Marne

The Allied forces fell back towards the River Marne, which runs to the east of Paris, with the Germans never far behind them. Within thirteen days, they had retreated almost 150 miles. On 3 September, Joffre halted the French retreat, south of the river. The French army had suffered terribly during the first month of the war, losing 75,000 men, 27,000 of whom were killed on one day alone at the Battle of Charleroi on 22 August, the worst day in French military history.

Now, in September, the French government, fearing the capture of Paris, bolted to Bordeaux as German planes bombed the city. It was, the government’s proclamation read, ‘In order to watch over the national welfare.’ Panicked Parisians fled south in a mass exodus. Joffre, determined to save the capital, decided to counterattack, aided by the British (although John French, for the sake of his exhausted men, had been contemplating a complete withdrawal and on 1 September received a visit in person from Horatio Kitchener who ordered him to obey Joffre’s command).

Hence, the First Battle of the Marne began on 5 September. It was to be, according to Joffre, ‘the battle upon which hangs the fate of France’. Almost a million and a half German troops faced one million French, with 125,000 British soldiers in support.

On the first day of the battle, Thomas Highgate, a 19-year-old British private, was found hiding in a barn dressed in civilian clothes. Highgate was tried by court martial, convicted of desertion and, in the early hours of 8 September, was executed by firing squad. His was the first of 306 executions carried out by the British during the First World War. A week earlier, the French had executed their first soldier for desertion, a colonel, Frédéric Henri Wolff. Officially, the French executed 600 men throughout the war, although unofficially the figure was probably much higher.

German soldiers at Marne, September 1914 (possibly a staged photograph as the men are wearing their medals)

As the Germans, only fourteen miles from Paris, turned to face the French attack at Marne, a thirty-mile gap developed between the two main German armies, spotted by Royal Flying Corps reconnaissance planes. The BEF exploited the gap, crossing the Marne and forming a wedge between the two German fronts. Nonetheless, the situation appeared perilous for Paris until, on 7 September, the capital’s military governor, Joseph Gallieni, saved the day.

The 65-year-old Gallieni, persuaded out of retirement, was anointed as Paris’s protector: ‘This task I shall fulfil to the end,’ he announced. Gallieni was old enough to remember 1871 when the Prussians had besieged the capital to the point of starvation. He had no intention of allowing the Germans anywhere near Paris again. But while he had the troops he had no means to transport them to the battlefield. In a flash of ingenuity, he seized every available Parisian taxi, 600 of them, crammed each one full of soldiers and sent them on their way to meet the army of Joseph Joffre. Gallieni’s taxis forced the Germans into retreat.

Paris had been saved and by 9 September, the Germans feared a complete encirclement. The German chief-of-staff, Moltke, suffering a nervous breakdown, ordered a retreat and reported to the Kaiser, ‘Your Majesty, we have lost the war.’

The Germans retreated north. The Allies, so long the pursued, were now the pursuers. But dogged with exhaustion and poor weather, they did so slowly. Having retreated forty miles and reaching the high ground on the north bank of the River Aisne on 13 September, the Germans stopped. The German defeat at the Battle of the Marne marked the ignoble end of the Schlieffen Plan – the possibility of a fast victory in the west and avoidance of a two-fronted war. On 14 September, Moltke, who was heavily criticized for his lack of effective leadership, was replaced as chief-of-staff by Erich von Falkenhayn.

Marne also marked the end of the war of movement, for it was at the River Aisne that the Germans dug in. The First Battle of the Aisne (more would follow), starting on 13 September, saw the Allies, having caught up with the Germans, trying to dislodge them from their defensive positions. Failing to do so, the Allies began to dig their own trenches. Lacking the necessary equipment, they had to plunder local farms for spades. Almost overnight, trenches were dug, barbed wire laid, and machine guns sited.

Moved, and disturbed, by the high number of British casualties at the Battle of the Marne, a 45-year-old English poet called Laurence Binyon felt compelled to compose a poem. Entitled ‘For the Fallen’, it was first published in The Times on 21 September 1914. Its fourth verse soon became, and remains, synonymous with the act of remembrance:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Both sides soon realized the uncomfortable truth that was to puzzle generals for the next four years – that offence was largely ineffectual against well-entrenched defence. Frontal attacks, with infantrymen advancing on the enemy, were simply liable to be mowed down by continuous and deadly machine-gun fire. The Battle of Aisne, which by 28 September had fizzled out, was a foretaste of what was to come.

Having abandoned battle, both sides now attempted instead to outmanoeuvre, or outflank, the other. First one side, then the other, extended their trenches steadily northwards through France and into Belgium, an area known as Flanders. And so it went on, a continuous line of trenches advancing towards the coast in what became known as the ‘Race to the Sea’. Of course, reaching the sea was not the objective, but soon the North Sea coast was reached. Along the way, the enemies engaged in battles which, with the exception of the First Battle of Ypres, were little more than skirmishes but still exacting a heavy toll in death and casualties.

While the greater part of the German army had marched into France, a small contingent remained in Belgium and, from 28 September, pounded Antwerp, another Belgian town surrounded by a string of forts. But, as with Liège, the forts were no match for the German heavy Big Berthaguns. The British government, fearful that if Antwerp should fall, the Germans would have access to the Channel ports and could threaten Britain itself, sent Winston Churchill, the first lord of the Admiralty, to assess the situation. Arriving in Antwerp on 3 October, Churchill spent three days in Belgium. On his recommendation, 3,000 British marines were sent to Ostend and Zeebrugge with the idea of relieving the Belgians besieged within Antwerp. But, too late, the city fell on 6 October and surrendered four days later.

With its capitulation, Belgium, as a nation, surrendered and, like Luxembourg, was to be occupied by the Germans until the armistice of November 1918.

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