from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume I page 150
'The First Historic Battle of the Rivers'

The Great Episodes of the War

Germans on the run at the Marne - two illustrations from a French childrens book


On Sedan Day, September 2nd, the triumphant invaders of France prepared the great stroke which should smash a million French soldiers and leave Paris at the mercy of the Krupp and Austrian howitzers. General Kluck had reached Senlis, about one day's march from the French capital, but, contrary to general expectation, he then swerved to the south-west, and passed a few miles from the great fortress city, striking below it at the centre of the retiring French army.

It was a wonderfully daring movement, more like a stroke by Napoleon than a forceful obvious manoeuvre in the Moltke manner. As a matter of fact, Kluck does not seem to have been acting freely in the matter. His hand was forced. General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, had arranged a surprise for him if he came straight to Paris from Senlis. There was a secret reserve French army of 200,000 men concealed within the fortifications, and waiting to sally out in a concerted movement with the other French and British forces. Had Kluck's men kept straight on they would probably have been cut off.

Kluck discovered this just in time. Instead of retreating—on Sedan Day, of all days— he made a virtue of dire necessity, and swerved in a large half-circle to the southeast of Paris, with the largest and best of the Teutonic armies. The intention of the German Military Staff was then to throw an absolutely overpowering force against the middle of the French battle-front, stretching eastward below Paris, cut the French armies into two parts, annihilate them in turn, and then blow up part of the Paris forts. Kluck was sent south to envelop the western French flank at Provins, below Paris.

By September 5th everything was ready. The Kaiser proceeded to Nancy to see, on the eastern flank of the immense battle-front of two and a half million men, the beginning of the victory his generals promised him. The War Lord watched the battle from a hill. His troops advanced in files toward the Nancy plateau, with fifers playing them on; but the little French 3 in. guns shelled the columns, and in spite of their bravery, the Germans broke and turned back. Four times the advance was made at a loss of half an army corps. But no victory could be gained, even in the inspiring presence of the New Attila. who at last went away without uttering a word.

The Robber Prince

The position of the Crown Prince about the same time was more awkward still. He appears to have left his army in the Argonne woods, near the frontier fortress of Verdun, and motored to an old French chateau behind Sezanne, just at the point where the Prussian Guard was assembling for the main attempt to pierce the French centre. The firebrand of Germany reached the chateau on September 6th, and gave a feast in the evening to some of the General Staff, who had come to arrange the details of his triumphal entry into Paris. At night, the table in the beautiful seventeenth-century banqueting hall was cleared, and the Crown Prince and his military advisers were settling things over some bottles of stolen wine and a box of stolen cigars, when a very loud noise was heard. It was a French shell bursting in the room next to the hall! More shells followed, and then came a regiment of lean, brown-faced Arabs, their bayonets glistening in the moonlight as they charged across the garden of the chateau.

The republican troops of France had, with an utter disregard for German royalty, opened the great battle at their own time and in their own way. Instead of waiting to be attacked, they compelled the pride of Prussia to run for his life.

As a matter of fact, the sudden nocturnal bayonet charge of the Turcos was only a feint. The entire French front from Paris to Verdun had leaped against the enemy in a menacing movement, which was merely designed to hold all the German armies in the positions they occupied, and prevent them from reinforcing any part of their line. Only Kluck's men were then being seriously and unremittingly attacked.

For Kluck had made a great mistake, and General Joffre had caught him in a trap. When the German commander swerved past Paris to join General Buelow and General Hausen in attacking the withdrawn French front, he remembered the reserve French army at Paris, and left a large body of troops entrenched on the River Ourcq, east of the capital, to protect his advancing flank. This was excellent generalship. But connecting with the Paris army was the British Expeditionary Force, under Field-Marshal French.

Kluck Ignores the British Army

The British army extended from a point near the meeting of the Ourcq and the Marne to a point at the south-east of Paris, along another tributary of the Seine known as the Grand Morin. This river and a large wood—the forest of Crecy—separated our men from the lower flank of Kluck's host that was still sweeping southward. Kluck, however, took absolutely no notice of the British army, which had been rapidly moved through Paris to meet him once more.

Did he think the men who had withstood him at Mons and Cambrai and captured his guns at Compiegne were demoralised? Did he mistake our retirement from the north to the south-east of Paris—executed in answer to his sudden swerve—as a withdrawal from battle? Or was it that his cavalry and aerial scouts were so overmastered by our reconnoitring horsemen and flying men that they were unable to carry out a proper reconnaissance? The thing is an amazing mystery with an important consequence.

For on Sunday, September 6th, Kluck was in a trap. On his eastern flank, the army of Paris, under General Maunoury, held him. On his south-eastern flank the hidden British army allowed him to pass by. On his southern front, directly on the line of his march, the Fifth French Army, under General d'Esperay, was advancing.

Kluck camped for the night, and the Fifth French Army came on silent, with fixed bayonets. Down went the sentries, and three villages were captured by cold steel before the sleeping German host could use its searchlights to direct the fire of its artillery. It was a moonlight night, the French knew the ground blindfold, and there was that within them no mortal man could stand against. Grim as an Englishman with his back to the wall, mad with an Irishman's lust for battle, and as deadly tenacious as a Scotsman, the son of France, tempered by a long retreat, put his bayonet through the German war machine and broke it up.

The masterly French gunner cleared the path for him, and when day broke on Monday, September 7th, Kluck faced round to fight his way out. For the first time in a hundred and ten years the French soldier saw the back of a beaten Prussian —of some hundreds of thousands of beaten Prussians. Kluck was afraid to drive at the French centre, with his old vehement daring, for the hidden British army was sweeping up against his flank.

Our guns had opened action over the river, valley, and the forest the day before, and the Coldstream and Irish Guards and other foot regiments had been thrown forward to entrench in platoons, with the shrapnel bursting like little clouds in the sky above them. None of the enemy could be seen. It was an artillery duel, with our airmen flying over the German lines and marking the positions and ranges for our gunners.

On Monday, September 7th, he began to retire towards the north-east, and our troops then had their revenge for all he had tried to do to them the fortnight before between Mons and Le Cateau. Our light artillery pushed forward over the river and caught the retreating columns of the enemy. The Germans were compelled to bring some of their guns to the rear to protect their infantry. But our gunners massed their fire on the enemy's batteries, and our cavalry, especially, it is said, the Scots Greys, rode at the silenced guns and Maxims and captured them. In some instances, the German machine-guns were undamaged, with large quantities of ammunition beside them. They were quickly used against their makers.

Had the Paris army along the Ourcq been able quickly to drive in the German troops left there, Kluck's lines of communication would have been cut. But the German position on the Ourcq was very strongly defended by an unusual number of heavy guns and a large number of concealed Maxims. Bayonet charges by the French were swept away, and though their quick-firers were admirably handled, they could not reach as far as the long-range heavy German batteries. It is said that the Ourcq was not carried until some of our gunners came up with our heaviest field artillery and helped the French army.

In the meantime, Kluck had saved his men from overwhelming disaster. Fighting a very skilful rearguard action, and leaving his dead and wounded in thousands behind him, with lost guns and stricken stragglers, the old German general crossed river after river—the Petit Morin, the Marne, the Vesle—with the victorious British troops behind him. He gained a respites at the town of La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, on the River Marne, by holding up with machine-guns an entire British army corps. The engineers had a terrible time getting a pontoon bridge across the water. But when this was at last done, our men chased the Germans through the woods north of the Marne, taking transport waggons, guns, and prisoners.

While we were pushing Kluck back, the western flank of the neighbouring German army, under General Buelow, was exposed. The Fifth French Army, under D'Esperay, having helped us against Kluck, now swept sideways on Buelow's men. At the same time, the Fourth French Army, under General Foch, moved to help them; then, when Buelow began to retreat, this Fourth French Army struck at the exposed flank of the Saxon army, under General Hausen. It was on September 8th that that Saxon army, with which the Prussian Guard was acting, was compelled to retreat. It suffered very badly. The Prussian Guard was caught in the great marsh of Saint Gond, where it lost its guns and half its men. For this disaster, General Hausen was relieved of his command.

After the rout of the Saxons, the way was opened for a flank attack by the Third French Army, under General de Langle, on the army of the Duke of Wurtemberg at Vitry-le-Francois. Then, on September 15th, the victory ended in the retreat of the Crown Prince and his troops from Revigny, below Verdun. All along the line General Joffre employed the same simple and tremendously effective tactics. As each separate victory compelled a single German army to retreat, two French armies operated against the next German force. One attacked in front, the other menaced its flank.

As Nelson said, "only numbers can annihilate." Though General Joffre had no more troops in the field than the German commander-in-chief, he continually brought superior forces to bear at every critical position. Each German army was caught in nutcrackers, with one French force on its front and another on its flank. Joffre attacked a million Germans with a million French and British troops, but he endowed his million troops with the offensive power of two millions of soldiers.

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