The First Battle Of Marne
( Originally Published 1918 )
FRANCE and civilization were saved by Joffre and Foch at the first battle of the Marne in August, 1914.
Autocracy was destroyed by Foch at the second battle of the Marne, 1918.
This in a nutshell embraces the dramatic opening and closing episodes of the World War on the soil of France. Bracketed between these two glorious victories were the agonies of martyred France, the deaths and life-long cripplings of millions of men, the up-rooting of arrogant militarism, the liberation of captive nations.
The first battle of the Marne was wholly a French operation. The British were close at hand, but had no share in the victory. Generals Gallieni and Manoury, acting under instructions from Marshal Joffre, were driven by automobile to the headquarters of the British commander, Sir John French, in the village of Melun. They explained in detail General Joffre's plan of attack upon the advancing German army. An urgent request was made that the British army halt its retreat, face about, and attack the two corps of von Kluck's army then confronting the British. Simultaneously with this attack General Manoury's forces were to fall upon the flank and the rear guard of von Kluck along the River Ourcq. This operation was planned for the next day, September 5th. Sir John French replied that he could not get his tired army in readiness for battle within forty-eight hours. This would delay the British attack in all probability until September 7th.
Joffre's plan of battle, however, would admit of no delay. The case was urgent; there was grave danger of a union between the great forces headed by the Crown Prince and those under von Kluck. He resolved to go ahead without the British, and ordered Manoury to strike as had been planned.
He fixed as an extreme limit for the movement of retreat,' which was still going on, the line of Bray-sur-Seine, Nogent-sur-Seine, Arcis-sur-Aube, Vitry-le-François, and the region to the north of Bar-le-Duc. This line might be reached if the troops were compelled to go back so far. They would attack before reaching it, as soon as there was a possibility of bringing about an offensive disposition, permitting the co-operation of the whole of the French forces.
On September 5 it appeared that this de-sired situation existed.
The First German army, carrying audacity to temerity, had continued its endeavor to envelop the French left, had crossed the Grand Morin, and reached the region of Chauffry, to the south of Rebais and of Esternay. It aimed then at cutting Joffre off from Paris, in order to begin the investment of the capital.
The Second army had its head on the line Champaubert, Etoges, Bergères, and Vertus.
The Third and Fourth armies reached to Châlons-sur-Marne and Bussy-le-Répos. The Fifth army was advancing on one side and the other from the Argonne as far as Triacourtles-Islettes and Tuivecourt. The Sixth and Seventh armies were attacking more to the east.
The French left army had been able to occupy the line Sezanne, Villers-St. Georges and Courehamps. This was precisely the disposition which the General-in-Chief had wished to see achieved. On the 4th he decided to take advantage of it, and ordered all the armies to hold themselves ready. He had taken from his right two new army corps, two divisions of infantry, and two divisions of cavalry, which were distributed between his left and his center.
On the evening of the 5th he addressed to all the commanders of armies a message ordering them to attack.
"The hour has come," he wrote, "to advance at all costs, and to die where you stand rather than give way."
If one examines the map, it will be seen that by his inflection toward Meaux and Coulommiers General von Kluck was exposing his right to the offensive action of the French left. This is the starting point of the victory of the Marne.
On the evening of September 5th the French left army had reached the front Penchard-Saint-Souflet-Ver. On the 6th and 7th it continued its attacks vigorously with the Ourcq as objective. On the evening of the 7th it was some kilometers from the Ourcq, on the front Chambry-Marcilly-Lisieux-Acy-en Multien. On the 8th, the Germans, who had in great haste reinforced their right by bringing their Second and Fourth army corps back to the north, obtained some successes by attacks of extreme violence. But in spite of this pressure the French held their ground. In a brilliant action they took three standards, and being reinforced prepared anew attack for the loth. At the moment that this attack was about to begin the enemy was already in re-treat toward the north. The attack became a pursuit, and on the 12th the French established themselves on the Aisne.
Why did the German forces which were con-fronting the French, and on the evening before attacking so furiously, retreat on the morning of the loth? Because in bringing back on the 6th several army corps from the south to the north to face the French left, the enemy had exposed his left to the attacks of the now rested British, who had immediately faced around toward the north, and to those of the French armies which were prolonging the English lines to the right. This is what the French command had sought to bring about. This is what happened on September 8th and allowed the development and rehabilitation which it was to effect.
On the 6th the British army set out from the line Rozcy-Langny and that evening reached the southward bank of the Grand Morin. On the 7th and 8th it continued its march, and on the 9th had debouched to the north of the Marne below Château-Thierry the town that was to become famous for the American stand in 1918—taking in flank the German forces which on that day were opposing, on the Ourcq, the French left army. Then it was that these forces began to retreat, while the British army, going in pursuit and capturing seven guns and many prisoners, reached the Aisne between Soissons and Longueval.
The rôle of the French army, which was operating to the right of the British army, was threefold. It had to support the British attacking on its left. It had on its right to support the center, which, from September 7th, had been subjected to a German attack of great violence. Finally, its mission was to throw back the three active army corps and the reserve corps which faced it.
On the 7th, it made a leap forward, and on the following days reached and crossed the Marne, seizing, after desperate fighting, guns, howitzers, mitrailleuses, and a million cartridges. On the 12th it established itself on the north edge of the Montagne-de-Reime in contact with the French center, which for its part had just forced the enemy to retreat in haste.
The French center consisted of a new army created on August 29th and of one of those which at the beginning of the campaign had been engaged in Belgian Luxemburg. The first had retreated, on August 29th to September 5th, from the Aisne to the north of the Marne and occupied the general, front Sezanne-Mailly.
The second, more to the east, had drawn back to the south of the line Humbauville-Château - Beauchamp - Bignicourt - Blesmes - Maurupt-le-Montoy.
The enemy, in view of his right being arrested and the defeat of his enveloping movement, made a desperate effort from the 7th to the 19th to pierce the French center to the west and to the east of Fere-Champenoise. On the 8th he succeeded in forcing back the right of the new French army, which retired as far as Gouragançon. On the 9th, at 6 o'clock in the morning, there was a further re-treat to the south of that village, while on the left the other army corps also had to go back to the line Allemant-Connantre.
Despite this retreat General Poch, commanding the army of the center, ordered a general offensive for the same day. With the Morocco division, whose behavior was heroic, he met a furious assault of the Germans on his left toward the marshes of Saint Gond. Then with the divisions which had just victoriously overcome the attacks of the enemy to the north of Sezanne, and with the whole of his left army corps, he made a flanking attack in the evening of the 9th upon the German forces, and notably the guard, which had thrown back his right army corps. The enemy, taken by surprise by this bold maneuver, did not resist, and beat a hasty retreat. This marked Foch as the most daring and brilliant strategist of the war.
On the 11th the French crossed the Marne between Tours-sur-Marne and Sarry, driving the Germans in front of them in disorder. On the 12th they were in contact with the enemy to the north of the Champ de Châlons. The reserve army of the center, acting on the right of the one just referred to, had been intrusted with the mission during the 7th, 8th, and 9th of disengaging its neighbor, and it was only on the 10th that being reinforced by an army corps from the east, it was able to make its action effectively felt. On the 11th the Germans retired. But, perceiving their danger, they fought desperately, with enormous expenditure of projectiles, behind strong intrenchments. On the 12th the result had none the less been attained, and two French center armies were solidly established on the ground gained.
To the right of these two armies were three others. They had orders to cover themselves to the north and to debouch toward the west on the flank of the enemy, which was operating to the west of the Argonne. But a wide interval in which the Germans were in force separated them from the French center. The attack took place, nevertheless, with very brilliant success for the French artillery, which destroyed eleven batteries of the Sixteenth German army corps.
On the 10th inst., the Eighth and Fifteenth German army corps counter-attacked, but were repulsed. On the 11th French progress continued with new successes, and on the 12th the French were able to face round toward the north in expectation of the near and inevitable retreat of the enemy, which, in fact, took place from the 13th.
The withdrawal of the mass of the German force involved also that of the left. From the 12th onward the forces of the enemy operating between Nancy and the Vosges retreated in a hurry before the two French armies of the East, which immediately occupied the positions that the enemy had evacuated. The offensive of the French right had thus prepared and consolidated in the most useful way the result secured by the left and center.
Such was this seven days' battle, in which more than two millions of men were engaged. Each army gained, ground step by step, opening the, road to its neighbor, supported at once by it, taking in flank the adversary which the day before it had attacked in front, the efforts of one articulating closely with those of the other, a perfect unity of intention and method animating the supreme command.
To give this victory all its meaning it is necessary to add that it was gained by troops which for two weeks had been retreating, and which, when the order for the offensives was given, were found to be as ardent as on the first day. It has also to be said that these troops had to meet the whole German army. Under their pressure the German retreat at certain times had the appearance of a rout.
In spite of the fatigue of the poilus, in spite of the power of the German heavy artillery, the French took colors, guns, mitrailleuses, shells, and thousands of prisoners. One German corps lost almost the whole of its artillery.
In that great battle the spectacular rush of General Gallieni's army defending Paris, was one of the dramatic surprises that decided the issue. In that stroke Gallieni sent his entire force forty miles to attack the right wing of the German army. In this gigantic maneuver every motor car in Paris was utilized, and the flying force of Gallieni became the "Army in Taxicabs," a name that will live as long as France exists.
General Clergerie, Chief of Staff of Gallieni, told the story for posterity. He said:
"From August 26, 1914, the German armies had been descending upon Paris by forced marches. On September 1st they were only three days' march from the advanced line of the intrenched camp, which the garrison were laboring desperately to put into condition for defense. It was necessary to cover with trenches a circuit of 110 miles, install siege guns, assure the coming of supplies for them over narrow-gauge railways, assemble the food and provisions of all kinds necessary for a city of 4,000,000 inhabitants.
"But on September 3rd, the intelligence. service, which was working perfectly, stated about the middle of the day, that the German columns, after heading straight for Paris, were swerving toward the south-east and seemed to wish to avoid the fortified camp.
"General Gallieni 'and I then had one of those long conferences which denoted grave events; they usually lasted from two to five minutes at most. The fact is that the military government of Paris did little talking—it acted. The conference reached this conclusion: `If they do not come to us, we will go to them with all the force we can muster.' Nothing remained but to make the necessary preparations. The first thing to do was not to give the alarm to the enemy. General Manoury's army immediately received orders to lie low and avoid any engagement that was not absolutely necessary." Then care was taken to reinforce it by every means. All was ready at the designated time.
In the night of September 3rd, knowing that the enemy would have to leave only a rear guard on one bank of the Ourcq, General Gallieni and General Clergerie decided to march against that rear guard, to drive it back with all the weight of the Manoury army, to cut the enemy's communications, and take full ad-vantage of his hazardous situation. Immediately the following order was addressed to General Manoury:
Because of the movement of the German armies, which seem to be slipping in before our front to the southeast, I intend to send your army to attack them in the flank, that is to say, in an easterly direction. I will indicate your line of march as soon as I learn that of the British army. But make your arrangements now so that your troops shall be ready to march this afternoon and to begin a general movement east of the intrenched camp tomorrow.
At ten in the morning a consultation was held by Generals Gallieni, Clergerie, and Manoury, and the details of the plan of operations were immediately decided. General Joffre gave permission to attack and announced that he would himself take the offensive on the 6th. On the 5th, at noon, the army' from Paris fired the first shot; the battle of the Oureq, a preface to the Marne, had begun.
General Clergerie then told what a precious purveyor of information he had found in General von der Marwitz, cavalry commander of the German first army, who made intemperate use of the wireless telegraph and did not even take the trouble to put into cipher his dispatches, of which the Eiffel Tower made a careful collection. "In the evening of September 9th," he said, "an officer of the intelligence . corps brought me a dispatch from this same Marwitz couched in something like these terms : `Tell me exactly where you are and what you are doing. Hurry up, because XXX.' The officer was greatly embarrassed to interpret those three X's. Adopting the language of the poilu, I said to him, `Translate it, "I am going to bolt."' True enough, next day we found on the site of the German batteries, which had been precipitately evacuated, stacks of munitions ; while by the roadside we came upon motors abandoned for the slightest breakdown, and near Betz almost the entire outfit of a field bakery, with a great store of flour and dough half-kneaded. Paris and France were saved.
"Von Kluck could not get over his astonishment. He has tried to explain it by saying he was unlucky, for out of a hundred Governors not one would have acted as Gallieni did, throwing his whole available force nearly forty miles from his stronghold. It was downright imprudence."