Military history


Von Kluck’s Turn

“AN AUTOMOBILE DROVE UP,” wrote M. Albert Fabre, whose villa at Lassigny, twelve miles north of Compiègne, was commandeered by the Germans on August 30. “From it descended an officer of arrogant and impressive bearing. He stalked forward alone while the officers standing in groups in front of the villa made way for him. He was tall and majestic with a scarred, clean-shaven face, hard features and a frightening glance. In his right hand he carried a soldier’s rifle and his left rested on the butt of a revolver. He turned around several times, striking the ground with the butt end of his rifle and then halted in a theatrical pose. No one seemed to dare to approach him and indeed he wore a terrible air.” Gazing awestruck at this be-weaponed apparition, M. Fabre thought of Attila and learned that his visitor was “the already too-famous von Kluck.”

General von Kluck, the “last man on the right” in Schlieffen’s scheme, was at that moment considering a fateful decision. He felt himself close to the crisis on August 30. His troops on the far right had driven back units of Maunoury’s Army with success that Kluck thought was definitive. His pursuit in the center had not succeeded in catching up with the British. but the jettisoned piles of coats, boots, and ammunition found along the roadside which the British had dumped in their anxiety to bring away their men confirmed Kluck’s opinion of a beaten opponent. On his left a division which he had lent to Bülow to help at the battle of Guise reported the French fleeing from that battle. Kluck was fiercely determined to allow them no time to recover.

Reports of the direction of Lanrezac’s retreat indicated that the French line did not extend as far west as had been expected. Kluck believed it could be rolled up north of Paris, making a wide sweep to the west and south of the city unnecessary. The change involved a shift in the direction of his advance from due south to southeast and would have the added advantage of closing the gap between his army and Bülow’s. Like everyone else he had begun the campaign assuming that reinforcements would be forthcoming from the left wing. He needed them now to replace the corps he had had to leave in front of Antwerp, the brigade in Brussels, the various units left to guard his ever-lengthening line of communications, not to mention his losses in combat. But reinforcements were not forthcoming. Moltke still had detached none from the left wing.

Moltke had many worries. True to his temperament, “Gloomy Julius” was less elated by the advance of his conquering armies than depressed by the difficulties of the advance. It was now the 30th day, and the schedule called for victory over France between the 36th and 40th days. Although his right-wing commanders continued to report the French and English as “decisively beaten” and their retreat in terms of “rout” and “flight,” Moltke was uneasy. He noticed a suspicious lack of the usual signs of rout or disorganized retreat: Why were there so few prisoners? “A victory on the battlefield is of little account,” his old chief Schlieffen used to say, “if it has not resulted either in breakthrough or encirclement. Though pushed back the enemy will appear again on different ground to renew the resistance he momentarily gave up. The campaign will go on .…”

Despite his concern Moltke did not go forward to investigate for himself but remained fretting at Headquarters, depending on delegates for reports. “It is heartbreaking,” he wrote to his wife on August 29, “how little suspicions der hohe Herr [the Kaiser] has of the seriousness of the situation. He has already a certain shout-hurrah! mood that I hate like death.”

On August 30 as the German Armies approached the climax of their campaign, OHL moved forward from Coblenz to Luxembourg City, ten miles behind the borders of France. They were now in territory emotionally if not officially hostile and which, by reason both of proximity and sentiment, was a hub of Allied rumors. Whispers circulated of the 80,000 Russians coming to help the British and French. OHL was kept busy piecing together indications of a landing somewhere on the Channel coast. The actual landing of 3,000 British marines at Ostend which, by the time the news reached Luxembourg, had swollen to serious and even Russian proportions, added apparent reality to German fears.

Besides the specter of Russians at his back, Moltke was bothered by the gaps in his battle line, especially between the armies of the right wing. There was one of twenty miles between Kluck and Bülow, another of twenty miles between Bülow and Hausen, and a third almost as wide between Hausen and the Duke of Württemberg. Moltke was uncomfortably conscious that the thinning spaces should have been filled by reinforcements drawn from the left wing which he had now committed to total involvement in the battle for the Moselle. He thought guiltily of Schlieffen’s insistence that the proper course was to leave the left wing on the defensive with minimum forces and send every division that could be spared to the First and Second Armies. But the vision of a breakthrough of the French fortress line still lured OHL. Vacillating, Moltke on August 30 sent his artillery expert, Major Bauer, to make a personal survey of Rupprecht’s front.

At Rupprecht’s headquarters Bauer found “everything but concerted plans,” and when he drove to the front lines commanders and officers gave him conflicting opinions. Some, pointing to the unmistakable withdrawal of enemy divisions from their front, were confident of imminent success. Others complained of the “difficult wooded mountains” along the Moselle, south of Toul, where the attack was running into trouble. Even if it succeeded the troops would be open to flank attack from Toul and supply lines would be lacking, since all roads and railroads led through the fortified city. Toul would have to be taken first. Back at Sixth Army Headquarters the once-aggressive enthusiasm of Prince Rupprecht had cooled to recognition that he was engaged in a “difficult and unpleasant task.”

To Bauer, representing the Supreme Command, the report of French withdrawals from this front was a bad sign, for it meant that the enemy was withdrawing units to reinforce his front opposite the German right wing. He returned to OHL with the conclusion, as he told Moltke, that while the attack on Nancy-Toul and the Moselle line was “not without chances,” it required an extended effort that seemed “not justifiable” at this time. Moltke agreed—and did nothing. He could not nerve himself to call off the offensive that had already cost so much. And the Kaiser wanted to ride in triumph through Nancy. No changed orders to the Sixth Army went out; full-scale effort to break the Moselle line continued.

Von Kluck resented the failure to reinforce the marching wing at this critical time. But it was not so much the need to narrow his front as the belief that the French were already beaten and needed only to be rounded up that decided him to make an inward wheel. Instead of brushing the Channel with his sleeve he would brush Paris on the inside in direct pursuit of Lanrezac’s Army. That in the process he would be exposing his flank to attack by the garrison of Paris or by Maunoury’s forces falling back upon Paris in front of him was a danger he did not ignore but did not estimate highly. He considered the forces so far assembled under Maunoury as negligible. The possibility of their being reinforced he considered also negligible because the French, stumbling backward in the throes of defeat and disaster, must be too disorganized for such a maneuver. Moreover, he assumed that all their available forces were pinned down under the heavy pressure of the Crown Prince’s Army around Verdun and of Rupprecht’s Armies along the Moselle. One of his own corps, the laggard IVth Reserve, would be enough to leave in front of Paris to guard the flank of his army as it slid across to the east in front of the capital. After all, it had been proved in German war games that garrison forces inside an entrenched camp do not venture out until attacked, and the IVth Reserve, he believed, could contain the tatterdemalion collection of units under Maunoury. Having learned, from a captured letter, of Sir John French’s intention to quit the line and retreat behind the Seine, he regarded the BEF, his direct opponent up to now, as of no further account.

Under the German system—in contrast to the French—Kluck as commander in the field was allowed the widest possible latitude for independent decision. Prepared by indoctrination, map exercises, and war games to find the correct solution of a given military problem, a German general was expected automatically to reach it when required. Though a deviation from the original strategy, Kluck’s plan to ignore Paris and go after the retreating armies was the “correct” solution now that it appeared to him possible to annihilate the French Armies in the field without enveloping Paris. According to German military theory a fortified camp should not be attacked until the enemy’s mobile forces were overwhelmed. These once destroyed, all the other fruits of victory followed. Although the lure of Paris was strong, Kluck determined not to be tempted from the path of proper military procedure.

At 6:30 on the evening of August 30 a message reached him from von Bülow that made up his mind. It requested him to make the inward wheel in order to help Bülow “gain the full advantage of victory” over the French Fifth Army. Whether Bülow was in fact asking for help to exploit a victory gained at St. Quentin or to compensate for a defeat suffered at Guise, is, whatever the words he used, uncertain. His request fitted in with what Kluck wanted to do in any event, and Kluck made his decision. The objectives he gave for the next day’s march were no longer due south but southeast toward Noyon and Compiègne in order to cut off the retreat of the French Fifth Army. To already protesting and footsore troops who had not rested since they had begun the advance at Liège sixteen days before, his order of August 31 read, “Again, therefore, we must call upon the troops for forced marches.”

OHL, informed that the First Army would begin an inward wheel next morning, hurriedly approved. Unhappy about the gaps, Moltke saw a danger of the three armies of the right wing being unable to support each other in delivery of the final blow. Numbers had fallen below the prescribed density for an offensive, and if Kluck were to adhere to the original plan of a sweep around Paris the front would be stretched out for another fifty miles or more. Seizing upon Kluck’s move as a fortunate solution, Moltke telegraphed his approval the same night.

The end was in sight: the scheduled defeat of France by the 39th day in time to turn against Russia; the proof of all German training, planning, and organization; the halfway step to winning the war and mastery of Europe. It remained only to round up the retreating French before they could regain cohesion and renew resistance. Nothing, not the gaps, nor the check to Bülow’s Army at Guise nor the fatigue of the men nor any last-minute faltering or error must be allowed to check the last dash to victory. With fierce urgency Kluck drove his army forward. As officers rode up and down the roads and sergeants rasped commands, the war-stained troops wearily formed columns on the morning of August 31 to begin another day of endless foot-slogging. Knowing nothing of maps or place names, they were unaware of the change of direction. The magic word Paris drew them on. They were not told that it was no longer their destination.

Hunger added to their misery. They had outrun their supply lines, which were functioning inadequately owing to the destruction of bridges and railroad tunnels in Belgium. Repairs had not succeeded in keeping railheads up with the advance of the armies; the focal bridge at Namur, for one, was not repaired until September 30. Often the tired infantry after a long day’s march found the villages where they expected to billet occupied by their own cavalry. The cavalry, who were supposed to live off the country, were always so anxious about their supply trains and horses’ fodder that to secure these they “constantly installed themselves,” according to the Crown Prince, a former cavalryman himself, in places meant for the infantry. In a piece of unexpected testimony coming from this source, he added, “They always halted and got in the way of the infantry the moment things in front began to look ugly.”

Kluck’s Army met an ugly surprise on September 1 when it ran into the heels of the British who unaccountably, since Kluck’s communiqué had said they were retreating “in the most complete disorder,” were able to turn upon the Germans and offer sharp and punishing combat. In a day of desperate fighting in and around the forests of Compiègne and Villers-Cotterets, the British rearguards held off the enemy while the main body of the BEF, to Kluck’s disgust, again got away. Postponing a “much-needed” rest for his troops, Kluck ordered a further march next day, shifting back slightly to the west in the hope of enveloping the British. Again they succeeded in escaping him “just in time,” to get across the Marne on September 3. His chance of finishing them off was now gone; having lost time, increased his casualties, and added marching distance, he resumed in no good temper his inward wheel in pursuit of the French.

“Our men are done up,” wrote a German officer of Kluck’s Army in his diary of September 2. “They stagger forward, their faces coated with dust, their uniforms in rags. They look like living scarecrows.” After four days of marching an average of twenty-four miles a day over roads pitted with shellholes and barred by felled trees, “they march with eyes closed, singing in chorus so as not to fall asleep .… Only the certainty of early victory and a triumphal entry into Paris keeps them going .… Without this they would fall exhausted and go to sleep where they fall.” The diary testified to a problem that was becoming increasingly serious in the German advance, especially further east where Bülow’s and Hausen’s troops were coming through Champagne. “They drink to excess but this drunkenness keeps them going. Today after inspection the General was furious. He wanted to stop this general drunkenness but we managed to dissuade him from giving severe orders. If we used too much severity the Army would not march. Abnormal stimulants are necessary to combat abnormal fatigue.” “We will put all that right in Paris,” the officer concluded hopefully, he, too, evidently unaware of the new direction of the march.

Through France as through Belgium the Germans left a blackened and defiled path as they passed. Villages were burned, civilians shot, homes looted and torn, horses ridden through rooms, artillery wagons dragged across gardens, latrines dug in the family burial plot of the Poincarés at Nubécourt. Kluck’s IInd Corps passing through Senlis, twenty-five miles from Paris, on September 2, shot the Mayor and six other civilian hostages. A stone marker, just outside the town on the edge of a field where they are buried, bears their names:

Eugène Odène


Emile Aubert


Jean Barbier


Lucien Cottreau

Café waiter

Pierre Dewerdt


J-B. Elysée Pommier        

Baker’s helper

Arthur Régant


September 2 was a happy day for General von Hausen who found himself billeted in the Château of the Comte de Chabrillon at Thugny on the Aisne. Occupying the countess’ bedroom, the General was delighted to discover from examination of her visiting cards that she was née Comtesse de Lévy-Mirepois in her own right, which caused him to sleep with that much extra pleasure in her bed. After dining on pheasant obtained by his supply officers who organized a shoot in the park of the château, Hausen counted the countess’ table silver and left an inventory of it with an old man in the village.

That night Moltke, who after a second look had developed qualms about the flank that Kluck’s inward wheel was exposing to Paris, issued a new General Order. As in the matter of the left wing, it showed his uncertain hand. It ratified Kluck’s turn by ordering the First and Second Armies to “drive the French armies in a southeast direction away from Paris.” At the same time it attempted to guard against a possible danger by ordering Kluck’s army to follow “in echelon behind the Second Army” and make itself “responsible for the flank protection of the Armies.”

In echelon! To Kluck the insult was worse than putting him, as OHL had done before, under Bülow’s orders. The grim-visaged Attila with rifle in one hand and revolver in the other, the pace-setter of the right wing, was not going to stay behind anybody. He issued his own orders to the First Army “to continue its advance over the Marne tomorrow [September 3] in order to drive the French southeastward.” He considered it sufficient for purposes of protecting the flank exposed to Paris to leave behind him his two weakest units: the IVth Reserve which was minus a brigade left back at Brussels and the 4th Cavalry Division which had suffered heavily in the fight against the British on September 1.

Captain Lepic, an officer of Sordet’s Cavalry Corps, was reconnoitering northwest of Compiègne on August 31, the first morning of Kluck’s turn, when he saw at a little distance an enemy cavalry column of nine squadrons, followed fifteen minutes later by an infantry column with batteries, ammunition wagons, and a company of cyclists. He noticed they were taking the road for Compiègne rather than the direct southward road for Paris. Unaware that he was the earliest witness of a historic swerve, Captain Lepic was more interested to report that the Uhlans had discarded their distinctive helmets and were wearing cloth caps and that “they ask directions of the local people in bad French, saying ‘Englisch, Englisch.’” His information about their line of march did not as yet convey any great significance to GQG. The town and château of Cornpiègne, it was thought, might be attracting the Germans, and they could still take the road from Compiègne to Paris. Nor was Captain Lepic’s view of two columns necessarily indicative of Kluck’s whole Army.

The French, too, on August 31, knew the campaign was coming to a climax. Their second plan—the plan of August 25 to shift the center of gravity over to the left in an effort to halt the German right wing—had failed. The mission of the Sixth Army which, together with the British and the Fifth Army, was to have made a stand on the Somme, had failed. Now the mission of the Sixth Army, Joffre acknowledged, was “to cover Paris.” The British, as he said privately, “ne veulent pas marcher,” and the Fifth Army, with Kluck in pursuit on its flank, was still in danger of being enveloped. Indeed, alarming news was brought that a spearhead of Kluck’s cavalry had already penetrated between the Fifth Army and Paris into the space left open by the British retreat. Clearly, as Colonel Pont, Joffre’s Chief of Operations told him, “it seems no longer possible to oppose the right wing with sufficient forces to arrest its enveloping movement.”

A new plan was necessary. Survival was the immediate aim. At GQG Joffre with his two deputies, Belin and Berthelot, and the senior officers of the Operations Bureau discussed what was to be done. Into the “chapel” of the offensive the hot wind of events had forced a new idea—“to hold out” until the French Armies could stabilize a line from which to resume the offensive. Meanwhile, it was recognized, the German advance would extend its forces along a tremendous arc from Verdun to Paris. The plan this time, rather than to oppose the marching wing of the German Army, would be to cut it off by an attack upon the German center, reverting to the strategy of Plan 17. Only, now the battlefield was in the heart of France. A French defeat this time would not be a reverse as at the frontiers, but final.

The question was, How soon should the “forward movement” be resumed? At the earliest moment, on a level with Paris, in the valley of the Marne? Or should the retreat continue to a line forty miles farther back behind the Seine? Continuing the retreat meant yielding that much more territory to the Germans, but the barrier of the Seine would provide a breathing spell for the armies to gather strength when not under direct pressure of the enemy. As the Germans’ chief aim was to destroy the French armies, so “our chief aim,” Belin urged, must be to “keep ourselves alive.” To take the “prudent” attitude and reform behind the Seine was now both a national duty and the course best designed to frustrate the aims of the enemy. So Belin argued, eloquently supported by Berthelot. Joffre listened—and next day issued General Order No. 4.

It was September 1, eve of the anniversary of Sedan, and the outlook for France appeared as tragic as it had then. Official confirmation of the Russian defeat at Tannenberg came in from the French military attaché. General Order No. 4, in contrast to the firm tone of the Order that followed the debacle on the frontiers, reflected the shaken optimism of GQG after a week of spreading invasion. It prescribed continued retreat for the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Armies “for some time to come” and set the Seine and Aube as the limit of the movement “without necessarily implying that this limit will be reached.” “As soon as the Fifth Army has escaped the menace of envelopment,” the armies “will resume the offensive”; but unlike the previous Order it named no specific time or place. Yet it contained the genesis of the future battle, for it spoke of bringing reinforcements from the Armies of Nancy and Epinal to participate in the renewed offensive and said “the mobile troops of the fortified camp of Paris may also take part in the general action.”

Upon this as upon every other act and order of the next four days, layers of dispute were to be heaped by the partisans of Joffre and those of Gallieni in a long and painful controversy over the origins of the Battle of the Marne. Unquestionably Joffre had in mind a general battle if not thebattle at the time and place it was actually to occur. The battle that he envisaged would take place when the five pursuing German armies would come “between the horns of Paris and Verdun,” and the French Armies would be drawn up in a shallow curve or net stretched across the center of France. Joffre thought he had a week’s time to make his arrangements, for he told Messimy, who came to say goodbye to him on September 1, that he expected to resume the offensive on September 8 and anticipated that it would be called “the battle of Brienne-le-Château.” A town twenty-five miles behind the Marne, about halfway between that river and the Seine, Brienne had been the scene of a Napoleonic victory over Blücher. It may have seemed an appropriate omen to Joffre. Amid the general gloom of further enforced retreat, under the awful shadow of the approaching enemy, his sangfroid, his appearance of serenity and confidence, once again impressed Messimy.

It did not comfort Paris which saw itself uncovered by a retreat of the armies to the Seine. Joffre called Millerand and gave him an unsparing summary of the military situation. The “accentuated” retreat of the English had uncovered the left flank of Lanrezac’s Army so that the retreat must continue until Lanrezac was disengaged. Maunoury had been ordered to fall back on Paris and place himself “in relation” to Gallieni, although Joffre said nothing about putting the Sixth Army under Gallieni’s command. Enemy columns were taking a direction slightly away from Paris, which might offer some “respite”; nevertheless he considered it “urgent and essential” that the government quit Paris “without delay,” either this evening or tomorrow.

Gallieni, informed of this development by a frantic government, called Joffre who managed to avoid speaking to him but was given his message: “We are in no condition to resist .… General Joffre must understand that if Maunoury cannot hold, Paris cannot withstand the enemy. Three active corps must be added to the forces of the fortified camp.” Later that afternoon Joffre called back and informed Gallieni that he was putting Maunoury’s Army under his orders. They would now become the mobile troops of the fortified camp of Paris. Such troops are traditionally commanded independently of the Field Army and could be withheld from a general battle at the will of the garrison commander. Joffre had no intention of giving them up. In a deft maneuver on the same day he requested the Minister of War to put the fortified camp of Paris and all its forces under his authority as Commander in Chief, “to enable me to use the mobile forces of the garrison in the field if the case arises.” Millerand, no less under Joffre’s spell than Messimy, so ordered it on September 2.

Meanwhile Gallieni had an army at last. Maunoury’s forces which he could now dispose of consisted of one active division belonging to the VIIth Corps, a native Moroccan brigade, and four reserve divisions: the 61st and 62nd under General Ebener which had been taken from Paris originally, and the 55th and 56th Reserves which had fought so valiantly in Lorraine. Joffre agreed to add, since it was not under his control anyway, the first-rate 45th Division of Zouaves from Algiers which was just then detraining in Paris and one active corps from the field army. Like Kluck, he picked a damaged one, the IVth Corps of the Third Army which had suffered disastrous losses in the Ardennes. It was receiving replacements, however, and its transfer from the Third Army’s front at Verdun to the Paris front was a reinforcement of which Kluck thought the French incapable. Troops of the IVth Corps, Gallieni was informed, would arrive by train in Paris on September 3 and 4.

Instantly upon receiving Joffre’s verbal assignment to him of the Sixth Army, Gallieni drove north to make contact with his new command. How late was the hour was apparent when he passed refugees converging upon Paris in flight from the oncoming Germans, a look on their faces of “terror and despair.” At Pontoise, just outside Paris to the northwest where the 61st and 62nd Divisions were coming in, all was disorder and dismay. The troops who had been caught in severe combat as they retreated were wearied and bloody; the local population was in panic at the sound of the guns and at reports of Uhlans in the neighborhood. After talking to General Ebener, Gallieni went on to see Maunoury at Creil on the Oise, thirty miles north of Paris. He gave Maunoury orders to blow up the Oise bridges and to try to delay the enemy’s advance as he fell back on Paris and under no circumstances to allow the Germans to get between him and the capital.

Hurrying back to Paris he passed a happier sight than the refugees—the splendid Zouaves of the 45th Algerian marching through the boulevards to take their places at the forts. In their bright jackets and ballooning trousers they created a sensation and gave Parisians something to cheer once again.

But inside the ministries the mood was black. Millerand had passed on the “heart-breaking” facts to the President: “all our hopes are shattered; we are in full retreat all along the line; Maunoury’s Army is falling back on Paris .…” As Minister of War, Millerand refused to take responsibility for the government remaining an hour longer than tomorrow evening, September 2. Poincaré faced “the saddest event of my life.” It was decided that the entire administration must move to Bordeaux as a unit, leaving none behind in Paris lest the public make invidious comparisons between ministers.

Upon Gallieni’s return to the city that evening, he learned from Millerand that all civil and military authority for the foremost city in Europe as it came under siege would be left in his hands. Except for the Prefect of the Seine and the Prefect of Police, “I would be alone.” The Prefect of Police, upon whom he would have to depend, had been in office, he discovered, barely an hour. The former Prefect, M. Hennion, on learning that the government was leaving, flatly refused to stay behind, and upon being ordered to remain at his post, resigned “for reasons of health.” For Gallieni the exit of the government at least had the advantage of silencing the advocates of an open city; their legal excuse was gone and he was free to defend Paris as a fortified camp. Although he “preferred to be without ministers,” he thought that “one or two might have stayed for the sake of appearances.” This was hardly fair to those who would have liked to stay, but Gallieni’s contempt for politicians was all-inclusive.

Expecting the Germans at the gates in two days, he stayed up all night with his staff, making “all my dispositions to give battle north of the city from Pontoise to the Ourcq,” that is, over an area forty-five miles wide. The Ourcq is a small river that feeds into the Marne east of Paris.

Late that night information reached GQG that could have spared the government the necessity of flight. During the day a bag was brought to Captain Fagalde, Intelligence Officer of the Fifth Army. It had been found on the body of a German cavalry officer attached to Kluck’s Army who, while riding in an automobile, had been shot and killed by a French patrol. In the bag were papers, including a map smeared with blood which showed the lines of advance for each of Kluck’s corps and the point each was to reach at the end of that day’s march. The lines for the whole army pointed in a southeasterly direction from the Oise toward the Ourcq.

GQG correctly interpreted Captain Fagalde’s find as showing Kluck’s intention to slide by Paris between the Sixth and the Fifth Armies in an effort to roll up the left of the main French line. If they also recognized that this meant he would forgo attack on Paris, they took no great pains to impress that view upon the government. When in the morning Colonel Penelon, liaison officer between GQG and the President, brought Poincaré news of Kluck’s change of direction he did not bring any suggestion from Joffre that the government need not leave. On the contrary Joffre sent word that the government must go, that Kluck’s intentions could not be certain, that his columns were already at Senlis and Chantilly, twenty miles away, and Paris would be under his guns very soon. How far the significance of Kluck’s turn was understood by Poincaré or Millerand is hard to say; in the midst of war and crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight. Urgency, even panic, was in the air. Once having gone through the agony of coming to a decision, the government found it hard to change. Millerand, in any event, continued adamant for departure.

It was September 2, Sedan Day, and “the hateful moment had come.” When he learned that arrangements had been made for the government to leave in the middle of the night instead of by day in the sight of the public, Poincaré’s “grief and humiliation” increased. The Cabinet insisted that his presence was legally required at the seat of government; even Mme. Poincaré, who begged to continue her hospital work in Paris as a public gesture, was not allowed to remain. Ambassador Myron Herrick of the United States, his face all “puckered up” came to say goodbye with tears in his eyes.

To Herrick, as to everyone inside the French capital at that moment, “the terrible onslaught of the Germans,” as he wrote to his son, “seems almost beyond resistance.” He had received a warning from the Germans advising him to leave for the provinces as “whole quarters” of Paris might be destroyed. He was determined to stay, however, and promised Poincaré to protect the museums and monuments of Paris under the American flag as being “in the custody of humanity at large.” Already he had formed a plan, fitting the desperate and exalted mood of the hour, that “if the Germans reached the outskirts of the city and demanded its surrender, to go out and talk with their army commander and, if possible, the Kaiser.” As custodian of their embassy, at their request, he could demand a hearing. In later days, when friends who had lived through the first week of September in Paris used to count themselves a select number, Gallieni would say, “Don’t forget, there was also Herrick.”

At seven o’clock Gallieni went to take farewell of Millerand. The War Ministry in the Rue St. Dominique was “sad, dark and deserted” and the courtyard filled with huge moving vans in which the archives were being piled for shipment to Bordeaux. The remainder were burned. The process of packing up created a “lugubrious” atmosphere. Climbing the unlit staircase, Gallieni found the Minister alone in an empty room. Now that the government was leaving, Millerand did not hesitate to allow Paris and everyone in it to come under fire. His orders to Gallieni, who hardly needed to be told, were to defend Paris “à outrance.”

“Do you understand, M. le Ministre, the significance of the words, à outrance?” Gallieni asked. “They mean destruction, ruins, dynamiting bridges in the center of the city.”

“À outrance,” Millerand repeated. Saying goodbye, he looked at Gallieni as at a man he was unlikely ever to see again, and Gallieni felt “pretty well persuaded, myself, that I was remaining to be killed.”

Some hours later, in darkness and self-imposed secrecy that afflicted many of them with a sense of shame, ministers and members of Parliament boarded the train for Bordeaux, clothing the inglorious moment in a noble statement to the public next morning. “To hold out and fight,” it said, must now become the order of the day. France would hold out and fight while on the seas England cut the enemy’s communications with the rest of the world and the Russians “continue to advance and carry the decisive blow to the heart of the German empire!” (It was not considered the moment to add news of a Russian defeat.) In order to give the greatest “élan and effectiveness” to French resistance, the government, at the demand of the military, was moving “momentarily” to a place where it could remain in unbroken and constant contact with the whole country. “Frenchmen, let us be worthy of these tragic circumstances. We will obtain the final victory—by unfaltering will, by endurance, by tenacity—by refusing to perish.”

Gallieni was content with a short sharp notice worded deliberately to dispel rumors that Paris had been declared an open city and to let the people know what to expect. His proclamation appeared on the walls of Paris in the morning:


The members of the Government of the Republic have left Paris to give a new impulse to the national defense. I have received a mandate to defend Paris against the invader. This mandate I shall carry out to the end.

Paris, September 3, 1914
Military Governor of Paris, Commander of the Army of Paris


The shock to the public was all the greater since GQG’s policy of issuing only the least explicit communiqués had left people uninformed as to the seriousness of the military situation. The government appeared to have decamped without due cause. Its nocturnal going off left a painful impression which was not dispelled by what proved to be an extended and tenacious affection for Bordeaux. Puns were made at the expense of the government, calling them “tournedos à la Bordelaise,” and the crowds who stormed the railway stations in their wake inspired a parody of “The Marseillaise”:

“Aux gares, citoyens!
Montez dans les wagons!”

These were “days of anguish” for the Military Government of Paris. With the armies retreating north and east of the city, the problem of how long to hold and when to destroy the eighty bridges in the region caused increasing tension and anxiety. Commanders in each sector, as soon as they had assured passage of their own troops, were anxious to blow up the bridges behind them in order to cut off pursuit. GQG’s orders were to let “no bridge fall intact into enemy hands”; at the same time the bridges would be needed for a return to the offensive. Three different commands were operating in the area: Gallieni’s, Joffre’s and, geographically between them, that of Sir John French whose chief concern since Kitchener’s visit was to make a show of his independence of everybody. Engineers of the Paris camp guarding the bridges were beset by a conflict of orders. “A disaster is preparing,” reported an officer of Engineers to General Hirschauer.

By nightfall of September 2 the British had reached the Marne and got across next day. Below Compiègne the troops discovered they were marching off their maps, and now it dawned on them that this was not after all a “strategic retreat” as they had been told by their officers. Their bases at Boulogne and Havre had by now been evacuated and all stores and personnel moved down to Saint-Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire.

About a day’s march behind them the Fifth Army was still not yet out of danger of envelopment. In the continuing hot weather, retreat and pursuit went on, prey as tired as pursuers. Since the Battle of Guise the Fifth Army had been marching eighteen to twenty miles a day. Along its route groups of deserters pillaged farms and homes and spread panic among the population with tales of German terror. Executions took place. Lanrezac thought no army ever underwent such an ordeal as his. At the same time a British officer said of the BEF, “I would never have believed that men could be so tired and so hungry and yet live.” Trying to find a source of encouragement during these days, Henry Wilson said to Colonel Huguet, “The Germans are over-hasty. They urge the pursuit too fast. The whole thing is overdone. They are bound to make a big mistake and then your hour will come.”

Up to this point Joffre and his advisers at GQG, although aware of Kluck’s inward wheel, did not see in it an important or early opportunity for attack on his flank. Kluck’s shift in pursuit of the British on September 2 left them uncertain whether he might not be turning back against Paris. In any event their minds were not on Paris but were fixed on a general battle along the Seine, not to take place until they had reestablished a solid front. After further anxious consultation at GQG, Joffre came to a decision to continue the retreat “several days’ march to the rear” of where the armies then stood, which would allow time to bring up reinforcements from his right wing. Despite the risk of weakening the barely held line of the Moselle, he decided to bring over a corps each from the First and Second Armies.

His decision was embodied in secret instructions issued to the army commanders on September 2 which made the Seine and Aube definitive as the line to be reached. The object, Joffre explained, was “to extricate the armies from the enemy’s pressure and enable them to reorganize,” and when this had been accomplished and reinforcements from the east brought up, “at that moment to pass to the offensive.” The British Army would be “asked to participate in the maneuver” and the garrison of Paris “will act in the direction of Meaux,” that is, against Kluck’s flank. Still omitting a date, Joffre said he would give the signal “within a few days.” Commanders were ordered to take “the most draconian measures” against deserters to ensure orderly retreat. Asking each to understand the situation and extend his utmost efforts, Joffre made it clear that this would be the battle “upon which the salvation of the country depends.”

Gallieni, receiving the orders in Paris, condemned Joffre’s plan because it sacrificed Paris and was “divorced from reality.” He believed the pace of the German pursuit would allow the French Armies no time to reach or reform upon the Seine. Scattered reports of Kluck’s southeastward march were reaching him, but he had not been informed of the vital confirmation found by Captain Fagalde. On the night of September 2, expecting attack next day, he slept at his Headquarters, which were now established in the Lycée Victor-Duruy, a girls’ school across the street from the Invalides. A large building set back behind trees, it was isolated from the public and, having fewer entrances and exits than the Invalides, was easier to guard. Sentinels were posted at the doors, field telephones connected with all divisional headquarters of the fortified camp, offices set apart for the Operations and Intelligence staffs, mess and sleeping quarters arranged, and Gallieni was enabled, with great relief, to move into “a regular field Headquarters just as at the front.”

The following morning, September 3, he learned definitely of Kluck’s movement toward the Marne, away from Paris. Lieutenant Watteau, an aviator of the Paris garrison making a reconnaissance flight, saw the enemy columns “gliding from west to east” toward the valley of the Ourcq. Later a second airplane from the Paris camp confirmed the report.

In the staff room of Gallieni’s Deuxième Bureau an unspoken excitement communicated itself among the officers. Colonel Girodon, an officer wounded at the front who, however, “considered himself fit to do staff work,” was lying on a chaise longue with his eyes fixed on the wall map on which colored pins traced the direction of the German advance. General Clergerie, Gallieni’s Chief of Staff, entered the room just as another air reconnaissance report from British aviators was brought in. As once more the pins were moved, the track of Kluck’s turn appeared unmistakably on the map, and Clergerie and Girodon cried out together: “They offer us their flank! They offer us their flank!”

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