Military history


THE BATTLE OF THE MARNE, as all the world knows, ended in a German retreat. Between the Ourcq and the Grand Morin, in the four days that were left of their schedule, the Germans lost their bid for “decisive victory” and thereby their opportunity to win the the war. For France, for the Allies, in the long run for the world, the tragedy of the Marne was that it fell short of the victory it might have been.

Maunoury’s attack on the German flank and von Kluck’s turnabout to meet it opened a gap between the German First and Second Armies. The issue of the battle depended on whether the Germans could succeed in crushing the two wings—Maunoury and Foch—before Franchet d’Esperey and the British succeeded in exploiting the gap and pushing through the German center. Maunoury, when almost defeated by Kluck, was reinforced by the IVth Corps, of whom 6,000 detraining in Paris were rushed to the front by Gallieni in taxis, and managed to hold his ground. Foch, pressed hard in the Marshes of St. Gond by Hausen’s Army and part of Bülow’s, at a critical moment when his right was driven back and his left ceding, gave his famous order, “Attack, whatever happens! The Germans are at the extreme limit of their efforts .… Victory will come to the side that outlasts the other!” Franchet d’Esperey pushed back Bülow’s right; the British entered the gap too slowly and hesitantly; Colonel Hentsch made his historic reappearance to counsel retreat, and the German Armies withdrew in time to avoid a piercing of their line.

So close had the Germans come to victory, so near the French to disaster, so great, in the preceding days, had been the astonished dismay of the world as it watched the relentless advance of the Germans and the retreat of the Allies on Paris, that the battle that turned the tide came to be known as the Miracle of the Marne. Henri Bergson, who had once formulated for France the mystique of “will,” saw in it something of a miracle that had happened once before: “Joan of Arc won the Battle of the Marne,” was his verdict. The enemy, suddenly halted as if by a stone wall springing up overnight, felt it too. “French élan, just when it is on the point of being extinguished, flames up powerfully,” wrote Moltke sorrowfully to his wife during the battle. The basic reason for German failure at the Marne, “the reason that transcends all others,” said Kluck afterward, was “the extraordinary and peculiar aptitude of the French soldier to recover quickly. That men will let themselves be killed where they stand, that is a well-known thing and counted on in every plan of battle. But that men who have retreated for ten days, sleeping on the ground and half dead with fatigue, should be able to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds, is a thing upon which we never counted. It was a possibility not studied in our war academy.”

Bergson notwithstanding, it was no miracle but the inherent ifs, errors, and commitments of the first month that determined the issue at the Marne. Kluck notwithstanding, faults of German command contributed as much as the verve of the French soldier to the outcome. If the Germans had not withdrawn two corps to send against the Russians, one of the two would have been on Bülow’s right and might have filled the gap between him and Kluck; the other would have been with Hausen and might have provided the extra strength to overwhelm Foch. Russia’s loyal launching of an unready offensive drew those troops away and was given tribute by Colonel Dupont, French Chief of Intelligence. “Let us render to our Allies,” he said, “the homage that is their due, for one of the elements of our victory was their debacle.”

Other “ifs” accumulated. If the Germans had not committed too much strength to the attempt at double envelopment by the left wing, if the right wing had not outrun its supplies and exhausted its men, if Kluck had stayed level with Bülow, if, even on the last day, he had marched back across the Marne instead of forward to the Grand Morin, the decision of the Mame might have been different and the six-week schedule for victory over France achieved—might have been, that is, except for the first and decisive “if”: if the six-week schedule itself had not been based on a march through Belgium. Quite apart from the effect upon the war as a whole of bringing Britain in, and the ultimate effect on world opinion, the addition of Belgium as an enemy reduced the number of German divisions that came up to the Marne and added five British divisions to the Allied line.

At the Marne the Allies achieved the numerical superiority they had not been able to muster at any one point in the Battle of the Frontiers. The missing German divisions were partly responsible, and the balance was tipped by the added French divisions drawn from the Third Army and from the embattled and unflinching armies of Castelnau and Dubail. All during the retreat while the other armies were giving ground, these two held shut the eastern door of France. For eighteen days they fought an almost continuous battle until, finally acknowledging failure too late, Moltke called off the attack on the French fortress line on September 8. If the French First and Second Armies had given way at any point, if they had weakened under Rupprecht’s final onslaught of September 3, the Germans would have won their Cannae and there would have been no opportunity for a French counter-offensive on the Marne, the Seine, or anywhere else. If there was a miracle of the Marne, it was made possible on the Moselle.

Without Joffre no Allied line would have existed to bar the German path. It was his impregnable confidence during the tragic and terrible twelve days of retreat that prevented the French Armies from disintegrating into a shattered and fragmentary mass. A more brilliant, more quick-thinking commander with ideas of his own might have avoided basic initial errors, but after the debacle the one thing France needed Joffre had. It is difficult to imagine any other man who could have brought the French Armies out of retreat, in condition and position to fight again. When the moment to turn came, alone he would have been insufficient. The stand he contemplated at the Seine might well have come too late. It was Gallieni who saw the opportunity and, with a powerful assist from Franchet d’Esperey, provoked the earlier counter-offensive. It was the broken figure of Lanrezac, allowed no share at the Marne, who in saving France from the original folly of Plan 17 made recovery possible. Ironically, both his decision at Charleroi and his replacement by Franchet d’Esperey were equally necessary to the counter-offensive. But it was Joffre, whom nothing could panic, who provided the army to fight it. “If we had not had him in 1914,” said Foch, his ultimate successor, “I don’t know what would have become of us.”

The world remembers the battle ever since by the taxis. A hundred of them were already in the service of the Military Government of Paris. With 500 more, each carrying five soldiers and making the sixty-kilometer trip to the Ourcq twice, General Clergerie figured he could transport 6,000 troops to the hard-pressed front. The order was issued at 1:00 P.M., the hour for departure fixed for 6:00 P.M. Police passed the word to the taxis in the streets. Enthusiastically the chauffeurs emptied out their passengers, explaining proudly that they had to “go to the battle.” Returning to their garages for gas, they were ordered to the place of assembly where at the given time all 600 were lined up in perfect order. Gallieni, called to inspect them, though rarely demonstrative, was enchanted. “Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!” (Well, here at least is something out of the ordinary!) he cried. Each with its burden of soldiers, with trucks, buses, and assorted vehicles added to the train, the taxis drove off, as evening fell—the last gallantry of 1914, the last crusade of the old world.

After the incomplete victory of the Marne there followed the German retreat to the Aisne, the race to the sea for possession of the Channel ports, the fall of Antwerp, and the Battle of Ypres where officers and men of the BEF held their ground, fought literally until they died, and stopped the Germans in Flanders. Not Mons or the Marne but Ypres was the real monument to British valor, as well as the grave of four-fifths of the original BEF. After it, with the advent of winter, came the slow deadly sinking into the stalemate of trench warfare. Running from Switzerland to the Channel like a gangrenous wound across French and Belgian territory, the trenches determined the war of position and attrition, the brutal, mud-filled, murderous insanity known as the Western Front that was to last for four more years.

The Schlieffen plan had failed, but it had succeeded far enough to leave the Germans in occupation of all of Belgium and all of northern France down to the Aisne. As Clemenceau’s paper was tirelessly to remind its readers, month after month, year after year, “Messieurs les Allemands sont toujours à Noyon.” For their presence there, deep within France, the error of Plan 17 was responsible. It had allowed the enemy to penetrate too far to be dislodged by the time the French regathered their strength at the Marne. It permitted the breakthrough that could only be stemmed, and later only contained, at a cost of the terrible drain of French manhood that was to make the war of 1914–1918 the parent of 1940.* It was an error that could never be repaired. Failure of Plan 17 was as fatal as failure of the Schlieffen plan, and together they produced deadlock on the Western Front. Sucking up lives at a rate of 5,000 and sometimes 50,000 a day, absorbing munitions, energy, money, brains, and trained men, the Western Front ate up Allied war resources and predetermined the failure of back-door efforts like that of the Dardanelles which might otherwise have shortened the war. The deadlock, fixed by the failures of the first month, determined the future course of the war and, as a result, the terms of the peace, the shape of the interwar period, and the conditions of the Second Round.

Men could not sustain a war of such magnitude and pain without hope—the hope that its very enormity would ensure that it could never happen again and the hope that when somehow it had been fought through to a resolution, the foundations of a better-ordered world would have been laid. Like the shimmering vision of Paris that kept Kluck’s soldiers on their feet, the mirage of a better world glimmered beyond the shell-pitted wastes and leafless stumps that had once been green fields and waving poplars. Nothing less could give dignity or sense to monstrous offensives in which thousands and hundreds of thousands were killed to gain ten yards and exchange one wet-bottomed trench for another. When every autumn people said it could not last through the winter, and when every spring there was still no end in sight, only the hope that out of it all some good would accrue to mankind kept men and nations fighting.

When at last it was over, the war had many diverse results and one dominant one transcending all others: disillusion. “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation,” wrote D. H. Lawrence in simple summary for his contemporaries. If any of them remembered, with a twinge of pain, like Emile Verhaeren, “the man I used to be,” it was because he knew the great words and beliefs of the time before 1914 could never be restored.

After the Marne the war grew and spread until it drew in the nations of both hemispheres and entangled them in a pattern of world conflict no peace treaty could dissolve. The Battle of the Marne was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back, Joffre told the soldiers on the eve. Afterward there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.

* In the chapel of St. Cyr (before it was destroyed during World War II) the memorial tablet to the dead of the Great War bore only a single entry for “the Class of 1914.” The mortality rate is further illustrated by the experience of André Varagnac, a nephew of the cabinet minister Marcel Sembat, who came of military age in 1914 but was not mobilized in August owing to illness, and found himself, out of the twenty-seven boys in his lycée class, the only one alive by Christmas. According to Armées Françaises, French casualties in the month of August alone amounted to 206,515, including killed, wounded, and missing out of total effectives for the armies in the field of 1,600,000. As these figures do not include officers or garrison and Territorial divisions, the number is believed to be nearer 300,000. Most were incurred during the four days of the Battle of the Frontiers. No separate figures have been published for the Battle of the Marne, but if the estimated losses through September 11 are added to those of August, the total through the first thirty days is equivalent to a daily loss of the whole population of a town the size of Soissons or Compiègne. No exact figures can be given because in line with GQG’s fixed policy against releasing any information of possible value to the enemy, casualty lists were not published. Nor is it possible to give comparable figures for the other belligerents because they tabulated losses at different intervals and on different basis. When the war was over, the known dead per capita of population were 1 to 28 for France, 1 to 32 for Germany, 1 to 57 for England and 1 to 107 for Russia.

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