Military history


Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.


THE BATTLE OF THE MARNE WAS A CLOSE-RUN THING. IT CONFIRMED yet again the Elder Helmuth von Moltke’s famous counsel that no plan of operations “survives with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s major forces.”1 And it reified yet again Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”2 Nothing about the Marne was preordained. Choice, chance, and contingency lurked at every corner.

Senior commanders on both sides did not at first understand the magnitude of the decision at the Marne. It seemed simply a temporary blip on the way to victory. The armies would be rested, reinforced, re-supplied, and soon again be on their way either to Berlin or to Paris. Below headquarters and army as well as corps commands, a million men on either side likewise had no inkling of what “the Marne” meant—except more endless marches, more baffling confusion, and more bloody slaughter. Future historian Marc Bloch, a sergeant with French 272d Infantry Regiment, on 9 September recalled marching down a “tortuously winding road” near Larzicourt on the Marne at night, oblivious to the fact that the great German assault had been blunted. “With anger in my heart, feeling the weight of the rifle I had never fired, and hearing the faltering footsteps of our half-sleeping men echo on the ground,” he drearily noted, “I could only consider myself one more among the inglorious vanquished who had never shed their blood in combat.”3


The Battle of the Marne did not end the war. But if it was “tactically indecisive,” in the words of historian Hew Strachan, “strategically and operationally” it was a “truly decisive battle in the Napoleonic sense.”4 Germany had failed to achieve the victory promised in the Schlieffen-Moltke deployment plan; it now faced a two-front war of incalculable duration against overwhelming odds. A new school of German military historians5 goes so far as to suggest that Germany had lost the Great War by September 1914.

Still, “what if?” scenarios abound. What if Germany had not violated Belgium’s neutrality; would Britain still have entered the war? What if Helmuth von Moltke had not sought a double envelopment of the enemy in Alsace-Lorraine and in northern France; could at least half of the 331,000 soldiers on the left wing have helped the right wing to victory? What if he had not sent III and IX army corps to the east; could one of those have filled the famous gap between Second and First armies on the Marne, and the other helped Third Army break French Ninth Army’s fragile front at the Saint-Gond Marshes? What if the commanders of German First and Second armies had simply refused to follow Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch’s “recommendation” to retreat from the Marne; could German First and Second armies have held on the Ourcq and Marne rivers, with possibly war-ending results?

What if Joseph Joffre had not been the French commander in chief? What if he had been cashiered in late August after he had been soundly defeated in the Battle of the Frontiers and after his deployment Plan XVII had totally collapsed? What historian Sewell Tyng called Joffre’s “inscrutable, inarticulate calm,” his “placid, unsophisticated character,” and his “far-sighted, unsentimental, determined” leadership were among the major reasons why the French did not repeat their collapse of 1870–71.6 After the war, Marshal Ferdinand Foch paid due tribute. Immediately after the loss of the Battle of the Frontiers, Joffre had recognized that “the game had been poorly played.” He had broken off the campaign with every intention of resuming it as soon as he had “repaired the weaknesses discovered.” Once clear on “the enemy’s ultimate intentions” by marching across Belgium, Joffre had shifted forces from his right wing to his left, had cashiered general officers whom he found to be “not up to standard,” had orchestrated an orderly withdrawal behind the Marne and Seine rivers, had created Michel-Joseph Maunoury’s new “army of maneuver” in the west, and had launched his great attack between “the horns of Paris and Verdun” when he deemed the moment favorable. “When this moment arrived, he judiciously combined the offensive with the defensive after ordering an energetic about-face,” Foch opined. “By a magnificently planned stroke he dealt the invasion a mortal blow.”7 The contrast with the lethargic, doubting, distant, “physically and mentally broken” Younger Moltke need not be belabored.

What if French morale had cracked after the Battle of the Frontiers? Campaigns are not fought against lifeless bodies. The enemy reacts, innovates, surprises, and strikes back. Were it not for the “emotions” and the “passions” of the troops, Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, wars would not escalate and might not even have to be fought. “Comparative figures” of opposing strengths would suffice to decide the issue without having to resort to “the physical impact of the fighting forces.” Put differently, “a kind of war by algebra.”8 But in 1914, the French poilu surprised the Germans with what Moltke called his élan. “Just when it is on the point of being extinguished,” he wrote his wife at the height of the Battle of the Marne, it “flames up mightily.”9 Karl von Wenninger, the Bavarian military plenipotentiary at Imperial Headquarters, likewise expressed his surprise at the enemy’s tenacity. “Who would have expected of the French,” he wrote his father on 9 September, “that after 10 days of luckless battles a[nd] bolting in open flight they would attack for 3 days so desperately.”10 General Alexander von Kluck gave the adversary his full respect in 1918. “The reason that transcends all others” in explaining the German failure at the Marne, he informed a journalist, was “the extraordinary and peculiar aptitude of the French soldier to recover quickly.” Most soldiers “will let themselves be killed where they stand;” that, after all, was a “given” in all battle plans.

But that men who have retreated for ten days … that men who slept on the ground half dead with fatigue, should have the strength to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds, that is a thing upon which we never counted; that is a possibility that we never spoke about in our war academies.11

Perhaps the greatest “what if?” scenario: What if Kluck’s First Army had indeed turned the left flank of Maunoury’s Sixth Army northeast of Paris? For most German military writers and the German official history of the war, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918, this was a “certainty.” Victory assured. End game. War over. But Moltke’s chief of operations, Gerhard Tappen, stated after the war that he was not so sure. He, the Gabriel ever trumpeting victory throughout August and early September 1914, conceded that even Kluck’s triumph at the Ourcq River would not have been “decisive” to the overall war effort. Given the dogged “tenacity” of the British and their “well known war aims,” the war would have dragged on.12 Even if thereafter First Army had pivoted on its left and squared off with the three army corps of the BEF and Louis Conneau’s cavalry corps, the end result likely would have been utter exhaustion for the armies on both sides. Stalemate. An honest appraisal from one not known for candor. And yet, did Kluck not owe it to both his troops and the nation to have fought the battle through to conclusion?

The campaign in the west in 1914 revealed two distinct command styles. Moltke was content to remain at Army Supreme Command headquarters far removed from the front—first in Koblenz and then in Luxembourg—and to give his field commanders great latitude in interpreting his General Directives. He chose not to exercise close control over them by way of telephones, automobiles, aircraft, or General Staff officers. After all, they had conducted the great annual prewar maneuvers and war games and as such could be counted on to execute his “thoughts.” Already, in peacetime, Moltke had let it be known that it sufficed for “Commanding Generals” simply to be “informed about the intentions of the High Command,” and that this could easily be accomplished “orally through the sending of an officer from the Headquarters.”13 The reality of war proved otherwise. Some commanders failed the ultimate test, war, mainly because of a lack of competence (Max von Hausen); some partly because of advanced age (Karl von Bülow); and others partly because of ill health (Helmuth von Moltke, Otto von Lauenstein).

General Moriz von Lyncker, chief of the Military Cabinet, struck at the heart of the matter on 13 September. “It is clear that during the advance into France the necessary tight leadership on the part of the Chief of the General Staff had been totally lacking.”14The next day he convinced Wilhelm II to place Moltke on “sick leave.” But while more than thirty German generals were relieved of command of troops in 1914, there was no general “housecleaning” at the very top. Three army commanders were beyond reach, of course, because they were in line for future crowns: Wilhelm of Prussia led Fifth Army until August 1916, when he took command of Army Group Deutscher Kronprinz for the rest of the war; Rupprecht of Bavaria headed Sixth Army until August 1916, when he was given charge of Army Group Kronprinz Rupprecht until November 1918; and Albrecht of Württemberg stayed with Fourth Army until February 1917, when he assumed command of Army Group Herzog Albrecht for the duration.

Not even the two most controversial army commanders were sacked after the Battle of the Marne. Karl von Bülow, who had shown less than boldness first at the Sambre and then at the Marne, not only was promoted to the rank of field marshal in January 1915 and awarded the order Pour le Mérite, but was rewarded for his mediocre performance by (again) being given command of First Army and then of Seventh Army as well. He led Second Army until April 1915, when he was temporarily relieved of command due to a stroke. He was forced to retire two months later; his pleas to be reinstated fell on deaf ears. Alexander von Kluck, who had disobeyed Moltke’s orders and turned in southeast of Paris, commanded First Army until March 1915, when near Vailly-sur-Aisne he was severely injured in the leg by shrapnel. He turned seventy while recuperating and in October 1916 was retired. Max von Hausen was the only army commander relieved of duty, and that came about mainly due to a severe case of typhus. His desperate appeals to be reinstated also went unanswered.

After the Battle of the Marne, the German army of 1914 was gone forever. Its tidy division into federalist Baden, Bavarian, Prussian, Saxon, and Württemberg contingents ended, never to be revived. In the words of former Prussian war minister Karl von Einem, the new commander of Third Army, “The army totally loses its wartime separateness. Everything is moved about, divisions and brigades are thrown together. It is living from hand to mouth.”15 In short, a true “German” army fought the Great War for the next four years.

Joseph Joffre, on the other hand, played a highly active, indeed intense, role in French decision making. Apart from issuing a host of General Instructions, Special Instructions, and Special Orders, he showered his army commanders with hundreds of “personal and secret” memoranda, telephone calls, and individual orders. He used his driver and automobile to great advantage, constantly on the road to inspect, to order, to encourage, and, where necessary, to relieve. In fact, Joffre filled a park with so-called limogés.*These included, by his reckoning, two army, ten corps, and thirty-eight division commanders.16 Some (Charles Lanrezac) he fired because he considered them to be overly pessimistic or willing to challenge his orders; others (Pierre Ruffey) because he found them to be unnecessarily “nervous” and “imprudent” in their dealings with subordinates. He maintained in command a core of loyal and aggressive army commanders (Fernand de Langle de Cary, Yvon Dubail, Édouard de Castelnau), and he promoted several corps commanders (Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, Ferdinand Foch, Maurice Sarrail) who had “faith in their success” and who by “mastery of themselves” knew how to “impose their will on their subordinates and dominate events.”17 He never regretted his sometimes unjustified firings. He declined after the war to engage the “victims” in a war of memoirs.

Ironically, given the Elder Moltke’s strategic use of railways in 1866 and again in 1870–71, it was Joffre who in 1914 brilliantly used his Directorate of Railways and interior lines to great advantage. When by 24 August, he realized that he had lost the Battle of the Frontiers, that his concentration plan, XVII, lay in tatters, and that the Germans were indeed sweeping through Belgium, Joffre altered “the centre of gravity of his dispositions so as to achieve at last a substantial numerical superiority at the western extremity of the front which he had come to recognize as the decisive point.”18 As early as 26 August, he dissolved the ineffective Army of Alsace, reconstituted much of it as Frédéric Vautier’s VII Corps, and then sent it to reinforce the Entrenched Camp of Paris. Two days later, as the Battle of the Trouée de Charmes wound down, he dispatched Georges Levillain’s 6th Cavalry Division and Louis Comby’s 37th Infantry Division to the capital. And then he orchestrated a staggering transfer of forces from Lorraine to Greater Paris between 31 August and 2 September: from First Army, Edmond Legrand-Girarde’s XXI Corps; from Second Army, Louis Espinasse’s XV Corps, Pierre Dubois’s IX Corps, Justinien Lefèvre’s 18th ID, and Camille Grellet de la Deyte’s 10th Cavalry Division; and finally, from Third Army, Victor Boëlle’s IV Corps.19 The Younger Moltke, by contrast, eschewed major transfers of forces from his left to his right wing due to “technical” difficulties and downright “stodginess.”

The carnage was frightful. Although the French army published no formal casualty lists, its official history, Les armées françaises dans la grande guerre, set losses for August at 206,515 men and for September at 213,445; those for the ten days at the Marne surely must have approached 40 percent of the latter figure.20 The chapel of the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, before its destruction in World War II, had only a single entry for its dead of the first year of the war: “The Class of 1914.” In terms of natural resources and industrial production, France had lost 64 percent of its iron, 62 percent of its steel, and 50 percent of its coal.21

The German army likewise published no official figures for the Marne. But according to its ten-day casualty reports,22 the armies in the west sustained 99,079 casualties between 1 and 10 September:

Unsurprisingly, the army corps that took the brunt of the fighting during that ten-day period suffered most heavily: Hans von Gronau’s IV Reserve Corps with First Army (2,676 killed or missing and 1,534 wounded); Otto von Emmich’s X Corps with Second Army (1,553 killed or missing and 2,688 wounded); and Maximilian von Laffert’s XIX Corps with Saxon Third Army (2,197 killed or missing and 2,982 wounded).23 Taking together all five German armies between Verdun and Paris, roughly 67,700 Landserwere rendered hors de combat in the Battle of the Marne.24Total British casualties at the Marne were 1,701.

Horses died in equally horrid numbers. For the first year of the war, no one bothered to keep records: The historians of the Reichsarchiv at Potsdam in the 1920s could not find the files of a single cavalry division with regard to “sickness or loss of horses.”25Only 22d Infantry Division kept tabs from the start of the war in Belgium, and it reported a loss rate of roughly 30 percent. Most were the result not of combat but rather of exhaustion, colic, saddle sores, lung disease, withers’ fistulas, and improper shoeing. And since there yet existed no veterinary clinics, sick or wounded animals were simply shot in the field—and thus escaped official records. During the course of the Great War, Germany lost an estimated one million horses dead and seven million wounded.

Artillery ruled the battlefield. The German 105mm and 150mm howitzers, called “cooking pots” (marmites) by the French and “Jack Johnsons” by the British, and the lighter 77mm guns ripped men and horses alike into shreds of flesh and deposited their remains as mounds of pulp. The French 75s, dubbed “black butchers” by the Germans, filled the air with shrieking shrapnel shells (rafales) that exploded above the enemy and drenched those below with thousands of iron balls. For four weeks, “crude, stinking, crowded ambulance wagons” jostled the wounded back to barns and churches hastily converted into field hospitals, where the unfortunates lay for hours “in a cloud of flies drinking [their] blood.” For days, in words historian Robert Asprey addressed to the “common soldier” of 1914, “you ate nothing, drank nothing, no one washed you, your bandages went unchanged, many of you died.” The living moved on, a mass of stinking humanity advancing through “a reeking foul air of dead and dying cattle and mutilated horses” to fight another battle, another day.26

The murderous nature of industrialized warfare changed the common soldiers who conducted it. Regardless of social, regional, or religious origin, they wrote home of the filth and dirt, horror and fear, of their frontline experiences. Some remembered the initial euphoria of marching through fall-clad orchards, the camaraderie among soldiers, the welcome mail calls, the “playing at cowboys and Indians” while advancing through woods, and the “liberating” of wonderful wine cellars. Most remembered the constant nagging hunger and thirst, the endless marches by day and night, the choking dust, the searing heat, then the cold rain and oozing mud, the burning villages, the groaning of the wounded, and the deathly rattle of the dying.

An anonymous German soldier, presumably a former miner, wrote to the Bergarbeiter-Zeitung in Bochum just after the Marne, “My opinion about the war itself has remained the same: it is murder and slaughter, and it is still incomprehensible to me today that humankind in the twentieth century could commit such slaughter.”27 A university professor, “von Drygalski,” at about the same time expressed his feelings of the war experience in similar but more prosaic terms. “I have seen so much that is grand, beautiful, monstrous, base, brutal, heinous, and gruesome, that like all the others I am totally stupefied. To see people die hardly interrupts the enjoyment of the coffee that one has triumphantly brewed in stark filth while under artillery fire.”28

A French poilu, the future renowned violoncellist Maurice Maréchal, expressed much the same disillusion with the war in early September. His initial “beautiful, innocent joy” at news of “Victory! Victory!” at the Marne quickly “took flight” as he surveyed the battlefield:

There, a lieutenant of the 74th [Infantry Regiment], there, a captain of the 129th, all in groups of three or four, sometime singly and still in the position of firing prone, red pants. These are ours, these are our brothers, this is our blood. … Oh! Horrible people who wanted this war, there is no torment enough for you!29

Three weeks later, Maréchal reflected again on the war. “Oh, this is long and monotonous and depressing.” The “energy” and the “heroism” of 1870–71 were absent on the Western Front in 1914. “The heroism of today: hide as best as possible.” Only the carnage was the same. “We feel small, so small, in the face of this frightening thing, some with bloody arms, others with boots ripped to shreds by red holes.” The meaning of it all escaped him. “We do not know, not really, if we have done anything of use for the country.”30

The newly promoted Adjutant Bloch of French 272d Infantry Regiment by year’s end had overcome his “war euphoria” of August. “I led a life as different as possible from my ordinary existence: a life at once barbarous, violent, often colorful, also often a dreary monotony combined with bits of comedy and moments of grim tragedy.”31 Thereafter, he experienced primarily the “dreary monotony” of what he called the “age of mud”: constant downpours, caved-in trenches, and unrelieved dampness. “Our clothing was completely soaked for days on end. Our feet were chilled. The sticky clay clung to our shoes, our clothing, our underwear, our skin; it spoiled our food, threatened to plug the barrels of our rifles and to jam their breeches.”32 Typhoid fever, contracted in the damp netherworld of the trenches, came almost as a relief to him in January 1915.

Above all, the Battle of the Marne destroyed once and for all romantic notions of war. “Wish it were a fresh and jolly [frisch und fröhlich] tussle,” Robert Marcus, a German student, wrote his parents from the Argonne Forest, “rather than this malicious, gruesome mass assassination.” Mines, hand grenades, and flamethrowers had reduced warfare to a new form of barbarism. “Is such a manner of warfare still compatible with human dignity?” he rhetorically asked his parents.33

Yet, despite the savage nature of warfare in the west, morale held. There were no widespread refusals to obey the call-ups in August 1914; large numbers of volunteers (even if grossly exaggerated for public consumption) rushed to the recruiting depots; and no major “rebellions” or “strikes” took place either at home or at the front. None of the armies kept statistics on “fragging” (shooting of officers) or on desertions. Wherever casualties were broken down under the headings of “cause,” possible deserters were lumped into the generic category of “missing,” which likely referred primarily to prisoners of war. Statistics for the seven German armies in the west show 21 suicides for August and a mere 6 for September 1914. The highest incidence was in Bavarian Sixth Army, with 8 suicides (among 228,680 soldiers); of these, 6 occurred before the army had even marched off to the front. Alcohol and fear of not being up to the task that lay ahead figured in most cases; almost all involved gunfire.34 And if one considers that Germany in 1914 suffered 800,000 casualties (including 18,000 officers), then the 251 suicides (including 19 officers) for that period35 are statistically insignificant and further proof of the inner steadfastness of those forces.

The Battle of the Marne did not, of course, dictate another four years of murderous warfare. If anything, it prefigured the resilience of European militaries and societies to endure horrendous sacrifices. To be sure, some historians have suggested that Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg’s infamous “war-aims program”* of 9 September, at the very height of the struggle at the Marne, committed Germany to push on to victory regardless of the cost.36 But there were those at Imperial Headquarters who fully understood that the time had come in the fall of 1914 to end the Great Folly. Field Marshal Gottlieb von Haeseler, activated for field duty at the tender age of seventy-eight, advised Wilhelm II to sheath the sword. “It seems to me that the moment has come which we must try to end the war.”37 The kaiser refused the advice. Moltke’s successor, Erich von Falkenhayn, by 19 November had reached the same conclusion as Haeseler before him. Victory lay beyond reach. It would be “impossible,” he lectured Bethmann Hollweg, to “beat” the Allied armies “to such a point where we can come to a decent peace.” By continuing the war, Germany “would run the danger of slowly exhausting ourselves.”38 The chancellor rejected the counsel.

It began at the Marne in 1914. It ended at Versailles in 1919. In between, about sixty million young men had been mobilized, ten million killed, and twenty million wounded. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, the great tragedy of the Marne is that it was strategically indecisive. Had German First Army destroyed French Sixth Army east of Paris; had French Fifth Army and the BEF driven through the gap between German First and Second armies expeditiously; had French Fifth Army pursued German Second Army more energetically beyond the Marne; then perhaps the world would have been spared the greater catastrophe that was to follow in 1939–45.

* Ineffective commanders were “retired” to Limoges, four hundred kilometers southwest of the nerve center of Paris.

* The chancellor demanded German domination of Central Europe “for all imaginable time,” annexation of Luxembourg, reduction of France and Russia to second-rate powers, “vassal” status for Belgium and the Netherlands, and a German colonial empire in Central Africa.

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