Auguste Dubail, 1851-1934

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Auguste Dubail was a French general who commanded the Eastern Army Group from the start of 1915 until he was made a scapegoat for German successes at Verdun in March 1916. Born in 1851, Dubail entered St. Cyr in 1868, emerging to fight in the Franco-Prussian War and then to take part in the suppression of the Paris Commune. He attended the War College, graduating in 1878 and then held a series of staff and line posts that suggested he would rise far. He was an aide to the Minister of War between 1883 and 1887, then an instructor at St. Cyr. In 1904 he was promoted to major general. Between 1905 and 1908 he was commandant of St. Cyr. From 1908 until 1911 he commanded the 14th division at Belfort.

In 1911 he was appointed chief of staff. This appointment coincided with the Agadir crisis, an international incident triggered by the arrival of a German gunboat to the Moroccan port of Agadir. The crisis deepened the hostility between Germany on one side and Britain and France on the other, both of whom felt threatened by the possible German presence on the Atlantic coast of Africa. Dubail took part in staff talks with the British and French armies which helped to decide what each side would do in the event of a war with Germany.

The post of chief of staff was soon superseded by the new post of chief of the General Staff, held by General Joffre from 1911. Dubail was appointed to command IX corps at Tours (1912), and was a member of the Supreme War Council, the group of senior commanders who command field armies during a war.

In August 1914 he commanded the First Army, the southernmost French army. To his north was the Second Army under General Castelnau. Their job was to advance across the German border and liberate the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, lost after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The attack began well, but on 20 August the Germans counterattacked, and Dubail was forced to fall back to the River Meurthe (battle of Lorraine). The retreat was well handled, and Dubail was soon able to sent many of the men west, where they would take part in the first battle of the Marne.

By the end of the year Dubail commanded the entire front from Verdun to the Swiss border at Belfort. Castelnau’s Second Army had been moved west to take part in the Race to the Sea, and in January 1915 Dubail was officially given command of the Eastern Army Group.

This was a quiet sector of the front. During 1915 Dubail and his German opposite numbers engaged in a series of minor attacks, but no major battles were expected. Joffre used the fortresses on the eastern border as a source of artillery piece to support his battles in Champagne and Artois. The fortress of Verdun became particularly run down, losing an ever increasing number of heavy artillery guns and machine guns. Despite this, in June 1915 Dubail reported himself to be satisfied with the state of Verdun, and he did not really believe in the value of static fortifications. Even so, towards the end of 1915 Dubail began to be worried by reports of increased German activity opposite Verdun and reported his concerns to Joffre.

With a German attack looking increasingly likely, Joffre decided to move control of Verdun from Dubail’s Eastern Army Group to Castelnau’s Central Army Group. Castlenau reported the weakness of Verdun’s defences, but before he could remedy the situation the Germans attacked (Battle of Verdun, 21 February-18 December 1916). A number of important forts around Verdun fell quickly and the battle quickly became a desperate fight to hold on to the city.

Although much of the blame must fall on Joffre, who had been responsible for removing the heavy guns, he was still too popular to remove, and in March 1916 Dubail was removed as commander of the Eastern Army Group (Castelnau also lost his command, despite only have had authority over Verdun for one month). Dubail was appointed military governor of Paris, by 1916 a safe rear-area job, where he stayed for the rest of the war. After the war he was active in the Legion of Honour, dying in 1934.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 September 2007), Auguste Dubail, 1851-1934 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_dubail.html

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