A slaughter, then oblivion, mark France’s deadliest day in World War One


The bloodiest day for the French Army in World War One – indeed in its entire history – draws no national tributes, no eulogies by dignitaries, few wreaths laid in respect.

The storied campaigns at the Marne and Verdun are seared into French consciousness but the catastrophic Battle of the Frontiers a century ago that cut down 27,000 French soldiers on August 22, 1914, remains largely unknown.

Despite bayonet charges and a refusal to retreat, the men buried in the moss-covered graves in the village of Rossignol and others like it in southern Belgium perished in the rout by the German army have faded from memory in ensuing years.
“Command, topography, tactics, everything” went wrong in the 15-odd battles that summer day on a front stretching from Alsace to western Belgium, said Jean-Michel Steg, author of “The Deadliest Day in the History of France.” Many historians consider Rossignol in the Ardennes the battle’s epicentre.
“It was a crash course for the French army into 20th century battle tactics,” Steg said.
“They had gone in dreaming of Austerlitz and it was a different world. It was one of those days they crashed into reality,” he said, referring to a Napoleonic victory marked by dramatic cavalry charges.

Two elite colonial infantry regiments sent north by General Joseph Joffre to drive a wedge in the German army as it pushed south were wiped out at Rossignol, nestled in southeast Belgium not far from the French and Luxembourg borders.

The majority of officers were gunned down by German machine guns as they led their troops in desperate, unwinnable charges.
“They’re experienced, they’re tested, and yet they’re going to be cut to pieces here in the forest. That’s why Rossignol is the most striking battle,” said Remy Pierlot of Belgian non-profit MERCi, which seeks to maintain the historical memory with tours of battlefields and sites of civilian massacres.

Reasons given for the French defeat are many – the surprise presence of the 4th and 5th German armies a day before Joffre had expected them, a difficult, unfamiliar wooded terrain, dense morning fog and the bright red trousers worn by French soldiers.

More critical, however, was the intransigent credo of the French military that insisted on all-out offensive attacks.

The lack of defensive training and an inflexible command hierarchy meant the French soldiers – taken by surprise while marching through a dense forest ill-suited to offensive charges – were slaughtered by the thousands by the German artillery protected by defensive positions, and ordered not to retreat.
“There was this offensive spirit – we advance. Joffre said ‘We have to make it through, no matter the price.’ Well, the price was a generation of Frenchmen,” said Jean Dauphin, whose museum in nearby Latour is dedicated to the area’s war history.

Within the first three hours of fighting, the Rossignol battlefield was already littered with the bodies of two French regiments and yet the charges kept coming, Steg said.
“By the fourth or fifth attempt you probably start running over the corpses of your friends,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how those guys did it. It was hell. Those guys were very brave.”

The French losses that one day alone are the equivalent of half of all U.S. soldiers killed in 16 years of fighting in Vietnam. More comparable, yet still less severe, are the 20,000 British killed on July 1, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.

The paradox is the British remember, the French do not, said Steg.


Strewn throughout southern Belgium are not only French and German cemeteries but memorials to massacred civilians.

Following the battle of Rossignol, 108 villagers were taken from their homes and transported in cattle cars to nearby Arlon, where they were executed. The story repeats from town to town.
“Joseph Barras, that’s my great-grandfather,” said Marie Therese Pipeaux, pointing to a memorial engraved with 50 names of townspeople killed by the Germans at Anloy, one of the 30-odd “martyr villages” in the region.

The name of Eveline Godfain, 15 months, is also engraved in the stone: “She was in the arms of her father,” Pipeaux said.

Townspeople died by the hundreds in this area of Belgium as the advancing Germany army, fearful of saboteurs, attacked civilians, then burned and pillaged their towns. Over 30 such episodes occurred during August 22-23 alone, Steg said.

Pipeaux’s great uncle, then 17, saw it all: “The houses set on fire, the people who were shot when they ran out of their homes, all of that my great uncle witnessed,” she said.
“Whenever August 22 came around you could ask him about it, he’d talk. But the very next day he’d say ‘No more.'”

This year, for the first time, a German official will attend a commemoration in Anloy marking 100 years since the massacre.

Dauphin, 90, lost two uncles and two cousins in the massacre at Latour, in which all male townspeople were shot. As a young man, he remembers being told by the town’s 40-some widows that it was up to him to keep the memory of that history alive.

He did, and while dedicating himself to his museum, helped French families find their lost relatives in the cemeteries of southeast Belgium. For his work, France awarded him the prestigious Legion d’Honneur in 2011.

Back at the Plateau cemetery of Rossignol, one of two in the small village, the graves of French soldiers – Henri De ViBraye, Pierre Bellamy, Charles Patre and hundreds more – are nestled under tall trees, the mossy ground wet from a recent rainstorm.

Each grave carries the date of August 22, 1914.
“You walk around the cemetery, everybody’s dead the same day,” said author Steg, who plans to lay a wreath to the fallen French infantrymen on August 22 this year.
“Line after line after line of people dead the same day.”