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General Noël de Castelnau, Commander Second Army of Lorraine, Great War (WWI, World War 1)

Updated on February 5, 2015

Son of Aveyron

Lying on the southern border of the central plateau of France, between the Auvergne highlands and the rugged range of the Cevennes, is what was the picturesque and largely pastoral department of Aveyron, the ancient home of the Celtic Rutheni.

Its climate, like its contours, is harsh, but its inhabitants, as with almost all hill-folk, are marksmen almost from their childhood.

This the Germans found out to their cost in the early days of the Great War, when four hundred Aveyron riflemen, cut off, during the retreat from the Meuse, sought sanctuary in the Ardennes.

De Castelnau, Organiser of Victory

More than one distinguished French soldier came from the area of the Garonne and its tributaries.

Murat, the hero of Marengo, was one.

So was another of Napoleon's favourite generals, the Baron de Marbot.

The old military glories of this part of France were further enhanced by the fact that General de Castelnau, one of the three outstanding organisers of French victories, the other two being Joffre and Pau, was a native of Aveyron.

All three men, and de Castelnau not the least of the three, had personal reasons to remember the bitter days of 1870-71.

1851

  • he was born of distinguished ancestry, Marie Joseph Edouard de Curieres de Castelnau received his early training in the Jesuit College of Saint-Gabriel.

He next entered the famous military school which Napoleon instituted at the instance of Marshal Saint-Cyr on the foundation of the suppressed school for poor girls of good birth that had Madame de Maintenon as patroness.

General de Castelnau. The Gallant Defender of Nancy, and General Joffre's Second in Command.
General de Castelnau. The Gallant Defender of Nancy, and General Joffre's Second in Command. | Source

Memories of 1870

In young de Castelnau the school of Saint-Cyr found one of its most brilliant pupils.

1870

  • August 4th - he left the school on the same day as the Battle of Wissembourg, when the Germans won their first notable victory over the French in Alsace.
    Then, as in August, 1914, all the cadets were given commissions.
    There were two hundred and fifty of them, and before leaving the school for the battlefield they assembled in the courtyard, and, in accordance with old custom, baptised their promotion, giving it the name of " the promotion of the Rhine."

1871

  • October - Sub-Lieutenant de Castelnau joined the 36th Regiment.
  • Three weeks later, for rallying a party of fugitives and fighting a small rear-guard action on his own initiative, he was made a captain.
  • Through the fighting in which he took part with the two armies of the Loire he passed unscathed, but later, during the Commune, he owed his life to his presence of mind and his marksmanship when suddenly confronted with a dozen armed Communists, of whom he accounted for five, their companions seeking safety in flight.

His next experiences of active service were in Cochin-China, during the difficulties with Siam (now Thailand), and in Algeria.

General Noel de Castelnau, member of the Superior Council of the Committee of Staff, Commander of the Legion of Honour. A tactician whose reputation extended beyond France.
General Noel de Castelnau, member of the Superior Council of the Committee of Staff, Commander of the Legion of Honour. A tactician whose reputation extended beyond France. | Source

Defender of Nancy

After passing with distinction through the Ecole Supérieure de Guerre, he took up a Staff appointment as colonel in the Seventeenth Army Corps.

1896

  • after joining the General Staff, he made his mark as head of the mobilisation department of the War Office.

His next appointment was at Nancy, where he commanded the 37th Infantry Regiment in the "Iron Division," the regiment once commanded by Marshal Turenne.

1906

  • he was made a Brigadier, and commanded at Belfort and Sedan.

1909

  • he assumed command of the 13th Division at Chaumont.

1913

  • he was called to Paris by General Joffre to become Chief of the General Staff.

1914

  • de Castelnau was placed in command of the Second Army of Lorraine, when Germany broke the peace
  • August 22nd to September 12th.- won the great battle of the Grand Couronne de Nancy thus saving Paris.
  • August 25th - the Crown Prince of Bavaria and General von Heeringen had under their command more than 450,000 men.
  • De Castelnau's forces were in far inferior numbers.
    They occupied the heights and plateaux running from the Moselle to the Meurthe, and, despite their heavy losses, inflicted such terrible punishment on the invaders that the Kaiser, who with a glittering escort had watched events from the heights of Eply, first of all in complete confidence of the fall of Nancy, retired discomfited shortly before his " invincible" armies themselves retreated over the Scille.
  • The same day the enemy were vanquished on the Marne, and France was saved.

General Joffre's Right-hand Man

With his reputation as a brilliant strategist fully assured, de Castelnau was now given command of the new Seventh Army, formed for service in Artois, and measured his strength against General von Kluck, holding gallantly the line from Albert to Ribecourt, which was the objective of a series of fierce but unavailing German attacks.

1915

  • December - when General Joffre took over the supreme command of all the French Armies operating in Europe, he appointed General de Castelnau to be his Chief of Staff.
  • In this capacity the gallant defender of Nancy visited the Balkan front, passing through Italy on his way, and conferring with General Cadorna.

General Joffre (second from the right) talking to General de Castelnau.
General Joffre (second from the right) talking to General de Castelnau. | Source

General Gallieni's Tribute

According to one Paris paper, " L'Œuvre," when President Poincaré consulted the veteran General Gallieni with reference to the most likely officer for appointment as successor to General Pau as Chief of Staff, the answer was "Castelnau."

" And as a second, whom would you say ?" asked the President.

"Castelnau," was the reply.

“And a third ?"

"Castelnau," again answered the War Minister.

1915

  • December 30th - he arrived at Salonika where he inspected the French and British fronts, approved the defensive measures of General Sarrail (whom he congratulated on his masterly conduct of the retreat from Serbia) and General Mahon, and then visited King Constantine at Athens.

1916

  • he resigned his command to General Pétain, who in the spring directed the historic defence of Verdun.
  • General de Castelnau was placed at the head of the central group of armies fighting between the commands of Maunoury and Maud'huy, and had a great share in the victory in Champagne.

Three famous French leaders Generals de Castelnau, Joffre, and Pau "snapped" in counsel at headquarters.
Three famous French leaders Generals de Castelnau, Joffre, and Pau "snapped" in counsel at headquarters. | Source

Three Sons Who Fell on the Field of Honour

General de Castelnau deported himself with an air of alert military carriage.

He was a distinguished figure with square chin, bold aquiline nose, large, broad forehead, and piercing eyes.

His officers spoke of him as "L'Homme de Devoir," ('Man of Duty') as one who throughout his life had subordinated everything to the organisation of victory against the foe of 1870.

His soldiers, named by him " Mes enfants," ('My children') regarded him in return as " Père General" ('Father General').

Of his five sons, two, Captain Gerald de Castelnau and Lieutenant Xavier de Castelnau were killed quite early in the Great War.

A third, Lieutenant Hugues de Castelnau fell in Artois in September, 1915.

The story was told that when General de Castelnau learned of the death of his son Xavier, as he was engaged in directing some important tactical movements, he paused a moment, then went on working with his officers.

His first duty was to his country.

There was no time for a father's feelings.

De Castelnau: A Born Leader

Believing in frequent meetings with his men, it was General de Castelnau's custom, whenever possible, to visit them in the trenches, to chat with them as if they were friends, speaking of their homes and families, and keeping them ready, willing and able to fight for their country.

It is said that he never forgot a face.

Officers and men described him as "a leader."

These two words imply all that is necessary to describe one of the most experienced and trusted of French commanders during World War 1.

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