The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 142nd installment in the series.
September 5-12, 1914: The Miracle on the Marne
The First Battle of the Marne was the first major turning point in the war on the Western Front—the moment at which the German tide, rising relentlessly in the first weeks of the war with the conquest of Belgium and northern France, finally crested and broke, with the Germans forced into hasty retreat. There’s no question the “Miracle on the Marne” saved France and the Allied cause—but neither it nor the dramatic battles which followed in the fall of 1914 were truly decisive, as they left the Germans in control of Belgium and most of France’s industrial resources, foreshadowing a long, drawn-out conflict.
The End of the Great Retreat
As French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s Plan XVII met with resounding defeat at the hands of the German left wing and center in the Battle of the Frontiers, the German right wing, consisting of the First, Second, and Third Armies, surged through Belgium, occupying the capital Brussels on August 20 and the key fortress city of Namur on August 25. From August 21 to 23, the German right wing slammed into the French Fifth Army and British Expeditionary Force at Charleroi and Mons, sending the vastly outnumbered Allies reeling back into northern France (but paying a steep price for these gains).
This was the beginning of the Great Retreat—two excruciating weeks from August 24 to September 5 when French and British troops fell back 150 miles in front of the onrushing Germans, through forced marches punctuated by desperate rearguard actions by the BEF at Le Cateau on August 26 and the French Fifth Army at St. Quentin-Guise on August 29. As the supply system broke down, the retreat became one unending nightmare of hunger, exhaustion, heat, and dust. Private Frank Richards of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers recalled: “Bread we never saw; a man’s daily rations were four army biscuits, a pound tin of bully beef and a small portion of tea and sugar… We never knew what it was to have our equipment off and even at night when we sometimes got down in a field for an all-night’s rest were not allowed to take it off.” Christian de Mallet, a French cavalry trooper, described similar conditions: “The heat was suffocating. The exhausted men, covered with a layer of black dust adherent from sweat, looked like devils… The air was burning; thirst was intolerable, and there was no possibility of procuring a drop of water.”
With the retreating armies came hordes of terrified refugees seeking safety to the south, many heading for Paris. Charles Inman Barnard described the scene in the French capital: “I saw a train pull slowly into the Gare du Nord laden with about fifteen hundred peasants—old men, women, children—encumbered with bags, boxes, bundles, fowls, and provisions of various kinds. The station is strewn with straw, on which country folk fleeing from the Germans are soundly sleeping for the first time in many days.”
While some refugees arrived, many more were leaving, as thousands of Parisians fled the French capital for the countryside. On September 1 an attaché with the American embassy in Paris, Eric Fisher Wood, wrote in his diary:
Panic conditions of the most pronounced order exist today. Everyone seems possessed with the single idea of escaping from Paris. A million people must be madly trying to leave at the present moment. There are runs on all the banks. The streets are crowded with hurrying people whose faces wear expressions of nervous fright. The railroad stations are packed with tightly jammed mobs in which people and luggage form one inextricable, suffocating, hopeless jumble.
The French government itself packed up and headed for Bordeaux on September 2, and that same day the Paris stock exchange closed and the Bank of France also moved all its key assets to Bordeaux, including gold reserves of around four billion francs, or $800 million in contemporary dollars. The new military governor of Paris, General Joseph Gallieni, ordered military engineers to work round the clock to complete entrenchments and other fortifications around the capital—but the city itself was eerily deserted. An American journalist, Frederick Palmer, described the strange sights of Paris dark and abandoned:
You might walk the length of the Champs Elysees without meeting a vehicle or more than two or three pedestrians. The avenues were all your own… The moonlight threw the Arc de Triomphe in exaggerated spectral relief, sprinkled the leaves of the long rows of trees, glistened on the upsweep of the broad pavements, gleamed on the Seine. Paris was majestic…
And still the retreat continued, amid bitter recriminations between French and British commanders over failures, both imagined and real, on both sides of the troubled alliance. Field Marshal Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, blamed the French for withdrawing without warning during the battles of Mons and Charleroi, and repeatedly (some might say petulantly) refused to slow the BEF’s withdrawal or coordinate its movements with the neighboring French Fifth and Sixth Armies—which in turn enraged French chief of staff Joseph Joffre, who also criticized French’s decision to evacuate the main British base at Le Havre as hasty and needlessly demoralizing. To be fair, by this point even one of French’s own commanders, Douglas Haig, thought he was “quite unfit for high command in time of crisis.”
If there was a silver lining in all this, it was the fact that as the Allied armies retreated their pursuers were forced to make the same exhausting round-the-clock marches, and German troops were also on the point of collapse. On September 2, an officer in the German First Army confided in his diary that “Our men are done up,” and Julius Koettgen, a German infantryman, recalled growing discontent in the ranks:
We had to march on and on. The captain told us we had been ordered to press the fleeing enemy as hard as possible. He was answered by a disapproving murmur from the whole section. For long days and nights we had been on our legs, had murdered like savages, had had neither opportunity nor possibility to eat or rest, and now they asked us worn-out men to conduct an obstinate pursuit.
Meanwhile the German generals were just as fractious as the Allied commanders. Alexander von Kluck, the commander of the German First Army, disdained Karl von Bülow, commander of the Second Army, as a washed up old man and resented his repeated requests for protection against threats to Second Army’s right flank. For his part Bülow viewed Kluck as a selfish, overly ambitious, unreliable prima donna. Max von Hausen, commander of the Third Army, was a Saxon who disliked both Kluck and Bülow as stereotypical Prussian martinets. Furthermore none of them felt particularly obliged to heed instructions from chief of general staff Helmuth von Moltke, viewed as out of touch with the situation back at headquarters in Luxembourg. Poor communications between armies on the move only served to exacerbate their disagreements.
On September 2, von Kluck disregarded an order from Moltke to fall back to protect Second Army’s flank, instead deciding to drop First Army’s pursuit of the fleeing BEF and head southeast in hopes of finishing off the French Fifth Army, which had barely escaped destruction by the German Second Army twice in recent weeks. By the evening of September 3 the First Army had arrived at the River Marne, and Captain Walter Bloem described the scene of incongruous beauty which greeted German troops: “The sun was beginning to set, when suddenly, spread out at our feet, was a picture of indescribable loveliness: the valley of the Marne… The sun had sunk into a misty haze of deepest gold. The whole valley, steeped in the perfect stillness of a summer evening, shimmered in the golden light. Could this be war?” But there was also a growing sense of unease in the exhausted German ranks:
To any of us who had not yet noticed it, the events of the past days must have shown how increasingly unpleasant the situation was becoming. We had, indeed, achieved marvels, driving the enemy out of the whole of Belgium and a great part of Northern France, nevertheless we ourselves were getting farther and farther away from home with ever-lengthening communications, while more and more enemy were now appearing on our front…
Indeed, following the defeats of August the unflappable Joffre made expert use of the French railways and dense road network around Paris to transfer thousands of troops from the eastern frontier with Germany to form the new Sixth Army under Michel-Joseph Maunoury north of Paris, while also cobbling together a new Ninth Army under the aggressive Ferdinand Foch with troops drawn from the retreating Third and Fourth Armies – in effect adding two new pieces to the chess board. Meanwhile Joffre, never shy about firing subordinates he considered ineffective, also replaced the pessimistic head of Fifth Army, Charles Lanrezac, with one of his own corps commanders, Franchet d’Esperey (the hero of Charleroi, called “Desperate Frankie” by British colleagues who had a nickname for everyone).
Thanks to Joffre’s rapid redeployment of troops, by the time the Germans arrived at the Marne the combined strength of the Allied forces facing them—composed, from east to west, of the French Third, Fourth, Ninth, and Fifth Armies along the Marne, the British Expeditionary Force near Melun, and the French Sixth Army guarding Paris—numbered over one million men, including 980,000 French and 70,000 British troops. The depleted German forces, consisting of the First through Fifth Armies, numbered just 850,000.
There was still one problem, as the BEF continued its headlong retreat and Sir John French bluntly informed Joffre on August 30 that the British wouldn’t be ready to fight for at least ten days, driving the French commander to despair. But the situation was finally remedied by some inter-Allied diplomacy: President Poincaré politely asked the British government to get their commander in line, and on September 1 Secretary of State for War Kitchener paid a personal visit to France, meeting French at the British Embassy in Paris, where he issued written orders to the stubborn Field Marshal. When the time came (and with a little more persuasion) the British would fight.
The Allies were also aided by continuing dissension among the German commanders. On September 3 von Kluck again disregarded a directive from Moltke and ordered First Army to cross the Marne ahead of Bülow’s Second Army—quite literally “ahead,” as First Army’s advance would cut southeast across Second Army’s line of march, forcing Bülow to halt for several days. As he chased the elusive French Fifth Army Kluck left just one army corps, under Hans von Gronau, to screen Paris to the west, unaware of the new French Sixth Army forming there. Then, on September 4, von Hausen decided, inexplicably, to let Third Army rest the following day, leaving it a full day’s march behind its neighbors and missing a chance to drive between Foch’s Ninth Army and the French Fourth Army under Langle de Cary.
Crucially, these decisions by von Kluck and Hausen both clashed with Moltke’s latest directive issued on the evening of September 4. German pilots flying reconnaissance missions had spotted columns of French troops heading north from Paris, reinforcing the new Sixth Army; Moltke, finally seeing the danger to the German right flank, ordered First and Second Armies to halt and assume defensive positions, while Third, Fourth and Fifth Armies would drive forward against the French center, weakened by Joffre’s redeployments. But the order arrived too late.
The Battle of the Marne
In the first days of September Joffre and Gallieni received a series of reports confirming that the German First Army was proceeding southeast, past Paris, in pursuit of the French Fifth Army, leaving its right flank open to attack by the new French Sixth Army. On the evening of September 4, d’Esperey said that despite its recent defeats Fifth Army was ready to attack, and Joffre decided that the time had finally come to stop retreating and take the offensive. The next day, September 5, Joffre visited Sir John French and after a melodramatic speech—concluding “the honour of England is at stake!”—secured a promise that the BEF would join the French counterattack (below, British cavalry advance to the Marne). The attack, Joffre said, would begin September 6.
In fact, it was already underway. On the morning of September 5, the French Sixth Army under Maunoury began marching east in preparation for the general attack planned for the following day—and shortly before noon ran smack into the German IV Reserve Corps under Hans von Gronau, left by von Kluck to guard his right flank along the River Ourcq, a northern tributary of the Marne. An incredibly violent but inconclusive clash ensued, as Gronau’s force of 22,800 men fought desperately to hold off Maunoury’s 150,000. German field artillery inflicted heavy losses, but the gun crews paid a heavy price as the deadly French 75-mm field pieces responded in kind.
At the end of the day, Gronau held his ground on a ridge above the Ourcq—but more importantly, the battle alerted von Kluck to the danger on his right flank, giving him an opportunity to rush reinforcements to face the French Sixth Army (where Moltke and Bülow had wanted them all along). Around midnight of September 5 he ordered two army corps located along the Grand Morin, a southern tributary of the Marne, to march northwest to a position near the town of Meaux on the Marne—beginning to open a gap in the German lines.
Beginning on the morning of September 6, the two army corps withdrawn by Kluck marched north all day to reinforce the single corps facing the French Sixth Army along the Ourcq, where they helped hold off the French for a second day amid fierce fighting that devastated the area around Meaux. According to Bloem, ordinary German soldiers understood that the change in direction was bad news:
The sun blazed down on us, the heat intensely oppressive, and perhaps even more oppressive the thought of a terrible, hideous possibility. Forwards, forwards, was the order; but weren’t we actually going just a little backwards!... To the north… a battle was being fought. The realization of all that this meant was enough to stagger the most courageous heart.
Meanwhile Mildred Aldrich, a retired American authoress living in a small village east of Paris, saw part of the Battle of the Ourcq on September 6, including the destruction of numerous small villages caught in the crossfire:
The sun was setting. For two hours we saw [the shells] rise, descend, explode. Then a little smoke would rise from one hamlet, then from another; then a tiny flame – hardly more than a spark – would be visible; and by dark the whole plain was on fire… There were long lines of grain stacks and mills stretching along the plain. One by one they took fire, until, by ten o'clock, they stood like a procession of huge torches across my beloved panorama.
Elsewhere on September 6, to the south the BEF and French Fifth Army under d’Esperey were advancing against the two remaining German corps holding the junction between First and Second Army along the Grand Morin and Petit Morin, two southern tributaries of the Marne, and to the east the French Ninth Army under Foch fell back before a fierce offensive by the German Second Army under Bülow across the headwaters of the Petit Morin in the Marshes of St. Gond (an unusual battlefield as the marshes, measuring about two miles wide by 12 miles long, could only be crossed via four relatively narrow causeways).
In short the Battle of the Marne was actually three separate but interrelated battles—one on the Ourcq, one on the “Deux Morins,” and one on the Marshes of St. Gond. While a German breakthrough in any of these places could easily have spelled disaster for France, the strategic pivot of the battle was always the confrontation on the Ourcq, where the German First Army posed a direct threat to Paris and the French Sixth Army, conversely, threatened to roll up the German right wing.
On September 7, von Kluck gambled everything on a decisive victory over French Sixth Army. After receiving reports that the BEF was advancing slowly toward the gap between First and Second Armies, shortly before noon he ordered two more corps to march north for an all-out attack on Sixth Army, in the hopes of crushing the French before the British were close enough to threaten the junction with Bülow’s Second Army.
Unfortunately for the Germans, von Kluck didn’t realize that the previous night Bülow had already ordered these corps (which Second Army currently shared First Army) to fall back along with his own right wing, as part his own effort to crush Foch’s Ninth Army on the St. Gond Marshes with assistance from Hausen’s Third Army. In other words the generals were pursuing two separate, conflicting plans, and Kluck’s order now superseded Bülow’s, so the two corps continued to their new destination. The result of these near-simultaneous moves, which both generals failed to communicate to each other, was a 30-mile gap in the German lines. In the days to come this gap would be their undoing.
In the near term, however, von Kluck’s gamble almost paid off: amid fierce fighting all along the Marne, on September 7 First Army sent Maunoury’s cavalry reeling back, and the situation looked grim for the Allies. Thus, Joffre and Gallieni focused all their efforts on strengthening Sixth Army on the Ourcq to defend against First Army’s attacks.
This was the origin of the famous “taxis of the Marne” episode of September 7 and 8, when Gallieni commandeered around 600 Parisian taxis to rush reinforcements from Paris north to Sixth Army. This round-the-clock operation, carried out amid chaotic conditions over roads clogged with troops and supplies, managed to deliver perhaps 3000 troops to bolster Sixth Army’s northern flank. Recently some historians have questioned the true effectiveness and importance of the taxis to the outcome of the battle, as most of the reinforcements were actually delivered by train or truck, but the taxi-lift entered the mythology of the Marne as a symbol of civic participation and French fighting spirit.
For ordinary soldiers, the situation on the ground remained confused, to say the least. Paul Tuffrau, a French junio officer, described the chaotic fighting near the village of Barcy, north of Meaux:
I pick up a dead man’s weapon, slip on a cartridge belt and join the advancing troop – it is rather scattered and pushing forward in every direction, urged on by the bugles. What’s that I’m stepping on? The dead and wounded, friends and foes. Bullets fly past, then the brutal blast of artillery fire right in front of us. The charge tatters, stops… All around, behind piles of grain, men are lying down, shooting or just waiting. Through the haze, you can just make out the rise of a hillside. Is that the Marne?
As September 7 drew to a close, the scene along the Marne was apocalyptic. Wilson McNair described the destruction near Meaux, which
was lying almost in ruins, with the great shells lashing their hail of destruction upon its roofs and gardens. The green fields and the orchards near the river bank, where the fighting was fierce all day, are still at evening, but the orchards are strewn with dead, German dead and French dead lying side by side under the sky, their faces lit up by the far glow of the burning villages. What a scene truly of horror and wonder!
The Turning Point: September 8-9
After several days of fierce but inconclusive fighting from September 5 to 7, the turning point came on September 8-9 – but at first fortune seemed to favor the Germans.
Along the Ourcq the French Sixth Army renewed its attack on the German First Army’s right wing on September 8, but failed to make progress, while the Germans pushed back in the center, forcing Maunoury to fall back to defensive positions. To the east Hausen’s German Third Army, finally in place after its delayed arrival the day before, launched a surprise attack on the French Ninth Army across the Marshes of St. Gond, forcing back Foch’s right wing and inflicting heavy losses.
But the real action was taking place at the Deux Morins, where Franchet d’Esperey’s Fifth Army pushed back the right flank of Bülow’s Second Army, making it basically impossible for the Germans to close the 30-mile gap created the day before by Bülow and Kluck’s uncoordinated, conflicting moves. Even worse, after an embarrassing delay the BEF was finally on the scene, pushing ahead into the gap to the west of the French Fifth Army. Meeting no resistance, the British cautiously pushed forward over recently abandoned German positions along the two Morins, and reached the southern bank of the Marne by the evening of September 8.
The French Fifth Army’s success and the arrival of the BEF at the Marne threatened to completely unravel the German line, opening von Kluck’s First Army to attack from the rear. Back at the German headquarters in Luxembourg, Helmuth von Moltke, panicked and apparently suffered a nervous breakdown, losing his grip on events. His subordinates, now in crisis management mode, began to take over, and in the early morning of September 9 they dispatched a general staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, to tour the front, make an appraisal of the situation, and order a retreat if necessary.
The situation was dire: at Second Army headquarters, Bülow said his exhausted troops had been reduced to “cinders” by three days of hard fighting following weeks of forced marches, and laid the blame on Kluck for failing to protect his flank and generally keeping him in the dark about First Army’s movements. Although no records of the meeting were kept, it seems that Bülow and Hentsch together decided the time had come to make a strategic withdrawal (a move that was later harshly criticized by von Kluck, who at that point believed he was close to turning the flank of the French Sixth Army).
Over the next few days, from September 9 to 12, the German armies retreated in a not-so-orderly to the Aisne River, about 30 miles north of the Marne. For the exhausted and demoralized troops, it was a pilgrimage to despair. Julius Koettgen described the events of these days:
The roads became ever more densely crowded with retreating troops and trains; from all sides they came and wanted to use the main road that was also being used by us… Munition wagons raced past us, singly, without any organization. Order was no longer observed. Canteen and baggage wagons went past, and already a wild confusion arose… Night came upon us and it poured again in torrents. We lay on the ground and felt very cold. Our tired bodies no longer gave out any heat.
Meanwhile, the Allied troops who pursued them north encountered scenes of shocking carnage and devastation. Charles Inman Barnard recalled:
We came near to the villages… along the road from Meaux to Soissons… and found that the trenches dug by the Germans were filled with human corpses in thick, serried masses. Quicklime and straw had been thrown over them by the ton. Piles of bodies of men and of horses had been partially cremated in the most rudimentary fashion. The country seemed to be one endless charnel-house. The stench of the dead was appalling.
An anonymous British junior officer remembered “Whole trains of motor lorries that had been hastily burned and left by the roadside, and all sorts of vehicles with broken wheels,” and also noted that the Germans had looted all the wine and spirits they could lay their hands on, stealing from elegant chateaux and peasant dwellings alike: “The litter of bottles was appalling. There was a perfect wall of them for about a quarter of a mile.” Barnard echoed this description: “How thirsty the Germans were! The roads and fields and trenches were strewn with bottles, full or half-empty.”
When the Germans reached the Aisne they established advantageous positions on hills overlooking the river, and dug in with machine guns and heavy artillery, and the French and British soon did the same. Koettgen remembered the scene at dawn on September 11:
Slowly the mist began to disappear, and now we observed the French occupying positions some hundred yards in front of us. They had made themselves new positions during the night exactly as we had done. Immediately firing became lively on both sides. Our opponent left his trench and attempted an attack, but our great mass of machine guns literally mowed down his ranks… The French renewed their attack again and again, and when at noon we had beaten back eight assaults of that kind hundreds upon hundreds of dead Frenchmen were covering the ground between our trenches and theirs.
Trench warfare had begun.