The next four blogs examine the scandal of the iron and steel forges in the Briey basin along the Franco-German border, and ask why they were allowed to continue to supply Germany with the vital supplies necessary for its armaments’ production.

As the European crisis moved towards the planned conflict at the end of July 1914, General Joffre, Chief of the French General Staff, acted quickly to bring their forces up to wartime strength along the Franco-German border in advance of the declaration of war. Troops were ordered to remain ten kilometres behind the frontier lines to limit German awareness that the build-up had begun. On 31 July, Joffre sent President Poincare a personal ultimatum to the effect that he would not accept responsibility for the command of the French armed forces unless a general mobilisation was declared.  [1]

General Joffre, French Chief of Staff

Joffre was straining at the leash and by 1 August, feared that the Germans might secretly mobilise. A few minutes before 4.00pm that very day, the French government acceded to his wishes and declared a general mobilisation of its army. All Europe understood that mobilisation meant war, [2] and both Russia and France began the process before Germany. They were not to be caught unawares. Yet four days later, on 5 August 1914, the German army literally walked unopposed into the border district around Briey, the most invaluable source of iron ore and coal for France’s own production of the munitions of war. Prime Minister Viviani later spoke of Briey’s abandonment in bitter terms, blaming the difficulties faced by France in the production of armaments during the war on ‘la non-defense de Briey’. [3] It was, in his view, the fault of the army high command which they in turn vehemently denied. Who then determined that the entire Briey basin should be allowed to fall into German hands?

 The iron-mines of Briey-Thionville lay south of the Ardennes forest and to the west of the small French city of Verdun. This ore-rich countryside straddled the borders of France and Luxembourg before the Treaty of Frankfurt ceded Alsace–Lorraine to Germany in 1871. A glance at a mineral map of the area would immediately demonstrate the strategic importance of this relative backwater. The major iron smelters for both France and Germany sat literally on their mutual border. In 1913, of the thirty-six million tons of iron ore produced in Germany, twenty-nine million tons came from this area alone. Across the border, in the department of Meurthe- et-Moselle, 92 per cent of French iron ore was sourced that same year in and around Briey. [4] In terms of strategic importance for the production of the weapons for modern warfare, the Briey basin was the prime site in Europe. And everyone who understood the armaments business knew this.

The men who understood the business best, who organised, sold, purchased, traded and manipulated the world’s munitions’ industry, who formed an exclusive cartel, who dominated the  multi-million pound merchandise of death which crossed all political and national boundaries, knew full well that control of the Briey basin was absolutely essential to the German war effort. Without the continuing supply of these essential ores from Briey, she could not have sustained a long war. By 1916 major French newspapers including L’Echo de Paris, L’Oeuvre, LeTemps and the Paris-Midi were united in the belief that the one single, most effective way to bring war to a standstill was to stop German iron and steel production in and around Briey. [5] The knowledge was public.

French politician, Fernand Engerand

Military voices including General Verraux, joined with elected politicians like Senator Henry Berenger and Fernand Engerand in the clamour to shut down the smelters and mines of Briey and Joeuf. Yet somehow, men wielding greater power overruled the military and ignored the outcry from the public and the press. The reader may find it difficult to accept that while hundreds of thousands of young French soldiers were being sacrificed some brief kilometres away at Verdun, the great furnaces at Joeuf and Briey lit up the night sky with angry red foreboding, forging the iron and steel that would kill those who came after them. [6]

The importance of the Briey basin to German success between 1914-1917 cannot be understated. A secret memo from the Association of the six largest German industrial and agricultural manufacturers to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg on 20 March 1915 included a warning that if the iron ore production from Lorraine was interrupted, the war would virtually be lost. [7] Even though the memo was later publically exposed by the French Iron and Steel Association in September 1915, [8] no action was taken to grasp back this invaluable mineral-laden territory. The Leipzige Nueste Nachrichten of 10 October 1917 stated that, ‘if, in the first days of the war, the French had penetrated to a depth of twelve kilometres in Lorraine, the war would have been ended in six months by the defeat of Germany.’ [9]

In December 1917, the German Association of Iron and Steel and the Association of Metallurgists warned that any withdrawal from the Briey basin would pose ‘a dreadful peril’ to Germany’s chances of winning the war. They saw it as their good fortune that the French had not been able to destroy the factories, smelters and forges on both sides of the border around Briey in the first weeks of the war because without those resources the German army would have run out of ammunition and the war would have been over in a matter of weeks ‘to our disadvantage’.[10] Evidence was repeatedly produced from both France and Germany that clearly established the strategic and economic importance of the Briey basin to a successful outcome to the violent struggle all along the Western front. Except of course around Briey on the French side and Thionville on the German side. It was as if they had been issued with a special exemption from the war that raged around them. It beggars belief that this should have been allowed to happen.

An enquiry into the Briey affair was set up after the war. The military commanders were adamant that it was not their fault.  Marshal Joffre, in a categorical statement to the Briey Commission, insisted that it had been impossible to defend Briey ‘either by fortifications or by a blanket coverage’.

Verdun gunfire

He was supported by General Pont who confirmed with equal certainty that it was impossible to defend Briey on the frontier and protect Verdun behind it without running serious risks. Their faith in a short successful war may well have blinded them initially, but as events unfolded, and Briey was literally abandoned to the Germans, and left intact, the failure of the French commanders to take effective action became an issue in itself. One story that was put about in defence of the military was that the general order given by Prime Minister Viviani on 31 July 1914, that all troops should withdraw ten kilometres from the German border, brought about the unintentional abandonment of Briey, Joeuf and the basin area. The story was proved a lie by no less an authority than Adolphe Messimy, then Minister of War. In a deposition to the Briey Commission he made it clear that although he instructed Joffre to respect the ten kilometre withdrawal, he also gave him very specific permission to work within that measure if there was strategic necessity or if ten kilometres was too far from key points. Five or six kilometres distance from the border was sufficient under these circumstances and the military GHQ was given license to establish a line between villages that were barely four or five kilometres from the border. [11] Messimy recorded that he had personally seen maps and documents which carried this authority to local commanders. In any case the argument was very short-lived, for Viviani’s order to withdraw to a nominal ten kilometre distance from the frontier was rescinded on the afternoon of 2 August. [12]

The ‘non-defence’ of Briey had deeper, more sinister, roots.

[1] Sidney B Fay, Origins of the World War, Vol. II, p.532
[2] Harry Elmer Barnes, Genesis of the World War, p.354
[3] Fernand Engerand, La Battaille de la Frontiere, Briey, (Aout, 1914), Preface, p.ix
[4] Clarence K Streit,  Where Iron Is, There Is The Fatherland, pp.1-2
[5] Engerand, La Battaille de la Frontiere, Briey, p.4
[6] There is a terrific description of this in Eric Ambler, Journey Into Fear, p.77
[7] F Engerand, La Battaille de la Frontiere, Briey, pp.1-2
[8] Comite des Forges de France, Circulaire no. 655, p.13
[9] Philip Noel-Baker, The Private Manufacture of Armaments, p.45
[10] Maurice Barres, L’Echo de Paris, 25 February to 8 March, 1918
[11] Engerand, La Battaille de la Frontiere, Briey, p.36
[12]  Pierre Renouvin, The Immediate Origins of the War, p.244