The Battle of Mulhouse was the first French initiated battle of World War I. The battle had as much to do with French pride as it did military strategy. Mulhouse, which was located near the Swiss border in Alsace, had been a French province. France lost the city to Germany as part of the settlement that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. French Commander in Chief Joseph Joffre intended to return Mulhouse to French control, restoring national pride and providing a base for continued operations to the north. Joffre sent the Seventh Corps, under the command of General Bonneau, over the Vosges Mountains to claim Mulhouse.
On August 7, 1914, General Bonneau led his men with bayonets drawn over the Vosges Mountains. Bonneau’s men easily captured Altkirch, a small town with a population of merely 4,000, as they advanced toward Mulhouse. During this small battle, the Seventh Corp suffered only 100 casualties.
General Bonneau found it suspicious that there was little German activity surrounding Altkirch and nearby Mulhouse and slowed his pace. He was fearful of walking into a German trap. However, Commander Joffre insisted the men move forward and on the morning of August 8 the Seventh Corps entered and captured Mulhouse without ever firing a shot. The German occupants had already vacated the city.
On the morning of August 9, 1914 German reserve troops arrived from Strasbourg and launched a counter attack on the nearby city of Cernay. Bonneau’s men fought fiercely throughout the day and into the night but could not hold the city against the superior German Army. French reinforcements were slow to come to the aid of the Seventh Corps. By the time reinforcements arrived Bonneau’s men were retreating in order to avoid capture by the German Army.
Commander in Chief Joffre accused General Bonneau of not being aggressive enough during the battle to save Mulhouse from recapture, and immediately relieved him of his command. Bonneau was replaced by General Paul Marie Pau. General Pau would soon be bested by the Germans in the Battle of Lorraine.