On August 22, 1914, as French and German forces face off on the Western Front during the opening month of the First World War, the isolated encounters of the previous day move into full-scale battle in the forests of the Ardennes and at Charleroi, near the junction of the Sambre and Meuse Rivers.
A German soldier’s diary entry captures the horrifying chaos of that day on the front lines in Tintigny, near Ardennes, where the German 4th and 5th Armies were squaring off against the French 3rd and 4th. “Nothing more terrible could be imagined….We advanced much too fast—a civilian fired at us—he was immediately shot—we were ordered to attack the enemy flank in a forest of beeches—we lost our direction—the men were done for—the enemy opened fire—shells came down on us like hail.”
The Battle of the Ardennes was the second of the so-called Battles of the Frontiers—four bloody conflicts fought over the course of as many days between German, French and British forces on the Western Front in France. After French forces were destroyed by the advancing German left wing in Lorraine on August 20, two simultaneous actions were launched on August 21 and 22, in the Ardennes and further north, at the village of Charleroi. The Battle of Charleroi saw General Charles Lanrezac and the French 5th Army take on General Karl von Bulow’s 2nd German Army.
Over the course of a single day, August 22, some 27,000 French soldiers died at Ardennes and Charleroi. In the latter battle, von Bulow’s men were joined by the German 3rd Army, led by General Max Klemens von Hausen, which over the night of August 22 brought four fresh corps and 340 new guns into action. The French 5th Army, in turn, was due to be supported by the newly arrived British Expeditionary Force (BEF); a British delay and poor relations between Lanrezac and the BEF’s commander, Sir John French, however, meant that instead of supporting the French at Charleroi, the British were forced to fight their own action, the Battle of the Mons, beginning on August 23, as Lanrezac’s men continued to fight alone.
At Charleroi, with the roads swollen with Belgian refugees heading for French army headquarters, Lanrezac learned on August 23 that the French army was collapsing all along the line, from Lorraine to the Meuse. With his own army pushed to its limits at Charleroi, he made the decision, without consulting French headquarters, to order a general retreat. According to his own written account, Lanrezac believed that destruction of the 5th Army would mean catastrophe for France, as he told one of his officers. “We have been beaten but the evil is reparable. As long as the 5th Army lives, France is not lost.”
Though Joffre and GQG, the headquarters of the French army, did not question Lanrezac’s decision at the time, thereby tacitly authorizing it, the general of the 5th Army was later made a scapegoat for the failure of France’s offensively minded Plan 17 strategy during the Battles of the Frontiers. It was a costly failure indeed for France: some 70 divisions, or about 1.25 million men, saw combat over the course of four days, with total casualties of 140,000 (twice the number of the entire BEF in France at that time).
Joffre, however, would admit no inherent flaw in the purely offensive spirit behind Plan 17—instead, he blamed failure on a “false understanding” of that spirit. In a “Note for All Armies” issued on August 24, he determined that land captured by the French should be immediately organized for occupation and defense, and entrenchments should be dug. The lack of coordination between artillery and infantry must be remedied, Joffre insisted, and the French “must copy the enemy in using airplanes to prepare artillery attacks.” As the French president, Raymond Poincare wrote in his diary that same day: “We must make up our minds both to retreat and to invasion. So much for the illusions of the last fortnight. Now the future of France depends on her powers of resistance.”
On this day in 1932, in Flanders, Belgium, the German artist Kathe Kollwitz unveils the monument she created to memorialize her son, Peter, along with the hundreds of thousands of other soldiers killed on the battlefields of the Western Front during World War I.
Born in 1867 in Koningsberg, East Prussia, Kollwitz was schooled privately and sent to study art in Berlin, an unusually progressive education for a woman in the 1880s. Influenced by Realist artists and writers including Max Klinger and Emile Zola, as well as the works of Edvard Munch, Kollwitz became known for her drafting and printmaking skills, as well as for the dark subject matter of her work, which chronicled scenes from the poverty-ridden lives of working-class people in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her work before the beginning of World War I included drawings with such titles as Homeless, Waiting for the Drunkard and Unemployment.
Soon after the Great War began in the summer of 1914, Kollwitz’s 19-year-old son Peter enlisted voluntarily as a soldier in the German army. He was killed in battle on October 22, 1914, on the Western Front, at Diksmuide, Belgium. This personal tragedy in Kollwitz’s life was reflected in her art, along with her political ideology and strong social conscience—by 1910 she had become a committed socialist. Over the war years, Kollwitz produced a series of drawings exploring the war’s impact, with titles like Widows and Orphans, Killed in Action and The Survivors. In 1917, with World War I in full swing, Kollwitz celebrated her 50th birthday with an exhibition at the Berlin gallery owned by the internationally known art dealer Paul Cassirer.
Kollwitz’s memorial to her son Peter was dedicated on August 20, 1932, at the German military cemetery near Vladslo in Flanders, Belgium. The grieving Kollwitz had worked for years to create the monument, struggling to reconcile her hatred for the war and mistrust of its leadership with the desire to honor her son’s sacrifice for the cause. Entitled The Parents, the statue depicts an elderly couple kneeling before the grave of their son. It bears no date or signature.
Kollwitz continued her support of German and international socialism in the post-war years, and was eventually punished for her outspoken political beliefs. She became the first woman elected to the Prussian Academy of Arts but was forced to resign after Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) Party rose to power in 1933. Three years later the Nazis classified Kollwitz’s art—like that of so many others during that period—as “degenerate,” and barred her from exhibiting her work. Kollwitz’s husband Karl died in 1940; in 1942, her grandson, also named Peter, was killed at the Russian front during World War II. Her own home, and much of her work, was destroyed by Allied bombs the following year, and Kollwitz was evacuated from Berlin to Moritzburg, near Dresden.
“In days to come people will hardly understand this age,” Kollwitz wrote during her time in Moritzburg. “What a difference between now and 1914…People have been transformed so that they have this capacity for endurance….Worst of all is that every war already carries within the war which will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed.” She died on April 22, 1945, just two weeks before World War II ended. As she wrote in her final letter: “War accompanies me to the end.”
On this day in 1914, the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies begin their advance into East Prussia, fulfilling Russia’s promise to its ally, France, to attack Germany from the east as soon as possible so as to divert German resources and relieve pressure on France during the opening weeks of the First World War.
The Russian 1st Army, commanded by Pavel Rennenkampf, and the 2nd Army, led by Aleksandr Samsonov, advanced in a two-pronged formation—separated by the Masurian Lakes, which stretched over 100 kilometers—aiming to eventually meet and pin the German 8th Army between them. For the Germans, the Russian advance came much sooner than expected; counting on Russia’s slow preparation in the east, they had sent the great bulk of their forces west to face France. By August 19, Rennenkampf’s 1st Army had advanced to Gumbinnen, where they faced the German 8th Army—commanded by General Maximilian von Prittwitz—in battle on the River Angerapp on August 20.
During the Battle of Gumbinnen, Prittwitz received an aerial reconnaissance report that Samsonov’s 2nd Russian Army had advanced to threaten the region and its capital city, Konigsberg (present-day Kaliningrad) as well. With his forces greatly outnumbered in the region, he panicked, ordering the 8th Army to fall back to the Vistula River, against the advice of his staff and against the previous orders of the chief of the German general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, who had told him “When the Russians come, not defense only, but offensive, offensive, offensive.” From his headquarters at Koblenz, Moltke consulted with Prittwitz’s corps commanders and subsequently dismissed the general, replacing him with Paul von Hindenburg, a 67-year-old retired general of great stature. As Hindenburg’s chief of staff, he named Erich Ludendorff, the newly anointed hero of the capture of Belgium’s fortress city of Liege earlier that month.
Under this new leadership, and awaiting reinforcements summoned by Moltke from the Western Front, the German 8th Army prepared to face off against the Russians in East Prussia. Meanwhile, confusion reigned on the other side of the line, as the two advancing armies and their commanders, Rennenkampf and Samsonov, were cut off from each other and unable to successfully coordinate their attacks, despite enjoying numerical superiority over the Germans. This lack of communication would prove costly in the last week of August, when the Germans enveloped and devastated Samsonov’s 2nd Army, scoring what would be their greatest victory of the war on the Eastern Front in the Battle of Tannenberg. The battle elevated Hindenburg and Ludendorff to the status of national heroes in Germany. Their partnership, born in East Prussia in the opening weeks of the war, would eventually acquire mythic status, as the two men moved forward together at the heart of the German war effort, right up to the bitter end in 1918.
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Shortly after midnight on this day in 1961, East German soldiers begin laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city.
After World War II, defeated Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. The city of Berlin, though technically part of the Soviet zone, was also split, with the Soviets taking the eastern part of the city. After a massive Allied airlift in June 1948 foiled a Soviet attempt to blockade West Berlin, the eastern section was drawn even more tightly into the Soviet fold. Over the next 12 years, cut off from its western counterpart and basically reduced to a Soviet satellite, East Germany saw between 2.5 million and 3 million of its citizens head to West Germany in search of better opportunities. By 1961, some 1,000 East Germans–including many skilled laborers, professionals and intellectuals–were leaving every day.
In August, Walter Ulbricht, the Communist leader of East Germany, got the go-ahead from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to begin the sealing off of all access between East and West Berlin. Soldiers began the work over the night of August 12-13, laying more than 100 miles of barbed wire slightly inside the East Berlin border. The wire was soon replaced by a six-foot-high, 96-mile-long wall of concrete blocks, complete with guard towers, machine gun posts, and searchlights. East German officers known as Volkspolizei (“Volpos”) patrolled the Berlin Wall day and night.
Many Berlin residents on that first morning found themselves suddenly cut off from friends or family members in the other half of the city. Led by their mayor, Willi Brandt, West Berliners demonstrated against the wall, as Brandt criticized Western democracies, particularly the United States, for failing to take a stand against it. President John F. Kennedy had earlier said publicly that the United States could only really help West Berliners and West Germans, and that any kind of action on behalf of East Germans would only result in failure.
The Berlin Wall was one of the most powerful and iconic symbols of the Cold War. In June 1963, Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”) speech in front of the Wall, celebrating the city as a symbol of freedom and democracy in its resistance to tyranny and oppression. The height of the Wall was raised to 10 feet in 1970 in an effort to stop escape attempts, which at that time came almost daily. From 1961 to 1989, a total of 5,000 East Germans escaped; many more tried and failed. High profile shootings of some would-be defectors only intensified the Western world’s hatred of the Wall.
Finally, in the late 1980s, East Germany, fueled by the decline of the Soviet Union, began to implement a number of liberal reforms. On November 9, 1989, masses of East and West Germans alike gathered at the Berlin Wall and began to climb over and dismantle it. As this symbol of Cold War repression was destroyed, East and West Germany became one nation again, signing a formal treaty of unification on October 3, 1990.
On this day in 1940, German aircraft begin the bombing of southern England, and the Battle of Britain, which will last until October 31, escalates.
The Germans called it “the Day of the Eagle,” the first day of the Luftwaffe’s campaign to destroy the RAF, the British Royal Air Force, and knock out British radar stations, in preparation for Operation Sea Lion, the amphibious invasion of Britain. Almost 1,500 German aircraft took off the first day of the air raid, and 45 were shot down. Britain lost 13 fighters in the air and another 47 on the ground. But most important for the future, the Luftwaffe managed to take out only one radar station, on the Isle of Wight and damaged five others. This was considered more trouble than it was worth by Herman Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe, who decided to forgo further targeting of British radar stations because “not one of those attacked so far has been put out of operation.”
Historians agree that this was a monumental mistake on the part of the Germans. Had Goering and the Luftwaffe persisted in attacking British radar, the RAF would not have been able to get the information necessary to successfully intercept incoming German bombers. “Here, early in the battle, we get a glimpse of fuddled thinking at the highest level in the German camp,” comments historian Peter Fleming. Even the Blitz, the intensive and successive bombing of London that would begin in the last days of the Battle of Britain, could not compensate for such thinking. There would be no Operation Sea Lion. There would be no invasion of Britain. The RAF would not be defeated.
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