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

Tue Aug 19, 2014 7:40am EDT
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By Alexandria Sage

ROSSIGNOL Belgium (Reuters) - 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 epicenter.

"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.   Continued...

Jean Dauphin (L), aged 90, poses with man who is dressed as a WW1 French soldier, August 13, 2014, in the museum he created in the Belgium village of Latour and which is dedicated to the area's WW1 history.   REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer