GALLIENI INSTANTLY SAW the opportunity offered to the Army of Paris. Without hesitating he made up his mind to launch an attack on the flank of the German right wing at the earliest moment and induce Joffre to support the maneuver by resuming the offensive at once, on the entire front, instead of continuing the retreat to the Seine. Although the Army of Paris, of which Maunoury’s Sixth Army was the core, was under Gallieni’s command, the camp of Paris with all its forces had been, since the day before, under Joffre’s command. To launch the Sixth Army upon the offensive two conditions were necessary: Joffre’s consent and support of the Sixth Army’s nearest neighbor, the BEF. Both stood between Paris and Kluck’s flank, Maunoury north and the British south of the Marne.
Gallieni summoned his Chief of Staff, General Clergerie, to what Clergerie called “one of those long conferences he holds on grave issues—they usually last from two to five minutes.” It was now 8:30 P.M. of September 3. They agreed, if Kluck’s line of march were maintained next morning, to exert every pressure upon Joffre for an immediate combined offensive. Aviators of the Paris camp were ordered to make early reconnaissance flights, upon which “grave decisions would depend,” and to report before 10:00 A.M.
Success of a flank attack, as General Hirschauer warned, “depends on the spearhead penetrating,” and the Sixth Army was not the strong sharp instrument Gallieni would have liked. It had reached the positions assigned to it in a generally exhausted condition. Some units had marched thirty-seven miles during the day and night of September 2. Fatigue depressed morale. Gallieni, like his colleagues, considered reserve divisions, of which Maunoury’s Army was largely composed, as of “mediocre value.” The 62nd Reserve, which had not had a day of rest or one day without combat during the retreat, had lost two-thirds of its officers and had only reserve lieutenants as replacements. The IVth Corps had not yet arrived. Only the “calm and resolution” of the people of Paris—those who did not flee south—was a source of satisfaction.
Von Kluck reached the Marne on the evening of September 3 after Lanrezac’s Army, which he was pursuing, and the British on his outer flank, had got across earlier in the day. Between them, in the haste, weariness, and confusion of retreat, and despite, or because of, the rain of telegrams about demolitions, they left bridges intact or only partially destroyed. Kluck held the bridgeheads and, disobeying the order to remain level with Bülow, intended to cross in the morning, continuing his inward wheel in pursuit of the Fifth Army. He had sent three messages to OHL announcing his intention to cross the Marne but as wireless communication with Luxembourg was even worse than with Coblenz, they did not get through until the following day. Out of contact with the First Army for two days, OHL did not know Kluck had disobeyed the order of September 2; by the time they found out, his leading columns were across the Marne.
They had marched twenty-five to twenty-eight miles on September 3. When the soldiers came into their billets, said a French witness, “they fell down exhausted, muttering in a dazed way, ‘forty kilometers! forty kilometers!’ That was all they could say.” In the coming battle many German prisoners were taken asleep, unable to go another step. The heat of the days was terrible. Only the expectation of reaching Paris “tomorrow or the day after” enabled them to march at all, and the officers did not dare undeceive them. In his fever to finish off the French, Kluck, besides wearing out his men, outstripped not only his supply trains but also his heavy artillery. His compatriot in East Prussia, General von François, would not budge until he had at hand all his artillery and ammunition wagons. But François faced battle, whereas Kluck, thinking he faced only pursuit and mopping up, ignored the precaution. He believed the French incapable, after ten days of retreat, of the morale and energy required to turn around at the sound of the bugle and fight again. Nor was he worried about his flank. “The General fears nothing from the direction of Paris,” recorded an officer on September 4. “After we have destroyed the remains of the Franco-British Army he will return to Paris and give the IVth Reserve the honor of leading the entry into the French capital.”
The order to remain behind as flank guard of the German advance could not be carried out, Kluck bluntly informed OHL as he pushed forward on September 4. A two-day halt, necessary to allow Bülow to catch up, would weaken the whole German offensive and give the enemy time to regain his freedom of movement. Indeed, it was only by the “bold action” of his army that the crossings of the Marne had been opened to the other armies, and “it is now to be hoped that every advantage will be taken of this success.” Becoming angrier as he dictated, Kluck demanded to know how it was that “decisive victories” by the “other” armies—meaning Bülow—were always followed by “appeals for support.”
Bülow was furious when his neighbor transformed “the echelon in rear of the Second Army prescribed by OHL into an echelon in advance.” His troops, too, like most of the German units as they came up to the Marne, were exhausted. “We can do no more,” wrote an officer of the Xth Reserve Corps. “The men fall in the ditches and lie there just to breathe .… The order comes to mount. I ride bent over with my head resting on the horse’s mane. We are thirsty and hungry. Indifference comes over us. Such a life isn’t worth much. To lose it is to lose little.” Troops of Hausen’s Army complained of having “no cooked food for five days in a row.” In the neighboring Fourth Army an officer wrote: “We march all day in the broiling heat. With bearded faces and powdered with dust, the men look like walking sacks of flour.” That the German advance was being achieved at the cost of the exhaustion and apathy of the troops did not alarm the field commanders. Like Kluck, they were convinced the French could not recoup. Bülow on September 3 reported the French Fifth Army “decisively beaten”—for the third or fourth time—and fleeing “utterly disorganized to south of the Marne.”
If not “utterly disorganized,” the Fifth Army was distinctly not in good shape. Lanrezac’s loss of confidence in Joffre, which he took no trouble to conceal, his quarrels with liaison officers from GQG and his dispute of orders infected his staff, half of whom were at odds with the other half. All were irritated and worried with nerves strained by the long agony of bringing up the rear of the French retreat. General Mas de Latrie of the XVIIIth Corps, which was nearest to the enemy, was expressing “anguish” at the condition of his troops. But however battered, the Fifth Army had got across the Marne with enough distance between itself and the enemy to be considered disengaged, thus fulfilling Joffre’s condition for resuming the offensive.
Although Joffre intended to make the effort “within a few days,” as he informed the government, he was not specific, and discouragement at GQG was deep. Every day liaison officers returned depressed from their visits to the armies over whom, as one of them said, “blew the winds of defeat.” Arrangements were being made to move GQG back another thirty miles to Chatillon-sur-Seine, and the move was carried out two days later, September 5. In ten days France had lost the cities of Lille, Valenciennes, Cambrai, Arras, Amiens, Maubeuge, Mézieres, St. Quentin, Laon, and Soissons, as well as coal and iron mines, wheat and sugarbeet areas, and a sixth of her population. A pall descended upon everyone when Rheims, in whose great cathedral every French king from Clovis to Louis XVI had been crowned, was abandoned as an open city to Bülow’s Army on September 3. It was not until two weeks later, in the angry aftermath of the Marne, that the bombardment took place which was to make the cathedral of Rheims a symbol to the world like the Library of Louvain.
Joffre who had still shown no sign of nerves, whose appetite for three regular meals remained steady and his ten o’clock bedtime inviolable, faced on September 3 the one task that during this period caused him visible discomfort. He had made up his mind that Lanrezac must go. His stated reasons were Lanrezac’s “physical and moral depression” and his “unpleasant personal relations,” by now notorious, with Sir John French. For the sake of the coming offensive in which the role of the Fifth Army would be crucial and participation by the British essential, he must be replaced. Despite Lanrezac’s firm conduct of the battle of Guise, Joffre had convinced himself that since then Lanrezac had “morally gone to pieces.” Besides, he never ceased criticizing and raising objections to orders. This was not necessarily evidence of moral depression, but it annoyed the Generalissimo.
With few personal ideas of his own, Joffre was adept at taking advice, and submitted more or less consciously to the reigning doctrinaires of the Operations Bureau. They formed what a French military critic called “a church outside which there was no salvation and which could never pardon those who revealed the falsity of its doctrine.” Lanrezac’s sin was in having been right, all too vocally. He had been right from the beginning about the fatal underestimation of the German right wing as a result of which a fair part of France was now under the German boot. His decision to break off battle at Charleroi when threatened with double envelopment by Bülow’s and Hausen’s armies had saved the French left wing. As General von Hausen acknowledged after the war, this upset the whole German plan which had counted on enveloping the French left, and ultimately caused Kluck’s inward wheel in the effort to roll up the Fifth Army. Whether Lanrezac’s withdrawal came from fear or from wisdom is immaterial, for fear sometimes is wisdom and in this case had made possible the renewed effort Joffre was now preparing. All this was to be recognized long afterward when the French government, in a belated gesture of amends, awarded Lanrezac the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honor. But in the bitter failure of the first month Lanrezac’s lèse majesté made him intolerable to GQG. On the day he brought his army across the Marne, he was marked for the Tarpeian Rock.
Lanrezac’s mood, after all that had passed, was in reality not the most reliable; unquestionably the mutual distrust between him and GQG, whose so ever the fault, and between him and Sir John French made him a risk as a commander in time of crisis. Joffre felt it necessary to take every possible measure to avoid failure in the coming offensive. Including his dismissals of the next two days, Joffre in the first five weeks stripped the French Army of two army commanders, ten corps commanders and thirty-eight, or half the total number, of divisional generals. New and mostly better men, including three future Marshals, Foch, Pétain, and Franchet d’Esperey, moved up to fill their places. If some injustices were committed, the army was improved.
Joffre set out in his car for Sézanne where Fifth Army Headquarters was located that day. At a prearranged meeting place he conferred with Franchet d’Esperey, commander of the Ist Corps who turned up with his head wrapped in a bath towel because of the heat.
“Do you feel yourself capable of commanding an army?” Joffre asked.
“As well as anyone else,” replied Franchet d’Esperey. When Joffre simply looked at him, he shrugged and explained: “The higher one goes, the easier. One gets a bigger staff; there are more people to help.” That being settled, Joffre drove on.
At Sézanne he retired alone with Lanrezac and said to him: “My friend, you are used up and undecided. You will have to give up command of the Fifth Army. I hate to tell you this but I have to.” According to Joffre, Lanrezac thought for a moment and replied, “General, you are right,” and seemed like a man relieved of an overwhelming burden. According to Lanrezac’s own account, he protested vigorously and demanded that Joffre cite evidence, but Joffre would only repeat “Hesitant, undecided,” and complain that Lanrezac always made “observations” on orders given him. Lanrezac said this could hardly be held against him since events proved all his observations correct, which, of course, was the trouble. But Joffre was obviously not listening. He made “facial expressions indicating I had worn out his patience and his eyes refused to meet mine.” Lanrezac gave up the struggle. Joffre emerged from the interview looking, according to his aide-de-camp, “very nervous,” a unique occasion.
Franchet d’Esperey was now sent for. Called from his dinner at the first mouthful of soup, he stood up, swallowed off a glass of wine, put on his coat, and left for Sézanne. Held up by a transfer of military supplies taking place unhurriedly at a crossroad, he jumped from his car. So well known in the army was his compact hard figure with a head like a howitzer shell, crewcut hair, piercing dark eyes, and sharp authoritarian voice, that the men, horses, and vehicles parted as if by magic. In the coming days, as tension and his temper rose, his method of dealing with roadblocks as he dashed from corps to corps was to fire his revolver out of the window of his car. To the British soldiers he eventually became known as “Desperate Frankey.” Fellow officers found him transformed from the jovial and friendly, though strict, commander they had known, to a tyrant. He became fierce, peremptory, glacial, and imposed a reign of terror upon his staff no less than upon the troops. Hardly had Lanrezac handed over to him the confidential dossier and relinquished command at Sézanne when the telephone rang and Hely d’Oissel, who answered it, was heard repeating “Yes, General. No, General,” with increasing irritation.
“Who’s that?” rapped out Franchet d’Esperey, and was told it was General Mas de Latrie of the XVIIIth Corps insisting he could not carry out orders for the next day because of the extreme fatigue of his troops.
“I’ll take it,” said the new Commander. “Hello, this is General d’Esperey. I have taken over command of the Fifth Army. There is to be no more discussion. You will march; march or drop dead.” And he hung up.
September 4 opened with a sense of climax felt in widely separated places; a kind of extra-sensory awareness that great events sometimes send ahead. In Paris, Gallieni felt this was the “decisive” day. In Berlin, Princess Blücher wrote in her diary, “Nothing is talked of but the expected entry into Paris.” In Brussels the leaves had begun to fall, and a sudden wind blew them in gusts about the street. People felt the hidden chill of autumn in the air and wondered what would happen if the war were to last through the winter. At the American Legation Hugh Gibson noted a “growing nervousness” at German Headquarters where there had been no announcements of victories in four days. “I am sure there is something big in the air today.”
At OHL in Luxembourg tension was at a pitch as the triumphant moment of German history approached. Stretched to the snapping point of endurance, the army was about to complete upon the Marne the work begun at Sadowa and Sedan. “It is the 35th day,” said the Kaiser with triumph in his voice to a visiting minister from Berlin. “We invest Rheims, we are 30 miles from Paris .…”
At the front the German Armies thought of the final battle in terms of a roundup rather than a combat. “Great news,” recorded an officer of the Fifth Army in his diary, “the French have offered us an armistice and are prepared to pay an indemnity of 17 billions. For the time being,” he added soberly, “the armistice is being refused.”
The enemy was considered beaten, and any evidence to the contrary was unwelcome. A horrid doubt entered the mind of General von Kuhl, Kluck’s Chief of Staff, upon the report of a French column near Château-Thierry singing as it marched in retreat. He suppressed his doubts, “as all orders for the new movement had already been given.” Apart from a few such instances there was no suspicion, or none that made itself felt upon command decisions, that the enemy was preparing a counter-offensive. Although signs were visible, German Intelligence, operating in hostile territory, failed to pick them up. An Intelligence officer from OHL came to the Crown Prince’s headquarters on September 4 to say that the situation was favorable all along the front and that “We are advancing triumphantly everywhere.”
One man did not think so. Moltke, unlike Joffre, may have had no confidence in his own star but neither did he have the veil that confidence can sometimes draw before the eyes, and so he saw things without illusion. In this he resembled Lanrezac. On September 4 he was “serious and depressed,” and said to Helfferich, the same minister who had just talked to the Kaiser, “We have hardly a horse in the army who can go another step.” After a thoughtful pause he went on: “We must not deceive ourselves. We have had success but not victory. Victory means annihilation of the enemy’s power of resistance. When a million men oppose each other in battle the victor has prisoners. Where are our prisoners? Twenty thousand in Lorraine, perhaps another ten or twenty thousand altogether. And from the comparatively small number of guns captured, it seems to me the French are conducting a planned and orderly retreat.” The inadmissible thought had been spoken.
On that day Kluck’s message that he was about to cross the Marne finally reached OHL, too late to stop the movement. The flank Kluck thus exposed to Paris worried Moltke. Reports were coming in of heavy railroad traffic in the direction of Paris, “apparently the movement of troops.” Rupprecht on that day reported the withdrawal of two French corps from his front. It was impossible any longer to avoid the evidence that the enemy’s power of resistance had not come to an end.
The transfer of French troops, as Colonel Tappen pointed out, could mean “an attack from Paris upon our right flank for which we had no available reserves.” This was a problem of which Moltke, as well as the field commanders, was painfully conscious. Losses sustained in the continuing combats with the French rearguards during the retreat could not be made up by reserves as the French were doing. The holes in the German lines remained and the two corps sent to East Prussia were missed. Moltke was now ready to take reinforcements from the left wing even though Rupprecht had just launched a renewed attack on the Moselle on September 3. It happened that the Kaiser was at Rupprecht’s headquarters when Moltke’s proposal came through. Certain that this time, at last, the defense of Nancy would be broken, the Kaiser stoutly supported Rupprecht and von Krafft in opposing any diminution of their strength. A man other than Moltke might have insisted, but Moltke did not. Since the unnerving night of August 1, the uncertainties and stresses of the campaign had weakened rather than strengthened his will. Failing reinforcements for the right wing, he decided to halt it.
The new Order, addressed to all the armies, which was drafted that night and issued early next morning, was an open admission of failure of the right wing, failure of the design for victory to which Germany had sacrificed the neutrality of Belgium. Dated September 4, a month from the day Belgium was invaded, it was an accurate appraisal of the situation. “The enemy” it said, “has evaded the enveloping attack of the First and Second Armies and a part of his forces has joined up with the forces of Paris.” Enemy troops were being withdrawn from the Moselle front and moved westward “probably in order to concentrate superior forces in the region of Paris and threaten the right flank of the German Army.” In consequence “the First and Second Armies must remain facing the eastern front of Paris … to act against any operation of the enemy from that area.” The Third Army was to continue a southward advance to the Seine and the other armies to carry on under the previous order of September 2.
To halt the marching wing on the very threshold of victory seemed stark madness to the War Minister, General von Falkenhayn, who within two weeks was to be Moltke’s successor as Commander in Chief. “Only one thing is certain,” he wrote in his diary for September 5. “Our General Staff has completely lost its head. Schlieffen’s notes do not help any further so Moltke’s wits come to an end.” It was not Moltke’s wits but German time that was running out. In the French troop movements Moltke correctly saw a danger developing upon his outer flank and took a proper and sensible measure to meet it. His Order had only one flaw: it was late. Even then it might have been in time had it not been for one man in a hurry—Galleni.
Reports of the Paris aviators, at daybreak on September 4, showed him it was “vital to act quickly.” The rear of Kluck’s curved march to the southeast presented a clear target to Maunoury’s Army and to the British if a joint attack could be launched in time. At 9:00 A.M., before obtaining Joffre’s consent, he sent preliminary orders to Maunoury: “My intention is to send your army forward in liaison with the English forces against the German flank. Make your arrangements at once so that your troops will be ready to march this afternoon as the start of a general movement eastward by the forces of the Paris camp.” As soon as he could Maunoury was to come to confer personally in Paris.
Gallieni then set himself to obtain an “immediate and energetic” decision from Joffre. Between them lay the remnants of an old relationship as commander and subordinate. Both were conscious of Gallieni’s official designation as Commander in Chief if anything happened to Joffre. Aware that Joffre resisted and resented his influence, Gallieni counted less on persuading him than on forcing his hand. To that end he had already called Poincaré in Bordeaux to say he thought there was a “good opening” for resuming the offensive at once.
At 9:45 he put through a call to GQG, the first of a series of which he was later to say, “The real battle of the Marne was fought on the telephone.” General Clergerie conducted the conversation with Colonel Pont, Chief of Operations, as Gallieni would not talk to anyone less than Joffre and Joffre would not come to the phone. He had an aversion to the instrument and used to pretend he “did not understand the mechanism.” His real reason was that, like all men in high position, he had an eye on history and was afraid that things said over the telephone would be taken down without his being able to control the record.
Clergerie explained the plan to launch the Sixth Army and all available forces of the Paris camp in an attack on Kluck’s flank, preferably north of the Marne, in which case contact could be made on September 6; alternatively on the south bank which would require a day’s delay to allow Maunoury to cross over. In either case Clergerie asked for an order to put the Sixth Army on the march that evening. He urged Gallieni’s belief that the moment had come to end the retreat and return the whole army to the offensive in combination with the Paris maneuver. GQG was left to come to a decision.
Contrary to GQG’s willingness to sacrifice the capital, Gallieni from the beginning was motivated by the conviction that Paris must be defended and held. He viewed the front from the point of view of Paris and with no direct knowledge of the situation of the field armies. He was determined to seize the opportunity Kluck’s swerve offered him, believing that his own move must and would precipitate a general offensive. It was a bold, even a rash, design, for without fully knowing the situation of the other armies he could not fairly judge the chances of success. Gallieni did not think there was a choice. It may be he had a great commander’s instinctive feel for his moment; it is more likely he felt France would not have another.
At 11:00 A.M. Maunoury arrived for briefing; no answer had yet come from Joffre. At noon Clergerie telephoned again.
Meanwhile in the school at Bar-sur-Aube where GQG was installed, officers of the Operations staff, crowding in front of the wall map, animately discussed Gallieni’s proposal for a combined offensive. The terrible trampling of French military hopes in the past month had instilled caution in the hearts of some. Others were as fervent apostles of the offensive as ever and had an answer for every counsel of caution. Joffre was present, listening to their arguments recorded by his aide-de-camp, Captain Muller. “Troops at the end of their strength? No matter, they are Frenchmen and tired of retreating. The moment they hear the order to advance they will forget their fatigue. A gap between the Armies of Foch and de Langle? It will be filled by the XXIst Corps coming from Dubail’s Army. Unpreparedness of the armies to attack? Ask the field commanders; you will see how they will answer. Cooperation of the English? Ah, that’s more serious. One cannot give their Commander orders; one has to negotiate, and time is short. But the important thing is to seize the occasion, for it is fugitive. Kluck can still repair his mistake, and the movements of the Sixth Army will certainly draw his attention to the dangers to which he has exposed himself.”
Without having contributed a word, Joffre went to consult Berthelot in his office and found him opposed to the plan. The Armies could not suddenly face about, he argued. They should complete the planned retreat to a strong defensive line and allow the Germans to penetrate more deeply into the net. Above all, the numerical superiority which was wanted could not be achieved until the two corps coming from the Lorraine front had time to come into position.
Silent, astride a straw-bottomed chair facing Berthelot’s wall map, Joffre considered the problem. His plan for an ultimate return to the offensive had always included using the Sixth Army in an attack on the enemy’s right flank. Gallieni, however, was precipitating matters. Joffre wanted the extra day for the reinforcements to come up, for the Fifth Army to prepare, and for more time in which to secure the cooperation of the British. When Clergerie’s second call came through, he was told that the Commander in Chief preferred attack on the south bank of the Marne, and when Clergerie demurred about the delay he was told “the delay of a day will mean more forces available.”
Joffre now faced the greater decision: whether to carry out the planned retreat to the Seine or seize the opportunity—and the risk—and face the enemy now. The heat was overpowering. Joffre went outside and sat down in the shade of a weeping ash in the school playground. By nature an arbiter, he collected the opinions of others, sorted them, weighed the personal coefficient of the speaker, adjusted the scale, and eventually announced his verdict. The decision was always his. If it succeeded his would be the glory; if it failed he would be held responsible. In the problem now before him the fate of France was at stake. During the past thirty days the French Army had failed in the great task for which it had been preparing for the past thirty years. Its last chance to save France, to prove her again the France of 1792, was now. The invader was forty miles from where Joffre sat and barely twenty from the nearest French Army. Senlis and Creil, after Kluck’s Army had passed over, were in flames and the Mayor of Senlis dead. If the French turned now before the armies were ready—and failed?
The immediate requirement was to find out whether they could be made ready. As the Fifth Army was in a crucial position, Joffre sent a message to Franchet d’Esperey: “It may be advantageous to give battle tomorrow or the day after with all the forces of the Fifth Army in concert with the British and the mobile forces of Paris against the German First and Second Armies. Please advise whether your army is in a condition to do this with a chance of success. Reply immediately.” A similar query was sent to Foch who stood next to Franchet d’Esperey and opposite Bülow.
Joffre continued to sit and think under the tree. For most of the afternoon the ponderous figure in black tunic, baggy red pants, and army-issue boots from which, to the despair of his aides, he had banished the affectation of spurs, remained silent and motionless.
Meanwhile Gallieni, taking Maunoury with him, left Paris at one o’clock to drive to British Headquarters at Melun on the Seine, twenty-five miles to the south. In response to his request for British support he had received a negative reply from Huguet who reported that Sir John French “adopts the counsels of prudence of his Chief of Staff,” Sir Archibald Murray, and would not join an offensive unless the French guaranteed defense of the lower Seine between the British and the sea. Driving past the lines of southbound cars fleeing Paris, the two French generals reached British Headquarters at three o’clock. Kilted sentinels presented arms smartly; soldiers were busily typing indoors; but neither the Field Marshal nor his principal officers could be found, and the Staff appeared “confounded” by the situation. After a prolonged search Murray was located. Sir John French, he said, was away inspecting the troops; he could give no idea when he was expected to return.
Gallieni tried to explain his plan of attack and why British participation was “indispensable,” but he could feel all the while the Englishman’s “great reluctance to share our views.” Murray kept repeating that the BEF was under the formal orders of its Commander in Chief to rest, reorganize, and await reinforcements, and he could do nothing until his return. After more than two hours of discussion during which Sir John French still did not appear, Gallieni succeeded in persuading Murray to write down a summary of the plan of attack and proposals for joint British action which “he did not appear to understand very well.” Before leaving he secured a promise that Murray would notify him the moment his Chief returned.
At the same time another Anglo-French conference was taking place thirty-five miles up the Seine at Bray from which Sir John French was also absent. Anxious to repair the frayed relations left by Lanrezac, Franchet d’Esperey had arranged for a meeting with the Field Marshal at Bray at three o’clock. He wore for the occasion the ribbon of a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order. On reaching Bray his car was stopped by a French sentinel who reported an urgent message waiting for the General at the telegraph office. It was Joffre’s query about the coming battle. Studying it, Franchet d’Esperey strode up and down the street, waiting in growing impatience for the British. After fifteen minutes a Rolls-Royce drove up with an “enormous Highlander” next to the chauffeur, but instead of the florid little Field Marshal in the back seat, “a tall devil, very ugly with an intelligent, expressive face” emerged. It was Wilson who was accompanied by the British Chief of Intelligence, Colonel Macdonogh. They had been delayed on the way when, seeing a Parisian lady in distress by the roadside Wilson gallantly took time to provide gas for her car and maps for her chauffeur.
The group retired to a room on the second floor of the Mairie with the Highlander posted as sentinel outside. Macdonogh lifted a heavy cloth to peer under the table, opened a door leading to an adjoining bedroom, looked under the bed, punched the quilt, opened the closet, and sounded the walls with his fist. Then, in answer to a question from Franchet d’Esperey about the situation of the British Army, he unfolded a map showing the exact positions, marked in blue arrows, of the enemy on his front and gave a masterly analysis of the movements of the German First and Second Armies. Franchet d’Esperey was impressed.
“You are our ally—I shall keep no secrets from you,” he said, and read aloud Joffre’s proposal. “I am going to answer that my army is prepared to attack,” and, fixing his visitors with eyes of steel, “I hope you will not oblige us to do it alone. It is essential that you fill the space between the Fifth and Sixth Armies.” He then outlined a precise plan of action which he had worked out in his head in the brief quarter-hour since receiving the telegram. It was based on the assumption, arrived at independently, of attack by Maunoury’s Army north of the Marne on September 6. Wilson, concerting again with an energetic French general as he once had with Foch, readily agreed. Disposition of the two armies, the given line each was to reach by morning of September 6, and the direction of attack were decided. Wilson warned there would be difficulty in obtaining consent from Sir John French and especially from Murray, but promised to do his best. He left for Melun while Franchet d’Esperey sent a report of their agreement to Joffre.
At Bar-sur-Aube, Joffre rose from under his shade tree. Without waiting for the replies of Franchet d’Esperey and Foch, he had made up his mind. He walked into the Operations Bureau and ordered an Instruction drafted “to extend the local action envisaged by the Paris garrison to all the forces of the Allied left.” Action was to begin on September 7. Instantly a great calm succeeded feverish discussion. The retreat was over. The moment to turn had come. Everyone fell to work preparing the detailed orders. To reduce the risk of leaks to the enemy it was decided not to issue the orders until the last possible moment.
It was then six o’clock, and at six-thirty Joffre went in to dinner to which he had invited two Japanese officers. While at table word was quietly whispered to him that Franchet d’Esperey had persuaded the British to join an offensive; important papers had arrived from the Fifth Army. Meals were sacred and international courtesy no less, especially as the Allies were engaged at the time in optimistic negotiations for Japanese military assistance in Europe. Joffre could not interrupt dinner but he committed the impropriety of “hurrying through” it. When he read Franchet d’Esperey’s crisp answer it was like being pushed into water and forced to swim. In a tone hardly less abrupt than his “march or drop dead,” d’Esperey laid down the precise times, places, and conditions of battle by the three armies, Fifth, Sixth, and British. It could open on September 6; the British Army would “execute a change of direction” on condition that its left was supported by the Sixth Army; the Sixth must reach a certain line along the Ourcq at a certain time, “if not the British will not march”; the Fifth would continue its retreat next day until south of the Grand Morin and be in position on the day after for frontal attack upon Kluck’s Army while the British and Maunoury attacked his flank. “Vigorous participation” by Foch’s Army against the German Second Army was a necessary condition.
“My army can fight on September 6,” Franchet d’Esperey concluded, “but is not in brilliant condition.” This was a bare statement of the truth. When later Franchet d’Esperey told General Hache of the IIIrd Corps that attack was set for next morning, Hache “looked as if he had been hit on the head with a club.”
“It’s mad!” he protested. “The troops are exhausted. They don’t sleep or eat—they’ve been marching and fighting for two weeks! We need arms, ammunition, equipment. Everything is in terrible shape. Morale is bad. I’ve had to replace two generals of division. The Staff is worth nothing and good for nothing. If we had time to refit behind the Seine .…”
Like Gallieni, d’Esperey believed there was no choice. His immediate and bold response, like Gallieni’s, proved a deciding factor and one that probably would not have been forthcoming from his predecessor. Other unreliable commanders were also weeded out. General Mas de Latrie was removed that day to be replaced by the dashing General de Maud’huy, taken from Castelnau’s Army. By now the Fifth Army had undergone the replacement of its commander, 3 out of 5 corps commanders, 7 out of 13 divisional generals, and a proportionate number of generals of brigade.
Encouraged by the “intelligent audacity” of d’Esperey’s reply, Joffre told the Operations Staff to make the battle orders conform to his conditions of place, although retaining September 7 as the date. He received an equally affirmative reply from Foch who announced himself simply as “ready to attack.”
Henry Wilson on reaching British Headquarters found a dismaying answer. Murray, without even waiting for the return of Sir John French, had issued orders for a further retreat of ten to fifteen miles in a southwesterly direction to begin that night—“It is simply heartbreaking.” Wilson also found Murray’s memorandum of Gallieni’s plan. He immediately sent off a wire to Paris saying, “Marshal not yet returned” and reporting the proposed retreat. He seems not to have reported it to d’Esperey, perhaps in the hope of persuading Sir John French to cancel it.
When Sir John returned, he walked into an unnerving confusion of plans and proposals. There was a letter from Joffre written prior to the day’s events, proposing British action on the Seine; there was Gallieni’s proposal to Murray; there was Wilson’s agreement with Franchet d’Esperey; and there was Murray himself earnestly whispering retreat. Bewildered by so many calls for action, and unable to decide which took precedence over what, Sir John took refuge in no action at all. He let Murray’s orders stand and informed Huguet for the benefit of all French petitioners that, “owing to the continual changes,” he preferred to “restudy the situation before deciding on action.”
At about the same hour Gallieni returned to Paris from Melun. He found Wilson’s telegram and also one from Joffre sent at 12:20 P.M. confirming the preference expressed over the phone at noon that Maunoury’s attack should take place south of the Marne on September 7. This was not new, but together with Wilson’s message it seems to have had decisive effect on Gallieni. Time was escaping and Kluck advancing. He saw his moment slipping away, and determined to force the issue. This time he called GQG himself. Joffre tried to evade him by putting Belin on the telephone, but Gallieni insisted on speaking personally to the Generalissimo. According to a record of the conversation made by Joffre’s aide-de-camp, Gallieni said, “The Sixth Army had made arrangements to attack north of the Marne and it appeared to him impossible to modify the general direction to which the army was already committed, and he insisted that the attack should be launched without any change in the conditions of time and place already laid down.”
Confronted voice to voice by his former superior, Joffre may have felt again the moral authority that a man of Gallieni’s commanding temperament exerted. Or, as he afterward claimed, he may have felt forced, though “unwillingly,” to advance the general offensive to an earlier day for fear that Maunoury’s movements, precipitated by Gallieni, would disclose the whole French maneuver to the enemy. He had assurances of readiness to fight from both Foch and Franchet d’Esperey and he thought the latter, by the spell of his magic energy, had secured a similar commitment from the British. He did not know it had become unpinned. In any event he authorized or acquiesced in attack by the Sixth Army north of the Marne and agreed to begin general action on September 6, “as Gallieni desired.” Gallieni instantly, at 8:30 P.M., confirmed his marching orders to Maunoury, who was already moving. At GQG the staff revised the positions of attack to suit the advanced date. At 10:00 P.M., two hours after Moltke signed the Order halting the German right wing, Joffre signed General Order No. 6.
“The time has come,” it began in full consciousness of a historic moment, “to profit by the adventurous position of the German First Army and concentrate against that army all efforts of the Allied Armies of the extreme left.” Movements prescribed for the Sixth, Fifth, and British Armies were those of Franchet d’Esperey’s reply. Separate orders to join the offensive were issued to the Third and Fourth Armies.
The night was not over. Hardly was the Order signed when word came from Huguet of Sir John French’s refusal to ratify any plan for joint action and of his desire to “restudy” the situation. Joffre was stunned. The momentous decision had been taken; orders were on their way; in thirty-six hours the battle to save France would begin. The ally whose participation had been planned for the sake, as Foch once said, of a single dead British soldier, but who had been left by a trick of fate holding a vital place in the line, was backing out once again. Because of the time required for encoding and dispatching, the orders were not intended to reach the armies until next morning. As the only means of persuasion he could think of, Joffre sent a special copy of Order No. 6 by personal messenger to British Headquarters. When the officer reached Melun at 3:00 A.M., the three corps of the BEF had already begun the night march of retreat ordered by Murray that afternoon.
The enemy, too, at dawn of September 5 was on the march too soon. Thrusting forward in his effort to roll up the French flank, Kluck already had his army on the roads before Moltke’s orders to turn and face the danger on his flank arrived by wireless at 7:00 A.M. Four corps, spread out over thirty miles of country, were headed for the Grand Morin. Kluck did not stop them. He either did not believe or did not heed the warning about a French concentration of troops on his flank. Assuming that the German Armies “were everywhere advancing victoriously along the whole front”—it was the Germans’ habit to believe their own communiqués—he did not think the enemy could have forces available to threaten his flank. He, too, had begun to notice signs that the French retreat was perhaps not altogether disorganized and so felt it all the more urgent that no letup of pressure should give the enemy time to halt and “regain freedom of maneuver as well as offensive spirit.” Disdaining Moltke’s directive, Kluck advanced with his army, moving his own headquarters twenty-five miles forward to Rebais between the two Morins. By evening troops of the German First Army reached a line within ten to fifteen miles of the BEF and Franchet d’Esperey’s Army, with outposts less than five miles apart. It was to be their last day of advance.
A representative from OHL with plenary powers came to Kluck’s headquarters that evening. With unhappy experience both of wireless and Kluck’s temperament, Moltke sent his Chief of Intelligence, Colonel Hentsch, on a 175-mile drive from Luxembourg to explain in person the reasons for the new Order and to see that it was carried out. To their “amazement,” Kluck and his staff learned that Rupprecht’s Armies were held up in a deadlocked battle before the French fortress line, as was the Crown Prince’s Army before Verdun. Colonel Hentsch described the evidence of French troop movements which had led OHL to calculate that “very strong enemy forces” were being shifted westward in a threat to the German flank. It was under these circumstances that OHL dictated the horrid necessity of retirement. The First Army must return north of the Marne. Though it was little consolation, Colonel Hentsch said “the movement could be made at leisure; no special haste was necessary.”
Disturbing confirmation came from the IVth Reserve Corps which had been left as flank guard north of the Marne. It reported encountering and engaging in combat an enemy force of at least two and a half divisions supported by heavy artillery. This was, of course, part of Maunoury’s Army moving forward toward the Ourcq. Although the French attack was “successfully repulsed,” the Commander of the IVth Reserve had ordered a retreat as soon as it was dark.
Kluck gave in. The extra distance he had dragged his army forward in the last two days since crossing the Marne had now to be retraced. Orders were drafted to begin the retirement of two corps next morning, September 6, with the others following later. After the march he had made from Liège to a level with Paris, it was a bitter moment. If he had stayed in echelon behind Bülow as ordered, if he had even halted his army that morning at seven o’clock, he would have been in position to face the threat to his flank with his whole army together. According to General Kuhl, his Chief of Staff, “Neither OHL nor the First Army Staff had the remotest idea that an immediate offensive by the whole French Army was imminent .… Not a sign, not a word from prisoners, not a newspaper paragraph gave warning.” If Kluck did not know what lay ahead, there was one thing he could not help but know: to break off pursuit and pull back now, with four days left of the German schedule, was not a prelude to victory.
September 5 seemed a darker day to the Allies. With nothing but defeats so far, their representatives met in London that morning to sign the Pact binding each other “not to conclude any separate peace in the course of the present war.”
In Paris, Maunoury asked Gallieni, “In case we should be overwhelmed, our line of retreat will be …?” His eyes clouding over, Gallieni answered, “Nowhere.” Preparing for possible disaster, he issued secret orders to each regional commander of the Paris camp to report all resources in his district which must be destroyed rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. Even bridges in the heart of the city like the Pont Neuf and the Pont Alexandre were to be blown up. “A void” must be left in front of the enemy in case he should break through, he told General Hirschauer.
At GQG a report from Castelnau was received which seemed to threaten disaster even before the offensive could begin. Pressure was so severe that he felt he might be forced to evacuate Nancy. Joffre ordered him to hold for another twenty-four hours before making a decision, but agreed that if it then seemed unavoidable, he approved the second line of defense suggested in Castelnau’s letter.
In transferring one corps from the Third Army and two corps from the Moselle front, Joffre had taken a grave risk in order to gain this time the numerical superiority which he had not had for the opening offensive. The reinforcements were not yet in the battle line. When it came to informing the government of the decision to fight, Joffre carefully included an alibi for himself in case of failure. His telegram to the President and Premier said, “Gallieni having attacked prematurely, I have given the order to suspend the retreat and, in my turn, resume the offensive.” Afterward, at a time when Joffre was systematically trying to minimize Gallieni’s role at the Marne and even expunge certain things from the records, this telegram was unearthed by Briand and shown to Gallieni. “That ‘prematurely’ is worth gold,” he said.
On the morning of September 5 Joffre’s uncertainty about British intentions became “altogether agonizing.” He begged Millerand by telegram to exert the government’s influence. The imminent battle “can have decisive results but in case of a reverse can also have the gravest consequences for the country .… I count on you to call the Field Marshal’s attention to the decisive importance of an offensive without arrière-pensée. If I could give orders to the English Army as I could to the French Army in the same position, I would pass immediately to the attack.”
At three o’clock that morning Henry Wilson received Order No. 6 from Huguet who, however, did not permit Captain de Galbert, the officer who brought it, to see any of the British chiefs. At the center of every discord during this period, with a curiously malign consistency, the figure of Huguet appears. Deciding that the situation required someone of higher rank, Captain de Galbert started back at once for GQG. At 7:00 A.M. Wilson took the Order to Sir John French and during the course of the morning persuaded him to cooperate. Meanwhile de Galbert arrived back at GQG at 9:30 with no definite news but with a report that British sentiment seemed “lukewarm” toward an offensive. The Mayor of Melun had told him Sir John French’s baggage was being moved back to Fontainebleau.
Joffre felt he must have the British Army in the battle line “at any price,” even at the price of motoring the 115 miles to Melun. Sending a telephone message ahead to expect him, he set out with his aide and two staff officers. Despite roadblocks and the ineluctable stop for lunch, his racing chauffeur brought him to the château where Sir John French was quartered by 2:00 P.M.
The Field Marshal was standing at a table waiting for him flanked by Murray, Wilson, Huguet, “looking as usual as if he had lost his last friend,” and several other members of his staff. Joffre walked over and for once took the floor at the outset. Instead of his usual laconic sentences, a passionate flood of speech poured forth punctuated by a gesture of his forearms which “seemed to throw his heart on the table.” He said the “supreme moment” had arrived, his own orders were given and whatever happened the last company of the French Army would be thrown into the battle to save France. The “lives of all French people, the soil of France, the future of Europe” depended upon the offensive. “I cannot believe the British Army will refuse to do its share in this supreme crisis … history would severely judge your absence.”
Joffre’s fist crashed down on the table. “Monsieur le Maréchal, the honor of England is at stake!”
At these words Sir John French, who had been listening with “passionate attention,” suddenly reddened. Silence fell on the company. Slowly tears came into the eyes of the British Commander in Chief and rolled down his cheeks. He struggled to say something in French and gave up. “Damn it, I can’t explain. Tell him we will do all we possibly can.”
Joffre looked inquiringly at Wilson who translated, “The Field Marshal says ‘Yes.’” It was hardly needed, for the tears and the tone already carried conviction. Murray hurriedly put in that the British troops were now ten miles farther back than the positions called for in the Order and could start only at 9:00 A.M., not 6:00, as Joffre asked. It was a voice of caution that would continue to make itself felt. Joffre shrugged. “It cannot be helped. I have the Field Marshal’s word, that is enough.” Tea was then served.
The move of GQG to Chatillon-sur-Seine, planned before the offensive, had been accomplished during his absence. Joffre returned there by evening, about the time Colonel Hentsch was warning von Kluck. Entering the Operations Room to confirm a decision already taken, Joffre said to the assembled officers, “Gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne.”
He signed the order that would be read to the troops when the bugles blew next morning. Ordinarily the French language, especially in public pronouncements, requires an effort if it is not to sound splendid, but this time the words were flat, almost tired; the message hard and uncompromising: “Now, as the battle is joined on which the safety of the country depends, everyone must be reminded that this is no longer the time for looking back. Every effort must be made to attack and throw back the enemy. A unit which finds it impossible to advance must, regardless of cost, hold its ground and be killed on the spot rather than fall back. In the present circumstances no failure will be tolerated.”
That was all; the time for splendor was past. It did not shout “Forward!” or summon men to glory. After the first thirty days of war in 1914, there was a premonition that little glory lay ahead.