From the 20th to the 24th of August 1914, the fighting was extremely fierce on the Western Front, in four battles that came to be known as the Battle of the Frontiers.
The first battle was in Lorraine, where fighting had been going on since August 14. By early morning 20 August, the French 1st Army under General Dubail and the 2nd Army under General de Castelnau had vainly tried to assault German positions at the expense of a river of French blood.
At Sarrebourg and Morhang, the French found German defenses well prepared. Plan XVII proved to be a dismal failure. The French tactics of assault were disastrous against the barbed wire, artillery, and entrenched machine guns of the German defenses.
French generals, when envisioning Plan XVII, believed the weight of a massive assault would trample anything in its path. The general staff believed that a 20-second charge could cover 50 meters before the enemy could shoulder their rifles and try to repel the charge. With enough men, a charge that had already made 50 meters had too much momentum and could not be stopped. Alas, the German machine guns only took about 8 to 10 seconds to lay down a lead curtain of bullets, decimating whole lines of attacking French.
The French planners also believed that artillery fire would cause an enemy to take cover. This would allow the attack to progress. Once again, the French planners had blundered. If her generals had studied modern warfare tactics better, they would have learned a lesson from the Russo-Japanese War (1904 to 1905), where under fierce artillery attack, the well-entrenched Japanese Army behind parapets were able to fire through rifle holes directly into attacking Russian lines.
Midday 20 August: Despite being beaten back and bloodied, the generals ordered the attack to continue. With no supporting artillery, the French attacked the fortified German lines near Morhang. XX corps led by General Foch and Castelneaus 2nd Army spearheaded the attack. The results proved disastrous. Under their beloved leader, Prince Ruppercht, the Bavarians mounted a counter-attack. German artillery smashed a hole through French lines, and the Bavarians plunged through the gap. Now in French territory, to the cry of anti-French slogans, national pride swelled in the Bavarians and things quickly got out of hand. A frenzy of looting, shooting, and burning began that reached a head at the town of Nomeny in the Moselle Valley. Some 50 civilians were killed, shot, or bayoneted, and any house that had not been destroyed by artillery fire was burned on order of Colonel von Hannapel of the 8th Bavarian Regiment.
Castelnaus’ army was now being attacked on its left flank and having already committed his reserves the general relized the futility of further attacks and began to pull back. Now the French were forced to take a long hard look at Plan XVII, the grand attack, and realize that an offence is only as strong as its defense, and with no defensive positions to fall back on the attack was worthless.
On 20 August, along with thousands of other French, including general de Castelnaus’ own son, Morhang became the final resting place for Plan XVII.