Charles Mangin was a French general who first made his name in the French colonial empire, before gaining a reputation as an aggressive but costly commander during the First World War. Mangin was born in Sarrebourg, then in France. In 1871 the town was seized by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. The Mangin family was one of many that evacuated the city, moving back to France.
Mangin graduated from St. Cyr in 1888, and then pursued an active career in France’s colonial empire. He served in the Sudan from 1890-1894, and then commanded the advance guard during the Marchand expedition. This crossed Africa from west to east, reaching Fashoda in the southern Sudan in 1898. This triggered the Fashoda incident, the last serious colonial clash between Britain and France, which came close to causing a colonial war between the two counties. In the aftermath of Fashoda, Mangin served in Indo-China from 1901-1904 and in West Africa from 1907-1911. He would retain his link with that area during the First World War. In 1912 he defeated Ahmed Al-Hiba, a claimant to the sultanate of Morocco.
At the start of the First World War Mangin was appointed to command a brigade in the Fifth Army (General Lanzerac), taking part in the retreat to the Marne. He was promoted to command a division in late August 1914, and took part in the battles in Artois in 1915 (second battle of Artois, 9 May-18 June 1915, third battle of Artois, 25 September- 30 October 1915).
At the start of the battle of Verdun, Mangin was commander of the Fifth Division, part of Nivelle’s corps. He was placed in charge of the unsuccessful first attempt to recapture Fort Douaumont during May 1916. By now Nivelle had been promoted, and his corps was commanded by General Lebrun. Mangin was sacked for refusing to launch yet another obviously futile attack on Fort Douaumont, describing it as an “attack for the gallery”. Mangin had a reputation for being willing to accept a high casualty rate, but this incident suggests that this was only the case when he believed he could win.
Mangin was back in favour in June 1916, and was given command of Groupement D, in charge of the French counter-attacks on the right bank of the Meuse during June and July. These attacks were expensive failures, but the October attack on Fort Douaumont was a resounding success. Mangin was also in charge of the final French offensive of 15 December, a well planned attack that recaptured a number of forts lost early in the year at limited cost.
In late December Mangin was promoted to command the Sixth Army. By now he was a key ally of General Nivelle, and his army played an important role in Nivelle’s great offensive for 1917, the second battle of the Aisne (16 April-15 May 1917). This was a bloody failure for the French, and Mangan’s army suffered particularly heavily. At the start of May Mangin was removed, and remained out of action until the end of the year, while the sixth army suffered particularly heavily during the mutinies of 1917.
Mangin was called back to command at the end of 1917 by General Foch, who was worried that Pétain was too defensive minded. Mangin was one of a number of offensively minded generals put into subsidiary positions in an attempt to balance Pétain. By the summer of 1918 he had been fully restored, commanding the Tenth Army.
Mangin’s aggressive attitude and determination would prove to be much more useful in 1918 than in earlier years. The Ludendorff offensives finally ended the stalemate on the Western Front. It also created two massive salients in the Allied line, one towards Amiens and one towards the Marne. This second salient would be the site of the first Allied counterattack of 1918. Mangin was in command of the Aisne-Marne Offensive (18 July-5 August), launched with eighteen front line divisions. This hit the western flank of the Marne salient and forced the Germans to pull back almost to their starting line. The Aisne-Marne offensive marked the beginning of the Hundred Days, the series of Allied offensives that finally won the war.
In 1919 Mangin was put in command of the French occupation forces in the Rhineland. He was a patron of the Rhenish separatist movement, which wanted to create an independent pro-French Rhenish republic on the western bank of the Rhine. He was removed by Clemenceau in October 1919 after concerns about his political ambitions. To his credit, Mangin was hated by the Nazis, who later destroyed his status in Paris. After leaving the Rhineland, he returned to active duty in France’s African Empire, dying in 1925.
Mangin was an aggressive general who was out of place on the static battlefields of 1916 and 1917, where all his aggression could achieve was high casualty figures, but somewhat ironically he was the right man in the right place in July 1918, when the French army needed to rediscover its own spirit of aggression if it was to take advantage of German weakness after the costly Ludendorff offensives.