Military history



Woe to him who sets Europe on fire,

who throws the match into the powder box!


ON 2 AUGUST 1914, JUST A FEW HOURS BEFORE GERMAN TROOPS OCCUPIED Luxembourg and thirty hours before war was declared between France and Germany, Lieutenant Albert Mayer of 5th Baden Mounted Jäger Regiment led a patrol of seven riders across a small ridge along the Allaine River near Joncherey, southeast of Belfort.1 Suddenly, French guards of the 44th Infantry Regiment appeared. Mayer charged. He struck the first Frenchman over the head with his broadsword, causing him to roll into a roadside ditch. Another Jäger drove his lance into the chest of a second French soldier. A third Jäger shot Corporal Jules-André Peugeot, making him the first French casualty of the war. The remaining group of twenty French soldiers took cover in the ditch and opened fire on the German sharpshooters. Mayer tumbled out of the saddle, dead. In this unexpected manner, the twenty-two-year-old Jäger became the first German soldier killed in the war. And in this bizarre way, the first victim in what would collectively be called the Battle of the Marne.

THE MARNE WAS THE most significant land battle of the twentieth century. I made that claim nearly a decade ago in a special issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History dedicated to “Greatest Military Events of the Twentieth Century.”2 The research for this book has only reinforced that belief. In fact, I would argue that the Marne was the most decisive land battle since Waterloo (1815). First, the scale of the struggle was unheard of before 1914: France and Germany mobilized roughly two million men each, Britain some 130,000. During the momentous days between 5 and 11 September 1914, the two sides committed nearly two million men with six thousand guns to a desperate campaign along the Marne River on a front of just two hundred kilometers between the “horns of Verdun and Paris.” Second, the technology of killing was unprecedented. Rapid small-arms fire, machine guns, hand grenades, 75mm and 77mm flat-trajectory guns, 150mm and 60-pounder heavy artillery, mammoth 305mm and 420mm howitzers, and even aircraft made the killing ground lethal. Third, the casualties (“wastage”) suffered by both sides were unimaginable to prewar planners and civilian leaders alike: two hundred thousand men per side in the Battle of the Frontiers around the hills of Alsace-Lorraine and the Ardennes in August, followed by three hundred thousand along the chalky banks of the Marne in early September. No other year of the war compared to its first five months in terms of death. Fourth, the immediate impact of the draw on the Marne was spectacular: The great German assault on Paris had been halted, and the enemy driven behind the Aisne River. France was spared defeat and occupation. Germany was denied victory and hegemony over the Continent. Britain maintained its foothold on the Continent. Finally, the long-term repercussions of the Marne were tragic: It ushered in four more years of what the future German military historian Gerhard Ritter, a veteran of World War I, called the “monotonous mutual mass murder” of the trenches.3During that time, Britain and the empire sustained 3.5 million casualties, France 6 million, and Germany 7 million.* Without the Battle of the Marne, places such as Passchendaele, the Somme, Verdun, and Ypres would not resonate with us as they do. Without the Battle of the Marne, most likely no Hitler; no Horthy; no Lenin; no Stalin.

The Marne was high drama. The Germans gambled all on a brilliant operational concept devised by Chief of the General Staff Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905 and carried out (in revised form) by his successor, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, in 1914: a lightning forty-day wheel through Belgium and northern France ending in a victorious entry march into Paris, followed by a redeployment of German armies to the east to halt the Russian steamroller. It was a single roll of the dice. There was no fallback, no Plan B. Speed was critical; delay was death. Every available soldier, active or reserve, was deployed from the first day of mobilization. The sounds and sights of two million men trudging across Belgium and northeastern France with their kit, guns, and horses in sweltering thirty-degree-Celsius heat, stifling humidity, and suffocating dust was stunning, and frightening. Tens of thousands of soldiers fell by the wayside due to exhaustion, heatstroke, blisters, thirst, hunger, and typhus. Others collapsed with gastroenteritis after devouring the half-ripe fruits in the orchards they passed. Will Irwin, an American journalist observing the German “gray machine of death” marching across Belgium, reported on something he had never heard mentioned in any book on war—“the smell of a half-million un-bathed men. … That smell lay for days over every town.”4

Still, hundreds of thousands pushed on, a ragged and emaciated gray mass buoyed by the “short-war illusion” that the decisive battle was just around the next bend in the road. The home front waited anxiously for victory bulletins. Newspapers vied with one another for any scrap of news or rumor from the front. The atmosphere was electric—in Berlin, in Paris, and in London. Winston S. Churchill, looking back on 1914, opined: “No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening.” The “measured, silent drawing together of gigantic forces,” the uncertainty of their deployment and engagement, and the fickle role of chance “made the first collision a drama never surpassed.” Never again would battle be waged “on so grand a scale.” Never again would the slaughter “be so swift or the stakes so high.”5 It is hard to argue with Churchill.

The Marne has lost none of its fascination. The famous “taxis of the Marne,” the six hundred Renault cabs that rushed some three thousand men of French 7th Infantry Division to the Ourcq River in time to “save” Paris from Alexander von Kluck’s First Army, remain dear to every tourist who has bravely ventured forth in a Parisian taxi-cab. Joseph Galliéni, the military governor of the Paris Entrenched Camp, whose idea it was to use the taxis, remains in the popular mind the brilliant strategist who appreciated the significance of Kluck’s turn southeast before Paris, and who rallied the capital’s forces as well as French Sixth Army to deprive the Germans of victory.

Books on the Marne abound. A keyword search of the catalog of the Library of Congress shows ten thousand titles. A similar perusal of the Google website brings up 174,000 hits. Most of these works are from the British and French perspective. They deal with virtually every aspect of the Battle of the Marne, from the company to the corps level, from the human to the material dimension. Bitter disputes still rage over “reputations”6—from those of French chief of staff Joseph Joffre to his British counterpart, Sir John French, and from General Charles Lanrezac of French Fifth Army to Sir Douglas Haig of British I Corps. No stone is left unturned in this never-ending war of ink.

This book is different. For the first time, the Battle of the Marne is analyzed from the perspective of those who initiated it: the seven German armies that invaded Belgium and France. There was no “German army” before August 1914. Thus, the story is told on the basis of what was a massive research effort in the archives of the various German federal contingents: Baden XIV Army Corps fighting in Alsace, Bavarian Sixth Army and Württemberg XIII Corps deployed in Lorraine, Saxon Third Army struggling in the Ardennes, and Prussian First, Second, and Fifth armies advancing in an arc from Antwerp to Verdun. The collapse of the German Democratic Republic in 1989–90 proved to be a boon for researchers: It gave me access to the records of Saxon Third Army at Dresden, and to roughly three thousand Prussian army files long thought destroyed by Allied air raids in 1945, but returned to Potsdam by the Soviet Union in 1988 and now housed at Freiburg. These allow a fresh and revealing look at the Marne.

This book raises a fundamental question: Was it truly the “Battle of the Marne”? The campaign in the west in 1914, as illustrated by Lieutenant Albert Mayer’s death in the Vosges, was an extended series of battles that raged from the Swiss border to the Belgian coast. During its initial phase, commonly referred to as the Battle of the Frontiers, major operations took place in Alsace, Lorraine, Belgium, the Ardennes, and the Argonne. Each is an integral part of the larger Battle of the Marne. In many ways, what is generally called the First Battle of the Marne*—the bloody campaigns of German First, Second, and Third armies against French Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) between Paris and Verdun from 5 to 11 September—was but the final act in this great drama. Even then, the critical, desperate battles of German First Army and French Sixth Army took place along the Ourcq River and not the Marne. Still, when it came time for the victor to name the battle, French chief of staff Joffre chose Marne mainly because most of the rivers in the region of decisive struggle—Ourcq, Grand Morin, Petit Morin, Saulz, and Ornain—all flowed into the Marne.7

The titanic clash of vast armies over an extended 480-kilometer front, then, was not one battle at all. Rather, in the words of Sewell Tyng, a distinguished historian of the Marne, it consisted of “a series of engagements fought simultaneously by army corps, divisions, brigades, and even battalions, for the most part independently of any central control and independently of the conduct of adjacent units.”8 Hence, the story is told from the perspective of individual units in separate theaters. These range from the cadets of France’s Saint-Cyr Military Academy advancing on Altkirch, in Alsace, in full-dress uniform to the desperate struggle of German First Army’s hundred thousand grimy and grisly warriors marching to the very outskirts of Paris.

The face of battle in each of these theaters is reconstructed on the basis of the diaries and letters of “common soldiers” on both sides, French poilus and German Landser. The much-neglected story of German atrocities committed in Belgium and Lorraine from fear of attack by enemy irregulars (francs-tireurs) likewise is rendered on the basis of the official reports, diaries, and letters of German unit commanders and soldiers in the field. The Bavarian archives reveal the horror of the atrocities at Nomeny, Gerbéviller, and Lunéville, while the Saxon archives help sort out the terrible days when Third Army stormed Dinant. In the process, many of the victims’ reports as well as much of the Allied wartime propaganda are reevaluated.

Obviously, the Battle of the Marne did not end the war. Nor did it suddenly and irrevocably halt the war of maneuver envisioned by all sides before 1914. To be sure, many historians have argued that the Marne brought a formal end to maneuver warfare and that the military commanders thereafter callously accepted an inevitable and indeterminate war of attrition. This simply is a post facto construction. On the Allied side, General Joffre and Field Marshal French saw the Battle of the Marne first as a radical reversal of the Allies’ “Great Retreat,” and then as an opportunity to drive the Germans out of France and Belgium and to take the war into the heartland of the Second Reich. On the German side, Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke, First Army’s Alexander von Kluck, Second Army’s Karl von Bülow, and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch saw the withdrawal from the Marne as a temporary course correction, after which the drive on Paris would be renewed by refreshed and replenished armies. Only Wilhelm II, always prone to sudden mood swings, recognized the Marne as a defeat, as “the great turning point” in his life.9

Given its undisputed centrality in the history of World War I, the Battle of the Marne not surprisingly has raised many “what if?” questions and created myths and legends that have withstood almost a century of investigation. The greatest of these is the most obvious: What if the German operations plan had succeeded and Paris had fallen? The French government already had fled to Bordeaux. Civilians were rushing to train stations to evacuate the capital. And Kaiser Wilhelm II was not in a charitable mood. On the eve of the Battle of the Marne, when he learned that German Eighth Army had taken ninety-two thousand Russian prisoners of war during the Battle of Tannenberg, he suggested they be driven on to a barren peninsula at Courland along the Baltic shore and “starved to death.”10 The Marne, in fact, already was seen as a clash of civilizations, one pitting the German “ideas of 1914”—duty, order, justice—against the French “ideas of 1789”—liberty, fraternity, equality. Or, in Wilhelm II’s simpler analogy, as a clash between “monarchy and democracy.”11

On the basis of three decades of research on imperial Germany and World War I, I can state that the record on the implications of a German victory in 1914 is clear: The result would have been a German “condominium” over the Continent “for all imaginable time.” The Low Countries would have become German vassal states, parts of northeastern France and its Channel coast would have come under Berlin’s control, the countries between Scandinavia and Turkey would have been forced to join a German “economic union,” and Russia would have been reduced to its borders under Peter the Great.12 The British policy of the balance of power—that is, of not allowing any European hegemony to emerge—would have lain in tatters. The Battle of the Marne was consequential in blocking these developments. In the succinct words of General Jean-Jacques Senant, military commander of the French Army Archives at the Château de Vincennes, to an international gathering of scholars in 2004, “The Battle of the Marne saved France and the rest of Europe from German domination. … Indisputably, it is the first turning point of the war.”13

As well, a host of lesser myths and legends enshrouded the Marne in Carl von Clausewitz’s famous “fog of uncertainty” and refuse to disappear from the pages of contemporary accounts of the battle.14 Some were simply propaganda designed for public consumption: the Kaiser’s planned entry into Nancy sitting astride a white charger in the white dress uniform of the Guard Cuirassiers; the twenty-meter-long German flag specially made to fly from the top of the Eiffel Tower; the ten railroad cars loaded with commemorative medals for the fall of Paris that accompanied Kluck’s First Army; and the twenty thousand Saxon soldiers who opted to be taken prisoner at the climax of the Battle of the Marne rather than to fight on. Others were the products of ambitious writers and mythmakers: General Édouard de Castelnau’s alleged disobeying of Joffre’s orders to abandon Nancy early in September (when the reverse was the case); General Ferdinand Foch’s putative communiqué that while his position at the Saint-Gond Marshes was “impossible … I attack;” Joffre’s reported command to his staff on the eve of the battle, accentuated by pounding his fist on the operations table, “Gentlemen, we shall fight it out on the Marne;” and General Maurice Sarrail’s outrageous claim that he had refused Joffre’s “order to abandon Verdun” and in the process assumed the title “Savior of Verdun.”

Indeed, the Allies were not short on creating myths and legends of their own. On the British side of the ledger, there remains the legend that the BEF “discovered” the gap at the Marne between German First and Second armies; that it thereafter brilliantly “exploited” the gap; and that, in the process, it “saved” France. On the French side, there persists the myth of the putative miracle de la Marne.15 For too long, this has served to obscure the fact that Joffre and his staff had not been the benefactors of a divine “miracle,” but rather had brought about what Louis Muller, the chief of staff’s orderly, called “une victoire stratégique” and “un miracle mérite.”16 This book will set the record straight.

Other myths were much more harmful, and again attest to the centrality of the Marne in the history of what was later called the Great War. Certainly, that of Richard Hentsch, a mere lieutenant colonel on the German General Staff, snatching victory from the hands of Generals von Kluck and von Bülow at the moment of certain triumph by ordering them to retreat behind the Marne was among the most damaging. It obscured for decades the truth behind the German retreat: a flawed command structure, an inadequate logistical system, an antiquated communications arm, and inept field commanders. In the verdict of the Germany official history of the war, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918, General von Bülow of Second Army had been hesitant and insecure; General von Kluck of First Army, overly aggressive and unwilling to adhere to commands; and Chief of Staff von Moltke, not up to the strains of command. “In the hour of decision over the future of the German people,” the official historians concluded, “its leader on the field of battle completely broke down psychologically and physically.”17

Perhaps most damaging, after the war numerous former commanders brought to the public the myth that the German armies had not been defeated in the field but rather denied victory by a “sinister conspiracy” on the part of Freemasons and Jews. Erich Ludendorff, the “victor” of the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes in 1914 and Germany’s “silent dictator” from 1916 to 1918, championed this school. In postwar writings, such as The Marne Drama, he assured a defeated nation that the “secret forces of Freemasonry,” the machinations of world Jewry, and the baleful influence of Rudolf Steiner’s “occult” theosophy on General von Moltke’s wife, Eliza, had combined forces against Germany.18 Ludendorff’s absurd claims, of course, helped to launch the infamous “stab-in-the-back” postwar legend. This book judges the performance of the German armies and their commanders at the Marne on the basis of official operational records rather than on mischievous mythmaking.

Fritz Fischer, arguably Germany’s most famous historian of the latter half of the twentieth century, placed the Battle of the Marne squarely in the pantheon of that mythmaking. In 1974, he stated that in addition to the two best-known and most “highly explosive” German “moral-psychological complexes” arising from World War I—the “war-guilt question” of 1914 and the “stab-in-the-back legend” of 1918—there needed to be added a third: the Battle of the Marne. Or, better put, “the secret of the Marne,” that is, the “defeat at the Marne 1914.” From the moment that German troops stumbled back from the fateful river on 9 September, Fischer argues, first the government of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg and then the Army Supreme Command conspired “systematically to conceal” the enormity of the defeat from the public.19 At the end of that twenty-year journey of deception and deceit lay another bid at redemption: World War II.

* Estimates by the U.S. War Department.

* There was to be a second in the early summer of 1918.

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