based on the tactical surprise that was achieved. A major hindrance to Foch's plan for ending the war had been eliminated. However, the operation had not succeeded in bagging as many of the 65,000 German troops in the Salient as it might have. The German commanders ordered the planned-for withdrawal expedited as soon as they realized a major assault had been launched. Pershing and some of his subordinates like Douglas MacArthur thought the road to Metz was wide open, but other commitments had been made. The attention of the AEF, though, had to focus on its next offensive, to be mounted in a very few days north of Verdun.

While his army was fighting in the Argonne, though, General Pershing kept up his planning for exploiting the St. Mihiel Salient. He reorganized his forces and created the Second U.S. Army to fight on the ground before Metz. Eventually, Generalissimo Foch was won over to the concept of exploiting the area of the now-reduced Salient for a major advance, but one much more broadly based than what Pershing had been thinking of in September.

Three armies were to attack on 14 November 1918, First Army and Second Army attacking side by side out of their respective positions east of the Meuse and the Woëvre Plain with a new army commanded by General Charles Mangin on their left flank. The Armistice precluded this operation, of course. Second Army was asked to mount some local attacks starting on 9 November to gain some positional advantage had the Armistice been terminated, but the war ended before this evolved into a major operation. Thus, the Allies never fully exploited the strategic opportunity present in Lorraine during the war.

100 Years Ago:
The Second Battle of Inonu Marks a Turning Point
in the Greco-Turkish War

Greek Troops Advancing During the First Battle of Inonu,
January 1921

The Greco-Turkish War, which had begun in May 1919 with the landing of a Greek army in Smyrna, by early 1921 had reached a near stalemate. The initial effort by the invaders to secure the region around the city had been successful, but their expanded expedition into northern Turkey and Anatolia had been met with growing resistance, first from guerilla formations and the more-organized opposition from the Turkish revolutionary movement led by Mustafa Kemal.

The forces of Kemal's revolutionary faction, commanded by Ismet Bey, entered the fray in January to oppose a Greek effort to capture the rail junction of Inonu in present-day Eskisehir Province. They were eventually able to drive the Greek troops out of the village. This minor victory, gave legitimacy to Kemal building on his reputation from the World War, and allowed him to unify the other revolutionary groups under his leadership.

Location of Inonu Battles, Top-Center of Map

A conference, meanwhile, had been called in London by the Allies to review the Treaty of Sevres, which had been made with the Ottoman Empire, rather than the various Turkish leadership factions, and to address the war aims of these new competing Istanbul and Ankara (Kemal) governments and the Greeks. The ascendant Ankara negotiators, seeking major concessions, left the talks after concluding they were getting nowhere. Their bargaining power would be settled on the Turkish battlefields where Mustafa Kemal had been busy reorganizing a more unified force.

The Greeks attempted to immediately restart their advance. The Second Battle of Inonu was fought between 23 March and 1 April 1921. The battle began with a Greek assault on the positions of Ismet's troops on 23 March 1921. It took them four days to reach Inonu due to delaying actions by the Turks in other sectors. The better-equipped Greeks pushed back the Turks and took the dominant hill called Metristepe on the 27th. A night counterattack by the Turks failed to recapture it. Meanwhile, on 24 March, Greek I Army Corps took Kara Hisar-i Sahib present-day Afyonkarahisar after running over Dumlupinar positions. On 31 March Ismet attacked again after receiving reinforcements and recaptured Metristepe. In a continuation battle in April, Refet Pasha retook the town of Kara Hisar. The Greek III Army Corps retreated. It marked a turning point in the Greco-Turkish War and the Turkish War of Independence of which it was a part, as Greek forces had previously been victorious over mostly irregular Turkish forces and suffered their first major defeat in Asia minor.

The war dragged on, but the firm Turkish opposition henceforth broke the morale of the frontline Greek soldiers—desertions soared—and the homefront public and politicians. Another defeat in August 1921 caused a political crisis in Athens, but the government decided to stay the course. A year-long Greek retreat back to Smyrna ensued. The end at Smyrna was an utter catastrophe, best told elsewhere.

Victors Kemal and Ismet

The victory for the Kemalists led to the abolition of the Sultanate and the birth of the Turkish Republic with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as its first president. The commander of the Turkish forces at Inonu, Ismet, who was one of Kemal's closest collaborators, had his name changed to Ismet Inonu by Kemal Atatürk himself in memory of the victory at Inonu. He went on to become the second President of Turkey after Kemal.

Sources: Wiki Commons, Origins.osu.edu

The Spanish Flu vs. COVID-19: the Numbers

The Benefits of Wearing Masks Were Major Controversies
in Both Pandemics

As we approached the first anniversary of COVID and the associated lockdowns, I tried to find an article comparing the magnitude and impact of the Spanish Flu with our current pandemic. After weeks of searching without finding anything useful, I decided to prepare my own article, focusing on the statistics only. I'll admit upfront there are big weaknesses in this strictly statistical approach. The numbers from 1918 (cases, rates of infection, and deaths) have been argued over for a century and there's not really a consensus, just a range of possibilities. The contemporary statistics for COVID have been gathered more systematically and in realtime, but bring along their own uncertainties, false-positive test results, over attributions on death certificates, missed diagnoses, and so forth. Nonetheless, I decided to publish this article, I guess, just because no one else has done this.

What I have tried to show here are comparative statistics for the two pandemics. I've drawn heavily on material from Stanford University, the Worldodometers website, and an excellent article from Wired.com. From these sources, I've compiled the total deaths from both diseases for both the world and the United States. Then I computed the percentage of infections and deaths for the various populations and also the Case Fatality Rate (CFR), the proportion of known infections that result in death—a measure of the lethality of a disease. To better compare the impact of the Spanish Flu vs. COVID, I have also extrapolated the figures for 1918 to the 2020 populations of the world and the United States. Below the figures, I have some caveats and questions about these numbers. MH

Spanish Influenza


Population: 1.8 Billion
Infected: Estimated 500 Million (28%)

Deaths: total, as percentage of 1918 world population, CFR
1918 Lowest Est:
17.4 M,     .96%     3.4%
1918 Most cited Est:
50 M,      2.8%     10%
1918 Extreme Est:
100 M,      5.6%     20%

Extrapolated death totals for 2021 world population
1918 Using Lowest Est:
75.4 M
1918 Using Most cited Est:
216 M
1918 Using Extreme Est:
433 M


Population: 103 M
Infected: 30 M (28%)

Deaths: total, as percentage of 1918 US population, CFR
Deaths: 675K      Percentage .58%     2.25%

Extrapolated death totals for 2021 US population
Deaths: 2.2 M



Population: 7.8 Billion
Infected: 127 M (1.6%)

Deaths: total, as percentage of 2021 world population, CFR
2.7 K       .035%       2.1%


Population: 331 M
Infected: 30 M (9%)

Deaths total and as percentage of 2021 US population, CFR

550 K       .14%      1.8%

Comments: As you can see, I'm no professional statistician. However, my look at these numbers suggests that COVID-19 has been nowhere near as serious a health threat as the Spanish Flu based on the percentage of infections, deaths, or CFR. However, I don't think this is in anyway conclusive. Our health care system is much more sophisticated than in 1918 and this should have helped suppress the spread of COVID. Also, many believe the limitations on travel, group assembly, and mask-wearing mandates have been successful limiting factors. (Of course, there is also more research being released on the negative effects of the lockdowns.) How significant is the apparent different targeting of the influenza for younger people and COVID for the elderly? Most important, COVID has not run its course yet. Anyway, having just received my second vaccination, I'm hopeful like everyone else that this will help arrest the pandemic soon. MH

A World War One Documentary

In September 1914, three Royal Navy ships of the obsolete "Armored Cruiser" class were patrolling the English Channel. Under-armed, under-armored, and not very maneuverable, they were sitting ducks or "live bait" in British sailor speak. German U-9's captain saw his opportunity and seized it. In short order, the Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy, were sent to the bottom. Almost all of the 1,500 seamen aboard the vessels went down with their ships. This fascinating documentary looks at the event from three perspectives: 1) the attack, 2) the shock wave sent through the Royal Navy, when it was made clear how vulnerable their ships were to the enemy's U-boats, and 3) the human tragedy reaching home to the sailor's communities caused by the sudden and massive loss of life.

Click on Title to Access Story
WWI Tunnel of Death Discovered

In America, Memory of the War Eclipsed That of the Spanish Flu

The Wooden Cargo Ships of Orange, Texas

Friday, 16 April 2021: First Colors Ceremony Introduces America's New World War I Memorial

Life in Neutral Norway During the Great War

15 Photos of Wartime London

Restoration Ahead for Bladensburg, MD, Peace Cross

The Great Post-WWI Candy Bar Boom

500 Animated GIFs of World War I Footage from the National World War I Museum

Thanks to each and every one of you who has contributed material for this issue. Until our next issue, your editor, Mike Hanlon.
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