Born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in 1852, Charles Louis Marie Lanrezac was an unusual military personality of the Great War as a general who played one of the most controversial strategic roles. Although he was replaced by Generalissimo Joffre just before the First Battle of the Marne, during his thirty-two days of effective command in August of 1914 he kept the French Army from being annihilated.
Victor Lanrezac was from a creole family from Guadeloupe and the son of an officer who rose up through the ranks. His father, Auguste, had fake ID papers made under the name of Lanrezac, anagram of Cazernal, to remain anonymous, Charles Louis Marie Lanrezac came from a family of the lesser nobility in Toulouse and whose ancestor, Augustin Théreze de Quinquiry d'Olive, from a Tolouse family of the lesser nobility, had had to sell his belongins at a place called "Cazernal" – an erroneous transcription of "du Cabanial” – before emigrating to Hamburg to escape the Reign of Terror. From garrison to garrison, the modest Lanrezac family lived in Cherbourg when, with a scholarship granted by the Prefect of the Manche department, Charles was admitted to the Special Imperial Military School of Saint-Cyr ranking 75th out of 250, after having been kicked out of the Prytanée Militaire de La Flèche in September 1869. Barely one year later, on 14 August 1870, Second Lieutenant Charles Lanrezac took up his first assignment at the 13th Infantry Regiment.
On 20 September, the Second Empire had fallen and the Government of National Defence decided to continue the struggle by raising new armies. This young soldier was assigned to the 15th Army Corps, the future Army of the Loire, commanded first by General de la Motte Rouge and then by General d'Aurelle de Paladines. When the enemy broke through the French positions around Orléans, the army had to evacuate the city starting on 11 October. At the Battle of Coulmiers (9 November), and during the fighting north of Orléans (24 November), Lanrezac demonstrated his great courage and was temporarily promoted to the rank of lieutenant and decorated with the Legion of Honour on the battlefield. In January 1871, his unit joined General Bourbaki’s Army of the East to try to bring relief to Belfort and to take the Prussians from behind in Alsace. The undertaking was in vain. Lieutenant Lanrezac took part in the fighting at Héricourt (15-17 January), stayed with his unit at Besançon to provide cover for the army’s retreat, and just barely avoided internment in Switzerland after the Battle of Larnod on 20 January.
Once the war was over, Lanrezac completed his officer training at Saint-Cyr and joined his new unit, the 30th Infantry Regiment in Annecy. Thus he began a perfectly traditional military career. In 1873, he married Félicie Marie-Louise Dutau, his mother’s cousin from Réunion Island, in Paris. Promoted to captain on 21 February 1876 at the 24th Infantry Regiment, he obtained his military staff certification in 1879 and was named assistant professor of military arts at Saint-Cyr, before joining the occupation brigade staff headquarters in Tunisia at the 113th for five years. His brilliant record and his command skills earned him a place as a professor at the École Supérieure de Guerre and then a promotion to battalion leader through seniority in July 1892.
From 1896 to 1899 he was at the 104th Infantry Regiment in Paris. At the same time, he taught military history, strategy and general tactics at the military school. A hard worker with a colourful personality (which had already led to a few comments) and an exemplary teacher, his classes were quickly met with his students’ enthusiasm and was highly appreciated by the staff. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, he was appointed assistant director of studies at the École Supérieure de Guerre in 1898. Three years later, he had earned the rank of colonel and was put in command of the 119th Infantry Regiment in Paris, where he "turned out to be as good a corps leader as he was an eminent professor", his superiors noted.
In March 1906, he took on the interim commandment of the 43rd Brigade in Vannes and in May was promoted to Brigadier General. His superiors recognised his worth and he held the position of chief of staff of an army during the mobilisation exercises in the Vosges in 1908. His rise continued in 1909 – in May he became commander in chief of defence of the Reims group, for which he was appointed governor, and he became a member of the Army Staff Technical Committee, a consultative body under the Minister of War, in August. In 1911, he commanded the 20th Infantry Division in Saint-Malo, becoming a major general in March. And soon, at the height of his glory, Lanrezac was noticed by General Lyautey – "when an army has a leader of his value, he should be at the top," he wrote on 13 November 1911 – adding the departments of Finistère, Loire-Inférieure (now Loire-Atlantique), Morbihan and Vendée to his command in 1912. It was on his suggestion that he left his command on 10 April 1914 to join the Supreme War Council. He replaced General Galliéni at the head of the 5th Army on 24 April 1914 and, just before the war, was promoted to the rank of Commander of the Legion of Honour at the age of sixty.
When the war broke out, Lanrezac took command of the 5th Army after a short meeting of the army chiefs of staff that he found disappointing due to General Joffre’s apparent lack of a strategy. Familiar with the German language and press, he presented the generalissimo with a report on 31 July 1914 in which he stressed the importance of the sector of the Meuse; the document received no follow-up. He had 300,000 men under his orders, with 800 cannons, 110,000 horses and 21,000 vehicles. In the first half of August he set up his headquarters at Rethel and concentrated his troops between Vouziers and Aubenton before moving toward the northeast border. On 6 August, he received the order to provide support to the Belgian troops on the Meuse, while the Germans had been in Belgium since 3 August, laying siege to the city of Liège. Lanrezac received authorisation to move one of his units to the north, forward on the river, and managed to push back a German cavalry corps in the Dinant sector on 15 August. This episode led the generalissimo to deploy Lanrezac’s army on the northern border (toward Jeumont and Charleroi) where, with the British under Field Marshal French, the allied armies covered the northern and eastern fronts all the way to Maubeuge. From 21 August, Joffre decided to focus the offensive on the Belgian front and the Ardennes, against the 5th and 6th Armies of the Reich, von Bülow’s 2nd Army and von Kluck’s Army. From 21 to 23 August, the fighting around Charleroi, at Tamines, Roselies and Mons did not go well for the Franco-British forces which, following orders from Army Headquarters, desperately attacked an entrenched, hidden enemy. The French army was threatened with encirclement and therefore with annihilation. On 23 August, Lanrezac decided to totally override the generalissimo’s combat instructions and ordered a retreat, escaping the German armies and confirming his abandonment of the XVII attack plan two days later. This bravado earned him the enmity of the officers in Joffre’s entourage, with the general seeking to go without his services. The same attitude reigned leading up to the Battle of Guise between 26 and 29 August 1914. Before receiving the order to turn the attack to the north to assist the British 2nd Corps which had been taken by surprise at Le Cateau, Lanrezac was given one day to give his army a rest and to prepare his attack. On 29 August, he squared off his troops: the 10th Corps to the north-northwest on the south bank of the Oise, toward Guise, the 3rd and 18th Corps rounded out with reserve troops slipping along the river and coming up to the Germans from the west.
The joint attack backed up by batteries of 75-mm guns surprised the German army staff, which abandoned the Schlieffen plan. Paris was saved. Von Bülow decided not to pursue Field Marshal French and continued on the heels of the 5th Army. The 5th had won a defensive victory, but the German 1st and 2nd Armies still had the initiative and tried to surround Lanrezac and his men, with their flanks unprotected and still in retreat. The French reached the Marne, crossed it and set up their headquarters at Sézanne. At 5 pm on 3 September, Lanrezac was relieved of his command and replaced by General Franchet d'Espérey... Two days later, the First Battle of the Marne began.
There were many reasons for his dismissal: the stubbornness of a leader whose only interest was his troops, his tendency to disobey, his poor relationship with Field Marshal French while the French army staff was doing everything it could to deal carefully with this ally, his implicit recognition of the Germans’ strategic superiority – their action plan (the Schlieffen plan) was mobile and played offense whereas the XVII plan was just a plan for troop concentration, the need to blame someone to explain the “debacle” of the first engagements. Lanrezac later wrote, "In General Joffre’s position, I would have acted just like him; we didn’t have the same way of seeing things, neither from the tactical point of view nor from the strategic point of view; we couldn’t agree... I had decided not to attack the generalissimo, because I had no right to judge his acts on other parts of the battlefield."
Lanrezac was put under the orders of General Galliéni, military governor of Paris, who sent him to Bordeaux where the Government had taken refuge. Starting in the month of October, Lanrezac was entrusted with temporary missions: inspector of the teaching centres for the students at the Saint-Cyr military school in October 1914, inspector of the École Normale Supérieure and the École Forestière in 1915, inspector general of the infantry depots and camps for the 19th and 20th regions in February 1916, etc. At the end of 1916, the Generalissimo was dismissed. The Staff Headquarters and the Government sought to repair the injustice by offering him positions that were worthy of his skills. Lanrezac refused and got General Lyautey to appoint him to the position of inspector of infantry instruction. Pétain, now promoted to Generalissimo, raised him to the dignity of Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour on 3 July: "through his military science and his skill at executing one of the most difficult manoeuvres in which he was highly successful and rendered the most eminent services to his country". On 1 August 1917, Charles Lanrezac left active service for health reasons.
Efforts to rehabilitate the general then began. In 1917 and 1918, several articles in "Le Correspondant" by Engerand, MP from the Calvados department, questioned the basis of his dismissal. General de Maud'huy, in an article published in "Le Gaulois" in 1920, wrote that Lanrezac had saved France at Charleroi. General Palat, in his "Histoire de la Grande Guerre", informed the French public of the respect his former adversaries, von Bülow and von Hausen, had for him. In 1922, the disgraced General Lanrezac was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Crown of Belgium with the War Cross with palm for Charleroi. On 29 August 1924, the anniversary of the Battle of Guise, he was awarded with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour. This rehabilitated the general’s memory. He was presented with the army insignia on 6 September at Neuilly-sur-Seine by Maréchal Pétain and the Minster of War, General Nollet.
Charles Lanrezac died on 18 January 1925. His tomb at Montmartre cemetery bears the inscription: "A celui qui, en août 1914, sauva la France" (To the man who saved France in August 1914).
In the highest form of rehabilitation and national recognition, General Lanrezac’s remains were transferred to the Invalides in 1933.