Heading back to 1914 and perhaps the last fight of Eric Hobsbawm’s ”the long nineteenth century“.
Name: The First Battle of the Marne
The War: The First World War
When: 5 – 12 September 1914
Where: Along the Marne River to the west of Paris
Forces/Commanders: Over a million Allied troops (mostly French and some British) under the overall command of Joseph Joffre against one and half million German troops under Helmuth von Moltke.
“The terrible ifs accumulate…”
-Winston Churchill, on the Marne.
“Your Majesty, we have lost the war.”
-Von Moltke, reporting to Kaiser Wilhelm II after the battle.
Before the trenches sprang up in late 1914, World War I was a more mobile affair. The German Empire, following the vortex that had sucked all of Europe’s great powers into conflict within weeks of each other, had put into action the Schlieffen Plan, their long-standing operating strategy to win the war on both fronts, east and west, as quickly as possible.
The Schlieffen Plan called for German troops to attack into Belgium, swinging into France from the north, enveloping Paris from all sides, forcing the surrounded French army to fight a decisive battle. Following their defeat, Germany would turn their attention to Russia.
The Schlieffen Plan is a much debated and analysed aspect of the First World War. It’s possible that, implemented correctly, it could have worked. But in the end, as many had foreseen, the temptation to alter crucial aspects of the enterprise, notably in reducing the strength of the right-wing to embolden the centre and left, meant that it could never be a success.
Of course, it didn’t seem so in early September. Germany was on the rampage, crushing Belgium and Luxembourg, and easily forcing the French and British Expeditionary Force into retreat following the Battle of the Frontiers. With the Allies constantly falling back, it seemed that Paris was doomed to fall, just as it had 40 years previously during the Franco-Prussian War. The French and British commanders were, to put it lightly, not getting along and the French Commander in Chief, Joseph Joffre, was having a hard-time keeping the alliance together.
But all was not well for Germany either, appearances to the contrary. The unexpected resistance of Belgium, effectiveness of the BEF and logistical delays had already altered the plan in a huge way, pushing it behind schedule.
Two German Armies, under Alexander von Kluck and Karl von Bulow, turned south-east on approach to Paris, looking to envelop the French armies. Joffre, seeing the opportunity, decided this was the time and place to counter-attack. The French Sixth Army and the BEF were chosen to make the blow, un der the command of Michel-Joesph Maunoury and Sir John French respectively.
Von Kluck saw the blow coming and wheeled his army to the right. In so doing he opened up a sizable gap between the German First and Second Armies. The First Army was already engaging the French, and pushing them back, but were now separated from the Second Army by a gap of over 30 miles in length.
It was the fledgling Air Forces of the Allies that spotted the gap (planes of the time, not even being armed, were used exclusively for reconnaissance). The Allies seized the chance, pouring most of the BEF and the French Fifth Army into the gap while counter-attacking against the advancing German Second Army.
The Germans, through the 6th to the 8th of September, were close to a breakthrough to the north-east of the city. The fighting at the time could be described as a Napoleonic war with more advanced weapons, the emphasis still being heavily on decisive large-scale engagements with massed firepower.
It was here, with the French Sixth Army taking a battering, that the most famous moment in the battle took place. The Governor of Paris, Joseph Gallieni, sent 600 Parisian taxi cabs to help ferry reserve troops to the front, providing an effective symbol of French unity and commitment. Through the use of dug-in positions, only hastily prepared, the French gave the Germans a brief taste of what the next four years would look like.
The Sixth Army was able to hang on, thanks to the reinforcements, long enough for the Fifth Army to launch another attack on the German position. Under the newly appointed Franchet d’ Esperay, the Fifth’s attack, combined with other counter moves by the BEF, came close to encircling the German armies completely.
The Germans, who had come so close to taking Paris, now looked set for disaster. Von Moltke, suffering from a nervous breakdown, was essentially relived by his subordinates who ordered a retreat before the two armies were completely overwhelmed.
What followed was a chase to the river Aisne which lasted around four days.. The Allies, on the offensive for the first time, were slow to move, allowing the Germans to get ahead of them. Possibly the troops were exhausted by the previous months struggle themselves.
To the east, further fighting was taking place close to the fortress of Verdun with three French and three German armies fighting for position. It was here that General Ferdinand Foch, eventually to be the commander of all Allied armies, gave one of the most famous battlefield messages of all time: “Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack.” Despite being “hard-pressed”, his counter-attack worked, forcing the Germans back and allowing him to retake the town of Chalons.
After 40 miles of retreat the Germans reached the Aisne and dug in.
For the most part, they would not leave the positions until November 1918.
Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War
Before the Marne was completed, the Great War was a contest between moving armies. The Germans had swept through Belgium and into France and the Allies had been retreating near constantly. Once it was finished, the war became static, with the vast majority of the western fighting remaining confined to the trenches that soon were dug through Belgium and eastern France. The image of the trench was born from the Marne.
But more than that, the Marne saved the Allies and made sure that the war would continue. Von Kluck decision to split the two attacking armies apart gave the French and the BEF the chance to decisively end the chance of quick German victory, though it didn’t completely reverse the situation in the west either. In a larger sense, the failure of the Schlieffen Plan was a hammer blow to the Germans, to the extent that some of their Generals already thought that the war was lost. Every plan had to be re-written following the repulse from Paris. It is certainly the most important battle of 1914, perhaps of the entire war as I will discuss in a moment.
World War I was the conflict that flung the airplane into a position of great importance and the Marne was the first real example of that. The rickety bi-planes of the French and British Armies – the Air Forces not yet even being a separate branch of the Armed Forces – were vital in detecting the gap that had opened up between the two German armies in the first week of September.
In a larger sense, the Marne can be seen as a fulcrum between the second (massing firepower and men) and third (emphasis on speed and manoeuvre) generations of warfare. World War I was the conflict that definitively marked the beginning of the transition and the Marne contains great examples of both from the rapid movements of the attacking Allies to the entrenchment of the Germans at the Aisne.
Immense. A more coordinated turn of flank by Von Kluck and Von Bulow, or a breakthrough against the beleaguered Fifth Army may have ended the war in Germany’s favour within a month. Paris would have fallen, and most of the French armies surrounded. Foch, to the east would have been outflanked and helpless and the BEF would have been alone in foreign territory.
Just as in 1940, it is hard to imagine such a scenario that ends favourably for the Allies. More than likely, France would have had to sue for peace, and Britain would have left the continent. With no enemy on the Western Front to fight – it being unlikely that Germany would have attempted an invasion of Britain – they would have had immense forces to fling at Russia on the Eastern Front.
Such a war leaves Germany, the second Reich, the undisputed master of continental Europe, and a star ascendant in the colonies. Britain would have remained a power on the waves, but little else. The United States would have remained in isolation, with no opportunity to rise as a superpower. No Hitler and the Nazis. No Barbarossa. Probably no Soviet Union.
Speaking of Hitler, the young Corporal in a Bavarian Reserve division was involved in the battle. Imagine if he been one of the 220’000 German casualties?
And, in a another sense, no cultural and societal shift, no end to fervent nationalism, the glorification of war, no change in tactics. Knowing the relationship between France and Germany, another war would have been inevitable, the revanchism spirit only being fed and fed. But that’s beyond our power to envision.
In National Consciousness
The British have the Somme and various Ypres. The French have Verdun and “the Miracle of the Marne”. For a country that had been on the bring of defeat, memories of 1870 still fresh and raw in their minds, the Marne provided an example of a nation that could stand, hold the enemy back and win.
In particular, the image of 600 Parisian taxi cabs ferrying troops to the front lines has become a major part of the Marne legend, though their actual impact on the battle was probably minimal. Still, it was an image that became seared into the collective spirit of the French, the “union sacree”.
For Germany, it’s the battle that nearly got them everything they wanted. They were that close to beating the old enemy again.
The Marne’s result led to four more years of slaughter on the Western Front, and far more than that in the decades to come. Foch’s words upon the liberation of Chalons ring a little hollow, considering what was to come:
“Not unto us, o Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory.”
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.