The multilingual contents of the site are the result of an automatic translation.


Other sources

Saut de ligne
Saut de ligne

The generals who commanded the army from 1914 to 1918.

military-Earth thinking notebook
History & strategy
Saut de ligne
Saut de ligne

Already established empirically in 1870, the army as an organically constituted echelon of command did not appear in France for the first time operationally until 1914. With the introduction of the army group level in 1915, the Army found itself at the crossroads of the tactical (corps and division) and operational domains that this new level of command constituted.

As such, combining the maneuvering of subordinate corps and a complete and independent logistic level, the Army is to As such, combining subordinate corps manoeuvre with a complete and independent logistics echelon, the Army is able to design, plan and conduct an autonomous manoeuvre as part of the overall North East Theatre Commander-in-Chief manoeuvre. For this purpose, depending on the nature of its role in this overall manoeuvre - effort, support of the main action, exploitation reserve or diversion - it is articulated in a number of corps and always engages reserve units generated by the subordinate corps.It usually includes heavy artillery formations, possibly one or more large cavalry units, as well as air formations and systematically the entire range of services; at the end of the war, a number of tank battalions will be added. The manoeuvring area entrusted to an army commander is divided into a staging area where are assembled and deployedThe manoeuvring area assigned to an army commander is divided into a staging area where major supply and evacuation logistics services are assembled and deployed, and a forward area where large units and their support are deployed and engaged.

In his Instruction for the application of Directive No. 4, issued by the 3rd bureau of the G.H.Q. on January 24, 1918, General Pétain, commander-in-chief, defined the "Army battlefield" [1] as follows: "The Army battlefieldis the whole of the organized terrain on which the Army has the mission to stop and defeat the enemy. The choice of this battlefield meets the following requirements:

  • To cover the sensitive part of the territory (big cities, industrial centers, communication nodes, etc.).
  • Lend itself to a methodical defence based on the staggering of forces in depth (infantry, artillery).
  • Guarantee the influx of resources intended either to fuel the fight or to prepare counter-offensives.

This echelon of command, never questioned since then in its design, organisation and operation, continued throughout the four years of the war, both during the dynamic phases of the operations in the summer of 1914 and 1918, and during the long period of stagnation between them.

It should be noted that in peacetime this command structure did not exist. Only the generals commanding the army and their respective chiefs of staff are appointed by the Council of Ministers [2]. The holders of these commands constitute the High Council of War, of which the Inspector General of the Army, the designated generalissimo, is the vice-president (the President in title being the Minister of War). It is the C.S.G. that draws up the plans for the concentration and commitment of the French armies in the event of conflict. The only organic attributions held by the generals commanding the armies consist of a power of inspection of the army corps called upon to enter into the composition of their army within the framework of the concentration plan then in progress. Another not insignificant role is that the C.S.G. draws up the list of suitable general officers, which it submits annually to the Minister for approval.

3] The role of the armies and their leaders was decisive during the Great War: all the major phases of the conflict always refer to the action of one of them, generally in association with the action of its leader: in August 1914, the failure of Morhange and the re-establishment of the Grand Couronné, it is the 2nd Army of Castelnau, like the one of Charleroi and the retreat which was to be followed by the retreat of the Grand Couronné.in 1916, Verdun, it is the 2nd Army of Pétain, then Nivelle; the Somme, the same year, it is the 6th Army of Fayolle; in 1917, the failure of the Chemin des Dames, it is the 6th Army of Fayolle.e de Mangin; in 1918, the resistance to Ludendorff's last offensive, followed by the offensive return of Champagne, was Gouraud's 4th Army.

This is why, in order to understand the Command function during the Great War, it is particularly revealing to study the generals commanding the armies.This is why, in order to understand the function of command during the Great War, it is particularly revealing to study the generals commanding the armies, focusing on their origin, their training and the curriculum they followed, their rotation at this level of command, the conditions of their relief or dismissal, a contrario the functions entrusted to them at the end of their command.

With regard to the ranks of general officers, before 1914 and throughout the war, there were only two, in accordance with the provisions of the 1832 Act: Brigadier General and Major General. The ranks and designations of Lieutenant Generals and Army Generals do not exist; they will only be introduced, after the war, in 1921. Thus, throughout the conflict, armies were commanded by divisionaries: thus, within the same rank, a general officer could command three different levels of command, division, corps and army, and even four, if the army group was included. This system introduced a great deal of flexibility because it worked in two directions: hierarchically, of course, in the increasing direction of the levels of command, but also in the decreasing direction.

Thus, General Nivelle, after being relieved of his duties as commander-in-chief in the North-East theatre in May 1917, following the failure of theoffensive of the Chemin des Dames and against which no fault of command had been retained by the commission chaired by General Brugère [4], was able to regain a command, in this case that of the 19th Corps in Algiers. But the system also functioned with regard to operational commands: following the same failure in April 1917, General Micheler, commanding the G.A., was able to regain a command, in this case that of the 19th Corps in Algiers.R, who had nevertheless expressed the most express reservations as to the success to be expected from the enterprise and who, as a result, maintained stormy relations with his immediate subordinate.diat, Mangin, was "demoted" to the command of the 5th Army, made vacant by the change of command from Mazel to a Regional command in the Interior zone. As for Mangin, he was relieved at the same time, on the initiative of Nivelle who, without a doubt, was trying to cover himself by this measure. 5] However, when Clemenceau came to power a few months later, he immediately insisted to Pétain that Mangin be given at least a corps command , which was granted to him, despite the commander-in-chief's warnings to the contrary. At the end of this "purgatory" of a few months, Mangin found an army command - the 10th - at the head of which he did not receive a corps command.At the end of this "purgatory" of a few months, Mangin returned to an army command - the 10th - at the head of which he would soon win the defensive success of Villers-Cotterêts in June 1918 before participating in an extremely brilliant way in the counter-offensives led by Foch. It was his army that was in charge of the main effort in Lorraine as part of the Eastern offensive of November 1918, which was aborted because of the armistice.

Similarly, before him, Maud'huy was relieved of his command of the 7th Army in the Vosges in November 1915, following a serious dispute with his army group commander, Dubail, but was then entrusted with the command of two successive army corps for the duration of the conflict. At the armistice, he had the joy of seeing his career crowned by the functions of first governor of Metz, liberated.

But the flexibility of the system also worked in reverse: so General Maistre began the war as chief of staff of the 4th Army, as a brigadier, where he showed such eminent and appreciated qualitiesde Langle quickly earned him a third star and, on 2 September 1914, he was entrusted with the command of the 21st Army Corps, without ever having commanded a division. He would end the war as commander of Groupe d'armées Centre after having commanded successively the 6th and 10th Armies.

While Pétain's extremely rapid advancement from the rank of former brigade commander to major general commanding an army in a few months is universally known, he was not unique in this case. General d'Urbal, commander of a cavalry brigade at the mobilization, became commander of the 10th Army in April 1915, an advance quite similar to that of Pétain. In April 1916, in disagreement with Foch, his army group commander, he was relieved and relegated to the duties of cavalry inspector.

When we look at the careers of the generals commanding armies at the end of the conflict, we can see that many of them benefited from extremely rapid advancement from the rank of lieutenant-colonel or colonel to that of divisional commander in three or four years of conflict.

Thus, Debeney[6], a lieutenant-colonel who had been a professor of the Applied Infantry Tactics course at the École de Guerre on the eve of mobilization, became, on mobilization, deputy chief of theHe followed General Dubail in the same functions when General Dubail was designated to take command of the Eastern Army Group. Appointed Brigadier General on 6 May 1915, he successively commanded the 57th and 25th Infantry Divisions, without ever having commanded either a regiment or a brigade. Promoted to divisional rank on 25 April 1916, he commanded the 38th C.A. in front of Reims, then the 32nd, during the Battle of the Somme. Having been noticed by Nivelle, the new commander-in-chief, the command of the 7th Army, in the Vosges, was assigned to him on 2 January 1917, before being called to the H.Q.G. by Pétain as major-general. At the end of December 1917, he found a new army command, the 1st, which he kept until the armistice [7].

Another example of a brutal career acceleration is provided by that of General Buat [8]: colonel, assistant professor in the general tactics course at the War School before mobilisation, he joined the Army of Alsace as chief of staff at the beginning of August 1914. Then, he was called by Mr Millerrand, the new Minister of War, to head his military cabinet. In 1915, appointed general without ever having commanded an artillery regiment, his weapon, he commanded the 245th infantry brigade, before joining the H.Q.G. where he held the position of aide-major general, Castelnau being major-general, before finding, at the end of 1916, an operational command at the head of the army.At the end of 1916, he returned to an operational command at the head of the 121st Infantry Division. Promoted to divisional rank, he commanded the General Reserve of Heavy Artillery, of which he had been one of the designers, during his time at G.H.G.H.Q., a command he would retain throughout 1917. Then, in the space of three months, from February to May 1918, he took command of the 33rd D.I., which he retained for two months, then that of the 17th C.A., before being entrusted with that of the 5th Army for a few months before returning to H.Q. as Major-General.[9]

As for General Degoutte [10], he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in Morocco in 1912, before being appointed auditor of the 1912 - 1913 session of the Centre for Advanced Military Studies. On mobilisation, the functions of Chief of Staff of the 4th Corps fell to him. Promoted to colonel at the end of 1914, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the 4th Army at the beginning of 1916 with the stars of brigadier, without ever having commanded a regiment. In August of the same year, he took command of the Moroccan division. In September 1917, promoted to Divisional Commander, he commanded the 21st C.A. before relieving Duchêne to the command of the 6th Army in early June 1918 after the collapse of the French front on the Aisne. At the end of the war, Degoutte was appointed Major General to the King of the Belgians.

Mangin himself benefited from an extraordinarily rapid advancement: young general commanding a brigade in 1914, he was given an army command thirty months later.

This brutal acceleration of the advancement will have several consequences. At the time of mobilization, the average age of army commanders was sixty-three and a half years, dropping to fifty-four years in 1918, a drop of about ten years in the space of four years of conflict! In 1914, the youngest of the army commanders, Lanrezac was 62 years old, while the oldest, Maunoury, was 67. During the war, Gouraud was given command of an army at 49 and Mangin and Nivelle at 50. This trend towards rejuvenation was perceptible from the first reliefs following the dismissals in August 1914: Sarrail, relieving Ruffey aged 64, was himself only 58 years old, the same age as Franchet d'Esperey who, for his part, relieved Lanrezac. This movement was accentuated throughout the war: Humbert, commander of the Moroccan division in 1914, was given the command of the 3rd Army during the relief of Sarrail in the summer of 1915, at the age of 53. In 1916, then aged 64, Fayolle noted in his Notebooks [11]: "Therewill soon be only very young army commanders of which I will be the oldest".

This sudden rejuvenation of the holders of the highest commands will lead to another corollary: the establishment of a "blue horizon magisterium" on the army until the 1930s: Pétain remained vice-president of the Supreme War Council until 1931, that is, until he was 75! Debeney, his most faithful disciple, commanded the War School before assuming the responsibilities of Chief of Staff of the Army [12]. 12] Forty years later, General Beaufre, certainly the most brilliant officer of his generation, judged his passage through the Military Academy [13] between 1927 and 1929: "... The war of1914-1918, codified by Pétain and Debeney had led to everything being placed under the sign of scales, manpower, munitions, tons, delays, losses, all reduced to the current kilometer. It was technical and convenient, even reassuring, but fundamentally false; we saw it in 1940... The slightest reflection on the fronts of Russia, Salonika and Palestine would have shown its inanity. But these were secondary fronts, of no interest to the French army...". A few years earlier, in 1924, when he himself was a trainee there, a certain Capitaine de Gaulle did not put up with the prevailing dogmatism there either [14].

As regards the origin and the curriculum followed by the generals commanding the army, it can be noted that, with the sole exception of General Roques, a sapper specialized in the technique specific to his original weapon, all the holders of this level of command were patented. It is true that Gouraud and Mangin, who were monopolised by the colonial campaigns, had not strictly speaking followed the training cycle of the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre, but they had been trained at the École Supérieure de Guerre.However, they had both been attached to one of the last sessions of the pre-war CHEM, which was then, in the spirit of Foch, its initiator, a third year of the ÉSG. The faculty of the pre-war school was over-represented among the holders of an army command, since in addition to Foch, Lanrezac, Fayolle and Pétain, universally known names such as Maunoury, one of the last commanders of the pre-war school, Ruffey, de Langle, de Maud'huy, Anthoine, Guillaumat, Maistre, Debeney, Buat, Degoutte and de Mitry. This observation clearly illustrates the weight that the War School represented within the command[15].

Concerning the original weapons of the army commanding generals, the three major weapons, Infantry, Cavalry and Artillery [16] are represented, with however a clear under-representation of horsemen, since only the generals de Langle, d'Urbal, Mazel and de Mitry are from them. This state of affairs corresponds to a policy of arms deliberately orchestrated by the pre-war Cavalry leadership, which did not direct its best elements towards the War School. Weygand is a brilliant example[17].

We note, under the command of General Pétain, a clear recrudescence of generals from the Infantry. This is particularly true concerning the holders of the command of an army during the year 1918.

Finally, concerning the curriculum followed by the generals commanding the army, it must be said that very few of them had campaigned before the war. Admittedly, the oldest, those of August 1914, had lived through the "terrible year" of 1870-1871, particularly the armies of the National Defence: such as Maunoury, Castelnau, Langle, Dubail and Lanrezac, the latter having won the Legion of Honour at the age of 21. With the exception of the Colonials - Mangin, Gouraud, Degoutte or Gérard - or of "Africans", such as Franchet d'Esperey[18] or Humbert, few participated in the pre-war colonial campaigns. Nivelle is a special case in this respect, since he was one of the few French officers to take part in the Boxer War in China in 1900.

It should also be noted that pacification was achieved throughout our colonial Empire by 1900. The only notable operations that took place in the fifteen years preceding 1914 took place in Morocco.

With very few exceptions [19], the rotation of army commanders was extremely rapid. The reasons for their rotation were numerous:

The first reason was the "dismissals" [20]: the General Commander-in-Chief had full latitude to place a general officer at the disposal of the Minister. As early as 15 August 1914, a decree was promulgated which stipulated that "for the duration of thewar, the consultation of the High Council of War for the retirement of general officers will be replaced by the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief" [21]. 21] Joffre made extensive use of these provisions to relieve from command those generals whom he judged incapable. With regard to the generals commanding the army, from August 1914, Ruffey was replaced at the command of the 3rd Army by Sarrail. A few days later, in spite of his magnificent offensive return to Guise, it will be Lanrezac's turn to experience such disgrace. At the end of the Battle of the North, it was Maud'huy who was relieved by d'Urbal, who himself was discarded the following year. However, in order to pronounce the ousting of General Sarrail, who was removed from the command of the 3rd Army in the spring of 1915, General Joffre had to act more flexibly, given the powerful political support that the commander of the 3rd Army had within the Briand cabinet: he was forced to resort to the procedure of a command inquiry, conducted by his army group commander, General Dubail [22]. 22] Sarrail was indeed relieved and replaced by General Humbert, but Joffre could not oppose the fact that the command of Salonika escaped him. Two other waves of dismissals took place following the failures of 1917 and May 1918: in May 1917, the reliefs concerned Mangin and Mazel and were provoked by the commander-in-chief, Nivelle, with the sole aim of covering himself, an operation which failed, as far as he was concerned. On the other hand, in 1918, following the catastrophe of the Aisne affair (second Ludendorff offensive), Duchêne lost command of the 6th army, but against the advice of the commander-in-chief, Pétain. It was the head of the government, Clemenceau, who demanded his replacement to cover himself in the face of a violent interpellation of his government in the House [23].

23] Another reason for the rotation of army commanders was the creation of the echelon of command of the army group, to which army commanders will always have access. This created a real movement of aspiration from above. This was how Dubail, Castelnau, de Langle, Pétain, Franchet d'Esperey, Mazel, Fayolle or Maistre freed their respective army commands.

At the same time, in 1916, Joffre undertook to rejuvenate the command by imposing a sudden lowering of the age limit for the terminal ranks [24], which led to the departure of the generals de Langle and Dubail, thus creating a new aspiration upwards.

Finally, losses in combat also affected the army commanders: thus General Maunoury, commander of the 6th Army, was seriously wounded[25] during an inspection of one of his units on the front in early 1915.

Thus, at the end of this study of the generals commanding the army during the Great War, it is easy to see that this prism makes it possible to apprehend, in a global manner, a large part of the command function during the conflict.

All weapons taken together, the weight of the teaching of the École Supérieure de Guerre, in the person of its former professors, at a time when the School was almost in charge of the conception of army doctrine, is particularly significant. Indeed, it is not entirely inconsistent, nor is it fundamentally absurd, that the same body responsible for instilling doctrine through its teaching should be in charge of its conception. But, for the reasons mentioned above, this influence will go decrescendo after Victory [26].

26] The second factor that could be a source of reflection is the perverse effects of a brutal rejuvenation of the terminal echelons of command, without accompanying a drastic lowering of the corresponding age limits.

Finally, in spite of the serious crises that had shaken the Army a few years earlier, the Dreyfus Affair, then that of the Fiches, and thus risked harming its cohesion.With rare exceptions, such as General Sarrail, direct political influence was virtually absent from the criteria for choosing commanders: Indeed, at the same level of command were General de Castelnau, who made no secret of his Catholic convictions, and General Dubail, who displayed a good-sounding republicanism without ostentation. Militant apolitism was the rule [27].

27] Regarding the genesis of Directive No. 4, see: "Au troisième bureau duG.Q.G. 1917 - 1918", by Commandant Laure, Editions Plon 1921 (page 74 et seq.).

2] With regard to the organization of the High Command and the holders of the army commands in August 1914, the reader may usefully refer to Colonel Rocolle's book "L'hécatombe des généraux",Edition Lavauzelle 1980 (page 47 ff.).

3] In Rocolle op. cit. page 55.

4] Commission on which, in addition to General Brugère, President, sat Generals Foch and Gouraud, neither of whom had exercised a command under the orders of the former commander-in-chief.

5] On the conditions for relieving the commander-in-chief and his main subordinates, Painlevé, then Minister of War in the Ribot government, gave his version in his Mémoires entitled "Comment ai-je nommé Foch et Pétain",Editions Lacan 1923.

6] Grand Larousse Encyclopédique. Biographical note Volume 3 (page 815).

7] After the war, he was commander of the École de Guerre, whose teaching he reorganised on the basis of the teachings of 1917 and 1918, then Chief of Staff of the Army. An unconditional disciple of Marshal Pétain, he succeeded Buat as Chief of Staff of the Army.

8] G.L.E. op cit . Volume 2, (page 420).

9] At the end of the conflict, he became Chief of Staff of the Army, with Pétain retaining for himself the functions of Inspector General and Vice-President of the High Council of War. Thus, the unity of command, consecrated by the decree of 20 January 1912 for the benefit of Joffre, was once again sacrificed.

10] G.L.E. op cit . Volume 3, (page 871).

11] Fayolle, "Cahierssecrets de la Grande Guerre annotated by Henry Contamine". Editions Plon 1964 (page 156).

12] General Gouraud, brilliant commander of the 4th Army in 1918, remained Military Governor of Paris and member of the High Council of War with voting rights until 1937....

13] Beaufre. "Thedrama of 1940". Editions Plon 1965, (page 56).

14] His notes were affected by this, since they bore the words "À l'attitude d'un roi en exil" (At the attitude of a king in exile), in Lacouture "de Gaulle" (In Lacouture "de Gaulle"). Editions Seuil. Volume 1, (page 121).

15] Weight, and therefore influence, that it will gradually lose, first between the two wars, then inexorably after the colonial conflicts of the second one after the war.

16] In accordance with the adages of the time, all the infantrymen and cavalrymen were Saint-Cyriens and the Polytechnic Gunners. Strictly none of the generals commanding the army came from an initial recruitment other than direct recruitment.

17] The Revue de la Cavalerie, which began to be published in 1885 and whose C.E.S.A.T. library was the only one of its kind in France. library has the complete collection, took part in this debate: it was in fact in its columns that the supporters and opponents of the War School clashed: the former in the name of the representation of their weapon within the various bodies of the High Command, the latter in the name of the specificity of their weapon and the maintenance of its spirit.

18] Franchet d'Esperey asked to postpone his integration into the War School where he had just been received for a year, so that he would be able to participate in the Tunisian campaign in 1881.L.E. op cit . Volume 5, (page 236).

19] Generals Humbert in the 3rd army, of which he remained in command from 1915 to the end of the war, and Gouraud in the 4th army at the end of the war. from 1916, with a brief interlude at the beginning of 1917 during which he replaced Lyautey in Rabat when the latter was named Minister of War in the last Briand cabinet.

20] Named after the city of Limoges, where the generals in question were under house arrest after they had been placed at the disposal of the Minister.

21] Rocolle op cit. Page 58.

22 ] Marshal Joffre. "Memoirs"Plon 1931. Volume 2, (page 107 ff.).

23] He had even for a moment thought of relieving Pétain of his responsibilities as commander-in-chief and, to this end, recalled Guillaumat of Salonika. But by the time he arrived in Metropolitan France, the crisis had passed, Pétain retained his command and Guillaumat had to content himself with the position of Military Governor of Paris until an army command was available. This measure had the effect of making the command of the armies of the East available, which allowed Clemenceau to remove Franchet d'Esperey from his position as Army Group Commander. Thus, by a curious turn of events, Franchet d'Esperey, exiled and almost dismissed in a "secondary command", led the victorious campaign of autumn 1918 and ... won his baton as Marshal of France!

24] General de Langle de Cary. "Memories ofCommand". PAYOT 1935, (page 223).

25] He totally lost his eyesight.

26] Although, with regard to the Victory Army of 1944-1945, two former professors, General Giraud and General Juin, were distinguished at the highest posts.

27] The objection formulated by Foch when he was summoned in 1907 by Clemenceau, then President of the Council, before appointing him to the command of the École de Guerre: "Do you know that I have a Jesuit brother" hasremained famous.

Title : The generals who commanded the army from 1914 to 1918.
Author (s) : le lieutenant-colonel Claude FRANC