11: Miracle on the Marne


The German Army was marching through northern France while the British and French retreated before them. For over a week they had been trying to stay ahead of the German steamroller. They would turn to fight at the Battle of the Marne, a battle that some would later call a miracle.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 11. After travelling to Eastern Europe last week we are once again back on the Western Front. We left the German, French, and British armies as the Germans approached the Marne river to the East of Paris. The French armies were in retreat with the British in tow. Since the beginning of the war in the first week of August the Germans had been advancing and the German armies appeared to be unstoppable. Today we will first look at the French situation in the first week of September and how they were reacting to the German attack. We will then look at how the German troops were holding up after advancing hundreds of miles into France over the last four weeks. Finally, we will jump into the Battle of the Marne the first real turning point of the war on the Western front.

The Germans had opened the war with an attack through Belgium, and the French had answered with an attack across the entire front. The German attack was the successful one of the two. In the South the lines were much where they were at the beginning of the war with very little movement in either direction. In the north, starting at the Ardennes Forest and going all the way to sea the French and British forces were in retreat. The French and British forces had been retreating since Charleroi and Mons and the Germans continued their close pursuit of the troops and most of the soldiers were at the point of complete exhaustion. The beginning goal of the Germans was to take Paris but as we discussed in Episode 9, Kluck had changed his course to pass in front of Paris, believing it to be a quicker way to defeat the French. This left the German right flank very over extended and vulnerable, something that the French would try to take advantage of in the first week of September.

Since it became clear to Joffre, the French military commander, that the primary thrust of the German army was to be in the north he began trying to figure out how he could stop the German advance and get the upper hand in the war. Joffre, as well as pretty much every other commander, had made mistakes in the first month of the war but in the first week of September, when the fate of France was held in the balance he did not panic or fall into indecision as so many of his contemporaries had done. He looked at his options and picked the best one available to him, which was to move troops from the south to the north. The Germans were continuing to attack the French troops in the south so removing any troops from the sector was a risk but Joffre didn’t really see any other choice. Joffre planned to take some troops, as well as a few scratched together reserve divisions and create a French Sixth army that would be positioned to the north of the British and in front of Paris. The hope was that this army could defend Paris and if necessary withdraw back to within the city which would be converted into a fortified camp. This harkened back to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 when Paris had withstood the Prussian siege for months.

Put in charge of the defense of Paris was Joseph Gallieni who had actually retired from the army in April 1914 but was called back into service to command the defense. He was told when he agreed to take the position that he would be given 3 corps from the army to defend Paris from a German attack, but Joffre never really planned to provide him with these forces. When Gallieni took command he approached the task with a lot of energy and foresight which included attempting to proceed with demolitions of buildings that blocked important sightlines for artillery and machine guns. He also planned to prepare demolition of all the bridges around Paris, and even the ones within the city itself. Just as it is today in 1914 Paris was a city with many historical buildings and bridges and the civilian government was not too keen on having French heritage blown up for any reason unless it was absolutely necessary. Gallieni was constantly at odds with the civilian leadership, led by Poincare the French President as he tried to make what he believed were necessary sacrifices for the defense of the city. To fix this problem on August 28th Joffre made Paris part of the Zone of the Armies. If you remember from a few episodes ago the Zone of the Armies was an area that extended back from the front line where Joffre had complete control, he answered to no one. This freed Gallieni from any civilian oversight and allowed him to make any preparations that he wanted for the coming defense of the city.

The bridges around the city were prepared for demolition regardless of their cultural or historic value. Gallieni even went so far as to place an officer at each bridge with direct orders from him to wait until the last possible moment to hit the switch to demolish the bridge. Since he had taken command Gallieni had constantly asked where his troops were that would be used to defend the city. He had not received his promised 3 corps and after the city was included in the Zone of the Armies Joffre finally informed Gallieni that the French sixth army would fall back into the city to be used for its defense. As I mentioned earlier Joffre never planned for these troops to actually reach Paris and instead planned to fight a battle to the East of Paris. The French government, after much debate would vacate Paris before the Battle of the Marne would begin. There was a lot of discussion in the government about whether it was better to move the government to a different city before the Germans arrived. They would move the seat of government to Bordeaux and it was decided that they should leave at night instead of during the day. The government fleeing the French capital under the cover of darkness probably didn’t present the best image to the French people about their governments faith in the armies.

France’s only ally on the Western front was the British and in early September they were something of an unknown quantity. In late August Sir John French, the British commander was sending letters back to London that sounded quite defeatist, at least in tone. He was proposing plans to completely break contact with the Germans and to retreat the British troops out of the battle line completely. Upon hearing these possible plans from Sir John French the British government was very nervous that such a move would critically injure relations with France and would be a blow to British military prestige. On September 1st the British Secretary of the State of War Earl Kitchener travelled to France to meet with the British commander. When he met with French Kitchener had a private discussion that was not recorded by any outside party. There are notes in Sir John French’s diary but I’m not so sure how much I trust such a source. What is known is that after the discussion it was decided that the British would remain in the French line and follow French plans as much as possible .

On the other side of the line the Germans were not in as great a shape as the French might believe. The Germans had been attacking for 30 days now and the plan had originally called for the victory to be complete by the 40th day of the campaign. Being 3/4 of the way through their planned time table they were still searching for the elusive encirclement of all of the French troops. The original plan was to move troops from the German left to the German right as the offensive advanced further into French territory. The troops that were moved would be used to protect the flank of the army was well as to fill any gaps that developed between the attacking armies. If you remember a few weeks ago the Germans changed their plans and instead of standing on the defensive in the south they decided to try and break through the French lines. These attacks required the troops that should have moved to the north to be kept in the south. This would have been just fine if the Germans had broken through in the south, but they didn’t and after days and days of attacks they hadn’t made much progress. The absence of these troops was felt most acutely by von Kluck on the far right of the german line. He had been counting on these troops to fills some of the holes that his troops were unable to and also to make up for the troops he had been forced to leave behind in Belgium to keep the Belgian army trapped in Antwerp. Even after the Germans realized how precarious of a position von Kluck was in they did not choose to move the troops from the South to assist him. They believed that the French were already beaten and would be unable to take advantage of Kluck’s weaknesses.

As I mentioned earlier the German troops in France had been on the march for over a month. They were exhausted. On September the third some of Kluck’s troops marched a staggering 28 miles in a single day. The German officers were pushing their men so hard because they believed that the French were beaten and if they let up even for a few days the French might be able to recover. The German armies were also suffering from severe supply shortages. Due to the number of bridges that the French, British, and Belgian armies had destroyed during their retreat it was difficult to get the volume of supplies needed by the armies moved all the way from Germany and intro France. This led to German troops not receiving rations for days at a time. When the battle would commence some German units would go into battle having not eaten in 2 days. Marching all day and into the night without a steady supply of food is a recipe for soldiers at the very end of their ropes both physically and mentally. A German officer wrote in his diary that “Our men are done up, they stagger forward, their faces coated with dust, their uniforms in rags. They look like living scarecrows. They march with eyes closed, singing in chorus so as not to fall asleep…Only the certainty of early victory and a triumphal entry into Paris keeps them going. Without this they would fall exhausted and go to sleep where they fall.”

Instead of being beaten and unable to attack at the German weaknesses Joffre was already making plans to resume his offensive. He outlined these plans and distributed them to his generals in General Order No. 4. In the plan he spoke about continuing the retreat to make possible further offensives. He had decided to accept the risk to the southern French line and to bring two corps that were stationed there to the north to assist in the attacks. He wasn’t exactly sure where the retreat would stop but he thought it might be at the Seine river which is to the south of the Marne. Gallieni and the Sixth army commander were anxious to attack before the Germans advanced that far to the south but Joffre and Lanrezac were not sure they could attack with the French Fifth army before reaching the Seine. They believed that they might be able resume the French offensive on September 8th with all of the troops from Paris in the west to Verdun in the east. All the while that the French were in retreat, at times up to 20 miles a day, they were crossing bridges that had to be destroyed. At this point these bridges were destroyed with some hesitancy, knowing that the French would need them for any successful return to the offensive.

When the government of France left the city Gallieni and the French did not yet know of the German turn away from the city and Gallieni was not very confident in the ability of the Sixth army to defend Paris. Gallieni said that he felt “pretty well persuaded, myself, that I was remaining to be killed.” He extended this feeling to the message he released to Paris at around this time that stated “The members of the Government of the Republic have left Paris to give new impulse to the national defense. I have received a mandate to defend Paris against the invader. This mandate I shall carry out to the end.” Very gloomy indeed. When Gallieni did discover that the germans were not advancing toward Paris he was overjoyed and was determined to attack agains the Germans as soon as possible reaching out to Joffre and to the British for their support. On September the 1st the French had an amazing stroke of good fortune when they found, on the body of a dead German cavalry officer, the entire plans of the German armies in France. They found out for certain that Kluck would not be advancing on Paris which, while the French had suspected it, had now been confirmed. This bit of information also let them know that the German right flank was very exposed and could perhaps be taken advantage of by the French Sixth army stationed in front of Paris. The sixth army was at this point under the command of Gallieni and was composed of 6 divisions 4 of them reserve formations and then the IV Corps which had been taken from the French Fourth army on the Ardennes front. The IV corps had been badly mauled during the fighting there and was not in very good shape all. Gallieni hoped to use these troops to do battle east of Paris, which was Joffre’s plan as well. I mentioned this a few weeks ago but it would be on September 3rd that Lanrezac, commander of the French Fifth army, would be replaced by General Louis Franchet d’Esperey who had proven himself at Charleroi. Joffre believed that d’Esperey’s offensive spirit would be essential in the upcoming battle.

As the German armies marched into France it was decided that von Kluck should position himself in echelon behind Bulow so as to protect the right flank of the entire German right wing. Kluck didn’t so much like being put in a position where he wasn’t leading the charge of the entire German army feeling that it was his right as the furthest German troops to complete the encirclement of the French. He therefore continually marched ahead of Bulow and when Moltke found out about the positioning of his armies he became very concerned. This fact, coupled with intelligence reports of French troops massing in front of Paris caused Moltke to order both Kluck and Bulow to pause in their advance and to secure the area in front of Paris against French attacks. At this point Joffre had not precisely decided when he planned to attack and on September the 4th Gallieni urged him to change the location of his planned attack from the Seine to the Marne river. This offensive could begin on September the 6th and Gallieni began seeking the assurances of d’Esperey and Foch, the commander of the French Ninth army, if they would be ready to begin an attack on that day. After hearing the plans of his generals Joffre agreed to the attack but believed that the attack should not begin until September 7th to give the troops more time to prepare but d’Esperey and Gallieni were determined that it should begin on the 6th. Eventually Joffre was convinced to move up the date of the attack and signed General Order No. 6 to put it into action.

A critical piece in these plans was the role of the British. The British forces were placed between Gallieni’s forces and the rest of the French armies so it was critical that any offensive involve Sir John French and his British army. Two meeting would occur between the French and British commanders, neither of which Sir John French attended. The first meeting was between Gallieni and the British General Staff while the other occurred between d’Esperey and the British Chief of Intelligence Colonel Macdonogh. Macdonogh believed that the British could attack on the proposed French time table. When Sir John French was informed of the plans he was unconvinced that the British would be able to take part. On September the 5th Joffre took the step of traveling over 100 miles to visit the British headquarters to personally speak with French to convince him to join in the attack. When the two army commanders met Joffre gave an impassioned speech that ended with the words “the honor of England is at stake!” This speech moved the British commander greatly and he responded “we will do all we possibly can.”

The Battle of the Marne opened with action on the far West of the line closest to Paris. Here the French troops of the Sixth army were moving into position for their part in the attack when they ran into German troops under the command of General von Gronau. These were the absolute furthest west German troops and as such they were in a precarious position. If they were outflanked it could begin a chain reaction that would roll up the entirety of the German line. As the French moved forward they did not expect any Germans in the area. When they made contact with Gronau’s men Gronau decided to attack instead of waiting for the French. After Gronau’s attack blunted the advance of the French troops he retreated and reported his encounter to his commander Kluck. When Kluck received this report it confirmed other intelligence reports of the French Sixth army to his right and he took quick action by moving troops from his center and left to his right. He in fact moved enough troops that a gap opened between Kluck and Bulow.

On the Marne river the French Fifth army, now led by d’Esperey, went over to the attack against Bulow. They were able to push forward against very strong German resistance. The attacks by the French were hardest on Bulow’s right which was where the gap between his army and Kluck’s was growing by the day. This gap was starting to worry Bulow, and the German high command, but at the moment there wasn’t much Bulow could do about it, especially while the French were pressing his troops so hard across his entire front. By September 7th Bulow started to consider retreating not just as a possibility but as a necessity. When you think about the position that Bulow was in retreating did make sense. He had a seemingly rejuvenated French army to the his front, an army that he thought was beaten but was now attacking him. To his right there was a miles wide gap between his army and Kluck’s and he had reports that the British troops were marching into the gap. On his left Hausen’s men had been stopped by the French troops in the Marshes of St. Gond. Bulow’s position was precarious and becoming even worse.

On the far east of the battle General von Hausen and his German Third Army began attacking General Foch and his French ninth army around the Marshes of St. Gond. Foch planned to attack into Hausen’s troops but the German army was able to surprise the French with a night attack on the 7th of September. Throughout September 8th the Germans continued to attack on both sides of the marshes but by the 9th Foch’s men had managed to stabilize the line. Foch did not believe that his situation was greatly in danger and he always planned to resume the offensive even in the face of the pressure put on him by the German troops. Even without advancing Foch and the men of the French ninth army played a critical role in preventing a breakthrough by von Hausen which would have severely threatened the French troops at Verdun to the east and on the Marne river to the west.

While the German and French troops were confronting each other from the Marne to the Ardennes the troops in the south were not idle. Since the French had removed so many troops from the front in Alsace and Lorraine there was a very real concern that the Germans would be able to break through the French Line. If the Germans were successful the defense of the troops in front of Paris would be for nothing. In the south the French lines were set up in front of Nancy, an important city for the French to retain possession of. The French Second army was at this stage contemplating abandoning Nancy and retreating to the East due to the pressure from the German Army. To the north of the Second Army the Third Army was ensconced in the fortifications around Verdun. These fortifications were massive and Verdun was the best fortified location in all of France. The French troops there were under continued assaults leading up to the final assault on September 9th. This assault was barely repulsed and the Germans would not attempt to take Verdun for the rest of 1914. This defense of the fortification around Verdun would set the stage for one of the longest, bloodiest, hardest fought battles of the entire war in 1916.

In the west Kluck’s army faced the French Sixth army and after Kluck moved troops from his left and center the Germans outnumbered the French who were opposite of them. Kluck still believed that he could break through the French which would have allowed him to quickly turn and deal with the British advancing between his and Bulow’s army. The French received reinforcements on September the 7th which helped them get closer to matching the number of Germans they were facing. This movement of troops contains one of the most famous incidents of the war with Paris taxis being used to ferry troops to the front. There is some debate amongst historians as to whether the usage of taxis really helped that much, or if the event even happened. Regardless it was a boon for the taxi companies in Paris especially for those who operated Renault AG taxis as they were the primary model used by the troops. Even after these reinforcements arrived the French troops were still very much at risk. They were mostly reserve formations, or troops brought out of the hard fighting in the east, and they were exposed on the far left of the French line. Joffre and other French leaders believed that as long as the Sixth army could hold out the battle could be won by the Fifth army and the British, the Sixth army was determined to do its best.

Throughout the battle of the Marne the German high command used Lt. Col. Richard Hentsch as their man on the ground to meet and discuss the situation with the army commanders before relaying that information back to high command. He spent September 8th and 9th visiting each of the army leaders in turn from the east to the west of the line. He found that von Hausen was still confident that his men could punch through the French in front of him. At Bulow’s headquarters he found a commander who was very concerned with the situation. Bulow was very seriously contemplating a full retreat at this point to a line on the Aisne river, about 40 miles behind the line. After hearing Bulow’s concerns Hentsch said that he was authorized to grant permission for a retreat if the situation called for it. It was at this point that the decision was made for Bulow, and the entire German Second Army, to retreat. Early on the 9th Kluck’s troops had attacked on the very northern edge of the French Sixth army and they had success. The Sixth army positions were overran and the German troops were not that far from Paris, with no troops standing between them and the capital. It was also on the 9th that Hentsch arrived at Kluck’s headquarters. Kluck still believed that he was on the cusp of breaking the French army and marching into Paris. When he was informed of Bulow’s intention to retreat he was not pleased. Unfortunately for Kluck he didn’t really have any choice. He ordered the retreat not long afterwards. When the British and French troops began advancing on September 10th all they found was open country, the Germans were gone.

The Battle of the Marne was the culmination of the first month of the war on the Western front. The Great german offensive at the beginning of the war had been stopped and the German right wing was now in retreat. At first the Germans only planned to retreat a short ways behind the Marne River but instead they ended up stopping on the Aisne, just like Bulow first planned, which was about 40 miles behind the line. Moltke gave the order that the line of the Aisne river should be fortified and defended against any French or British offensives. The French and British allowed the Germans time to complete these fortifications by not following the retreat fast enough and being hesitant to advance forward. Holger Holwig puts the total casualties for all sides during the battles of the first week of September around 300,000, quite a staggering number. On the French side the battle would be billed as a miracle where the brave French soldiers were able to finally turn back the German juggernaut. In reality the Battle of the Marne was the inevitable conclusion for a German army that had bitten off more than they could chew.

Up to this point in the podcast I have used many different sources to gather the information I need. This week we reach the end of one of the primary books I have been using, The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. Published in 2004 The Guns of August is, in my opinion, one of the best books covering the war and is certainly the best that covers the period between July and August 1914. It ends right before the Battle of the Marne so I bid it a sad farewell but if you are looking for a book on the subject it gets my highest recommendation. I hope you will join me next week as we take our first trip to Serbia to check in on events there, we will also find out what happened to the First Russian Army in Prussia after the Second Army met the disaster at Tannenberg.