War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory.
IN 1914, ROUGHLY ONE IN TEN FRENCHMEN LIVED IN PARIS. THE CITY proper covered 80 square kilometers; with the surrounding Department of the Seine, it extended to 480. Paris was one of the few major fortified capitals in Europe.1 One ring of fourteen inner forts had withstood the German siege of 1870–71, and it had been augmented with an outer ring of twenty-five forts by 1890. Both were designed to protect Paris in case of an attack—or of a domestic uprising. As the distant roar of Alexander von Kluck’s heavy artillery became ever more audible, the government of Premier René Viviani fell. President Raymond Poincaré was able to secure the newfound “sacred union” by way of a cabinet reshuffle that left Viviani as premier but brought Alexandre Millerand in as the new minister of war, replacing Adolphe Messimy. To Joffre’s great delight, Millerand, the former moderate Socialist who had helped him pass the Three-Year Law in 1913, quickly rallied to defend the generalissimo’s autocratic style of command in the face of the Chamber of Deputies’ attempts to gain insight into military operations.
On 30 August, a German Taube aircraft dropped three bombs and some leaflets on the Quai de Valmy. By next day, a state of panic existed in the capital. The staff of the Ministry of War was instructed to send families to the countryside and then to depart for Tours.2 The mail was already three days late, when it arrived at all. The Central Telegraph Office had been cut off from London. Most newspapers had stopped publishing. Grand hotels were being turned into hospitals. An exodus of perhaps a hundred thousand people was in full swing. Automobiles and cabs could be seen rushing people and their most precious belongings to the southern and western railway stations. There, they jostled for space with incoming French wounded and German prisoners of war. By noon, the Montparnasse Station was packed with ten thousand Parisians seeking to board trains for Rennes, Saint-Malo, and Brest. At the Invalides Station, usually reserved for the military, enough people had booked for Brittany to fill the trains for a week.
On 2 September, the forty-fourth anniversary of the Battle of Sedan (1870), the government left Paris for Bordeaux. In its absence, Parisians turned to a sixty-five-year-old former colonial soldier for succor. As the newly appointed military governor of Paris, General Joseph-Simon Galliéni commanded four territorial divisions and the 185th Territorial Brigade. Over the coming days, he received reinforcements in the form of a marine artillery brigade and 84th Territorial Division as well as 61st and 62d reserve infantry divisions (RID).3 Chief of the General Staff Joseph Joffre, conceding the imminent danger to the capital, dispatched Michel-Joseph Maunoury’s newly formed Sixth Army, soon to be augmented by IV Corps from Third Army, to Paris and placed it at the disposal of the military governor.4
Galliéni did not disappoint. In his first public proclamation, on 3 September, he promised to defend Paris “to the last extremity.”5 That morning, he called out military engineers and civilian laborers armed with axes and saws to cut down the undergrowth of brush and hedges that obscured the line of fire of the capital’s 2,924 guns—ranging from massive 155mm siege guns to rapid-fire 75s.6 They likewise demolished houses and sheds that Galliéni deemed to obstruct his artillery. Munitions depots were stocked with a thousand shells per heavy gun. Hospitals and penitentiaries were evacuated and readied for the anticipated flood of wounded men. Fire departments were put on alert. Grocery stores were filled for the expected siege with bread wheat for forty-three days, salt for twenty, and meat for twelve. Gas to produce electricity for three months was requisitioned from the countryside.7 Pigeons were placed under state control in case telegraph and radio communications broke down. For three days, thousands of tons of concrete were poured and millions of meters of barbed wire strung for new defensive lines. Galliéni, who had fought at Sedan in 1870 and thereafter been interned in Germany, was determined that the enemy, should it take Paris, would find little of value: The bridges over the Seine River were to be blown up, and even the Eiffel Tower was to be reduced to scrap metal. Former Captain (now Lieutenant Colonel) Alfred Dreyfus joined the artillery.
All the while, cavalry scouts and pilots from both the French Armée de l’air and the British Royal Flying Corps kept Galliéni abreast of the German advance on Paris from Creil, Senlis, Clermont-sur-Oise, the Forest of Compiègne, and Soissons. Just after 8 AMon 3 September, British aviators spied “a great column” of German artillery and infantry advancing from Verberie to Senlis.8 Later that afternoon, the news took a dramatic turn: Fliers reported massive columns of gray-clad enemy infantry—four corps in strength—that had suddenly shifted onto a southeasterly course toward Château-Thierry, Mareuil-sur-Ourcq, and Lizy-sur-Ourcq.9 A single German corps stood between Kluck and Paris in echelon formation south of Chantilly. This could mean only one thing: Kluck was advancing into the gap between French Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) around Montmirail, screened just by Louis Conneau’s newly created cavalry corps. Joffre, apprised of this by Galliéni as he was moving his headquarters to Bar-sur-Aube, remained imperturbable: The French army would continue to follow his General Instruction No. 4 of 1 September, as amended the following day.10
Late in the night of 3 September, Galliéni, as commandant des armées de Paris, made a key decision: If Kluck continued on a southeasterly trajectory, he would rally all available troops in the Paris Entrenched Camp and strike First Army’s exposed right flank.11The following morning, French aviators confirmed that Kluck continued to head southeast. Without awaiting formal orders from Joffre, Galliéni sent word to Maunoury’s Sixth Army to be ready to march east by afternoon. He placed Antoine Drude’s newly arrived Algerian 45th Infantry Division (ID) at Maunoury’s disposal, raising Sixth Army (reinforced by 7 September with IV Army Corps from Maurice Sarrail’s Third Army) to about 150,000 soldiers. Galliéni planned to assault the western flank of the German army that “seemed to be gliding past Paris behind the front.”12
At Bar-sur-Aube, Joffre had independently arrived at the same operational concept. The Germans, in the words of historian Robert Doughty, occupied a “deep concave line between Paris, the Seine, the Aube, and Verdun.” If Joffre could draw them farther into the salient between Paris and Verdun, perhaps he could cut them off with an attack on the “neck” of that salient in the direction of Meaux by Galliéni’s garrison forces and Maunoury’s Sixth Army.13 Since Meaux lay thirty kilometers east of Paris on the Marne River, Joffre’s concept closely paralleled Galliéni’s. Rivers of ink would later be spilled as to which man first arrived at the operational concept that would unleash the Battle of the Marne. In the end, the decision was Joffre’s to make.14
All that remained was for Sir John French to join the attack. The BEF, about to be augmented by 6th ID from Ireland and 4th ID from Britain, had crossed the Marne on 3 September and had finally stopped just east of Paris and south of Meaux. As ever, Joffre was concerned over what he politely termed the “fragility” of his left wing. Others were more direct in their dealings with the British. Galliéni, with Maunoury in tow, tried personal diplomacy. The field marshal was not at British headquarters at Melun, but off with his corps commanders at the Marne. Nor was General Henry Wilson at Melun. All Galliéni could get was what has been described as a “tedious” three hours of “talk and argument” with Archibald Murray.15 Referred to even by his friends as “super-disciplined and super-obedient,” the BEF’s chief of staff refused to undertake anything until his boss was back. Galliéni returned to Paris dejected—and convinced that Murray was incapable of seeing the great strategic opportunity at hand. “Old Archie” Murray, revealing “une grande répugnance” toward Galliéni,16 continued the British retreat southwest behind the Grand Morin River. The BEF constituted just 3 percent of Allied forces and had lost twenty thousand men along with half of its artillery.
That same day, Sir John French was supposed to discuss the situation with the new commander of Fifth Army, Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, at Bray-sur-Seine. But the field marshal was still with his corps commanders. In his stead, he sent Wilson, who was always willing to accommodate the French. Franchet d’Espèrey and Wilson quickly found common ground. There should be a joint attack in the direction of Montmirail: Below the Marne, French Fifth Army would approach Kluck’s First Army from the south and the BEF from the west; north of the river, French Sixth Army would march eastward toward Château-Thierry.17 Wilson set two conditions: that Sixth Army cover the BEF’s flank and that it mount an “energetic attack” north of Meaux. Franchet d’Espèrey concurred—a bold act for a man in charge of Fifth Army for barely twenty-four hours.
In the meantime, Joffre, having spent hours in solitude under a tall weeping ash in the courtyard of the school that served as his headquarters, penned his Instruction général No. 5. He ordered Maurice Sarrail’s Third Army, Fernand de Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army, and Ferdinand Foch’s Special Army Detachment (now formally designated Ninth Army) to halt their retreat, stand their ground, and, if possible, be ready to join in a full Allied counterattack on 6 September.18 On 4 September, over his favorite dinner of Brittany leg of lamb at the Château Le Jard, Joffre received the news for which he had been desperately waiting: a note from Franchet d’Espèrey promising “close and absolute co-operation” between Fifth Army and the BEF, and assurance that Fifth Army, although “not in brilliant condition” after its recent encounters with German Second Army, would reach the Ourcq River the next day. “If not, the British will not march.”19 Joffre after the war gave full credit to Franchet d’Espèrey: “It is he who made the Battle of the Marne possible.”20
With that welcome news in hand, Joffre delighted his staff: “Then we can march!”21 At ten o’clock that night, he put the finishing touches to Instruction général No. 6. It set out the basic operations plan for the Battle of the Marne, to begin on the morning of 7 September. Maunoury’s Sixth Army was to cross the Ourcq “in the general direction of Château-Thierry;” the BEF was to “attack in the general direction of Montmirail;” Franchet d’Espèrey’s Fifth Army was to advance “along the line Courtacon-Esternay-Sézanne;” and Foch’s Ninth Army was to cover Fifth Army’s right flank around the Saint-Gond Marshes.22 At Galliéni’s urging, Joffre moved the date for the attack up to 6 September—something that he would later regret.23 In London, the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Russia signed a declaration that none of their governments would conclude a separate peace with either Germany or Austria-Hungary.
The next morning, 5 September, Joffre apprised War Minister Millerand of the seriousness of the hour. The “strategic situation,” he began, was “excellent.” He could not “hope for better conditions” for the offensive. He was determined “to engage all our forces without stint and without reservation to achieve victory.” But he also reminded the newly appointed minister that nothing was ever certain in war. “The struggle in which we are about to engage may have decisive results, but it may also have very serious consequences for the country in case of a reverse.”24
Joffre’s final thoughts, as always, were with the British. Would they, as Franchet d’Espèrey had assured him, actually “march”? Or would French and Murray yet again find a reason to continue the BEF’s retreat? Joffre moved on two fronts. First, he appealed to the government for a second time to use diplomatic channels to get London to stiffen Sir John’s resolve. Next, he raced off to British headquarters at the Château Vaux-le-Pénil, nearly two hundred kilometers away at Melun, to meet with French. It was a dangerous journey through country infested with enemy cavalry patrols. Arriving at Melun around 2 PM, Joffre made one last appeal for cooperation. It was high drama. He informed Sir John that the French army, down to the “last company,” stood ready to attack the invader to save France. “It is in her name that I come to you to ask for British aid, and I urge it with all the power that is in me.” Growing more agitated with every sentence, Joffre reminded the field marshal that now was the time to move; that the next twenty-four hours would be decisive; that the time for retreating was over; that no man was to yield even a foot of French soil; and that those who could (or would) not advance “were to die where they stood.” He then moved from appeal to taunt. “I cannot believe that the British Army, in this supreme crisis, will refuse to do its part—history would judge its absence severely.” Finally, banging his fist on the table in the little Louis XV salon, Joffre moved from taunt to challenge: “Monsieur, le Maréchal, the honour of England is at stake!”25 His face flushed with emotion and tears welling in his eyes, Sir John stumbled in vain over a few phrases in French. He then turned to one of his officers and inelegantly blurted out, “Damn it, I can’t explain. Tell him that all that men can do our fellows will do.”26 History records that Joffre, upon reaching his new headquarters at Châtillon-sur-Seine, hailed his staff with the words “Gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne.” That is pure legend.
THREE GERMAN ARMIES ADVANCED into the 250-kilometer salient between “the horns of Paris and Verdun.” By 5 September, the critical sector bristled with seven opposing armies. From east to west, Foch’s Ninth Army (IX and XI corps) at Mailly-Sézanne fronted Max von Hausen’s Third Army (XII and XIX corps, XII Reserve Corps) and the left wing of German Second Army; Franchet d’Espèrey’s Fifth Army (XVIII, III, I, X corps), north of Provins, was up against the bulk of Karl von Bülow’s Second Army (VII and X corps, Guard Corps, X Reserve Corps, Guard Reserve Corps) and the left flank of German First Army; French’s BEF (I, II, III corps), well behind Joffre’s line south of Coulommiers, fronted the center of Kluck’s First Army (II, III, IX, IX corps, IV Reserve Corps); and Maunoury’s Sixth Army (VII Corps, Brigade Lamaze, Brigade Chasseurs, 45th Division) as well as units of Sarrail’s IV Corps were poised to advance out of Paris toward Meaux against Kluck’s right flank—specifically, Hans von Gronau’s IV Reserve Corps at Saint-Soupplets–Monthyon–Penchard.
Numerically, the Germans were inferior to the Allies at the critical point, the right wing. Kluck’s First Army of 128 battalions of infantry and 748 guns was ranged against 191 battalions and 942 guns of French Sixth Army and the BEF; Bülow’s Second Army and half of Hausen’s Third Army with 134 battalions and 844 guns faced 268 battalions and 1,084 guns of French Fifth and Ninth armies.27 It was a stark reversal from August 1914.
While Kluck’s First Army moved toward the Ourcq River northeast of Paris, German Second and Third armies advanced on the Aisne and Vesle rivers. As he approached Fismes on the Vesle, Bülow found the countryside littered with abandoned artillery caissons, rifles, ammunition, and uniforms. Hausen reported that he was heading toward Suippes “after fleeing enemy.” Bülow ordered “ruthless pursuit” of the “shaken adversary” to the Marne. The French were to be “attacked without delay wherever [they] stood.”28 En route, Reims would be asked to surrender; if it refused, it was to be reduced “while sparing its cathedral.”29
The German attack on Reims laid bare in microcosm Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke’s failure to coordinate his armies. On the afternoon of 3 September, Hausen ordered Hans von Kirchbach’s Saxon XII Reserve Corps to execute a bold strike (Handstreich) on Reims. Kirchbach decided on a nighttime attack by Alexander von Larisch’s 23d RID. It totally surprised the city’s garrison: 45th Reserve Brigade seized Fort Witry and 46th Brigade, Forts Nogent l’Abbesse and La Pompelle, without firing a shot. A cavalry patrol penetrated into the heart of Reims. At midnight, Kirchbach informed Hausen, “Reims in the hands of XII Reserve Corps.”30
THE ALLIED RETREAT, 30 AUGUST-5 SEPTEMBER 1914
Then, the totally unexpected: At 6:30 AM* the next day, Kirchbach’s units came under heavy artillery fire—from Karl von Plettenberg’s 2d Guard Division (GD) of Bülow’s Second Army! Once again, communications had broken down. In the ensuing chaos, in which the Guard over forty-five minutes fired some 170 shells into the city, forty civilians were killed and the Notre-Dame de Reims Cathedral, in which French kings since Clovis had been crowned, was slightly damaged. Hausen at once informed Second Army: “Reims occupied by us. Cease fire.”31 Bülow stopped the shelling—and then imposed an “indemnity” of fifty million francs on Reims, to be doubled if his terms were not accepted within forty-eight hours. Hausen was incensed. In his unpublished memoirs, he tried to imagine the “brouhaha” that would have resulted had their roles been reversed and Saxon artillery fired on the Prussian Guard. He found it “painful” that Bülow had not offered “a word of apology,” not even an “explanation.”32 Interestingly, the minute German troops crossed into France, the reported incidents of francs-tireurs fire and German “reprisals”33 abated. Still, Allied propaganda seized on the shelling of Reims to depict the enemy as “Huns” and “Vandals.”
The debacle at Reims paled in comparison with Bülow’s main concern: Kluck and First Army. For almost two weeks, Second Army had tenaciously hounded Charles Lanrezac’s Fifth Army in brutal frontal attacks along the Sambre and Oise rivers. Moltke’s General Directive of 2 September had left the final defeat of the French to Second Army. There would be no more bloody frontal assaults. Bülow looked forward to finally enveloping Fifth Army’s left flank. He became angry on 3 September when he learned that Ferdinand von Quast’s IX Corps of First Army had, in fact, crossed the Marne on his right wing directly in front of Karl von Einem’s VII Corps. He grew downright livid when Kluck, pointedly “disobeying” Moltke’s General Directive of 2 September, late that night announced his intention to continue on a southeasterly course toward Montmirail.34 This would force Second Army to halt its advance so as not to collide with Kluck’s First Army. And it would be at least 7 September before First Army’s advance units could withdraw from the line Montmirail-Esternay. Kluck, Bülow moaned, had become “a thorn in his side.”
The crisis on the Marne at last spurred Luxembourg into action. Late in the evening of 4 September, Moltke and his chief of staff, Lieutenant Colonel Gerhard Tappen, drafted a new General Directive for their field armies. To make certain that it reached the intended recipients, they had it delivered by automobile the next morning as well. The new orders began with a few general observations. The OHL conceded that Joffre had taken numerous formations out of his right wing at Toul-Belfort and shifted them to his left wing around Paris; that he had simultaneously removed units from in front of German Third, Fourth, and Fifth armies with similar intent; and that he most likely was standing up new formations on his left wing. The original design to “push the entire French army against the Swiss frontier,” Moltke laconically wrote, “was no longer possible.” The German right wing was now threatened as it hung in the air at Meaux. Worse still, there were agent reports of major French troop concentrations at Lille, of British landings at Ostend and Antwerp, and of eighty thousand Russians having been brought from Archangel to Britain for future deployment in France.
Of course, it was disinformation, all of it. But to Moltke, these “shadow” forces seemed all too real. He had committed all his active and reserve forces at the start of the war, and they now stood deep in France and East Prussia. The entire Kaiser Wilhelm Canal linking the North Sea to the Baltic Sea, the northwest German coast, and the border with Denmark were open to British invasion since he had moved IX Reserve Corps out of Schleswig-Holstein and attached it to Kluck’s First Army. His prewar fears of a “three-front war” might yet be realized.
The new General Directive ordered Sixth and Seventh armies to tie down as many French forces as possible in Lorraine; Fourth and Fifth armies to continue to “drive” enemy forces facing them in the Argonne Forest “off in a southeasterly direction;” and First and Second armies to hold their positions east of Paris, to “parry offensively any enemy operations emanating from the region around Paris,” and “to lend each other mutual support.” Most opaquely, Third Army was to advance on Troyes—Vendeuvre-sur-Barse and, “as circumstances dictated,” either support First and Second armies “across the Seine in a westerly direction,” or turn south-southeast to buttress the German left wing in Lorraine.35 There is no evidence to suggest that Moltke or Tappen seriously contemplated moving up to the front to direct the final phase of the campaign, or even to dispatch a senior officer from the General Staff for that purpose. One may remember that during the Battle of Guise/Saint-Quentin, Joffre had spent the entire morning at Fifth Army headquarters at Marle overseeing the main French attack.
In fact, Moltke’s General Directive, when compared with Joffre’s General Instruction No. 5 or No. 6, seems more like a theoretical staff exercise than a formal operations plan. It consisted of general observations on the campaign in the west and of vague suggestions for First and Second armies to hold their present positions and simply ward off enemy attacks; for Seventh and Sixth armies to “hold” on the left wing; and for Fifth, Fourth, and Third armies in the center of the line to operate in concentric sweeps south and southwest. It was an admission that the Schlieffen-Moltke operational concept of the Schwenkungsflügel (pivot wing) enveloping the entire left wing and center of the French army had been abandoned. There were no provisions for coordinating the actions of First and Second armies on the Marne, only obvious and nonspecific suggestions for Kluck and Bülow to “lend each other mutual support.” Nor were there provisions to close the gap between Second and Third armies southeast of Reims. Hausen’s instruction to deploy Third Army as he saw fit to support one of two German flanks some three hundred kilometers apart defied logic. Finally, the mere hint of rumors concerning British and Russian troop disembarkations in France stampeded Moltke into creating a new Seventh Army in Belgium under General Josias von Heeringen, hastily brought up from commanding the old Seventh Army in Lorraine. Once formed, it was to become the extreme right wing of the German line.
Within hours, the lack of command and control from Luxembourg became manifestly evident. At the very moment that Moltke and Tap-pen were drafting their General Directive calling on Third Army to drive on Troyes-Vendeuvre, Hausen at 5 PM on 4 September informed the OHL that he had ordered a day of rest for his forces. He repeated the message an hour later. “Troops desperately need a day of rest.” He did not budge from his decision when the two flanking armies, Second and Fourth, informed him that they were resuming the offensive early the next morning. He stood firm even after he belatedly received Moltke’s instruction to advance on Troyes-Vendeuvre at eight o’clock that night. Just before midnight, he informed the OHL for a third time in less than seven hours that Third Army would rest on 5 September.36 Moltke raised no objections.
Hausen took pains, both at the time and in his memoirs, to justify his decision.37 The men had reached the limits of their “psychological elasticity” as well as their “physical capability.” Between 18 and 23 August, they had marched 190 kilometers to the Meuse, and thereafter 140 kilometers to the Aisne—much of it under a broiling sun and the last thirteen days during constant combat. Ammunition, food, and uniforms desperately needed to be hauled up to the front. The horses were short on oats and needed to be reshod. Hausen chose not to inform Moltke that there was also a personal reason: He had come down with what was diagnosed as a severe case of “bloody dysentery.”
The German official history of the war later took Hausen to task.38 By his action, he had exposed the flanks of his two neighboring armies—most precipitously, his halt had created a thirty-kilometer gap between his Third Army and Bülow’s Second Army—and he had disrupted the planned seamless German advance on 5 September. But it failed to mention that with his action, Hausen had lost a splendid opportunity to exploit a twenty-five-kilometer gap that had developed between Foch’s Ninth Army and Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army. Especially Foch’s Army Detachment had taken a terrible pounding from Hausen’s two corps over the last two days: There had been heavy losses among infantry officers, the men were in a state of “serious fatigue” after “exhausting marches” and “the severity of the fighting,” and many of the reserve formations were in what Foch termed “an extremely pitiable state.” The entire region of Sommesous–Sompuis–Vitry-le-François was devoid of major French formations. From his headquarters at Sillery, Foch had informed Joffre that the Army Detachment, about to be reconstituted as Ninth Army, could at best survive two or three days of further attacks by German Third Army. It now gained twenty-four valuable hours in which to prepare its defensive line at the Saint-Gond Marshes and the heights south of Sézanne.39
It is difficult to disagree with the critique of Hausen. Every other German army had marched relentlessly under a searing sun during the last month. Every other army had suffered heavy casualties. Every other army needed rest and resupply. Some had in fact marched much greater distances than Third Army: First Army 500 kilometers and Second Army 440. Some, such as Second Army, had fought numerous more brutal engagements. It is hard to escape the verdict that Hausen simply was not made of the right stuff. For a second time since his failure to strike the flank of French Fifth Army south of Dinant, he failed to press a golden opportunity to break through the French line.
Above all, Moltke’s General Directive was a rude shock for First Army, which received the relayed radiogram at 6 AM on 5 September. It entailed a painful retreat from advanced positions seized after long marches and heavy fighting between the Marne and Oise. Without direct radio communications either to the OHL or to Bülow’s Second Army on his left flank, Kluck had advanced almost in a vacuum. He was thus without insight into the overall situation of the campaign in the west and about to collide with the left wing of Bülow’s Second Army around Montmirail. He sent out no cavalry or aerial reconnaissance to the west, where French Sixth Army had been stood up, and was intent only on pursuing the British and French columns fleeing southward before him.
In the late afternoon, Kluck at Rebais had a visitor from Luxembourg: Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, chief of the OHL’s Intelligence Section. It was Hentsch’s first visit to the front, designed to establish better lines of communication among the field armies. Hentsch was not a bearer of good news. He informed Chief of Staff Hermann von Kuhl that Crown Prince Rupprecht’s armies were tied down at Nancy and Épinal, unable to break through the Charmes Gap and drive north, and that Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Fifth Army and Duke Albrecht’s Fourth Army had made little progress around Verdun. Most likely, Joffre had used this stagnation of the fronts on the left and in the center of the German line to shuttle troops to the area around Paris, on Kluck’s right.40 First Army could expect an attack from the west any day.
Kuhl at once realized that he was “confronted with an entirely new situation.” Without the “breakthrough on the upper Moselle,” the giant Cannae being planned for the French army could not take place. The enemy “was by no means being held [down] everywhere” by Moltke’s other armies; in fact, “large displacements of troops were in progress.” The danger on First Army’s right flank had come out of nowhere. It was real. It had to be addressed at once. “The suggestion, which we had made that morning, of first throwing the French back across the Seine, was finished.”41 Reluctantly, Kuhl agreed with Hentsch that First Army’s four corps had to be withdrawn behind the Marne over the next two days “calmly and in orderly fashion” to a line Meaux–La Ferté-sous-Jouarre–La Ferté-Gaucher. This would then enable Second Army to swing around on its left and face Paris, its right wing on the Marne and its left wing on the Seine.
THE EVE OF THE BATTLE OF THE MARNE, 2 SEPTEMBER 1914
Having reached full agreement with First Army, Hentsch the next day traveled to Second Army headquarters at Champaubert. He repeated his (and Moltke’s) bleak assessment of the German campaign in the west, and bemoaned the lack of four army corps “with which we could win the campaign.”42 One can only wonder whether he regretted the General Staff’s earlier dispatch of Guard Reserve Corps and XI Army Corps to the Eastern Front, as well as of II Corps to besiege Antwerp, and of VII Reserve Corps to invest Maubeuge. It was now the thirty-fifth day of mobilization. Schlieffen had prescribed victory on the thirty-ninth or fortieth day.
THE BRUTAL HEAT FINALLY broke on 5 September. The first engagement in what came to be called the Battle of the Marne took place forty kilometers northeast of Paris. The future battlefield was bordered to the north by Villers-Cotterêts, the Bois du Roi, and Lévignen; to the east by the Ourcq River, which meandered on a southwesterly course from La Ferté-Milon to Lizy-sur-Ourcq before flowing into the Marne between Congis and Varreddes; and to the south by the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Marne. The land bordered by these three obstacles consisted of a hilly plateau studded with numerous villages, orchards, and grain fields. It was cut by three small streams: from north to south, the Grivelle, Gergogne, and Thérouanne. Each was embedded between gently rising wooded slopes of 80 to 120 meters; the chalky soil in places was dotted with bogs,43 difficult terrain to do battle.
What Kuhl had called the “phantom Paris” became “flesh and blood” by 5 September. Early that warm and clear morning, General Maunoury, in accordance with Joffre’s General Instruction No. 6, had advanced out of the Paris Entrenched Camp with Sixth Army. Once a ragtag collection of 80,000 reservists and second-line troops, Sixth Army now totaled 150,000 men: Victor Boëlle’s IV Corps, Frédéric Vautier’s VII Corps, Henri de Lamaze’s Fifth Group of 55th RID and 56th RID, Antoine Drude’s 45th ID, Charles Ebener ’s Sixth Group of 61st RID and 62nd RID, and Jean-François Sordet’s cavalry corps.44 Maunoury placed 55th RID and 56th RID as well as a Moroccan brigade north of Dammartin-en-Goële; Étienne de Villaret’s 14th ID of VII Corps and 63rd RID at Louvres; a brigade from the cavalry corps north of Claye-Souilly; and Raoul de Lartigue’s 8th ID at the Marne on his right flank to maintain communications with Sir John French and the BEF. These were some of the units that German fliers had spotted on 3 and 4 September.
A slender, almost delicate soldier of sixty-seven, Maunoury had been wounded in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and had served for a while as military governor of Paris. He was now all that stood between Kluck and the capital. He planned to march his ten infantry divisions to a position northeast of Meaux, and from there to strike Kluck’s right flank the next day along the north bank of the Marne. Louis Gillet’s reserve cavalry brigade had scouted Maunoury’s route of advance toward Meaux and found no German forces.45 It thus came as a total surprise when around noon a hail of 77mm artillery shells from the heights of Monthyon, northwest of Meaux, burst into the thick marching columns of 14th Infantry Division.
The unsuspected adversary was Hans von Gronau. Detached to guard First Army’s right flank, IV Reserve Corps stood to the north of, and at right angles to, Kluck’s main force around Barcy and Chambry. Gronau, at age sixty-four, was a Prussian artillery specialist. After several rotations through the General Staff in the 1880s and 1890s, he had commanded artillery regiments and brigades. Retired in 1911 and ennobled two years later, he was reactivated at the outbreak of the war.46 At the Ourcq, Gronau commanded a much-depleted force: 43d Infantry Brigade (IB) had been taken from him to invest Brussels, with the result that IV Reserve Corps consisted of a mere fifteen (rather than the normal twenty-five) battalions of infantry and twelve batteries of light artillery.47 It had neither aircraft nor electronic communications. With just 22,800 men, it was 12,000 under full strength. Moreover, Otto von Garnier’s 4th Cavalry Division (CD) had but twelve hundred sabers, having been battered by British 1st Cavalry Brigade and Royal Horse Artillery around Néry on 1 September. Still, the vigilant Garnier kept up his patrols and detected French cavalry, some scouts, and a strong column of infantry marching toward Montgé-en-Goële, halfway between Paris and Meaux. Were these merely French advance guards? Or units of the Paris Garrison out on patrol? Or had Joffre somehow managed to cobble together a new army north of the capital?
Without aerial reconnaissance and with the western horizon blocked by a series of wooded hillocks between Saint-Soupplets and Penchard, the safe option was to stay put and await developments. But the wily Gronau threw out the textbook and made a quick decision that most likely would have resulted in failure at most staff colleges. “Lieutenant-Colonel, there is no other way out,” he informed his chief of staff, Friedrich von der Heyde, “we must attack!”48 Without delay, Gronau sent 7th RID and 22d RID to occupy the long, wooded ridge around Saint-Mard, Dammartin, and Monthyon. Their orders were simple: Attack any and all forces approaching out of the west. At 11:30 AM, Gronau’s artillery spotted a mighty host of French infantry and artillery—de Lamaze’s 55th RID and 56th RID as well as Ernest Blondlat’s 1st Moroccan Brigade. They advanced northwest of Iverny along cobblestone roads lined with shimmering poplars, past gray stone farmhouses with gray slate roofs, and through fields of beets, mustard, wheat, and clover. As soon as they were within range, Gronau opened fire.
The battle raged fiercely throughout the day. A German artillerist (Hoyer) with 7th Reserve Field Artillery Regiment wrote home that the gun crews “were killed like flies.” Some nearby batteries lost all their officers; his own unit, 70 percent. “And the horses!” In a nearby stable Hoyer found fifty dead in a single heap.49 An anonymous noncommissioned officer with 26th Infantry Regiment (IR) remembered the horror of the battlefield. “The cadavers of animals of all kind lie everywhere and spread a horrible smell.” After a brief rest and a two-hundred-liter barrel of red wine “liberated” at a “swampy farm,” the men of the 26th moved on through “high grass, bushes and thickets.” They found a small wood. “Sharp cracks beside us, ahead of us and above us. One shrapnel after another rains down on us. It covers the entire wood. We run from one large tree to another. … Countless wounded and dead lie all around us.”50 Darkness finally brought relief. German IV Reserve Corps held the ridge. Maunoury had not been able to cross the 120-meter-deep valley of the Ourcq River. Meaux remained well out of his reach.
Gronau’s swift action proved critical to the course of the Battle of the Marne. It denied Joffre the all-important element of surprise.51 Instead of Maunoury striking Kluck’s right flank unawares, it was now French Sixth Army that had been taken by surprise. Moreover, the action had taken place a full eighteen hours before Joffre originally had planned to mount his great offensive between Verdun and Paris, thus throwing his overarching concept into question. Gronau and his band of valiant reservists, in the words of the German official history, had “with one bold stroke” finally brought clarity: “The German army’s right flank was, in fact, seriously threatened.”52 And “with a rare appreciation of the strategic realities,”53 Gronau understood that he was vastly outnumbered (about six to one) and withdrew IV Reserve Corps to relative safety ten kilometers behind the small Thérouanne stream. He would receive the coveted Pour le Mérite two years after he had first earned it at Monthyon.
Shortly before midnight on 5 September, the telephone rang at First Army headquarters at Rebais. It was Gronau with news of the encounter with Maunoury’s Sixth Army. Chief of Staff von Kuhl, who at 7 PM had only received spotty news from Aircraft B65 that a minor engagement had occurred near Meaux,54 at once grasped the gravity of the situation. There were but two choices—regroup and retreat to defensive positions to protect the German outer right flank, or blunt the French attack with a counteroffensive. Kuhl chose the latter. Kluck agreed: “Wheel 1. Army to the right at once, quickly form up on the right, attack across the Ourcq.”55 Just after midnight, Kluck and Kuhl ordered Alexander von Linsingen’s II Corps to quick-march from south of the Marne to west of the Ourcq in the direction of Lizy-sur-Ourq and Germigny-l’Évêque, there to buttress Gronau’s position behind the Thérouanne. Later on the afternoon of 6 September, they also dispatched Friedrich Sixt von Arnim’s IV Corps to west of the Ourcq. It was a hard undertaking, as both corps had to cross two, and in some places three, river barriers. Yet the two corps incredibly managed two days of forced marches that stood out in the annals of the Prussian army: sixty kilometers on 7 September and seventy the following day, over bloated corpses of men and beasts alike, past columns of wounded and prisoners of war, through poplar woods and pear orchards.
It was a daring decision with potentially deadly ramifications. For, in the process, a fifty-kilometer-wide gap developed in First Army’s line between Varreddes and Sancy-lès-Provins, at the southern limit of the German advance. Appreciating the danger, Kuhl rushed Manfred von Richthofen’s I Cavalry Corps and Georg von der Marwitz’s II Cavalry Corps into the breach. These rear guards were to defend first the trench of the Grand Morin River, then, if that fell, the trench of the Petit Morin, and finally the trench of the Marne. Gronau established a line of defense between Vincy-Manoeuvre and Varreddes. Knowing that major reinforcements were on the way, he sought out a comfortable ditch and took a nap.
AT DAWN ON 6 September, 980,000 French and 100,000 British soldiers with 3,000 guns assaulted the German line of 750,000 men and 3,300 guns between Verdun and Paris.56 Joffre, who had been able to reinforce his armies with a hundred thousand reservists, issued the troops a stirring appeal. “The salvation of the country” was in their hands. There could be “no looking back.” The sacred ground of France was to be held “at whatever cost;” “be killed on the spot rather than retreat.” Anything even resembling weakness would not be “tolerated.”57 President Poincaré, at Bordeaux, had to get the text through unofficial channels. He understood the seriousness of the hour. “We are going to play our part for all we are worth in what will be the greatest battle humanity has ever known.”58 Charles Huguet, French military plenipotentiary to the BEF, for the first time in weeks detected cheer at GHQ now that the Great Retreat was finally over. “When day dawned on the ever-memorable morning of 6th September,” Field Marshal Sir John French wrote, he had regained some of his earlier “great hopes” for victory. “The promise of an immediate advance against the enemy” sent “a thrill of exultation and enthusiasm throughout the whole force.”59 Deputy Chief of Staff Wilson giddily assured his French counterpart, Henri Berthelot, that the Allied armies would be in Germany “in 4 weeks.”60
The most critical sector of the front was between Paris and the Marne. There, the battle would rage for four days. Much of it would be fought in a maze of waterways that served as tributaries to the Marne: the Ourcq, which flowed north and south on both sides of Maunoury’s advance; the Petit Morin and the Grand Morin, which ran east and west across the line of advance of French Fifth Army and the BEF; and finally the Saint-Gond Marshes, from which the Petit Morin arose and where Foch’s Ninth Army stood.
At first, both Kluck and Bülow took the forces attacking Gronau’s corps to be nothing more than French rear guards covering Joffre’s withdrawal on Paris—at most a sortie designed to relieve pressure on the French armies south of the Seine. General von der Marwitz, in fact, asked the kaiser’s court chaplain to prepare a suitable “entry text” for Paris, “but not too long!”61 The Germans were disabused of the notion of encountering only French rear guards during the night of 6 September. Men from Duke Albrecht of Württemberg’s 30th IB, Fourth Army, had found Joffre’s stirring appeal to his troops near Frignicourt, south of Vitry-le-François.62 Albrecht’s headquarters, which had a telephone link to Luxembourg, immediately passed the document on to Moltke. Sometime around 8 PM, the chief of the General Staff sent it out to the other army commands. He did not counter it with a stirring appeal of his own. He was content simply to hand it over to the press with a quixotic message that the war needed to end with a peace that would “for all foreseeable future” see Germany “undisturbed by any foe.”63 There was now no doubt that the Allies’ retreat had ended and that they had gone on the attack. Specifically, Gronau’s battle with vastly superior French forces the day before pointed to an attempt to envelop the German right wing.
Chief of Operations Tappen, just promoted to the rank of colonel, was delighted. The “Day of Decision” was finally at hand. He burst into a meeting of his operations and intelligence officers: “Well, we finally get hold of them. Now it will be a fierce fight. Our brave troops will know how to do their job.” No more retreats, no more avoiding battle by the enemy. It was now just a matter of applying “brute force.”64
Kluck and Kuhl faced another major decision. Should they break off the battle and fall back from their advanced position in the acute angle of the Marne and the Ourcq? Should they, together with Bülow’s Second Army, withdraw to defensive positions between the Marne and the Ourcq and there parry Joffre’s flanking maneuver? Or should they continue the battle and seek a quick, decisive victory over Maunoury’s Sixth Army? Yet again, both opted to blunt the French thrust with a counteroffensive. Realizing that First Army’s three (under strength) corps on the Ourcq were too weak to mount a counterattack against 150,000 French soldiers, they turned to Bülow. Shortly after 8 AM on 7 September, they telegraphed Second Army headquarters at Champaubert: “II, IV and IV Reserve Corps heavily engaged west of the lower Ourcq. Where III and IX Army Corps? What is your situation?” No reply. They repeated the message, adding “Urgently request answer.” It crossed paths with a radiogram from Second Army wishing to know, “What is your situation?” Finally, a third request from Kuhl, “Engagement III and IX Corps at the Ourcq urgently required.”65 No reply.
The German army’s prewar neglect of communications and control was glaringly apparent.66 During the Battle of the Marne, Luxembourg had direct telephone connections via Fourth Army with Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh armies on the relatively stagnant German left and center. But it could communicate with the fluid First and Second “strike” armies only by way of a single wireless set, which was prone to interruptions by weather and to jamming by French field stations and the Eiffel Tower. Messages often arrived so mutilated at Bülow’s and Kluck’s headquarters that they had to be re-sent three or four times. Field telegraph stations managed to get only twenty-nine of fifty-nine reports from First Army’s fliers to Kluck and Kuhl between 1 and 5 September. There were no electronic ties between First and Second armies, or between them and their army corps and cavalry corps. A host of intelligence officers languished at the OHL and were not attached to the various corps commands where they might have done some good. No one thought of using airplanes to pass important orders along the line. The distance between Bülow’s headquarters at Montmort and Kluck’s at Vandrest (and later Mareuil), after all, was a mere fifty-five kilometers, or half an hour by air. The two commanders were thus effectively cut off from discussing the rapidly developing situation with each other—and with Moltke, who was 435 kilometers by automobile* away from Second Army headquarters and 445 from First Army headquarters.67
Interestingly, Tappen rejected all suggestions that the OHL, or at least a small operations staff, move up to the front behind the German right wing on the grounds of “technical difficulties as well as stodginess.”68 One can only speculate whether Moltke, for his part, remembered that in 1866 his uncle had supervised the movements of his armies during the Battle of Königgrätz from the Roskosberg, above the Bistritz River, and that he had likewise led from the front in 1870 during the Battle of Sedan from a ridge high above the Meuse River near Frénois.
ALL THE WHILE, the fighting west of the Ourcq raged on. Blondlat’s Moroccan brigade and the right wing of Louis Leguay’s 55th RID first went into action on the French right flank on 6 September. Linsingen’s II Corps, just arrived, furiously counterattacked with heavy artillery. Soon the entire front from Barny to Trilport erupted with murderous artillery fire and spirited infantry charges. The French initially gained the upper hand, but by nightfall both sides fell exhausted into defensive positions. In the ensuing dark, the Germans could make out the glow of Paris’s massive searchlights.
Linsingen urged greater speed on Sixt von Arnim’s IV Corps; it arrived the next morning, 7 September. As senior corps commander, Linsingen took command and repositioned his forces: From right to left, Sixt von Arnim was to charge the front at Étavigny; Gronau was to hold the middle at Trocy-en-Multien; Kurt von Trossel with 3d ID and 22d RID was to cover Gronau’s left near Germigny-l’Évêque; and Linsingen was to secure the left flank at Trilport. Maunoury in the meantime received reinforcements from Paris: Céleste Déprez’s 61st RID, Drude’s 45th ID, and the rest of Vautier’s VII Corps, just up from Alsace. Unbeknown to the French commander, a German reserve infantry brigade under Rudolf von Lepel had been released by the surrender of Brussels and was marching south toward Nanteuil-le-Haudouin—against Sixth Army’s left flank. Still, Maunoury enjoyed a numerical advantage of thirty-two infantry battalions and two cavalry divisions.
Maunoury vigorously resumed the offensive at 7 AM on 7 September.69 In the middle of the front, Gronau’s fatigued IV Reserve Corps, stiffened by the arrival of Sixt von Arnim’s 15th Brigade, threw Léon Lombard’s 63d RID into panic with a hurricane bombardment followed by massed infantry charges. Only a heroic counterattack by Colonel Robert Nivelle’s 5th Artillery Regiment of 45th ID—firing shells from its 75s into the massed German infantry at the rate of twenty rounds per minute—prevented a complete collapse.* French Fifth Group of Reserve Divisions likewise was driven back, and its commander, de Lamaze, seriously considered falling back on Paris. On the southern flank, the men of 8th RID were “in a state of extreme fatigue,” and Lartigue was forced to have the division stand down around noon. In the north, Sixt von Arnim’s 16th Brigade shattered Déprez’s 61st RID, but a combination of exhaustion after its nightlong forced march and a counterattack by Vautier’s VII Corps prevented it from enveloping the French left flank. Still, 61st RID fell back as far as Nanteuil-le-Haudouin. Maunoury sent Louis de Trentinian’s 7th ID from IV Corps to take its place in the left of his line. Galliéni rushed François Ganeval’s 62d RID out to hold the line at the Ourcq.
At 10 AM on 7 September, First Army headquarters received word that an aviator had spotted two columns of British soldiers slowly moving north out of the Forest of Crécy toward the joint of German First and Second armies.70 Kluck and Kuhl could wait no longer. Still without a reply from Bülow to their request for reinforcements, they seized the initiative and ordered Ewald von Lochow’s III Corps and Quast’s IX Corps, both temporarily assigned to Bülow, to leave Second Army’s right wing in broad daylight and quick-march to the Ourcq.71 For Kuhl had decided to master what now threatened to be assaults on both his wings by way of an all-out offensive on the right, designed to crush Maunoury’s Sixth Army before the BEF could engage German First or Second army.
Incredibly, neither Kluck nor Kuhl was aware that General von Bülow shortly after midnight on 7 September had already pulled back his right wing, fearing that his soldiers were too exhausted to ward off another French frontal attack. Bülow withdrew III and IX corps of First Army as well as his own X Reserve Corps fifteen to twenty kilometers behind the shelter, such as it was, of the Petit Morin River—some eight hours before First Army’s duumvirate ordered them to march to the Ourcq. Bülow radioed Moltke of his action at 2 AM. He declined to inform Kluck via dispatch rider. By his action, Bülow created a gap of some thirty kilometers between the right wing of Second Army and the left wing of First Army. Kluck and Kuhl, by recalling III and IX corps, widened that gap to about fifty kilometers. Failure to communicate once again bedeviled the German army commanders on the right pivot wing.
Having pulled back his right wing, Bülow next ordered an attack by his left wing. Realizing that Second Army was down to the strength of only three full corps, he once again enlisted the help of two Saxon infantry divisions from Hausen’s Third Army.72General von Einem, commanding VII Corps on Second Army’s right, thought the plan madness: At the very moment that the enemy might discover and then exploit the German gap astride the Petit Morin, “Bülow shifts the center of gravity to his left wing!” What use would victory there be, he mused, “if we are enveloped on the right and separated from First Army?”73
In fact, the German position on the Marne and the Ourcq defies rational analysis. Without firm direction from the OHL, both commanders had developed their own operational concepts. Bülow insisted that First Army’s primary function, as laid down in Moltke’s General Directive of 5 September, was to protect his right flank against a possible French sortie out of le camp retranché de Paris. Thus, it was paramount that Kluck break off the battle with Maunoury and shift his army left to join up with Second Army’s right wing. As well, it was critical that Hausen’s Third Army defeat Foch’s Ninth Army on Bülow’s left flank before Fanchet d’Espèrey’s Fifth Army could exploit Second Army’s exposed right flank. Kluck, on the other hand, insisted that the only way to break the French offensive was to destroy Maunoury’s Sixth Army before the British, whose fighting capabilities he by and large denigrated, could take their place on the left flank of French Fifth Army south of the Grand Morin River. Bülow made no effort to coordinate the operations of the two “strike” armies or to bring Moltke fully into the calculus.74 Just after 7 PM on 7 September, Richthofen’s cavalry corps reported that British advance guards had crossed the Grand Morin at La Ferté-Gaucher. They were about to enter the gap in the German line.
For the Germans, 7 September was the critical day in the Battle of the Marne. Kluck and Kuhl, as noted previously, had hastily taken II and IV corps out of the line on the Marne and rushed them north to aid Gronau’s corps on the Ourcq. Bülow had then withdrawn III and IX corps as well as X Reserve Corps behind the Petit Morin—only to have had Kluck and Kuhl eight hours later order III and IX corps to leave Bülow’s right wing and to march north in order to help defeat Maunoury’s French Sixth Army. None of these orders was shared, much less discussed beforehand. In the process, as is well known, Bülow, Kluck, and Kuhl had created a fifty-kilometer-wide gap between First and Second armies—one into which the BEF was slowly stumbling as it headed north between Changis, on the Marne, and Rebais, south of the Petit Morin. The eighth of September would thus see two distinct battles: Kluck versus Maunoury on the Ourcq, and Bülow versus Franchet d’Espèrey on the two Morins.
Kluck’s bold, aggressive decision remains highly controversial. He had already “disobeyed” Moltke’s General Directive to remain “echeloned” to the right and behind Second Army. Now he literally snatched two corps from Bülow’s right wing and rushed them to the Ourcq. To Kluck, time was the critical factor. Could he defeat Maunoury before the BEF drove through the gap in the German line and into the back of either First Army or Second Army? How long could Richthofen’s and Marwitz’s cavalry corps hold the line of the Grand Morin against the three advancing British corps? When would Lepel’s brigade finally arrive on the left flank of French Sixth Army? Kluck answered those rhetorical musings by ordering “every man and every horse” west of the Ourcq to deliver the final and fatal blow to Maunoury’s Sixth Army. It was a last-minute, all-out gamble. The campaign in the west hung on it.
At Luxembourg, General von Moltke yet again was on the verge of panic. “Today a great decision will come about,” he wrote his wife, Eliza, on 7 September, “since yesterday our entire army is fighting from Paris to Upper Alsace. Should I have to give my life today to bring about victory, I would do it gladly a thousand times.” He lamented the “streams of blood” that had already been shed and the “countless” homes and lives that had been destroyed. “I often shudder when I think of this and I feel as though I need to accept responsibility for this dreadfulness. …”75 These were not the words of a great captain.
GERMAN SECOND ARMY on the Marne was a battered force. It had marched 440 kilometers under a broiling sun along dusty roads. Food and fodder had been irregular, and the half-ripe fruit and oats it found along the way only added to the misery of man and beast alike. It had fought most of the major engagements on the right wing—Liège, Namur, Charleroi, and Guise/Saint-Quentin. From around 260,000 soldiers at the start of August, it was down to 154,000 by the end of the month. About 9,000 men had succumbed to heat sores, exhaustion, and hunger; 12,151 were listed as wounded; and 5,061 had been killed.76 After three days on the Petit Morin, Bülow informed the OHL, his army had shrunk from its initial seven to less than four corps, many at least 20 percent understrength.77 In the only change in a major command undertaken by the German army during the “march to the Marne,” Bülow replaced Guenther von Kirchbach with Johannes von Eben as commander of X Reserve Corps.
On 6 September, Eben’s corps ran hard up against Gilbert Defforges’s X Corps between Montmirail and Le Thoult as it came to the aid of Otto von Emmich’s X Corps on his left. A violent battle ensued. Franchet d’Espèrey had admonished his troops not to surrender an inch of sacred soil. Fifth Army managed to advance five kilometers along its entire front, but at Le Thoult French X Corps was thrown five kilometers back across the Petit Morin. Both sides were at the limit of their physical capabilities. Richard von Süsskind, commanding 2d Reserve Guard Division with Eben’s X Reserve Corps, reported, “The division is very exhausted. Though still able to attack, it is no longer in condition to continue the offense.”78 He spoke as well for many other division commanders.
When Bülow ordered First Army’s III and IX corps as well as his own X Reserve Corps fifteen kilometers behind the Petit Morin early in the morning of 7 September, one of Eben’s battalions of 74th Reserve Infantry Regiment (RIR) did not receive the order to withdraw. Quickly surrounded on all sides and with its back against the Petit Morin, it was mercilessly gunned down in what is called “the massacre of Guebarré Farm”: 93 men surrendered and 450 lay dead. The French had ignored the white handkerchiefs that German soldiers had tied to their rifles and raised above the trenches as a sign of surrender.79
The situation on Bülow’s left flank became critical. After an intensive night bombardment—unusual at this stage in the war—a brigade of Théophile Jouannic’s 36th ID from Louis de Maud’huy’s XVIII Corps around noon on 8 September surprised and threw terror into several companies of German VII Corps at Marchais-en-Brie, just northwest of Montmirail.80 Although minor in itself, the brilliant French tactical action at Marchais-en-Brie constituted what historian Sewell Tyng has labeled one of those “there the battle was won” defining moments of the large Battle of the Marne.81 For the French assault had tremendous operational and even strategic ramifications. With German X Reserve Corps completely flanked from the west, Montmirail was indefensible. Moreover, Eben’s IX Reserve Corps was outflanked on both sides. Of much greater concern to Bülow and his chief of staff, Otto von Lauenstein, was that Second Army’s right wing, recently denuded of two corps bound for the Ourcq, was further jeopardized. They ordered VII Corps and X Reserve Corps to fall back ten kilometers east to the line Margny–Le Thoult. It was a major mistake. The two corps on Second Army’s right flank now stood from north to south, facing west, and were thus utterly unable to shift right and close the gap with Kluck’s First Army. In fact, that gap as a result had widened by fifteen kilometers.82 Bülow’s right wing “was no longer threatened, it was turned.” The “path to the Marne” lay open for the left-wing corps of French Fifth Army—and the BEF.
Ever so slowly, Sir John French’s forces, enhanced by William Pulteney’s III Corps, on the morning of 6 September had begun its march to the front. It was headed for the open spaces of the Brie Plateau, a rich agricultural area best known for its cheeses. The plateau was cut east to west by the ravines of the Grand Morin, Petit Morin, Marne, Upper Ourcq, Vesle, Aisne, and Ailette rivers, passable only on bridges. To the north lay the three great forests of Crécy, d’Armainvilliers, and Malvoisine.83 The BEF deployed in an easterly direction from Tournan-en-Brie, Fontenay-Trésigny, and Rozay-en-Brie (which the British called Rozoy), almost twenty kilometers behind the line where Joffre had wanted it to start. “Desperate Frankie,” as the British jokingly called Franchet d’Espèrey, was furious and repeatedly demanded a more rapid advance. But at Rozoy, Sir Douglas Haig, feeling “uneasy about his left,” where he suspected units of Marwitz’s cavalry corps, halted the advance of I Corps, allowing Sixt von Arnim’s IV Corps to make good its escape to the Ourcq.84 Six pilots of the Royal Flying Corps found only open roads ahead of Haig. Thus, when Sir John French ordered Haig to resume his advance at 3:30 PM, I Corps unsurprisingly encountered only abandoned positions. This notwithstanding, by nightfall Haig was roughly twelve kilometers behind the day’s objective. He had lost a mere seven men killed and forty-four wounded.
The next day, 7 September, aerial reconnaissance, in the stilted language of the British official history, again “confirmed the general impression that the enemy was withdrawing northward.”85 The day brought little action, just a continued hesitant advance by the BEF into the gap between German First and Second armies. Sir John had long ceased to be the dashing cavalry officer who had ridden to glory fourteen years earlier during the relief of Kimberley in the Boer War. “Old Archie” Murray, his chief of staff, continued to urge caution. The men tramped happily north singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and certain of their guardian, the “Angel of Mons.” Marwitz’s thin cavalry screen could undertake only brief sorties to block the BEF crossing the Grand Morin.
Not only the French had become exasperated at the slow pace of the British advance. Lord Ernest Hamilton of Eleventh Hussars noted, “In the strict sense there was no battle during the British advance. The fighting … was desultory. … The advance at first was slow and cautious.”86 John Charteris, Haig’s chief of intelligence, observed that although “keen,” the men “moved absurdly slowly.” The cavalry, Haig’s true love, “were the worst of all, for they were right behind [!] the infantry.”87 Exasperated, Galliéni at Paris dispatched Lartigue’s 8th ID south of Meaux to establish contact between the BEF and Franchet d’Espèrey’s Fifth Army.88 It was a murderous advance. The Germans held the seventy-to one-hundred-meter-high ridges above Meaux, their machine guns well concealed on the wooded crests of the Marne, and poured lethal fire into the French ranks crossing the valley floor below them.
On the diplomatic front, Joffre moved quickly to intervene when it seemed to him that Galliéni was driving the British too hard and thereby arousing “the touchiness of Field Marshal French.” On 7 September, he cabled Horatio Herbert Lord Kitchener in London to extend his “warmest thanks” for Sir John’s “constant,” “precious,” and “energetic” support of the Allied attack.89 Alliance cohesion was secured.
At 10:10 AM on 8 September, German Aircraft B75 reported that the BEF was advancing “more rapidly” from La Ferté-Gaucher and Rebais in the general direction of Saint-Cyr-sur-Morin. Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps was in the center of the line, flanked by Haig’s I Corps on its right and “Putty” Pulteney’s III Corps on its left.90 It was another sunny day. By noon, the BEF had reached the Petit Morin, a shallow stream barely six meters wide. The Royal Flying Corps reported only small enemy columns ahead. Marwitz’s cavalry corps fought a brief but gallant rear action—and headed north. Then a “violent thunderstorm” with “torrents of rain”91 slowed the BEF’s further advance. An impatient Joffre at 8 PM dashed off a communiqué to Sir John French confirming the gap between the two enemy armies and deeming it “essential” that the BEF exploit this by marching northeast before the Germans reinforced their cavalry with infantry and artillery. The BEF, in his opinion, should cross the Marne between Nogent-l’Artaud and La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, where the winding river was roughly sixty meters wide.92 In three days and while outnumbering the enemy at least ten to one, “Johnnie” French’s army had advanced just forty kilometers. The BEF’s importance lay in its role as an “army in being,” to borrow a naval term.
Joffre’s problems were not, however, confined to the Germans. On 8 September, the generalissimo discovered to his chagrin that Galliéni, in his capacity as military governor of Paris, the previous day had cabled the government at Bordeaux for instructions on how to “evacuate the civilian population” of the capital’s outlying suburbs and instructed prefects and the police to find “emergency locations” for the evacuees.93 The usually aggressive governor, having pulled all units out of Paris to assist Maunoury on the Ourcq, for a brief moment was overcome by pessimism. If Maunoury were defeated, how could he hold the capital against Kluck’s expected assault? Joffre, barely able to control his anger, cabled War Minister Millerand to “rescind” Galliéni’s “dangerous” communication. “I remain the only judge of what is worth saying about the operations. … The Military Governor of Paris is under my orders, and therefore does not have the right to correspond directly with the Government.”94 It was vintage Joffre.
The Allied advance into the fifty-kilometer-wide space between First and Second armies drove Moltke ever deeper into despair. He issued no orders to either Bülow or Kluck on 6 or 7 September. Instead, he withdrew into a world of self-pity and grief. The “burden of responsibility of the last several days,” he wrote his wife, was impossible even to name. “For the great battle of our army along its entire front has not yet been decided.” The “horrible tension” of the last few days, the “absence of news from the far distant armies,” and “knowing all that was at stake” was “almost beyond human power” to comprehend. “The terrible difficulty of our situation stands like an almost impenetrable black wall in front of me.”95 The only bright spot on the horizon was that on 6 September Hans von Zwehl had forced Fortress Maubeuge to surrender: 412 officers and 32,280 ranks were taken prisoner and 450 guns added to the German arsenal.96 Zwehl’s three brigades of VII Corps were now freed up, perhaps to plug the gap between the Marne and the Ourcq. Wilhelm II, returning from a tour of the front near Châlons-sur-Marne, was delighted by the news but alarmed by Moltke’s pessimism. “Attack, as long as we can—not a single step backwards under any circumstances. … We will defend ourselves to the last breath of man and horse.”97
THROUGHOUT HIS STAND AT the Petit Morin, Bülow had urged Hausen’s Third Army to advance against Foch’s Ninth Army around the Marais de Saint-Gond, the pivot of Joffre’s line. Sixteen kilometers long and on average three kilometers wide, the marshes were an east-west barrier that was practically impassable. Only four narrow and low causeways running north to south traversed the marshes. Their broad expanse of reeds and grass was crisscrossed by drainage dikes cut into the clay basin. To the east was the dry, chalky plain of Champagne, broken only by scattered stands of pine.98 Since the eighteenth century, it had been commonly called la Champagne pouilleuse, literally, the “louse-ridden and flea-bitten region of Champagne.” Somewhere in the vicinity of the marshes, Salian Franks and Visigoths under the Roman general Flavius Aëtius and King Theodoric I had halted the advance of the Hunnic king Attila in ad 451.
Joffre ordered Foch to defend the Saint-Gond Marshes and thereby cover Fifth Army’s right flank at all cost with Pierre Dubois’s IX Corps (three divisions) and Joseph Eydoux’s XI Corps (four divisions). Joffre’s major concern was the gap between Foch’s Ninth Army and Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army. It was held only by Jean-François de L’Espée’s 9th Cavalry Division, pending the arrival of Émile-Edmond Legrand-Girarde’s XXI Corps, which on 2 September had embarked at Épinal in seventy-four trains.99Bülow’s X Corps had pounded Dubois’s IX Corps at Saint-Prix and his Guard Corps had violently assaulted IX Corps at Bannes on 6 and 7 September; he now urged Third Army to exploit the gap. It would require a major effort by an army down to 2,105 officers and 81,199 ranks.100
Yet again, Hausen prevaricated. It was the dilemma of Dinant all over again. On his right, Plettenberg’s 2d Guard Division had stalled at Normée. Bülow again called for relief. “Strongest possible support 3 Army urgently desired. The day’s decision depends [on this].”101 On Hausen’s left, Heinrich von Schenck’s XVIII Corps of Fourth Army likewise had been stopped in its tracks around Vitry-le-François, and Duke Albrecht called for assistance.102 Whom to obey? A royal prince? Prussia’s senior army commander? Or Moltke, who had ordered Third Army to march on Troyes-Vendeuvre? As at Dinant, Hausen decided to please all suitors: He divided his army. He ordered Maximilian von Laffert’s XIX Corps to support Schenck’s VIII Corps at Glannes; he approved Karl d’Elsa’s prior decision to rush 32d ID as well as the artillery of 23d ID to aid the Guard Corps at Clamanges-Lenharré; and he instructed his remaining forces (mainly 23d ID and 24th RID released by the fall of Fortress Givet) to continue on to Troyes-Vendeuvre. He declined to use Fourth Army’s direct telephone to Luxembourg to seek Moltke’s input.
Hausen justified his actions in his unpublished memoirs. Orders were orders. He could not disobey a direct command from Bülow, or from Duke Albrecht, or from Moltke, even if it meant splitting his army into three separate entities.103 For a third time since Fumay and Sommesous–Sompuis–Vitry-le-François, Hausen lost a splendid opportunity to drive an attack through the French line. The day of rest he had generously given his troops on 5 September now came home to roost: He was too far behind Second and Fourth armies on his flanks to rush to the immediate aid of either, and he was too far from the fighting front to penetrate Foch’s weak spot. By dividing his forces, he forwent any attempt to envelop French Ninth Army. By having halted on 5 September, he had given away the chance to break through the fifteen-kilometer-wide gap between Foch’s Ninth Army and Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army.104 One can only imagine what Hans von Gronau would have done under the circumstances.
None of Third Army’s three groups made progress on 7 September, violently battered by Foch’s 75s, the “black butchers” that often fired a thousand rounds each per day. In many places, officers had to rush to the front to get the men moving again.105 Bülow announced that Second Army was pulling III and IX corps as well as X Reserve Corps behind the Petit Morin. At five o’clock that night Hausen, out of character and perhaps recognizing the lost opportunity of the previous day, reached a bold decision: He would assume the role of army-group commander. Until now, he confessed, Third Army had been little more than a “quarry of reserves” for Second and Fourth armies.106 He determined to correct that situation.*
Knowing that the French had launched a major offensive between Verdun and Paris, Hausen reasoned that “the enemy cannot be strong and superior everywhere.” Hence, the trick was to find the place where it was weakest. With Bülow being driven behind the Petit Morin by French Fifth Army and with Kluck fully engaged along the Ourcq by French Sixth Army, Hausen deduced that the weak spot had to be along the front of his army. And since his troops were being hammered by the French les 75s, he decided to “storm the enemy’s artillery positions at dawn with the bayonet.”107 Such a ferocious charge would fortify the resolve of his Saxons for hand-to-hand combat. As well, he was concerned that inadvertent gunfire might alert the sleeping French soldiers. General d’Elsa was given overall command with his own XII Corps, Laffert’s XIX Corps, and 23d ID. Kirchbach’s XII Reserve Corps was to advance with 32d ID and 23d RID. Duke Albrecht agreed to attach Schenk’s VIII Corps to d’Elsa’s left wing; Bülow promised 2d GD (later also 1st GD) for Kirchbach’s right wing. Hausen now commanded six and one-half army corps. He enjoyed a one-third numerical superiority over Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army. At 9:15 PM, he informed the OHL of his plans; Moltke and Tappen radioed their approval shortly before midnight.108
At 2:45 AM on 8 September, Horst von der Planitz’s 32d ID was ready. It was clear and dry. “Seitengewehr aufgepflanzt! Sprung auf, marsch, marsch!”† Orders had arrived at unit levels only thirty minutes before jump-off. The men advanced against Joseph Pambet’s 22d ID and parts of Maurice Joppé’s 60th RID between Sompuis and Vitryle-François with bayonets fixed, rifles unloaded, and breechblocks secured in their bread pouches. At 3 AM Arnold von Winckler’s 2d GD followed against René Radiguet’s 21st ID, despite Winckler’s initial grave concern that Hausen’s gamble could cost him his division. Larisch’s 23d RID followed at 3:30 AM. A pale moon shone as the men silently moved through “glorious vineyards” and marshes and over chalky plains. As soon as they collided with the enemy, bugles and drums called out the attaque brutale.
The 2d Guard waded across the Somme at Normée, and then charged the French lines with “shouts of Hurrah, bugles blaring and drums beating.”109 Concurrently, Planitz’s Saxon 32d ID crossed the Somme at Lenharrée. Despite the staggered starts, surprise was with the Germans. Lenharrée fell by 4:45 AM, its defenders “exhausted, wounded, taken prisoner, or fleeing.”110 The first light of dawn revealed the grisly sight of “green hillsides dotted as if with red and blue flowers”—the tunics of dead French infantrymen.111
It was a “disastrous day” for Foch.112 One French artillery battery after another fled the German cold steel. Radiguet’s 21st ID and Pambet’s 22d ID were driven back by the furious assault, crashing into Justinien Lefèvre’s recently arrived 18th ID. Next, Jules Battesti’s 52d RID had to fall back and d’Espée’s 9th CD was forced to abandon Sommesous. The marshes were effectively outflanked, their southern exists uncovered. In short order, Mont Août, guarding the southern Saint-Gond Marshes, fell. Foch rushed Paul Grossetti’s 42d ID from the left to the right flank to stanch the German advance. His entire right wing seemed to have collapsed, Eydoux’s XI Corps routed. Already at 6:15 AM, Eydoux ordered the four divisions of XI Corps to fall back ten kilometers. Foch deemed its situation “critical.” But, as historian Hew Strachan has put it, he “doggedly refused to admit it.”113 The front held, battered but unbroken as it withdrew.
Around 9 PM, Foch and his chief of staff, Colonel Maxime Wey-gand, appealed to Fifth Army to send a division to replace Grossetti’s shattered 42d ID on the right flank. Franchet d’Espèrey did better: He sent Foch two infantry divisions and the artillery of Defforges’s X Corps.114 As well, Joffre dispatched Antoine de Mitry’s 6th CD to Ninth Army; Legrand-Girarde’s XXI Corps was expected any hour up from Épinal. Therewith, Ninth Army’s “broken” right wing could be repaired and the gap between it and Fourth Army reduced to ten kilometers.115 Interestingly, Foch’s putative comment, “Hard pressed on my right, my center is falling back, impossible to move, situation excellent. I attack,” is yet another legend of the Battle of the Marne. But as President Poincaré noted in a reply to Foch’s address to the French Academy in February 1920, while some authorities treated the text as “authentic, I have not the courage to disillusion them.” After all, “if you never actually wrote this optimistic message it was anyhow in your thoughts.”116
As dawn broke, Saxon 103d RIR entered Sommesous “at a magnificent run and with shouts of Hurrah.”117 Then reality hit. The men were hungry, as they had left their knapsacks behind to lighten the load. A hot sun began to beat down on them, and there was little water on the chalky Catalaunic plain to sustain an army. Foch ordered Dubois’s IX Corps and Eydoux’s XI Corps furiously to counterattack, even as they retreated.118 The Germans had no artillery with which to subdue the flanking fire. During the nighttime crossing of the Somme, units had lost their way and tumbled chaotically together. The regiment lost 104 dead or missing and 224 wounded at Sommesous. By nightfall, it had not reached any of its goals for the day.
Hausen that night judged the attack to have gone “generally satisfactorily.” Indeed, he had scored what seemed a stunning victory in one of the classic bayonet charges of the entire war.119 Group Kirchbach’s three divisions had pushed Foch’s right wing back ten to thirteen kilometers along a twenty-kilometer front, and his center away from the southern exits of the Marais de Saint-Gond. Such a feat would not be repeated until the great German spring offensives of 1918. But privately, Hausen noted that the advance had been “a difficult and slow forward movement from one stand of woods to another, from farm to farm, from one hillock to another.”120 It was the sort of “siege-style” warfare that Deputy Chief of Staff Martin Köpke had warned Alfred von Schlieffen about in 1895.
Group d’Elsa’s left wing also had made little progress. Winckler reported his 2d GD utterly “exhausted” after the “enormous tension” of the bayonet attack. “Officers and men fell asleep wherever they had stopped marching.” The terrain had been too rugged for a coordinated assault; infantry units had lost their way in the dark and stumbled into other, unfamiliar units. The loss of officers had been “exceptionally high.”121 Hausen’s spirited attack ground to a halt on the outskirts of Montépreux. The men were physically drained. There were no reinforcements to exploit the initial advance. An evening rain turned the fields into gray ooze and flooded the marshes. By next morning, Hausen’s forces had lost contact with the French.
Traugott Leuckart von Weißdort, the Saxon military plenipotentiary to the OHL, just happened to be with Third Army at Châlonssur-Marne during the bayonet attack. He reported to War Minister Adolph von Carlowitz at Dresden that Hausen “considered his situation to be very serious, since [Third] Army had been pulled apart by having to rush to the aid of both 2. and 4. Army.” The danger of French forces breaking through Third Army’s thinly manned front was “serious.” Specifically, well-emplaced French artillery had mauled Planitz’s 32d ID. Shaken by what he had witnessed, Leuckart von Weißdort conferred with Chief of Staff von Hoeppner and General von Kirchbach, commanding XII Reserve Corps. Both agreed with the Saxon military envoy. “[They] complain bitterly about heavy losses, exhaustion of the troops due to daily battles and long marches, and the fear that not enough artillery shells can be brought up to the front.”122 It was a sobering document.
While Third Army released no casualty figures for that night’s assault, overall losses were roughly 20 percent. The 2d GD recorded 179 officers and 5,748 men killed or wounded. Each regiment of 1st GD lost about a thousand; many companies were down to just fifty men.123 For the period from 1 to 10 September, d’Elsa’s XII Corps reported 3,621 killed and 3,950 wounded; Laffert’s XIX Corps, 2,197 killed and 2,982 wounded; and Kirchbach’s XII Reserve Corps, 766 killed and 1,502 wounded.124 The most recent research gives only broad figures: 4,500 casualties for Group Kirchbach and 6,500 for Group d’Elsa.125
General von Hausen’s supporters have depicted him as a “gifted army commander” who sought to bring about a small Cannae at the eleventh hour, and they have seen in his night attack an example of operational art to be emulated by the rest of the German army.126 Yet even at the tactical level, its wisdom remains questionable in light of the fact that it was carried out across a river at night, without reconnaissance of enemy positions, without prior shelling, without artillery support during the advance, and with unloaded rifles. At the operational level, it was even less spectacular. The staggered start had resulted in an uneven advance. By 10 AM, Planitz’s 32d ID lagged four kilometers behind Plettenberg’s Guard Corps, marching on Connantray-Vaurefroy. Hour after hour, Plettenberg waited for Planitz to close ranks—in vain. When 2d GD took Fère-Champenoise at 4:30 PM, Saxon 32d ID was nowhere to be seen. Plettenberg was forced to halt his advance at Corroy for fear of exposing his left flank.127 In fact, for reasons that neither Planitz, nor Kirchbach, nor Hausen explained after the war,* for eight hours Planitz had “regrouped” 32d Division, echeloned in depth! It was the second major mistake in two days, following closely on the heels of Hausen’s earlier splitting of his army. And like that earlier decision, it denied the Saxons the chance to exploit the gap between French Third and Fourth armies still guarded by only d’Espée’s 9th Cavalry Division.128
Nor had the advance of Larisch’s 23d ID been a model of operational effectiveness.129 After jumping off late at 6 AM, it had advanced on Sommesous. At 1:30 PM, Kirchbach ordered it to point southeastward toward Montépreux. Larisch did not execute this order until 2:45 PM, and then marched through woods northeast of Montépreux. Kirchbach re-sent his order. Larisch advanced at 4:45 PM, but again toward the northeast. When he finally arrived at his designated rendezvous with Planitz, 32d ID was nowhere in sight. As a result, the Saxons missed an opportunity to break through the gap between Pambet’s 22d ID and 23d RID and turn Foch’s right flank. Hausen and Third Army, to stay with Winston Churchill’s term, thus missed their third “climacteric.”
ON THE OURCQ, two events straight from the pages of a Hollywood movie script took place during the night of 7–8 September. First, the French retreat to Nanteuil-le-Haudouin created a fascinating “what if?” scenario. Sordet’s cavalry corps, battered and beaten, had joined Déprez’s 61st RID in abandoning Sixth Army’s left wing. Maunoury was furious. He ordered the cavalry corps back into line by way of a forced night march—and then relieved Sordet of command. The latter had failed to carry out Maunoury’s explicit order to mount a raid into Kluck’s rear around La Ferté-Milon. Gustave de Cornulier-Lucinière’s 5th CD, with sixteen hundred sabers, ten guns, and 357 troops riding bicycles, was then sent on that mission, the only one of its kind in the war. For two daring days, 5th Cavalry rode around the Forest of Viller-Cotterêts behind German lines. At 6 PMon 8 September, under “a dark red, cloudy sky,” it attacked a German airfield near Troësnes. At that very moment, a cavalcade of cars arrived with First Army’s staff. Kluck, Kuhl, and their aides “seized rifles, carbines and revolvers,” flung themselves on the ground, and formed a broad firing line. The situation was cleared by the arrival of Arnold von Bauer’s 17th ID, which “violently” dispatched the French riders, reducing 5th CD to half its original strength. General de Cornulier-Lucinière’s “brave riders,” in Kluck’s words, had “missed a good prize!”130
Second, there took place that night what became the legend of the famous “taxis of the Marne,” which “saved” Paris from the Germans. In truth, much of the artillery, the infantry, and the staff of Trentinian’s 7th ID departed Paris for the Ourcq front by train and truck during the night of 7–8 September. But Governor Galliéni wanted to make sure that in case of a rail breakdown, not all reinforcements would be denied Maunoury; hence, he decided to dispatch 103d IR and 104th IR by automobile.131 Police confiscated twelve hundred of the capital’s black Renault taxicabs and eventually shuttled five hundred from the Invalides across Paris and west to Gagny. There, each picked up four or five poilus and made the fifty-kilometer trip to Nanteuil-lès-Meaux overnight. Galliéni’s “idée de civil” was brilliant; its execution, dismal. Proceeding with dimmed lights and few maps, the taxis veered off the dark roads, ran into one another, missed road signs, and endured countless flat tires. After the lead cabs of the motorized exodus had unloaded their “passengers” at the front, they immediately turned back to Paris on the same roads to pick up more soldiers—only to run head-on into the slower taxi columns approaching Nanteuil. Roads became clogged, tempers flared, and many of the soldiers had to be discharged as far as two kilometers from their destination. It was great publicity for Galliéni; militarily it was insignificant. To this day, it remains a central part of the public’s remembrance of the Great War.
For 8 September, Joffre ordered Sixth Army to “gain ground towards the north on the right bank of the Ourcq.”132 Instead, Maunoury decided to regain the terrain lost the previous night and to outflank German First Army from the north. It was a poor decision. After initially capturing some ground northeast of Nanteuil-le-Haudouin, the French advance was repulsed by Sixt von Arnim’s IV Corps, reinforced by 6th ID from Lochow’s III Corps. A second assault into the center of the enemy line at Trocy-en-Multien was shattered by German artillery. Gronau held the heights east of Étrépilly, but at great cost. “Nearly everything in the front lines became unraveled,” he noted in the corps’ war diary, “without Reserves [and] waiting in vain for relief and reinforcement in searing heat and without water or food.”133 And on the south of the line, Trossel’s 3d ID, pressured both by Blondlat’s Moroccan brigade and by other French forces moving up from the Marne, smartly withdrew to the heights of Congis above the Thérouanne, destroying the Marne bridges on its left. Another day ended in deadlock and extreme exhaustion for both sides.
Kluck remained downright dogged. His favorite maxim came from Julius Caesar: “In great and dangerous operations one must not think but rather act.”134 He decided that 9 September would be his supreme act. “The decision will be obtained tomorrow,” he informed Moltke on the night of 8 September, “by an enveloping attack on the north under the command of General von Quast starting from the region of Cuvergnon.” Lochow’s III Corps and Quast’s IX Corps had at last arrived on the Ourcq. To the north, Lepel’s 43d Reserve Infantry Brigade had come down from Brussels.135 At the eleventh hour, First Army would snatch victory from the jaws of stalemate.
Galliéni sensed as much. Perhaps still remembering the brief bout of pessimism that he had experienced the day before, Galliéni admonished Maunoury late on 8 September that it was “essential” to maintain his position and hold ground “with all your energy.”136 The commander of Sixth Army hardly needed the reminder. While conceding that his “decimated and exhausted” troops were no longer able to mount an offensive, he nevertheless assured Joffre, “I AM resisting in all my positions.” If the German pressure became too brutal, he would “refuse” his left flank “little by little,” concentrate his force toward the north, and await “the offensive of the British and the Fifth Army” on Kluck’s southern flank.137 Joffre, fully appreciating Kluck’s “very violent attacks,” concurred. “Avoid any decisive action by withdrawing your left, if necessary, in the general direction of the Entrenched Camp of Paris.”138 More concretely, he dispatched Louis Comby’s 37th ID from Fifth Army to buttress the Ourcq front, and he urged Albert d’Amade’s group of territorial divisions standing east of Rouen to advance at great speed toward Beauvais and interdict Lepel’s brigade.
Quast’s IX Corps spent much of the morning of 9 September undertaking a leisurely attack on Clément Buisson’s 1st CD and Aymard Dor de Lastours’s 3d CD, then shifted to a bombardment of Boëlle’s IV Corps while the infantry prepared for the decisive assault. Kluck grew impatient. Time was running out. Near daybreak, he had finally received word that Bülow had withdrawn his right wing north of the Petit Morin, from Montmirail to Margny to Le Thoult–Trosnay.139 This further widened the gap between First and Second armies, guarded now as before only by 2d CD and 9th CD as well as by Richard von Kraewel’s mixed brigade (units from Quast’s IX Corps). Between 8:28 and 9:11 AM, Kluck and Kuhl had received several dire messages from Marwitz and Richthofen. “Strong infantry and artillery across the Marne bridge at Charly.” The second was equally distressing, “Strong enemy infantry advancing via Charly and Nanteuil; 5th Cavalry Division and [2d Cavalry Division] have orders to attack.” A third message, repeating the second, broke off with an ominous, “I must leave immediately.”140
Kuhl called a staff meeting. It was agreed to press the attack on French Sixth Army. Kluck waited impatiently for Quast (and Sixt von Arnim) to mount the infantry assault that would decide the Battle of the Ourcq. To avoid immediate exploitation of his left flank by the BEF, the French cavalry corps, and de Maud’huy’s XVIII Corps, now heading into the corridor between German First and Second armies, Kluck at 9:30 AM withdrew Linsingen’s II Corps to the line May-en-Multien–Coulombs-en-Valois and ordered it to front the danger emanating from the Marne.141 Just in time. Around noon, Bülow sent Kluck a dire message: “Airmen report advance of four long enemy columns toward the Marne. … Second Army initiates retreat, right flank on Damery [in fact, Dormans].”142
Still, Kluck, furor Teutonicus personified, pressed on with the attack. “Every man,” he admonished one of Quast’s staff officers, “must be convinced that the enveloping attack” on French Sixth Army “must bring the decision.” He urged Quast to drive for the line Lévignen-Betz without delay. If the right wing reached Dammartin-sur-Tigeaux by nightfall, “all will have been won.”143 Once again, Quast ran up against Déprez’s 61st RID, and once again he put it to flight. An aviator reported that Lepel’s brigade had engaged Maunoury’s left flank at Baron, northwest of Nanteuil-le-Haudouin. At that very moment, a visitor from the OHL arrived at First Army headquarters: Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, on what undoubtedly is the most famous staff tour in military history.
* Greenwich Mean Time. German accounts give German General Time (one hour later).
* Or 230 kilometers by air.
* In December 1916, Nivelle replaced Joffre as commander in chief of the French army.
* Given the destruction by Allied air raids in 1945 of the records of Third Army’s Strategic (Ia) and Tactical (Ib) sections, Hausen’s unpublished memoirs are critical.
† “Fix bayonets! Advance by rushes!”
* Unfortunately, the loss of the war diary of 32d ID during the Allied bombing of Potsdam in 1945 denies clarity as to the motive for the halt.