The Ebb and Flow of the Battle
- the savior of Paris - general Gallieni
- left - as seen on the cover of a penny novellette / right from a history magazine
In the first days of September the tide of German invasion had made its way deep into northern and eastern France. Paris could hear the far-off droning of the cannon in the Marne valley, when the more distant sound was not drowned in the nearer roar of explosions from the country round the outlying forts where the engineers were busy blowing up suburban houses to clear the field of fire for the defence. Roads were being barricaded, bridges prepared for swift destruction. Crowds that became almost riotous with panic thronged in and around the railway stations of the capital. Streams of fugitives awheel and on foot thronged the roads to the south and east. In a week, half a million people fled from the menaced city. The Government itself was transferred to Bordeaux, far away near the Pyrenean frontier. It seemed as if the dark days of 1870 had come again. Wild rumours of disaster were rife, and there was the visible menace of the German aeroplanes hovering like vultures over the city, and sending down their messengers of death. Half-hearted politicians spoke of a possible convention for the evacuation of the city, to spare its people the horrors of a siege, to preserve its treasures of art from the peril of a bombardment. But the old soldier who commanded the army of Paris, the veteran General Gallieni, replied that Paris would defend herself even if she had to suffer the fate of Louvain.
He was one of those who could remember "the terrible year" he had fought at Sedan in that September, forty-four years ago, when a French Army was forced to lay down its arms, after another army had been defeated and driven into the doomed fortress of Metz. All the hopes of France then centred on the defence of Paris. But it was different now. The armies of France had indeed suffered defeat, but it was not disaster. They and their British Allies still held the field. France did not stand alone, and she still stood erect and undaunted preparing to strike back at the invader.
And the German leaders too knew that September 1914 was not like September 1870. Berlin indeed kept the anniversary of Sedan by parading the trophies of victorylong trains of captured artillerythrough its streets. The German armies had marched into the heart of France and added to their record of success, the names of stricken fields and captured fortresses, but so far they had won no decisive victory. During the retreat from the frontier, every attempt to cut off and destroy the Allied armies piecemeal had failed, and until the armies were broken up and crushed, an attack on Paris was out of the question. A victory in a great pitched battle, and a victory that would thoroughly shatter the fighting force of the Allies was a necessary prelude to any operations against Paris. After such a victory the fate of the French capital would be sealed. It was no more capable of a prolonged resistance than Liege or Namur had been. As long as the Allied armies kept the field it could play a useful part. When they withdrew across the Marne, Paris protected the left flank of their long array, and the right rested on the eastern barrier of entrenched camps and fortresses on the Verdun-Toul line. But if the Allies were driven southwards, the whole situation would be changed.
The German Staff, therefore, prepared for a great battle on a front of over a hundred miles. The prelude to it was an advance across the Marne. There is no doubt that they counted on an easy victory. For nearly a fortnight they had been steadily advancing, following up the retreat of their opponents, who had been unable to make a stand against them anywhere for more than a few hours at a time. In the pursuit they had gathered up thousands of prisoners, and scores of abandoned cannon, and on every battlefield the retreating Allies had had to leave their wounded in the hands of the invaders. There can be no doubt that the impression all this created in the minds of the German leaders was that their opponents were very badly beaten, and hardly capable of a serious resistance to a combined stroke of the German armies.
For this combined stroke they now prepared. In England during these anxious days of the campaign, a misleading impression was produced through the absolute lack of information about all that was happening, except in the immediate front of our own troops and to the north of Paris. The news-papers hardly mentioned any of the German armies, except Von Kluck's on the extreme right of the invasion, and even Von Kluck's movements were misinterpreted. The popular idea was that he was making a rush for Paris, and when in the first days of September he changed the direction of his line of march and turned to the south-eastward towards the crossings of the Marne above Meaux, it was said that there had been a change in the German plans, the attack on Paris had been abandoned, and the Germans were making a new "mysterious" movement.
There was really no mystery about it. The one object of the enemy was the destruction of the Allied armies, and Von Kluck, on the right of the enemy's advance, was closing to his own left to co-operate with Von Bulow in the advance across the Marne. In order to have an adequate idea of the importance of the great battle that began on Sunday, September 6th, one must not confine one's view only to the movements near Paris. From the Marne, near Meaux, the German advance was an enormous wave of men, horses and guns, massed in six huge armies, and covering a front that extended along the Marne valley beyond Chalons, then eastward by the plain south of the Argonne forest. Beyond this point the German front curved round outside the advanced fortifications of Verdun, and still further east the Bavarian army, based on Metz, was moving against the barrier forts south of Verdun, and attacking the heights north of Nancy. The battle line extended from near Paris to the frontier of Lorraine. The hard fighting on the Marne was thus only the western part of this tremendous conflict in which, including the combatants on both sides, more than two millions of men were set in battle array.
Before telling the story of the battle, it may be well to describe in bold outline the movements of the German armies, and their position in the general advance southwards.
We may leave out of account for a moment the 7th German army on the extreme left, under Von Heeringen. It was in Alsace, based on Strasburg, and was at this time merely watching the French detachments holding the line of the. Vosges. Von Heeringen's work had so far been entirely defensive. The other six armies may be grouped thus:On the right, on the lower Marne, the 1st Army under Von Kluck, and the 2nd under Von Biilow; these were the two armies which had attacked the Allies at Mons and Charleroi in the third week of August, and then followed up the retirement of the Allied left. The German centre was formed of three armiesthe Saxon army under Von Hausen, and the armies of the Duke of Wurtemburg and the Crown Prince. The Saxon and Wurtemburg armies had advanced from the Ardennes, forcing the line of the middle Meuse, winning another battle at Rethel, and then occupying Rheims, Epernay, and Chalons sur Marne. On their left, the Crown Prince's army had advanced from Luxemburg through the gap between Verdun and the Belgian frontier. It had gained possession of the wooded plateau of the Argonne without meeting with much opposition, and then pushed southwards towards Bar-le-Duc, leaving detachments to watch the fortress of Verdun. It was thus penetrating behind the fortified line of heights that extends from Verdun to Toul along the right bank of the upper Meuse. The Bavarian army, based on Metz, was on the eastern side of this fortified barrier. The Crown Prince of Bavaria had a double mission. After the great victory he had won on the frontier of Lorraine in the third week of August, he had forced the French 2nd Army back upon Nancy and Toul. He was attacking Nancy in order to open a way into the wide gap between Toul and Epinal, and at the same time he was pushing a smaller force into the hills of the Meuse towards St. Mihiel. On the other side of this ridge, a few miles further northward, the Crown Prince was attacking Fort Troyon, the first of the barrier forts south of Verdun. The Bavarians and the Crown Prince's army were thus endeavouring to break through the barrier, and join hands on the upper Meuse. If they had succeeded Verdun would have been completely isolated, and at the same time a way would be open for the Bavarian army to act against the French right by combining a flank attack from the hills with the Crown Prince's attack in front.
The German plan for the great battle seems indeed to have been of a very ambitious kind. While the centre held the French south of the Marne, Von Kluck was to cut off the extreme left of the Allies, and force it back on Paris; and the Crown Prince, aided by the Bavarians, was to break through the line just beyond the right centre on the upper Meuse. The success of these attacks would mean that the French centre would be cut off and enveloped, or forced to save itself by a hurried retreat towards the plateau of Langres. At the same time the 2nd Army would be in deadly peril of being enveloped by the Bavarian attack in front, and the advance of the main German army in its rear. The French armies would be divided into three separate masses of beaten troops, and the Germans might then count on successfully dealing with them in detail. It was a bold plan, and could only be justified by the invader possessing a very marked superiority over the defence before the first shot was fired. The Germans thought that this necessary condition existed, that the Allies were already demoralised, and half beaten before the battle began. But in this, as the event proved, the German Staff was making the most serious mistake in the whole campaign.
the B.E.F. on the march in France
Far from being demoralised by their retreat, the toil they had endured, and the losses they had suffered, the British troops were still in the traditional state of mind of "not knowing when they were beaten." They thought more of the successful accomplishment of the retreat than the fact that it had become necessary. The men in the ranks consoled themselves for the continual retirement by telling each other that the Germans were being "just drawn on," and that presently the time would come for turning upon them in earnest, and "getting a bit of their own back." The commanders of the Allies, well satisfied at having prevented the enemy from obtaining any decisive result by his victories on the frontier, were preparing to take the offensive. By the retreat to the south of the Marne they had shaken off the pursuit and drawn their main forces together on ground where their flanks were secured by strong fortresses, and the retirement had not only resulted in this concentration, but since the first fighting on the frontier the French armies had been strongly reinforced. General Manoury, commanding the 6th Army to the north of Paris, had been strengthened by troops drawn from the garrison and was now waiting under the protection of the outlying forts to make a stroke against the German flank, as Von Kluck advanced to the crossings of the Marne. Immediately to the east of Paris, Sir John French's army had halted behind the Grand Morin, a tributary of the Marne. On French's right flank was Conneau's Cavalry Division, and the 5th Army under General D'Esperey. On the right of the 5th Army a newly organised force, the strongest unit in the whole French line, had been brought up from central France. This was the 9th Army under General Foch, one of the most trusted of the French commanders. The line was prolonged eastward to the barrier fortresses by the 4th Army (General De Langle) and the 3rd (General Sarrail). On the other side of the hills of the Meuse the 2nd Army, under General Castelnau, prolonged the line to the entrenched heights north of Nancy. The annexed map will make these arrangements of the armies clear to the reader.
To understand the battle, it must be borne in mind that it was a clash of two great lines of armies moving to meet each other. The Germans were advancing southward, but instead of merely holding their ground against them, the Allies assumed the offensive, and advanced to make a general counter-attack. It was on Saturday, September 5th, that General Joffre, who directed the whole operation, met Sir John French and explained to him what the plan of action was to be.
There was to be a general advance of the Allied armies, beginning at sunrise on Sunday, September 6th. On the Saturday, Von Kluck's army, forming the right of the German advance, had crossed the Marne at various points above Meaux, and pushed on towards the Grand Morin. British airmen that afternoon reported the German bivouacs at Colommiers and La Ferté Gaucher on the Grand Morin, and near Dagny to the south of it. These were probably the points reached by Von Kluck's cavalry and the advanced troops supporting it. , Further north long columns were still crossing the Marne, and Von Kluck had left a large force along the east bank of the river Ourcq, which runs into the Marne at Lizy, on the loops of the river above Meaux.
two covers from penny novelettes
This force on the Ourcq was halted and facing westward. It was a flank guard prudently left by Von Kluck to protect his advance against a flank attack from the direction of Paris, along the north bank of the Marne. The German general had forseen the possibility of the very movement that Joffre had planned, and had taken his precautions against it. The attack which began on the Sunday morning cannot have been a surprise for himthe surprise was to find that there was so much fighting power left in the Allied armies.
The 6th French Army, which had retired before the Germans to the protection of the northern forts of Paris, had now been largely reinforced from the garrison of the capital. As Von Kluck turned to the south-eastward, it had moved out with its right on the north bank of the Marne. Joffre's orders now were that it should move on to the eastward, and attack the German flank guard along the Ourcq.
At the same time Sir John French, with the three British corps, was to swing round to his right and attack the flank of the German columns along the Marne. The British left as it gained ground would come into touch with the right of the 6th Army operating on the other side of the river. Until this was done, Allenby's cavalry would close the gap. On Sir John French's other flank was Conneau's French cavalry division moving up towards Dagny, and connecting him with the 5th French Army under D'Esperey, which on the Sunday was to push forward between Courtacon and Esternay. Two armies, the 6th French Army, and the British, would be acting against the German flank. The rest of the Allied armies would be moving northwards against their front in a long line extending eastward from Courtagon to the upper Meuse, south of Verdun.
On the left of the 5th French Army was the 9th Army under General Foch. It was advancing over the same ground on which Napoleon had won some of his last victories in 1814. It crossed the Aube at Arcis, and advanced on La Fere Champenoise against Von Billow's army, which it was to drive across the Marne at Epernay, after this its objective would be Rheims. The Germans had occupied the city without opposition on September 4th, and then marching through the woods on the heights to the south of it, they had seized Epernay, crossed the Marne there, and pushed on to the upper course of the Petit Morin, where it flows out of the marshes of St. Gond.
Next in the French line was the 4th Army, under General de Langle. Foch's army was a strong, newly organised force which had as yet taken no part in the fighting, and had not had the dispiriting experience of a long retreat from the frontier. De Langle's army had suffered a series of defeats, and had held together with marvellous spirit through a long fighting retreat from the Ardennes. When the full story of all this is written it will tell of heroic endurance, like that of our own men further west. De Langle had been defeated on August 21st, on the river Semois, by the Wurtemburg army. He had tried to defend the line of the Meuse with his left on the fortress of Mezieres. Under the attack of the German guns this place had fallen more rapidly even than Namur, and De Langle, attacked by the Wurtemburg army in front, and the Saxon army on the left flank, had been driven from the Meuse. Some of the fighting was on the old battlefield of Sedan, and the Germans forced the crossing of the river first at Donchery by the very bridge by which the Crown Prince Frederick's army had marched over it in 1870, on the eve of Sedan. De Langle retired southward, fighting almost every day until he was driven from the line of the Aisne at Rethel. He then made good his retreat by Chalons, where he fought another rearguard action with the Saxon army, crossed the Marne, and fell back to the south of Vitry-le-Francois.
On the right of the line was the 3rd Army, under General Sarrail. It had had much the same experiences as the 4th Army. In the third week of August it had been pushed forward north of Verdun towards the Luxemburg frontier, marching towards the besieged fortress of Longwy. It had won a first success over the Crown Prince's advanced troops at Longuyon and Spincourt, but it had then been driven back towards the Meuse on the same day that De Langle was defeated on the Semois. The Crown Prince had advanced in pursuit to the gap between Verdun and the Belgian frontier. He forced the line of the Meuse in a fight in which the towns of Dun and Stenay were shattered by the bombardment of the German artillery, and he had then pushed southward through the Argonne. The 3rd Army had suffered so severely that no serious attempt was made to defend the wooded heights against his advance. The Crown Prince established his headquarters at St. Menehould. His left was in touch with the forts of Verdun, and a strong force pushed on to the south of it, and then brought several batteries of howitzers into action against fort Troyon, the first fort in the line of fortifications along the heights of the Meuse between Verdun and Toul. The high explosive shells soon reduced the little garrison of Troyon to dire extremities, and the shattered fort was on the verge of surrender or utter destruction when, at the last moment, it was saved by the general advance of the Allied armies.
From this general survey of the situation on the eve of the great battle of the Marne, it will be seen that the Allied advance was a resolute assumption of the offensive by armies that had nearly all endured the trial of defeat on the frontier, followed by a long retirement, in which they were more than once menaced with disaster. The only fresh troops were part of the 6th Army on their left, and Foch's 9th Army in the centre. This must be borne in mind if we are to estimate at its true value the success won by the Allies. It also helps to explain how it was that the German Staff ventured to take the risk of an advance across the Marne, which was to be followed by attacks not on a single point of the Allied line, but on its centre and against both flanks.
the battle of the Marne as seen in a French news-magazine
The Allied advance began in the early hours of Sunday, the 6th, and made comparatively rapid progress during the first day of the battle. On the left Manoury pushed forward towards the west bank of the Ourcq, clearing the country of the German advanced troops, and re-occupying Meaux, where his engineers threw pontoon bridges across the Marne to open communications with the British on his right. Sir John French swinging round his line sent the 3rd Corps on his left across the Grand Morin below Coulommiers, pushed his cavalry out north-westward to clear the country towards Meaux, drove the Germans out of Coulommiers, and by evening had his right at Dagny, which the enemy had held the day before. D'Esperey had come up into position, prolonging the line to Esternay on the Grand Morin. Further east General Foch with the 9th Army had checked Von Billow's advance, and the French centre had met the Prussian Guards and beaten them on the historic battlefield of La Fere Champenoise, the scene of one of Napoleon's victories in 1814. On Foch's right, De Langle, moving on both sides of the Marne, was in action with Von Hausen's Saxons about Vitry-le- Francois, his right being in touch with the Wurtemberg troops, and on the extreme right of the Allies, Sarrail was fighting his way forward against the Crown Prince, behind whose battle-line the Germans' siege guns were still thundering against the shattered works of Fort Troyon. When the sun went down, the Allies had everywhere gained ground. For the first time in the war the German advance was checked, and though the battle had only begun, there was the presage of coming victory.
On Monday, the second day of the great battle, the progress of the Allies was slower. The enemy had now brought all his forces into action, and some of the most determined fighting of all the six days took place. Along the Ourcq Von Kluck's flank-guard held its own against the French attacks. This was for the Germans the most dangerous part of their line. If they had been driven in here, their defeat would have been a disaster. In front of the British the Germans fought a retiring action, covered by their cavalry, which included the cavalry division of the Guards' Corps. During the day there was heavy fighting between them and our own cavalry, and in these mounted combats the 9th Lancers and 18th Hussars of De Lisle's Brigade particularly distinguished themselves by their vigorous and successful charges. D'Esperey with the 5th Army reached the line of the Petit Morin. Further eastward the Germans held their ground throughout the day. The only real success on the Monday was on the left.
Next day, the third day of the battle, Tuesday the 8th, was its real turning point. On their extreme right the Germans still held their own along the Ourcq, but everywhere else they were being pushed back. In front of the British they were driven across the Petit Morin, fighting a series of obstinately contested rearguard actions. They made the most stubborn resistance near La Tretoire, where they held a strong position with infantry and guns on the north bank of the river. They were dislodged, not without considerable loss to the attack, by the 1st Corps. The 2nd Division moved directly against their front, the cavalry and part of the ist Division crossed the river higher up and turned their flank. Several guns and many prisoners were taken.
East of La Tretoire D'Esperey crossed the river, and by evening was solidly established on the north bank, with his right at Montmirail. Beyond this point General Foch's victorious advance with the 9th Army drove Von Bulow across the Petit Morin. That evening the German Guard bivouacked on the marshes of St. Gond. In the campaign of 1814, after La Fere Champenoise, some of Bliicher's troops were driven into the marshes, which in those times were nearly impassable. Since then extensive drainage operations have been carried out, and in ordinary dry weather most of the marsh region is a tract of open ground affording a good deal of pasture to cattle, and showing its earlier character chiefly by the wide expanses of level rush-covered heaths between the stretches of meadow. But after a heavy rain, even for a few hours, the ground becomes boggy. In the night, between September 8th and 9th, the weather broke and the rain came down in torrents. In the morning, when the German retirement was resumed, it was found to be impossible to move many of the guns and ammunition waggons of the artillery from the soft ground on which they bivouacked, and in which the wheels were now sinking to the axle-trees. The result was that several batteries and an immense quantity of ammunition had to be abandoned. It was a curious instance of history repeating itself, and was regarded by Foch's army as a welcome omen of success.
a bridge over the Marne destroyed during the fighting
On Wednesday the 9th, the British advance reached the line of the Marne. On Sir John French's right, the 1st and 2nd Corps actually forced the crossing of the river, and were on the north bank before evening, but on the left the 3rd Corps met with more serious opposition. There was desperate fighting about La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. The German rearguard blew up the bridge, and during the afternoon all attempts to throw pontoon bridges across the river at the town and below it ended in failure. It was only after nightfall that the bridges were at last pushed across in the darkness, and the vanguard of the 3rd Corps established itself on the north bank. Von Kluck had no doubt made this stubborn resistance in order to protect the left of his line along the Ourcq, which he heavily reinforced during the day. All attempts of the French to force the crossing of this river were successfully repulsed.
In the centre the Germans lost very little ground and still maintained themselves south of the Marne against General Foch's advance. De Langle won some ground on both banks of the river north of Vitry-le-Francois, but Sarrail on the right made good progress, forcing back the Crown Prince's army into the southern heights of the Argonne, and relieving Fort Troyon. Most of its guns were out of action, and the remnant of the garrison were huddled together in the bomb-proofs of the central works, when the fire of the attack ceased, and shortly After, the cheers of French infantry advancing along the heights above the Meuse told the garrison that rescue had come at the critical moment. Thus, by the Wednesday evening, though the German centre stood fast, both flanks of the long line had been driven in, and the victory was definitely decided in favour of the Allies.
Next day the Germans were everywhere in full retreat, and the Allies were pressing the pursuit and reaping some of the first fruits of their success. Von Kluck gradually withdrew his forces along the Ourcq from left to right, and the French 6th Army partly crossed the river, partly swung round to the northward to threaten the flank of the enemy's line of retirement. The forcing of the crossing was mainly the result of the British advance across the Marne, which had made the position untenable for the Germans. Our men pushed forward all day, fighting a series of rearguard actions with the enemy, and capturing 13 cannon, 7 machine guns, about 2,000 prisoners, and large quantities of transport. On every rise of ground in the undulating country between the Marne and the upper Ourcq, and at the crossing of every stream, the German rearguards made a stand to delay the pursuit.
A letter from one of our artillery officers gives a good idea of what this rearguard fighting was like. He tells how, as he was approaching the crossing of a little river, the battery was ordered to come into action to support with some other guns the attack on a German rearguard :
"The Germans were holding the opposite bank, a very steep bluff, with a battalion of Jaegers (rifles), and eight machine guns. These guns were trained on the road where it was fully exposed for about one hundred yards, and nothing could cross. The section of the other battery was trying to locate them and knock them out. So I took my section up the hill behind these, and waited for any targets to appear. The advance guard had been working well. By taking cover in the woods they had managed to get down into the river- bed and round the flanks. From there they opened a hot fire on the German machine guns. From my position I could see a portion of the road on the opposite bank. I had just got the range for this when a machine gun came galloping up. I fired two rounds at it. The first was over and just behind ; the second short. However, I had never seen anything move quicker than that gun. By now our infantry had forced the Jagers back and we had orders for a general advance. As we crossed the bridge, I heard that seven of their machine guns had been captured. We wound up and up and on all sides saw evidences of our fire. In one place an ammunition waggon had been hit. Both horses were blown over into the ditch. A bit higher up was a young boy hit in the back. All that we could do was to give him water. He told me that his orders had been to stay till shot or captured. These German infantry are a brave lot."
The account the young German officer gave of his orders is a clue to the whole action of the enemy during this day. They were deliberately sacrificing men and guns of their rearguards in order to gain time for the general retreat. Further eastward in the centre, the French as they advanced had the same experience. They were opposed by German rearguards, which fought stubbornly and lost large numbers of prisoners and many guns, their orders evidently being to pay a heavy price for the delay they caused to the pursuit. By evening the French centre was close up to Epernay and Chalons, and the right pushing into the southern woods of the Argonne forest. The Germans had abandoned all hope of holding their own in the Marne valley, but they were fighting to gain time in order to complete the line of defences they were already preparing along the high ground north of the lower Aisne, and thence eastward to the central Argonne.
- a post-battle photo-montage showing a reconstruction of the fighting at Sompuis
- from the French magazine 'En Plein Feu'
In his official despatches Sir John French counts the advance of the British to the upper Ourcq as marking the close of the great battle of the Marne. It was the turning point of the campaign in France, and broke the hitherto uninterrupted career of German successes. Its moral effect was even greater than its material results. The French people passed during these days of battle from what seemed to be the shadow of disasters, like those of 1870, to the sense of victory won and the anticipation of a speedy expulsion of the invaders from the country. There was indeed at first some exaggeration of the extent of the victory. The capture of prisoners, guns, and abandoned transport waggons during the pursuit gave the false impression that the Germans were thoroughly demoralised and beaten, and it would be difficult for them to rally for another battle. But as we have seen these captures were the result of some of the rearguards left to cover the retirement being more or less completely destroyed. Though the commanders in the field made no such mistake, stay-at-home people who read of the battle and pursuit were inclined to yield to much the same false impression as the Germans had formed after our own retirement through the north of France. The enemy was defeated, but he had successfully withdrawn his armies from the line of the Marne and his main fighting force was still intact. Further, he was deliberately preparing an entrenched position on which to make a prolonged stand. The war was about to take on a new aspect. Instead of a campaign of marches and battles it was to be for months to come something like a vast defence and siege of fortified positions. But the great change which the battle on the Marne had produced was that victory had at last passed to the side of the Allies, and for some time to come the enemy was forced to abandon the offensive, and use his utmost exertions merely to hold the ground that he had so far won.
cover pages from French penny novelettes
to part 2 - the Battle of the Aisne
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