Caught by surprise, eight field guns of the French Army rounded on their attackers and thundered to life.
The two batteries of four French 75s (which fired shells 75mm in diameter) divided the work between them, with one battery counterattacking German artillery that had just fired on them, and the other blasting infantry preparing to assault in the distance.
In one sense, the French were outgunned. The German Army, like the British, was set up to provide far more artillery backup for their troops. British infantry divisions, filled with about 12,000 frontline troops and over 18,000 men all told also packed a serious ordnance punch, with 76 artillery guns – 54 field guns, 18 light howitzers (for siege warfare) and four heavy guns – in support.
French divisions, by contrast, had about 13,600 frontline soldiers but only 36 artillery pieces. The notion behind this was that rapid bayonet charges would be the main manoeuvre of victory – sheer ferociousness personified in French troops would leave German soldiers quaking in their boots, unable to fight. That was the thinking anyway.
Thus, artillery was deliberately thin on the ground. Guns would slow troops down, and it was essential that the infantry should dash right for the enemy – in their bright red pantaloons – with their elan, or offensive spirit, overcoming all resistance. The defeat to Germany in 1870 had been burned into the minds of commanders and Plan XVII, France’s army doctrine for the next war - this war - aimed at a complete reversal of fortunes.
Troops had this drilled into them too, as this passage from field regulations of October 1913, heavily influenced by French commander Joseph Joffre, makes clear:
“The French army… accepts no law in the conduct of operations other than the offensive… only the offensive yields positive results… Battles are above all moral contests. Defeat is inevitable when the hope of victory ceases. Success comes, not to the side that has suffered the fewer losses, but to the side whose will is the steadiest and whose morale is the most highly tempered.”
Knowing this, the Germans had elected to send the bulk of their forces through Belgium (where they had encountered the British at Mons) and now, just twenty miles from Paris, the trap of the vast German right wing had very nearly slammed shut. One more push and the French capital would be in German hands.
In actual fact, French commander General Joseph Joffre had anticipated the possibility of a German drive through the low countries, though he was hamstrung by a plan that put emphasis on the Franco-German frontier. He was also, unlike the Germans, unwilling to invade Belgium pre-emptively.
Yet, despite the mismatch in strategy and artillery, one thing the French did have going for them as the Germans closed in was the high quality of their guns.
The French 75 was quite possibly the best field gun of the war. While British field batteries consisted of a relatively unwieldy six 18-pounder guns (the name derived from the weight of the shells), French field batteries, as mentioned, only had four guns. This made them easier to command and manoeuvre on and off the field.
In addition, each British 18-pounder required a crew of six to fire it; French 75s were crewed by only four men each. Thus, in terms of gun crews, one British field battery required 36 men; meanwhile, French batteries needed only 16 to crew the guns, less than half the British allotment but for a battery that was two-thirds as strong.
75s also had a range of seven miles and an incredible rate of fire, with a theoretical training standard of 28 rounds per minute – this was faster than most British infantrymen could even fire their rifles!
In practice, as Ian Sumner points out in ‘The First Battle of the Marne 1914: The French ‘Miracle’ Halts the Germans’, gun crews were generally only required to fire six rounds a minute at ranges of three to four miles. (This, presumably, was the First World War French Army’s version of the maxim of ‘training hard and fighting easy’).
Still, one must imagine that, with German troops bearing down on their capital city, 75 gunners unleashed hell, with gun barrels turning red hot as they spat shell after shell.
Men in the field must have fought savagely too. One unit, 289e RI (the 289th Regiment of Infantry) was drawn from the local population, and many had to pass through the village of Iverny after it was attacked by the Germans. They found their homes ablaze – what they didn’t find was their families, having to fight on not knowing their whereabouts.
One eyewitness to this early stage of the battle was Mildred Aldrich, an American woman who happened to be living five miles south of the River Marne. She remembered:
“The battle had advanced over the crest of the hill. The sun was shining brilliantly on (some places, but others) were enveloped in smoke. From the east and west we could see the artillery fire, but owing to the smoke hanging over the crest of the hill on the horizon, it was impossible to get an idea of the positions of the armies… the Germans were… to be pushed east, in which case the artillery to the west must either be the French or the English. The hard thing to bear was all the guesswork. There was only noise, belching smoke, and long drifts of white clouds concealing the hill.”
It was September 5, 1914, and Aldrich was witnessing the western end of what would come to be called the Battle of the Marne. It would last for six days, involve around 2 million men and take place on a frontage some 300 miles wide.
The vast width of the battlefield necessitated aircraft as aerial observation was the only possible way for commanders to have any sense of what was going.
Balloons and planes took to the skies, though not all of them for observational purposes, as one German officer, Wilhelm Gohrs, recounted:
“A French plane suddenly appears. It turns and drops something. The air fills with a strange whistling followed by a violent explosion. It’s dropped a bomb – seven horses killed, three men lost. For us this is something completely new. None of us know how to defend ourselves from this monster of the skies.”
Pilots who went up for reconnaissance purposes would have seen a kind of hybrid battle emerging, a combination of both static and open fighting. In the east, defensive positions would be dug on either side, precursors to the trenches that would follow.
In the west, the ‘battle of the frontiers’ that characterised the opening of the First World War would be the predominant model. Like a giant Napoleonic engagement, participants would witness and enact great sweeping manoeuvres.
After the initial clashes on the first day, September 6 would open in just such a manner, the French now pursuing the Germans they’d hammered the day before through rolling countryside crisscrossed by streams. Sumner says:
“Most of the land was in cultivation, either cereals or sugar beet. The cereal had been gathered in, but the beet harvest was just about to begin. A number of large, walled farmhouses studded the countryside – many including small factory buildings for beet processing.”
As sublime as French countryside in this region is, it provided precious little cover. The 110 Brigade had chewed through most of its ammo the day before and now, without resupply, it was thrust back into the line.
At the start of the battle, Joffre’s message to his men had been ruthlessly blunt:
“The moment has passed for looking to the rear. All our efforts must be directed to attacking and driving back the enemy. Troops who can advance no further must at any price hold onto the ground they have conquered and die on the spot rather than give way. Under the circumstances which face us, no act of weakness can be tolerated.”
Perhaps this is why the 110’s commander, General de Mainbray, wept as he surveyed the open ground his red-trousered men were about to advance over, certain they would be killed in large numbers. His dire predictions were soon borne out:
“Throughout a long hot afternoon, the French tried again and again to reach the German lines. Units and sub-units coalesced into an ‘immense line of riflemen deployed [in an] irregular chain, sinuous in appearance, formed of links so closely attacked that a movement at one end [rippled] down in wavers to the other’. By 1630hrs they could do no more – 246e RI, for example, had lost nearly 600 men.”
This, according to Sumner’s description of French Army organisation, was an 18 percent casualty rate:
“Each infantry regiment consisted of… some 3,400 men… (and) consisted of three battalions (backed up by) six machine guns. On mobilization, each infantry regiment also formed a reserve regiment of two battalions. The infantryman was armed with an 8mm Lebel rifle, with a total capacity of eight rounds, each fed singly into the magazine.”
As depressing as things must have been for the French soldiers, there was a silver lining to their dark cloud. The ‘unstoppable’ Schlieffen Plan, the scheme by which the Germans had wheeled with incredible speed through Belgium and into France, was running out of steam. By this point, German horses were forced to feed on grain “straight from the fields (while) men marched whole days on nothing but carrots and cabbages.”
The writer attended a First World War conference in California some years ago hosted by the Western Front Association. It was there that historian Graydon Tunstall proposed that the main reason for the Schlieffen Plan failing to deliver swift victory was that there simply weren’t enough horses available to transport supplies. (This was doubly important given the lack of railroads - the Belgians, for example, trashed theirs to stop the Germans making use of them).
Hew Strachan’s ‘The First World War’ makes a similar point:
“Although the Germans had their enemy’s capital almost in sight, their advance was outstripping supply lines. There were few lorries in 1914 – horses pulled the guns and wagons.”
The German commander on the Western Front at this point was Generaloberst von Moltke (Generaloberst meant ‘colonel general’, one rank above general and one below general field marshal), and he became increasingly concerned that the Schlieffen Plan was tearing at the seams:
“We have hardly any horses left in the Army which can take another step. We don’t want to fool ourselves – we’ve had successes, but we’re not victorious yet. Victory means annihilation of the enemy’s resistance, but where are all the French prisoners and guns which should have been captured? The French have retreated in a disciplined way according to a plan. The most difficult time lies ahead of us.”
Moltke’s principle armies leading the assault at the Marne were First and Second Armies, headed by General Alexander von Kluck and Generaloberst Karl von Bulow. Unfortunately for Moltke, these two key subordinates didn’t get on, as outlined by David Lomas in ‘Mons 1914: The BEF’s Tactical Triumph’:
“General von Bulow… detested von Kluck and the feeling was certainly mutual. For a campaign in which close cooperation between the two armies was essential, this personal dislike was to have disastrous consequences. Von Bulow’s caution and von Kluck’s determination caused great problems once the war had begun. Von Bulow considered the defeat of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) to be entirely a matter for von Kluck and he therefore ignored any reports of… British movements (near Mons) as being irrelevant… Von Kluck, in turn, either ignored or disobeyed orders or requests which came from von Bulow.”
Cooperation on the other side wasn’t completely smooth either. Field Marshal Sir John French, commander of the BEF, had been specifically instructed by his boss, War Minister Horatio Herbert Kitchener, to preserve his men’s lives as much as possible lest the war be lost and the defence of Britain become necessary.
But French was also required to work alongside his continental allies, and just so that there would be no doubt on the matter, Kitchener himself travelled over the Channel to find French. He informed him that, the huge retreat from the Mons aside, the BEF were to now stand and fight – evacuation was out of the question.
Having had the British on the run from Belgium, the Germans weren’t expecting this. Von Kluck, quoted in the BBC’s 1964 series ‘The Great War’ said dismissively:
“The British have been beaten repeatedly and will scarcely be induced to come forward quickly and form a powerful offensive.”
That, though, is exactly what the British were about to do. The BEF were situated in a pivotal position, right in front of a gap that had opened up between von Bulow’s and von Kluck’s armies as the former had wheeled to face French attacks. Joffre, who had no direct control over the British, drove from his own GQG, Grand Quartier General, to GHQ, British General Headquarters, to plead with Field Marshal French for help. He needed the British to attack and drive a wedge between the two German armies.
According to liaison officer Lieutenant Edward Spears:
“(Sir John French), who was awfully British and unemotive himself, was so moved (by Joffre’s plea) that he struggled with the French language… he couldn’t get anything out. And turning to somebody he said, ‘tell him that anything that men can do, our men will do. We will attack tomorrow’.”
Sumner’s account of this meeting doesn’t quite suggest the same rising orchestra in the background, stirring the British spirit to come to the aid of their continental allies. He mentions instead that Joffre thumped his fist on the table and cried: “The honour of England is at stake”!!
“Sir John,” he tells us, “turned bright red and promised his full cooperation in the counterattack”.
Just as well really. It’s easy to understand the French point of view – they were, after all, fighting for their homeland far more directly than the British were. One high ranking French commander said flatly: “I’m sick of this f***ing retreating; we’re attacking”.
The average British squaddie was soon given word of this change of pace, as BEF veteran AE Davis remembered well:
“The word began to filter down the line that we were on the move, in the reverse direction. At first we found it difficult to believe. But sure enough, we soon found ourselves re-crossing the Marne and we were on the advance again… From being tired, worn out, demoralised creatures, we became what we were intended to be, trained soldiers with the enemy in view, and off we went.”
While the British enthusiastically prepared to go to battle in the gap between the German First and Second Armies, further east the French were getting battered.
General Grossetti, commanding 42e Division d’infanterie (42nd Infantry Division), put his finger on the problem:
“In today’s attacks, our infantry were hit two or three times by our own artillery, and equally suffered severe losses that could have been prevented, because of [our] failure to prepare the attack with artillery fire, and [our] use of formations that were far too dense… numerous platoons stood shoulder-to-shoulder without any intervals. Two companies were deployed where one would have been sufficient.”
Villages along the River Somme changed hands multiple times as desperate fighting continued all throughout the next few days. At the village of Sommesous, house-to-house fighting ensued as Saxon units poured in and tried to drive the French out.
French losses in this area dwarfed those mentioned above, with one regiment – three battalions, over 3,000 men in total – being cut down to just four companies, 1,000 men all told.
Colonel Lamey, commander of 42 Brigade, informed his superior, General Ferdinand Foch:
“[I] cannot disguise the extreme exhaustion, both physical and mental, of my men, after enduring a day of continuous fire without the opportunity to reply, nor the thirst of the men of the 137e who have been without water for 48 hours. I can hold tonight, for I do not doubt there will be night attacks; but (fighting beyond that point will) be impossible without serious repercussions, for we have only just managed to stop the men from breaking. Despite everything, you can count on us.”
Sumner informs us that Lamey was killed the very next day.
In Paris, reinforcements were now pouring in. 4e Corps d’armee (4th Corps) had been thoroughly exhausted by fighting elsewhere and then a five-day train journey to the capital. But they weren’t going to get any rest. Military governor Joseph Gallieni immediately split the corps, sending 8 Infantry Division south to bolster the now advancing BEF. Meanwhile, 7 Infantry Division were to reinforce 6 Army (6e Armee).
The trouble was, their new position was 31 miles away and there were fears that the Germans might have sabotaged the railway track required to get them there.
What filled the gap were taxis. Every cab in the city had already been requisitioned by the government, and now they would be employed as military transports, with five soldiers jamming themselves inside each, including one stuffed into the luggage compartment of every vehicle.
This would become an emblematic image of the whole battle – the reality was it only occurred on one small corner of it, and the drivers, lacking military discipline, sometimes raced each other to their destinations, leading to muddled units upon arrival.
The remainder of September 7 was characterised by see-sawing battles up and down the line as each side tried to wrest control of villages and other defensive positions from one another. The net result was no gain to either side as small arms and artillery drove attackers back each time.
By September 8, one unit, the 216e (reservist) RI, Regiment of Infantry, was utterly exhausted, after coming under incessant machine gun fire:
“Losses were severe. Almost all the senior officers were out of action. Despite this, the regiment tried to advance. But the enemy, concealed behind the banks alongside a main road, forced them to ground every time with horrific machine gun fire. Then the ‘coalboxes’ (shells that burst in a black cloud), with their dreadful noise and huge craters, wore down nerves that were already frayed to breaking point. Damn those fields of beetroot (over which the soldiers were fighting)!… Five officers were killed, sixteen wounded.”
Friendly fire added insult to injury:
“And to cap it all, our 75s took no notice of where we were and shelled our advanced positions, which removed all our urgency in continuing the attack. Fortunately, night fell. What was left of the regiment fell back several hundred metres in the rear, illuminated by the fires of burning houses and hayricks. Half the regiment were casualties. The Supply Officer, Lieutenant Monneyron, brought up some food, but no-one could be bothered to set to and cook it. Only some tobacco was welcome. Worn out by three days of fighting, the regiment fell into the sleep of the dead.”
Sumner reminds us that this was a well-earnt rest. Of the 3,202 men and 37 officers of the regiment who’d gone into the battle, only 1,146 men and 14 officers remained.
The Germans were also sustaining heavy losses.
On September 7 at Montcel a Fretoy, the Prussian Dragoons of the Guard had fought a “lance on lance” battle with two troops of horsemen from 9 Lancers, the former being driven off.
The vast scale of the battlefield and the huge manoeuvres on the western end of it were also tiring them. Walter Bloem, whose unit had to travel 50 miles in two days, recalled afterwards just how hard he had to push his men to get them into position:
“It was impossible to keep a proper order of march… the whole company [was] dislocated. You scold, you admonish, you try to crack a joke. No response, not a sound, not a smile: neither laughter nor grumbling. Spirits are rock-bottom, and there is only the monotonous tramp of blistered feet, tired to death. And so it went on for hour after hour. Whoever asked this of the men knew he was asking the impossible. There must [have been] a lot, no, everything, resting on it.”
Despite the hardships, the Germans still made a large-scale attack on September 9.
At the village Mondement and the ridge it was upon, where a 35.5-metre monument now stands, French and Moroccan infantry battled to hold onto and then recapture this position all day.
Hew Strachan draws attention to the fact that in many ways the Marne was one of the last Napoleonic battles, with its lance-bearing cavalry and French ‘poilu’ in bright-red pantaloons.
The stereotype of German efficiency aside, however, their army was also beset by anachronistic features. While the field grey uniforms were far better than their French counterparts, they certainly weren’t the best, as German soldier Paul Hub pointed out in a letter to his fiancée:
“The colour of the English clothes is much more suited to the terrain than ours. It’s a sort of browny-green, a really dirty colour. This really is an advantage. Although, we’re still going to win.”
But sub-optimal clothing was not nearly as damaging as outdated tactics and manoeuvres, some of which are described by Sumner, as he sums up the action in and around Mondement:
“(The Germans) ‘advanced in perfect order by platoons in line abreast, separated by wide intervals, with other groups behind in checker-board pattern, followed by others in one or two ranks. Behind each group were officers, sword in one hand, revolver in the other, encouraging their men forward with loud cries. The whole lot marched with a firm, regular pace, giving a real impression of power and resolution’.”
Power and resolution yes, but also, of course, easy targets. The practice of units, on both sides, continuing to haul their regimental colours into battle wasn’t the wisest idea either, with the bearer becoming a magnet for bullets the moment he appeared on the field.
At the macro level, developments were also turning against the Germans. With the British at the tip of the spear being driven like a wedge into the gap between the German 1 and 2 Armies in the west, a chain reaction would begin that affected the zone between 2 and 3 Armies in the east.
On September 10, another German assault was launched. But just as parts of 3 Army were going forward, von Bulow was having his 2 Army retreat. Von Bulow’s communication with Von Kluck on his right had been hampered by animosity between the two of them; he seems, though, to have also failed to communicate properly with General Oberst von Hausen leading 3 Army on his left.
This forced von Hausen into the difficult position of having to send troops forward to support 4 Army’s attack on his left while simultaneously withdrawing men on his right so they wouldn’t be exposed by von Kluck’s adjacent retreat. German commanders – or at least von Bulow - were panicking, and it was beginning to show in their orders.
Back in the west, the French and British had been gradually working their way north. The BEF were held up on the Petit Moran, a tributary of the Marne, but on September 8, French units finally drove German ones out of their defensive positions in and around the village of Montmirail.
As it turned out, Montmirail had been the site of an actual Napoleonic battle with the Prussians in 1814. Now, Franchet d’Esperey, the commander who earlier in the battle had uttered the ungentlemanly obscenity ‘f***king’ to describe the French retreat, now had a different message for his men:
“The enemy (are now the ones) in full retreat. There must be no stopping for enemy rearguards that will try and sacrifice themselves to slow us down. They must be wiped out by artillery fire, turned by the infantry and pursued by the cavalry. Only a vigorous pursuit will enable us to reap the rewards of the situation.”
Things were going better for the British too.
As the German command and control had started to give way, their withdrawal had become increasingly rapid.
The result was that, when the BEF approached bridges they’d previously destroyed during their own retreat, they expected these crossings to be heavily defended or possibly booby trapped.
1 King’s Regiment, getting ready to rush a bridge at Charly-sur-Marne, were pleasantly surprised by what they found. Rapid disintegration of German frontline positions and then rapid retreat had completely cleared the way for them, as well as something else that had worked in their favour:
“(We) reached the bank and lay down; nothing happened. Then a figure got up and started to cross the bridge; surely it was mined? No!... we crossed absolutely unopposed; we learnt that the enemy had got everything ready for defending the bridge, and had then got hopelessly drunk.”
Drunk Germans were soon encountered over the other side, as were wrecked local buildings, cupboards with their contents ripped out and gorged on inside. Whole houses were wrecked for sheer pleasure, leaving one British observer shocked, not least because this had been done by a German cavalry unit, a body meant to have a more cultured and deferential ‘espirit de corps’ the world over.
For their part, the Germans had at least tried to be courteous, or perhaps sarcastic. A note left on one door read:
“Thanks to the wonderful French army for leaving us such a good dinner!”
From here, the German retreat continued to the River Aisne. The Allies would follow, clashes throughout the next several months seeing the gradual closing of the frontiers phase of the First World War, and the beginning of the next stage:
“(Allied) positions were dominated from the higher ground (that had been) occupied by the Germans. Despite several attempts, they were unable to dislodge the enemy. Under heavy fire from German artillery, shelter trenches were dug. And from these small beginnings grew a way of warfare that would endure for another four years.”