French iron ore mines in the Briey basinOn the outbreak of war no attempt was made by the French army to strike at the crucial Thionville area of Lorraine, a target so close to the border that it was almost part of an extended Briey, even although it produced the iron and steel that provided the bulk of Germany’s armaments. In addition, no attempt was made to defend Briey or destroy it before it fell into enemy hands. Such an incomprehensible decision should have merited a flurry of high level court martials, yet no-one accepted the blame.  At the post-war commission investigating the ‘catastrophe’ of Briey. [1] Joffre insisted that the Briey basin constituted a very small part of the overall defence strategy, which few could fully comprehend without all the facts at their fingertips. [2] It was a card often played in the aftermath of the war when difficult questions were raised by journalists or ex-servicemen looking for answers to decisions that clearly prolonged the wretched war. [3] Joffre’s stance was safeguarded by the astonishing revelation that on 1 September 1914, an order had been issued by the general staff at GHQ that plans, orders and written instructions issued since the start of the war had to be systematically destroyed. Military strong-boxes were emptied and records burned. No inventory was kept. What was left in the War Ministry’s archives, the detritus haphazardly garnered from unclassified remnants and bits and pieces of documentation that hardly amounted to evidence, made historical research of what the Minister of War termed ‘this obscure period’, extremely difficult. [4]

Such obfuscation helped protect military careers, and hide the truth about who was ultimately in charge. The greater enigma of Briey in August 1914 stemmed from the inaction of the French army. Units were formed into a group known as the Army of Lorraine, but for whatever reasons, it did not make a move on Briey. The records which survived the cull show that it was established on 19 August to retake Briey, brought together on 21 August, but was dissolved on the 25th without firing a shot. Uncertainty reigned over who was in command of this specific element of the French 3rd Army, and whether or not orders were sent appropriately. In the confusion of battle many mistakes were made by both sides, but the evidence later presented to the Briey Commission showed that the French could have won a great victory whose consequence would have changed the course of the war if the Army of Lorraine had retaken Briey on 25 August. Instead it was disbanded. [5] The French politician Fernand Engerand, Depute for Calvados, called it the ‘phantom army’.

One argument put forward in support of the military decisions was that the defence of Paris took precedence over Briey in that short time-frame. This doesn’t explain why the French ignored such vital targets as the forges in Thionville in the opening days of the war, or why they failed to destroy both Thionville and Briey to thwart Germany in gaining possession of  mines and smelters.

Canal by the River Meuse serving Thionville mines

The loss of Thionville would have brought a rapid end to the war because Germany simply couldn’t continue without the minerals needed for armament manufacture. [6] Laying waste to town and country to deny any comfort to an enemy has always been a recognised tactic by an army in retreat. But they were not destroyed. Nor were Briey and Thionville ever effectively bombed or bombarded by artillery or aircraft between1914-1917.

How could this possibly have happened? Military commanders, soldiers in the trenches, journalists, Senators and Deputies in the French Assembly, even Prime Minister Viviani and key officials of the Third Republic knew about the economic and strategic importance of the Briey basin. Thionville alone boasted 28 mines and 8 factories and smelters and the left bank of the Moselle river provided Germany with 48% of its total iron output. [7] Proposals that direct action be taken to bombard Briey and Thionville to oblivion were made repeatedly, even at Cabinet level.  It was a perfectly feasible proposition, but never carried out. Why?

Pierre-Etienne Flandin was elected to the French Parliament in 1914. His credentials were impeccable, coming as he did from a family steeped in the conservative right wing of French politics. He held several senior ministerial posts in the 1920s and 30s before becoming Prime Minister in 1934. His testimony, given in January 1919 is even more remarkable. An accomplished aviator himself, Flandin went to the military headquarters in Souilly a few days before Christmas 1916, to speak personally to General Guillaumat who commanded the 2nd French Army. He gave the General a detailed plan of the Briey basin with the principal factories and foundries clearly highlighted, and as a consequence, Joeuf was bombed some days later.

Pierre Flandin, Deputy for Calvados

It proved to be a singular sortie. General Guillaumat was immediately issued with an order to desist from this initiative by GHQ which reserved the right to make such decisions. Outraged, Flandin claimed to the Assembly that the top military officials at GHQ knew what was going on in the Lorraine basin and knew of the ‘huge interests’ which were concerned with its exploitation. Flandin spelled out the message. Not only had the Germans exploited the natural resources for twenty-seven months, ‘without being disturbed’, but, and this is absolutely significant, ‘there was therefore a method of shortening the war, and this method was neglected for more than two years.’ [8] Here from the mouth of a Depute destined to be the Prime Minister of France, comes proof positive that the continuation of iron and steel production in Briey was sanctioned by unnamed ‘huge interests’ and came at the cost of utter misery for millions of men and their families in a war that was deliberately prolonged.

A more politically sensitive officer, General Malleterre, discussed the issue of Briey and Thionville with both the French General Staff and the Secretary- General of the Comite des Forges, Robert Pinot. The agreed solution was that the mines and smelters be blockaded. They advocated that the railway stations should be bombed so that the precious material could not be transported to armaments factories elsewhere in Germany. This ingenious scheme would have left the iron and steel works untouched. [9] Ineffective though it proved , the ‘blockade’ was partially adopted and, as General Malleterre predicted, failed to achieve any meaningful result. But why did he seek permission from the Comite des Forges, the French association of Master Forgers, the steel-producing collective monopoly which exclusively controlled the production of iron and steel across France?

Edouard Barthe

The answer found voice after the war in the French Assembly. On 24 January 1919, when Eduoard Barthe, a socialist member of the chamber of Deputies who represented the French section of the Workers’ International, made the following statement;

‘I declare that, either owing to the international solidarity of heavy industry, or in order to safeguard private interests, orders were given to our military commanders not to bombard the factories of the basin of Briey exploited by the enemy during the war. I declare that our aircraft received instructions to respect the blast-furnaces which were smelting the enemy’s steel.’ [10]

Astonishing, unbelievable, incomprehensible. Words fail to capture the implication of this public statement. Eduoard Barthe was clearly claiming that ultimate control of both government and military decisions lay at a level above Prime Minister Viviani, his Cabinet, or General Joffre, Marshal Foch and the French general staff. So who was literally calling the shots? Barthe compiled a dossier which was suppressed by the French government. It included references to Lloyd George and the armaments dealer, Basil Zaharoff, and claimed that they agreed that it would be senseless to destroy industrial plant and end up the war with derelict factories and mass unemployment. [11] Iron and steel production across Europe was granted special protection from strategic destruction by powers beyond the understanding of the common man, but what was the Comite des Forges and what power did it wield? Who was in a position to decide the fate of the Briey basin? Clearly not the elected politicians or the professional military command.

[1] So described by Louis Loucher, French Minister of Munitions.
[2] Fernand Engerand, La Battaille de la Frontiere, Briey, (Aout, 1914), preface, p.x
[3] After the war Sir Edward Grey used the same argument to belittle Rear Admiral Consett who had criticised the so-called British naval blockade of Germany between 1914-1916.
[4] Engerand, La Battaille de la Frontiere preface, pp. xiv-xv.
[5] Ibid., pp.145-178.
[6] Ibid., p. 7.
[7] Ibid., p.11.
[8] Journal Officiel de la République Française, 31 January, 1919, Paris.
[9] Philip Noel-Baker, The Private Manufacture of Armaments, p.43.
[10] Journal Officiel de la République Française, 24 January, 1919, Paris.
[11] Donald McCormick, The Mask of Merlin, p.206.