At the beginning of October 1913 the 120e RI (120th Infantry Regiment) left its old quarters in Peronne and moved up towards the border with Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany — to Stenay on the Meuse.
Here they took over the barracks of the 18e Bataillon de chasseurs à pieds (BCP — Light Infantry) who had been moved closer to the German frontier.
Nearby in the town’s Artillery Barracks were three batteries of the 42e RAC who would provide their supporting divisional field artillery (The remainder of the 42e were garrisoned at La Fère).
Under their commander Lt Colonel Mangin and alongside the 18e BCP and 9e BCP they formed the 87e Infantry Brigade under the command of Général Cordonnier.
This in turn was part of the 4e Division d’Infanterie (Général Rabier, HQ at Mézières), of the 2e Corps d’Armée (Général Gérard, HQ at Amiens) and 5e Armée (Général Lanrezac).
On the 31st July 1914 the Regiment received its orders to prepare for war. The task of the 2e CA was to ensure that the right wing of the Army was covered at all times, and for the 120e RI this meant watching the eastern approach to Stenay and holding any possible incursion until reinforcements arrived.
It should be noted that this is before the French and Germans officially mobilised on the 2nd August and war would not actually be declared until the 3rd August.
Both Brigades had units of engineers with them (Génie) and immediately set about preparing the positions for defence. The 87e Brigade on the left/north of the Division and the 7e Brigade on the right.
The area consists of rolling hills cut by a number of small tributaries of the Meuse which all flow from the south-east towards the north-west. At river level the ground is about 200 metres with the ridges between the valleys rising to over 300 metres in places.
Each of the valleys to the south-east of Stenay is less than a few kilometres wide and thus channels any invader towards the crossing points. The rivers, whilst not particularly difficult to traverse, would be a sufficient barrier to allow the defenders to concentrate their reinforcements to meet the threat.
Any attacker would inevitably find himself having to descend a slope towards the river in full view of any defences on the far side.
On the 9th August as part of a realignment of French forces the 2e CA was transferred to the 4e Armée (Général de Langle de Cary), but this had little effect on the ordinary soldiers who continued to work in the area around Marville and along the banks of the Loison and Othain rivers.
The 2nd battalion of the 91e RI (7e Brigade) was located on the right in the village of Mangiennes waiting to make contact with the 4e CA (3e Armée) who were to move up alongside them.
As each French or German Regiment was composed of three battalions
the individual battalions are prefixed by a Roman numeral.
At 1800 hours the 130e RI (8e DI, 4e CA) received orders to occupy Mangiennes and Billy sous Mangiennes a couple of kilometres to the south east. Marching through the night along the country roads it took them until midnight to reach the area of Mangiennes. The I/130e RI linked up with the II/91e RI and a squadron of the 3e Dragons, whilst the II/130e RI took up positions at Billy.
The fortresses of Verdun are only a matter of thirty kilometres to the south and this is one of the areas that the Germans would almost certainly have to come through — if they were going to invade France.
The defences at Mangiennes were finally organised with the II/91e RI remaining in the village whilst the I/130e RI took up a position just to the east on the hillside. The II/130e RI received orders that they were to reinforce their sister battalion as soon as they had been relieved by the 102e RI which was moving forward to take their place.
At 0445 hours on the 10th August the French 14e Hussards (Hussars) moved out in the direction of Pillon and Arrancy (north east of Mangiennes). Advancing over the hill in front of the French lines they came across a large column of Germans coming down the far side of the valley towards Pillon.
The Hussars deployed their machine guns and opened up on the German infantry at 1,500 metres and thus began the first battle on French soil since the Franco-Prussian War.
The German 6th Cavalry Division (Von Schmettow) was under orders to sound out the French defences along this corridor and by 0800 hours had engaged the 14e Hussards with the 13th and 9th Dragoons of the German 33rd Cavalry Brigade who were the advanced guard.
It soon became apparent to the French that the enemy opposing them was a considerable force which had already occupied most of the ground on the far side of Pillon.
The 14e Hussards realised that they were being pinned down and retired, warning the infantry along the Mangiennes line that a large force of Germans had entered Pillon and was approaching.
Having taken Pillon, General von Etzel (Commanding: 33rd Cavalry Brigade) crossed the valley and surveyed the French lines around Mangiennes. He could see that the French had entrenched themselves and that he was in an unfavourable position, just as the French had planned, his men would have to descend a slope towards the enemy. His superiors, however, insisted that Mangiennes be taken.
Just after 0900 hours the first shells start to fall on the French lines at Mangiennes. An attempt to push a company of the 130e RI across the river Loison was met by such a hail of bullets that they were quickly forced back.
By 1100 hours word had reached the French that the German cavalry were at Longuyon and advancing on Marville (about ten kilometres to the north of Mangiennes). The French cavalry (9e DC) moved up to meet them head on, but despite a number of heroic cavalry charges, with the Germans well positioned in the woods and villages, and the French cavalry was forced back.
Général Cordonnier of the 87e Brigade, whilst dealing with this imminent threat to his own positions, was also aware of the gunfire around Mangiennes and alerted the 120e RI to be ready to move.
At 1345 hours the German artillery launched a heavy bombardment (for the period) against the two battalions of the 130e RI. Fortunately for the defenders the three batteries of the I/42e RAC of the 4e DI had positioned themselves on the hills behind them at Chapelle St Jean and began picking off the German guns as soon as they had come into view.
It will be remarked that the battle is concerning dozens of guns and not hundreds as will be the case within months.