The first battle of the Marne was a decisive clash that took place in the region between the rivers Marne and Ourcq, east of Paris, in the initial stages of the First World War on the Western Front. The German army, engaged in the great general offensive foreseen by the Schlieffen plan and arrived up to a few kilometers from the French capital, was unexpectedly counterattacked by the French army that, despite the long retreat, had maintained its cohesion and offensive spirit; soldiers of the small British Expeditionary Corps also participated in the clashes.
The battle took place between 5 and 12 September 1914 and ended with the Anglo-French victory thanks to a series of strategic errors of the Germanic High Command; the Germans had to retreat behind the Marne and then on the Aisne. The first battle of the Marne marked a decisive moment of the First World War, it decreed the failure of the ambitious German plans and of their hopes of victory within six weeks, it strengthened the resistance and the fighting will of the Allies and transformed the war into a long struggle of attrition in the trenches that would continue for another four years until the final defeat of Imperial Germany.
After the complicated phase of diplomatic confrontation of the July crisis, the leadership of Germany, urged on by the General Staff worried about the Russian general mobilization decreed in the afternoon of July 30, 1914, had taken the irreversible decision to declare war on Russia and France after proceeding to proclaim the Kriegsgefahrzustand (“State of danger of war”) on the afternoon of July 31 and the general mobilization in the afternoon of August 1. The complex war mechanism of Imperial Germany, carefully planned by the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, German High Command), provided that the beginning of the general mobilization of the army was immediately followed by the start of military operations on the ground. In fact, the German General Staff considered it decisive to exploit the excellent organization and speed of its mobilization to anticipate the concentration of the enemy armies, especially the Russian one, and to launch a massive general offensive. The German avant-garde entered in Luxemburg already on August 2 without meeting resistance, while Belgium on August 4 rejected the brutal ultimatum of Germany that demanded to leave free the passage of the German army and decided to mobilize its forces, try to resist and ask for the help of France and United Kingdom.
The German General Staff had been planning since 1905, under the decisive impulse of General Alfred von Schlieffen, an ambitious and audacious operational project which envisaged concentrating the main mass of the army in the west and launching a decisive major offensive against France which was to be concluded within six weeks, while the Russian army would be contained in the east by a small part of the German troops and the bulk of the Imperial Royal Austro-Hungarian Army. The so-called “Schlieffen plan” envisaged deploying most of the German forces in the west on the right wing that would march rapidly into Belgium north and south of the Meuse and then invade northern France aiming directly at Paris, surprising the French army that would be bypassed from behind and pushed back against the Vosges or the Swiss border. This grandiose plan was partly modified in 1912-1913 by the new chief of staff, General Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, who maintained the overall objectives and strategic directions of the plan but, fearing a French offensive in Lorraine and Alsace and a possible Russian attack in East Prussia, reduced the power of the right wing, reinforced the deployment of the left wing and also strengthened the German defenses in the east.
Since 1911 the new chief of staff of the French army, the energetic and determined General Joseph Joffre, had adopted a new and aggressive strategic project, the so-called “XVII plan”. It differed substantially from the plan drawn up by his predecessor, General Victor Constant Michel, who, fearing a large-scale enemy invasion through Belgium, planned to extend the defensive deployment to the coast of the Channel, employing in the front line even the reserve troops. General Joffre, on the other hand, planned for the French army to move resolutely to the attack and for the troops to operate aggressively according to the theories of offensive à outrance. The general envisaged that four armies would launch a double attack north and south of the Moselle in the direction of the Ardennes and Lorraine. The commander in chief did not exclude the possibility, suspected for many years after the sensational revelations of the famous German spy Le Vengeur, that the Germans would enter Belgium by violating that nation”s neutrality, but he believed that they would limit themselves to advancing with limited forces in the southern part of the country; in this case another army, the 5th held in reserve on the Oise, would be able to intervene across the border, as soon as the German violation of Belgian neutrality was confirmed.
In addition, General Joffre had been informed that, according to pre-war agreements between the General Staff, developed since 1906 especially by Generals Ferdinand Foch and Henry Hughes Wilson, a British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would land in France to take part in the fight against the Germans. After the British declaration of war against Germany on August 4, the first troops embarked on August 10 and within a few days the first two corps of the BEF were deployed in the ports of Boulogne, Le Havre and Dunkirk, under the command of General John French, between Maubeuge and Hirson, to support the French left flank.
While the German army completed with rapidity and efficiency the mobilization and concentration operations foreseen by the revised Schlieffen plan in its final version of 1913-1914, vanguard divisions constituted by some brigades of the 10th Army Corps entered Belgium and immediately attacked the Meuse line and the fortified position of Liege. The German attacks of 5 and 6 August failed in front of the valiant resistance of the Belgians and the German General Staff had to employ its heavy siege artillery, managing to conquer the fortress of Liege after ten days of bombardments.
From August 13 began the general offensive of the German army to the west; the powerful right wing, which had to make the decisive advance north and south of the Meuse, consisted of over 700. 000 soldiers divided into three armies; towards Brussels and Namur advanced the 1st Army of General Alexander von Kluck with six army corps and the 2nd Army of General Karl von Bülow with six more army corps; on August 17 advanced towards Namur and Dinant the 3rd Army of General Max von Hausen, with four Saxon army corps. The march of the German infantry was preceded by the two cavalry corps of General Georg von der Marwitz and Colonel Manfred von Richthofen. The advance of the German right wing into Belgium was not hindered by the Belgian army that was retreating towards the Gette River, and was characterized by repression, reprisals and violence on the population. The 1st German Army of General von Kluck on August 20 entered in Brussels while the Belgians abandoned the line of the river Gette and fell back to Antwerp.
In the center of the German deployment marched the 4th Army of Duke Albrecht with five corps and the 5th Army of Kronprinz Wilhelm with another five corps that had the task of crossing the Ardennes protecting the left flank of the marching wing, while in Lorraine and Alsace were the 6th Army consisting mainly of Bavarian troops under the command of Prince Rupprecht and the 7th Army of General Josias von Heeringen. These forces were to essentially perform a covering task and keep the French forces in front of them engaged.
In the meantime, General Joffre had begun the movements foreseen by Plan XVII, organizing the concentration of his armies along the border with Germany and on the bank of the Meuse, south of the Belgian border. After receiving the request for help from Belgium on August 5, the French commander in chief had the units of the 5th Army of General Charles Lanrezac cross the border, initially positioned in Champagne, on the left flank of the deployment. From August 8, General Joffre simultaneously began his main offensive with the 1st Army of General Auguste Dubail and the 2nd Army of General Édouard de Castelnau in Alsace and Lorraine; he also set in motion the 3rd Army of General Pierre Ruffey and the 4th Army of General Fernand de Langle de Cary, which should have launched a decisive attack in the Ardennes.
After an unsuccessful initial French attack in Alsace at Mulhouse, the opposing armies faced each other across the front in the so-called Battle of the Frontiers between August 20 and 24. In the south, in Lorraine, the French initially advanced as far as Morhange and Sarrebourg where, however, on August 20 they were counterattacked by Prince Rupprecht”s Bavarians who, after some hesitation, took the initiative contrary to the initial plans and achieved some important successes. In reality the Germans did not have the numerical superiority and therefore the attack did not obtain decisive results and drove back the French on a fortified barrier in front of Nancy that increased their resistance capacity.
In the Ardennes the French armies, that according to the optimistic plan of general Joffre should have faced only “weak” German forces, ran instead into the two armies of the Kronprinz and the Duke Albrecht that in their turn were advancing towards the Meuse. In the difficult wooded territory of the Ardennes fierce battles were fought during which the French launched a series of costly and sterile frontal attacks under the fire of German machine guns. The French armies of generals Ruffey and de Langle de Cary were beaten at Virton and Neufchâteau and on August 24 they had to retreat towards Sedan and Verdun. Finally, on the Allied left flank, the 5th Army of General Lanrezac was not able, during the battle of Charleroi (21-23 August), to defend the line of the Sambre and the Meuse against the convergent attack of the German 2nd and 3rd Armies. The French attempts to counterattack were again rejected with heavy losses and General Lanrezac, fearing to be cut off, decided independently to retreat southward. On August 23, the British Expeditionary Corps entered into action and marched from Maubeuge to Mons to protect the left flank of General Lanrezac. Attacked by the 1st Army of General von Kluck, at first resisted tenaciously but in the end had to fall back in turn to maintain contact with the French lineup that was in full retreat.
March of the German army towards south
General Joffre was disappointed to realize the failure of Plan XVII; he felt that the defeat had been due primarily to the insufficient energy shown by his generals and felt that his strategies had been correct. His general retreat order of 25 August conformed to the field decisions of the army commanders, but the general was determined to gain time by organizing a hard-fought retreat and at the same time carry out a large transfer of troops from the right wing to the left wing, maintaining possession of the Verdun position in the center. In the meantime the British expeditionary corps, after having abandoned Mons, was carrying out a difficult retreat under the pressure of the 1st Army of General von Kluck: on August 25 at Landrecies the 1st British Corps was put in serious difficulty, while on August 26 in the battle of Le Cateau the 2nd Corps of General Horace Smith-Dorrien risked being destroyed and escaped towards the south only after having suffered serious losses.
On August 28 and 29, while the French 3rd and 4th Armies were harshly opposing the German 4th and 5th Armies, General Joffre ordered General Lanrezac, commander of the 5th Army, to stop his retreat and counterattack. At the Battle of Guise-San Quentin, the French inflicted heavy losses on General von Bülow”s German 2nd Army and achieved some local successes, halting the German advance for thirty-six hours. Fearing being outflanked, General Lanrezac eventually resumed his retreat on August 31. By the end of August, the French had lost some 260,000 men dead, wounded, and missing and were retreating across the front. The general advance of the German army, which appeared unstoppable, was also encountering considerable logistical problems: the railroads serving the conquered territories were not up to the task of transporting the vast quantities of supplies essential to the advance of the German armies; soldiers had to march 50 or 60 kilometers a day with all their equipment; supplies reaching the railroad marshaling yards tended to get stuck there; and, despite the opening of new roads, the vehicles available could not meet the needs of five armies moving simultaneously. From the operational point of view, every day that passed brought the front closer and closer to Paris: this area, on the other hand, hosted a dense network of railways that gave the French the possibility to move their troops much more easily.
Errors of the German command
At the end of August, after the battles of Le Cateau and San Quentin, general von Moltke and the other German generals thought at first to have reached the victory; both general von Kluck and general von Bülow sent reports in which they wrote of “decisive defeat inflicted to the enemy” and of “total victory”; the enemy was in “full retreat”. General von Kluck, commander of the 1st Army considered, after having overcome the enemy defenses at Le Cateau and after the signs of disintegration of the retreating enemy forces, to have definitively destroyed the resistance capacity of the British expeditionary corps. The march of the German right wing was proceeding from August 29 no longer southwestward in the direction of the lower Seine, as envisaged in the original Schlieffen plan, but southward in a general direction east of Paris. General von Moltke was aware as early as 30 August of this direction of the advance; in fact, while some historians have considered this march east of Paris a mistaken personal initiative of the field commanders (especially the ambitious General von Kluck), this variant of the original Schlieffen plan, which called for a broader march southwest, had been considered in the various operational options studied by the German General Staff before the war and was shared by the OHL. It seems that the German high command was convinced that, in the face of the Allied defeat, a vast maneuver west of Paris had become useless; moreover, it is likely that the OHL was worried about the continuous weakening of the right wing and the considerable logistical difficulties that arose to ensure its supply. The German right wing had suffered considerable losses and had marched hundreds of kilometers; it was also weakened by the need to leave some reserve corps behind to control enemy strongholds, while two corps, the XI and the reserve corps of the Guard, were being transferred to the eastern front where a Russian invasion of East Prussia was feared. There had also been very disturbing rumors about the arrival of Russian troops in Britain by sea from the port of Archangel that would soon land in France.
Favorable news came instead from the armies of the left wing: the 4th Army had crossed the Meuse and Duke Albrecht spoke of “great victory”; in the meantime General von Kluck continued to advance and, disregarding the urging of General von Bülow to converge eastward at Laon, marched southward towards Compiègne and Soissons. At the beginning of September at the headquarters of the OHL in Luxembourg new doubts and uncertainties arose; the optimism of general von Kluck was not completely shared and the Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn himself had pointed out that there were no signs of having reached a decisive victory; the enemy was retreating in good order maintaining cohesion and the German troops had captured few prisoners and abandoned weapons.
General von Moltke issued new general orders on September 2. They stipulated that General von Kluck”s army should halt its march southward and instead assume a barrage position to the west to protect the right flank of General von Bülow”s army against possible French attacks from the Paris region. At first, General von Kluck did not carry out these orders and continued to advance southward; on September 4, General von Moltke then gave new orders and sent Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch to the headquarters of the 1st Army. The commander-in-chief”s new plan still called for General von Kluck and General von Bülow to halt their advance and deploy west and southwest to cover the right flank of the other armies. On the left wing, the 6th and 7th Armies were to engage the French forces in Lorraine, while the main attack was to be launched by the 4th and 5th Armies towards the Argonne in the direction of Verdun and Nancy; finally, General von Hausen”s 3rd Army was to provide support on its right or left if the armies deployed on the wings ran into difficulties. This new directive, therefore, definitively abandoned the original Schlieffen plan of general outflanking of the Anglo-French army by means of a decisive maneuver of the right wing and contributed to further confuse the commanders in the field.
General Alexander von Kluck, extremely resolute and aggressive, was not impressed by these directives; he and his chief of staff, General Hermann von Kuhl, remained confident even after receiving news that the vanguards had reported identifying new French formations and after reports confirmed that extensive troop movements westward were underway on the enemy side. The troops of the 1st Army continued to advance successfully southward: on September 3, General Ewald von Lochow”s III Army Corps and General Ferdinand von Quast”s IX Army Corps reached the Marne and began crossing it between Nanteuil-sur-Marne and Château-Thierry; meanwhile, General Friedrich Bertram Sixt von Armin”s IV Army Corps had arrived on the Aisne and General Alexander von Linsingen”s II Army Corps was south of the Oise at Chantilly. In fact, the 1st Army, which had marched and fought continuously for two weeks, crossing Belgium north of the Meuse and repeatedly defeating British troops, was showing signs of weakening and exhaustion; by the end of August it counted 2,863 dead, 7,869 wounded and 9,248 sick. The troops were tired and in poor condition due to equipment and supply shortages caused by logistical difficulties. Although his army had lost some of its offensive power, General von Kluck considered it essential not to stop the march and give the enemy no breathing space by continuing southward; Paris was sixty kilometers away.
At 07:00 a.m. of September 5, Generals von Kluck and von Kuhl received the new orders from OHL and in the afternoon Lieutenant Colonel Hentsch arrived at the army headquarters; the two commanders admitted that their troops were tired and “at the limit of their capacities”, they complained about the lack of coordination between the armies and requested the reinforcement of the III and VII Corps in reserve, engaged in that moment in Antwerp and Maubeuge. At the end they accepted to follow the new dispositions of general von Moltke even if they reiterated that the British were not by now, after the “repeated defeats”, able to pass to the attack. Generals von Kluck and von Kuhl had already decided in the previous days to maintain the IV Corps of General Hans von Gronau”s reserve north of the Marne, weak and without adequate communication services, to protect the right flank against threats from Paris, which were considered unlikely, but they continued to pay attention especially to the south where they directed most of their aerial reconnaissance. In reality, a certain optimism prevailed even at OHL; little importance was given to reports of French troop movements westward, interpreted only as rearguard actions.
Organization of the French counteroffensive
General Joffre had decided on a general retreat after the unfavorable outcome of the battles on the frontiers, but he was not resigned to defeat; in his “General Instruction no. 2” of August 25, in addition to indicating new tactics to improve the cooperation between infantry and artillery and to avoid imprudent frontal attacks, the commander in chief already foresaw the constitution of “a new group of forces” with some corps and divisions transferred from Alsace and Paris that would be deployed in the Amiens region or on the Somme to bypass the German right wing. At first, General Joffre had hoped to be able to stop the German armies on the line of the Somme and Oise but the British defeat at Le Cateau and the consequent retreat of the BEF forced him to abandon this optimistic plan and to order the continuation of the general retreat towards the Seine. During the days of the retreat, General Joffre deployed great energy, going to the command posts of the armies to control the situation, gathering reinforcements for the front and also proceeding to the replacement of many generals with new senior officers, he considered more optimistic and determined to fight with the utmost determination.
In the first days of September, the French high command learned that the German right wing armies seemed to have modified their line of advance and were no longer marching towards the southwest but directly towards the south; interceptions of messages sent by various German units and aerial reconnaissance led to this conclusion. The news was confirmed by new reports from French and British reconnaissance planes on September 3; the German right wing had indeed diverted towards the Ourcq and the Marne.
The British expeditionary corps reached the Marne on September 2 and the following day crossed it, blowing up the bridges; in thirteen days the British had fallen back almost 250 kilometers, fighting tenaciously and carrying out many rear-guard actions. The British troops were tired and General French himself seemed discouraged, believing that his forces needed a few days of rest; after the defeat at Le Cateau, at first there was also talk of withdrawing the troops towards the Channel ports to re-ship them. The British expeditionary force stopped momentarily east of Paris in the region of Meaux, before resuming its retreat. On September 2 the French government abandoned the capital and moved to Bordeaux while General Joseph Simon Gallieni was appointed military governor of the city; experienced and resolute, the general immediately showed great energy and strong will to defend the capital
General Gallieni immediately understood the favorable opportunity that presented itself to the French army thanks to the surprising detour of the German advance. The grouping under the command of General Michel Joseph Maunoury, the new 6th Army organized as a “mass of maneuver” by General Joffre that was being set up east of Paris, now amounted to over 150. General Gallieni decided autonomously on September 3 that, if German troops continued to march south-east of the capital as reports and information from aerial reconnaissance indicated, it was time to attack them on the flank; he did not wait for specific orders from General Joffre but immediately sent offensive dispositions to General Maunoury, then he went with the commander of the 6th Army to Melun to illustrate the situation to General French and convince him to cooperate.
The British commander in chief was not present at the headquarters and Gallieni could illustrate his plans only to the chief of staff, general Archibald Murray, who however did not appear very interested and did not accept at all the suggestions of the French general; the British troops continued to retreat and in the day of September 3 passed south of the river Grand Morin. On the same day, General Louis Franchet d”Esperey, new commander of the 5th Army in place of General Lanrezac, obtained more comforting results. He discussed the situation with General Henry Hughes Wilson, chief of staff of the BEF; the latter was more positive and quickly adhered to the general counter-offensive program promising the participation of the British expeditionary corps. On September 4, General Franchet d”Esperey was able to reassure General Joffre and guarantee him the “absolute collaboration of the British”.
While some historians have highlighted the alleged decisive role of General Gallieni in the decision to attack on the German right flank, other authors have shown that it was General Joffre who, during the entire retreat, planned and organized the deployment to make such a counteroffensive possible; in fact, the commander-in-chief”s plans included the transfer of forces from east to west to create a new mass of maneuver with which to protect Paris and counterattack the German right wing. In reality, at the French headquarters the planning and organization of the counteroffensive had been in progress for days; in practice, the discussion focused mainly on the timing of the attack: while General Joffre”s main collaborator, Major Maurice Gamelin, believed that the moment to attack had arrived, General Henri Berthelot (vice chief of staff) advised to wait and to launch the counteroffensive only after the French armies had reached the Seine and the Aube. It seems that, learning this news, General Gallieni protested fearing that a further retreat would have compromised the outcome of the battle. General Joffre accepted the opinions of Major Gamelin and General Gallieni and decided to attack on September 6; even General Berthelot eventually declared himself in favor.
General Joffre carried out a great organizational work in the hours preceding the attack and on September 5 he communicated his plans to the government, described the strategic situation as “excellent” and said that “one could not hope for a better condition”; he declared himself determined to fight “with all our strength” to “achieve victory”. In the same day he issued his “General Instructions” n. 5 and n. 6. With the first one he ordered to the 3rd Army of General Maurice Paul Emmanuel Sarrail who had replaced General Ruffey, to the 4th Army of General de Langle de Cary and to the new 9th Army of which General Ferdinand Foch had assumed the command, to stop their retreat and to counterattack starting from September 6th. In the “General Instruction No. 6″, issued at 22:00 on September 5, he indicated the main details of the offensive on the left wing in which the 6th Army of General Maunoury would take part, attacking from the region of Paris in the direction of Ourcq, while the British Expeditionary Force and the 5th Army of General Franchet d”Esperey would march from the south in the direction of Montmirail; the army of General Foch would protect the right flank of the 5th Army in the area of the Saint-Gond marshes.
The French commander in chief maintained until the last moment doubts about the real will of the British to stop the retreat and take part in the counter-offensive despite the assurances of General Franchet d”Esperey and General Wilson; Joffre decided to meet personally with General French at the BEF headquarters of Château Vaux-le Penil. It was a dramatic conversation made even more uncertain by the difficulty of linguistic comprehension between the two senior officers; at the end, in front of Joffre”s vigorous exhortations, French assured that on September 6 the British would participate in the general counter-offensive.
In the original plans of General von Schlieffen, the German right wing would have consisted of 69 infantry and 8 cavalry divisions, while on the left wing in Lorraine and Alsace only 10 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions would have remained, ensuring a ratio of 7:1 to the armies in charge of carrying out the decisive enveloping maneuver through Belgium and northern France. However, General von Moltke, who succeeded General von Schlieffen in 1906, felt that it was essential to send larger forces to the east against the Russians and into Alsace and Lorraine to protect those regions against a French offensive; therefore, the right wing lost 96 battalions and the left wing was reinforced with 85 battalions, amounting in the new deployment plan to 24 and a half divisions. In this way the ratio of forces between the two wings of the German army in the west fell to 3:1 in favor of the marching right wing. Moreover, in the course of the battle due to losses, attrition, the need to leave behind substantial occupation forces and some corps to blockade the fortresses of Maubeuge and Antwerp, the German army was gradually weakened. After the first reports of defeats in East Prussia, General von Moltke transferred two corps of the 2nd Army to the east at the end of August. At the decisive moment of the Battle of the Marne, the German army found itself outnumbered by the enemy, being able to field only 44 infantry and 7 cavalry divisions with 750,000 soldiers.
From a technical and tactical point of view, the German high command seemed to have understood the importance of firepower and the revolution taking place in the art of warfare; the German soldier, equipped with the new, inconspicuous feldgrau uniform and the Pickelhaube, the leather nail helmet of the Prussian army, was armed with the 7.92 mm Mauser 98 five-shot breech-loading rifle. Each infantry regiment had a machine gun company equipped with the reliable and powerful MG 08. Divisional and corps field artillery regiments were equipped with 7.7-cm cannons and 10.5-cm and 15-cm heavy howitzers to ensure powerful fire support; troops were trained to advance with rapid maneuvers with the support of machine guns, which were considered essential not only in defense but also in attack. In addition, under the doctrine of Auftragstaktik, German theory envisioned the decentralization of tactical leadership on the battlefield and thus the enhancement of the initiative capability of junior officers and NCOs. During the western campaign and the Battle of the Marne, German troops generally applied these tactics and were especially able to employ the machine gun company as infantry support. However, in some phases of the fighting in Belgium and on the Marne, the German army launched massed attacks with dense columns in close ranks without considering the firepower of modern weapons.
From the operational point of view, the German army had considerable difficulties in the communications sector and was unable to ensure an adequate connection between the armies on the move; consequently, the OHL, which was left far behind first in Koblenz and then in Luxembourg, was not promptly informed of the development of the situation and had late knowledge of essential information. General Helmuth von Moltke, in poor health, not very optimistic and strongly tried by the tension of the campaign, was not able to strictly control his main subordinates who in some occasions took fundamental decisions on their own initiative.
The French Army
General Joseph Joffre was since 1911 the designated commander in chief of the French army in case of war; coming from the military genius, he had served in the colonies and was considered an expert in transport and logistics more than a strategist. During the campaign showed determination and confidence in the victory despite the first defeats and the situation apparently compromised, the war plan XVII quickly proved inadequate but the general was able to reorganize its deployment by moving the troops in the decisive points and managing to achieve numerical superiority in the moment and in the most important sectors. During the battle of the Marne the Allies put in field 56 divisions of infantry, of which five British, and ten divisions of cavalry, of which one British; a total of approximately one million soldiers.
The French army had entered the war employing the tactical-operational theories of the all-out offensive; these tactical concepts, shared by most French generals, foresaw the so-called attaque brusquée (“rapid and impetuous attack”) and were based on the idealistic theories of the élan (“vital impetus”) and of the “French fury”, which considered the French soldier intrinsically superior as a fighter to the adversary. The soldier, still wearing the 19th century uniform with the long blue jacket and the bright red pants, was armed with the modern 8 mm Lebel rifle with an eight-shot tubular magazine and with the Saint-Étienne machine gun, but the commands showed doubts about the real importance of this weapon, which was considered too heavy and, above all, too ammunition-consuming. From the point of view of the armament, the strong point of the French army was the excellent field artillery which was equipped with the deadly 75 mm cannon assigned to the divisional batteries and to the army corps reserve, considered much superior to the German field cannons and able, thanks to its precision, to its strained shot, to its range, to its mobility and above all to its impressive firing cadence up to 20-30 shots per minute, to support the infantry attacks and to dominate the battlefield. The French army, on the other hand, had only 300 heavy artillery pieces of 105, 120, and 155 mm that were deemed of limited use in the rapid war of movement envisioned by the general staff theorists.
In fact, during the first battles the French suffered the superiority of the German heavy artillery and had very high losses due to the excessive offensive momentum and the continuous search by the infantry for the decisive frontal bayonet attack. The French generals understood that the ill-considered adoption of the all-out offensive would have been ruinous in the face of the German machine guns, and if during the Battle of the Marne the French army continued to employ massed attack tactics, it also tried to take advantage of the field artillery; the 75 mm batteries were in some occasions concentrated to provide a constant and effective fire support both to support the infantry assault and to repel the enemy attacks.
The British expeditionary corps that landed in France by August 20 consisted of three corps with five infantry divisions and one cavalry division; these were experienced and well-trained professional regular troops with adequate logistical support. After the modest performance during the Great Boer War of 1899-1902, the British Army had promoted a wide-ranging program of reforms by constituting the Imperial General Staff in 1906 and developing above all the armament and logistical organization of its forces. The British infantry, equipped with the modern khaki uniform, entered the field armed with the excellent ten-shot Lee-Enfield rifle and the robust Vickers machine gun, while the artillery had the excellent 18-pound rapid-fire field gun and was also well equipped with 4.5-inch howitzers and 60-pound heavy guns.
From the point of view of tactics, British theory emphasized the importance of firepower but still preferred close-range attacks preceded by the use of cannons and machine guns; Victorian traditions persisted, especially in the cavalry units. In the general staff, along with generals with good organizational skills, there were officers of poor quality and excessively tied to old tactics. Field Marshal John French, who arrived in France on August 14, 1914, showed modest qualities of command, collaborating with difficulty with the French generals; General Henry Wilson, deputy chief of the imperial general staff, immediately became the main liaison officer between the two allies. In the first battles the British demonstrated tenacity and good training in shooting, impressing the German troops; they managed to maintain cohesion despite an interminable and exhausting retreat. In the course of the battle of the Marne they participated in the counter-offensive advancing in the wide gap opened in the German front, but they demonstrated excessive prudence, progressing with great slowness despite the scarce opposition and the modest losses.
Fighting on the Ourcq
General Maunoury should, according to General Joffre”s plans, have launched the main attack by striking the exposed right flank of the German army, whose main mass seemed to be advancing south of the Marne, unaware of the French concentration east of Paris. The 6th Army, however, had just been formed by grouping together the 7th Army Corps of General Frédéric Vautier coming from Alsace, the 5th and 6th Groups of reserve divisions of Generals Henri de Lamaze and Charles Ebener, the exhausted cavalry of General André Sordet and troops just transferred from North Africa; the arrival of the 4th Army Corps of General Victor René Boëlle, which had previously been part of the 3rd Army in the Ardennes, was also expected. These corps were already partly weakened after the forced marches and fighting in August and had had very little time to organize the deployment, carry out reconnaissance and study tactical details. General Maunoury had decided to put his forces in motion since the morning of September 5; orders reached the leading units at 06:00, just an hour before the established time to begin the march; the French did not expect strong resistance and believed that the bulk of the German troops were still in the southwest.
In fact, while a large part of the 1st Army of General von Kluck was marching south and had already reached the Grand Morin river, the 4th German Reserve Army Corps of General Hans von Gronau, consisting of two infantry divisions and one cavalry division, remained north of the Marne, around the town of Nanteuil-le-Haudouin. At 11:00 a.m. the German cavalry spotted the French vanguards on the move and General von Gronau, despite the lack of information and the weakness of his forces, decided to stop the march and attack the reported forces to the west. At 12:30 German artillery began to hit the French troops, belonging to the group of General Lamaze, who unaware of the proximity of the enemy, had just stopped in the villages of Iverny, Villeroy and Monthyon.
The French in a first moment were surprised by the German assault but they were able to hold it back thanks to the fire of the 75 mm cannons and the 55th Reserve Division was able to organize a barricade line east of Iverny and Villenoy; instead a Moroccan brigade suffered heavy losses while trying to advance and also the French attempt to move from Villeroy was repulsed by the German artillery fire. Further north, bitter fighting developed in the forest of Tillières where the French 56th Reserve Division was attacked by a German division, while still further north the French 14th Division suddenly found itself in combat at Bouillancy. At the end of the day of September 5, characterized by confused and bloody clashes, General von Gronau decided to suspend the attacks and to prudently retreat to a more backward line; his troops had suffered heavy losses mainly due to the French artillery fire and moreover it was clear that they were facing a numerically superior force. The general considered urgent the arrival of reinforcements to consolidate his lines.
General von Kluck and his chief of staff, General Hermann von Kuhl, finally became aware of the dangerous situation of the right flank of the 1st Army, defended only by the weak IV Reserve Army Corps and subjected to an increasing pressure from the new French grouping. The bad news were communicated by telephone by General von Gronau at midnight of September 5; however, Generals von Kluck and von Kuhl decided to accept the battle east of Paris, to regroup the major part of the army, which was in that moment south of the Marne, and attack westward on the Ourcq. In the early morning of September 6, the II Pomeranian Army Corps of General Alexander von Linsingen was recalled north of the Marne and directed towards Lizy-sur-Ourcq and Germigny-l”Évêque, while in the early afternoon also the IV Prussian Corps of General Sixt von Arnim received orders to suspend the advance south of the Marne and march in forced stages to the north-west. In reality, it seems that Generals von Kluck and von Bülow initially believed that the French forces in action east of Paris were only rearguards and only the discovery on September 6 of copies of General Joffre”s call for troops clarified the situation; at OHL, informed of the latest developments, General von Moltke and Colonel Tappen understood that the enemy retreat was over and the decisive battle was beginning. Colonel Tappen spoke of “the day of decision” and said that “we have finally caught up with them”, that “it will be a very hard fight” and that “our valiant troops know their task well”.
On the morning of September 6, the French vanguards occupied the terrain abandoned by the IV Reserve Corps that during the night had taken position on the eastern edge of the Multien plateau, west of Ourcq; the orders of General Maunoury foresaw to resume the offensive and march towards the towns of Saint-Soupples and Marcilly with the reserve grouping of General Lamaze; towards Penchard with the 45th Division and towards the plateau with the 7th Army Corps of General Vautier. The fighting began at 10:00 a.m., but at 12:00 p.m. the two divisions of the II Corps of General von Linsingen arrived on the battlefield and, after a forced march of sixty kilometers, took position on the two wings of the German deployment. In spite of the arrival of these reinforcements, general Maunoury stubbornly resumed the attacks after having regrouped the forces of general Lamaze; until 16:30 the French launched continuous frontal assaults but they did not succeed in advancing on the open ground beaten by the German fire; at Barcy the 55th Division was rejected with serious losses, while at Chambry the 45th Division and the Moroccan division of general Ernest Joseph Blondlat did not obtain results in front of the resistance of the 3rd Infantry Division of general Karl von Trossel. At Etrépilly the 56th Division, after a series of unsuccessful assaults, was counterattacked and managed to stabilize the situation thanks to the fire of four 75 mm cannons employed at close range.
Also in the other sectors the offensive of the 6th Army did not reach decisive results; while the 63rd Division was able to gain ground and conquer the Ferme de Champfleury and the town of Puisieux, further north the 14th French Division was counterattacked and regained part of the conquered positions. The clashes had been very hard and bloody and also the German troops had suffered heavy losses; the IV Corps reserve was by now very weakened and morally tried and also the II Corps needed reinforcements. In the evening, General von Linsingen requested the urgent intervention of the IV Corps of General von Arnim, which, by order of General von Kluck, was approaching from the south-east; the first units reached the combat area at 02:00 on September 7.
General von Kluck had to face the situation on the Ourcq with insufficient forces to achieve success. He was aware that the displacement of the II and IV Corps had left a dangerous open area to the south between Varreddes and Sancy-lès-Provins, so to control the situation and gain time the command of the 1st Army decided to employ in this area the I and II Cavalry Corps of Generals von Richthofen and von der Marwitz. During the night of September 7, generals von Kluck and von Kuhl decided they needed all their forces on the Ourcq; messages were sent to the command of the 2nd Army to have at their disposal the III and IX Corps which at that moment were fighting further west on the Grand Morin between Esternay and Choisy.
During the day of September 6, the French 6th Army had received as reinforcement the 61st Reserve Division; General Maunoury needed as many forces as possible at his disposal and the arrival of the troops was of extreme urgency. It was at this stage, on the day of September 7, that the famous episode of the “cabs of the Marne” occurred: in order to accelerate to the maximum the transport to the north of Ourcq of the 4th Army Corps of General Boëlle, the governor of Paris, General Gallieni, resorted to the improvised expedient of transferring 50 kilometers to the north a part of the 7th Division, just arrived exhausted after a series of forced marches, on Paris cabs, hastily requisitioned. About 1,200 cabs (mainly Renault Type AG and Type AG-1) were assembled at the Hôtel des Invalides and loaded into the Parisian suburb of Livry-sur-Seine each four or five soldiers of the 103rd and 104th Infantry Regiments. The troops, about 4,000 soldiers, arrived at their destination in the Nanteuil region at 2:00 a.m. on September 8; during the transport, the units became intermixed and reached the place of regrouping in a disorganized manner. This emergency transfer did not really play a decisive role and had limited importance for the outcome of the fighting, but the episode and the patriotic commitment of the Parisian cab drivers became the most famous symbolic representation of the Battle of the Marne.
In the meantime, on the morning of September 7, General Maunoury had resumed his attacks, but the German IV Corps reserve and II Corps had been reinforced by the arrival of the 7th and 8th Division of the IV Corps of General von Arnim; the French assaults met a strong resistance. The 45th Division of General Antoine Drude was stopped by German artillery fire east of Chambry and at Puiseux the 63rd Division in reserve gave sign of failure. The situation was re-established for the French thanks to the decisive intervention of the 75 mm cannons of the 5th Artillery Regiment of Colonel Robert Nivelle; the pieces maintained a rapid fire at the rate of twenty shots per minute and broke up the German infantry assault, momentarily stabilizing the situation. To the north, the French 14th Division failed to advance while all attacks by the 61st Reserve Division against the village of Betz were repulsed by the German 7th Division, which had just arrived after a forced march of sixty kilometers. In Étrépilly, defended by two regiments of the IV Reserve Corps, violent fights took place again; the Germans tried to advance towards west but they were blocked by the French artillery fire and in the afternoon they were counterattacked by the 2nd Zouaves Regiment. The Germans fell back and the village fell temporarily in French hands, but in the night the Germans counterattacked and returned to Etrépilly where there were very hard night fights without result around the cemetery. Further south the German 3rd Division, attacked by the Moroccan division, maintained with difficulty its precarious positions in Varreddes.
During the night of September 6-7, General von Kluck had taken the risky decision to withdraw also the III and IX Corps from the battle line on the Grand Morin and to transfer them immediately on forced marches to the north to reinforce his deployment on the Ourcq. This initiative, taken without prior consultation with either General von Moltke or General von Bülow, created a dangerous gap in the German lines on the right flank of the 2nd Army and risked prejudicing the overall outcome of the battle by favoring the enemy advance, but von Kluck, an aggressive and determined commander, believed that his cavalry could gain time by delaying French progress in the gap; the general was sure, after having concentrated his forces, to be able to defeat the French grouping that had attacked him on the Ourcq and to be able to march on Paris deciding the battle at once. The III Berlin Army Corps of General Ewald von Lochow and the IX Hanseatic Army Corps of General Ferdinand von Quast had started to move in the morning of September 7 and were approaching in forced stages; in the meantime the forces of the 1st Army continued to successfully repel new attacks by the 6th Army of General Maunoury that, despite the reinforcements, was exhausted and weakened by heavy losses.
In the day of September 8 in the central sector of the lines at Trocy-en-Multien the German artillery succeeded in blocking the French attacks, while in the heights east of Etrépilly the IV Corps of General von Gronau”s reserve, after three days of battle, was tired and decimated. After being subjected to French artillery fire all day long, it was fortunately reinforced in the evening by the 5th Division of the III Corps, which had just arrived and was immediately sent to the line. The German situation was more difficult to the south where the 3rd Division of the II Corps was suffering heavy losses under 75mm cannon fire and the attacks of the Moroccan division; the division was also beginning to be threatened on the left flank by the British advance in the gap. During the day, General von Kluck decided to withdraw the 3rd Division that abandoned Varredes, destroyed the bridges over the Marne and took up position further east on the heights of Congis-sur-Thérouanne. Instead, the outflanking maneuver on the northern flank attempted by the French 7th and 61st Divisions ended in failure. After initially gaining ground by conquering Étavigny, they were blocked by the German IV Corps of General von Arnim, which was reinforced by the first units arriving from the 6th Division of the III Corps.
General Maunoury was aware that his forces were unable to achieve decisive success and were weakening, and he feared a German counterattack in force; General Gallieni was concerned and urged Maunoury to hold his positions “with the utmost energy.” General Joffre also recognized that the 6th Army could no longer attack but counted on being able to continue fighting on defensive positions and hold back the German forces; the commander in chief decided to send the 37th Division and General Albert d”Amade”s territorial troops as reinforcements to cover the left flank. The commander of the 6th Army described his troops as “decimated and exhausted” but assured that he was holding out “on all positions”; he speculated possibly gaining time by slowly falling back toward Paris.
General von Kluck was still confident: in spite of the increasing pressure suffered on his left flank because of the wide gap in which the British were advancing, on the night of September 8-9 he communicated to the high command that he believed that the following day he would achieve victory by means of a decisive attack launched on the northern flank with the two divisions of General von Quast”s 9th Army Corps that were arriving, reinforced with the 6th Division of the III Corps and with General Rudolf von Lepel”s reserve brigade that was marching south after leaving Brussels. In reality the isolated position of the 1st Army was becoming more and more dangerous; on the morning of September 9, Generals von Kluck and von Kuhl learned precise news from General von Bülow about the retreat towards the Marne of the 2nd Army, while the German cavalry communicated that the situation in the gap between the two armies was more and more critical.
The attack of General von Quast”s IX Corps began on the morning of September 9 on the northern wing; the French 61st and 7th Divisions were put in difficulty and had to fall back to a more rearward defensive line. The French situation appeared even more difficult after the arrival from the north of General von Lepel”s brigade, which overcame the resistance of two reserve regiments, reached the road south of Nanteuil-le-Haudouin and endangered the 61st Division”s communications. The intervention of the 75 mm cannons of the 44th Artillery Regiment and of the cavalry units succeeded in stabilizing the situation and stopping the Germans. In the meantime, however, the position of the left flank of the German 1st Army had worsened, so that General von Kluck had to withdraw towards Coulombs-en-Valois at 09.30 am the II and IV Corps to face the British advance south of the Marne, while General von Bülow announced that he had decided to retreat further to Dormans.
General von Kluck organized a meeting with his generals to exalt their resolve and accelerate the attack on the northern wing; he still appeared very resolute stating that “every soldier had to be convinced of victory” and that if the attack had been successful “the final victory would have been achieved”. General von Quast was also optimistic and believed that the remaining French forces would not be able to stop his attack towards Paris. Things changed completely after 11:30 am when at the headquarters of the 1st Army in Mareuil-sur-Ourcq arrived Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, sent by General von Moltke to evaluate the situation and take possible decisions.
Fighting on the Petit and Grand Morin
On September 6, General Franchet d”Esperey started the counterattack of the 5th Army; after having replaced General Lanrezac on September 3, the new commander, tenacious and combative, had decided to march towards Montmirail from the south hoping to coordinate his offensive with a British attack from the southwest. On September 4, General Franchet d”Esperey had met with General Henry Wilson, who seemed to agree with this plan and guaranteed the British concurrence.
The French troops, exhausted by the long retreat, were tired and weakened and the same general Franchet d”Esperey was aware of the difficult situation; the commanders and the soldiers however showed élan and a high morale. Before the beginning of the offensive, the movements of large German columns that were moving away from the front and marching towards the northeast were detected; the German defenses in front of the 5th Army were in fact weakening after the II and IV Corps of Generals von Linsingen and von Arnim were in the process of transferring, by order of General von Kluck given at midnight on September 6, abandoning the Grand Morin sector to join the rest of the German 1st Army and help repel the attacks on Ourcq by General Maunoury. General Franchet d”Esperey attacked with three corps in the front line: General Louis de Maud”huy”s 18th Corps marched to Montceaux-lès-Provins; General Emile Hector Hache”s 3rd Corps attacked Courgivaux, while General Henry Victor Deligny”s 1st Corps assaulted Esternay. General Gilbert Defforges” 10th Corps would remain in reserve, while the cavalry corps was to try to maintain connections on the flanks of the army.
The 18th Army Corps concentrated a large mass of 75mm field artillery; General Maud”huy intended to carry out a high-powered preliminary bombardment before attacking Montceaux-lès-Provins and grouped over 200 75mm guns from his army corps, reinforced by the batteries of the 6th Division and the 53rd and 69th Divisions in reserve. The French cannons destroyed the German artillery, which consisted of only four batteries, and then targeted the infantry positions; the town was occupied by elements of three German regiments of General Ewald von Lochow”s 3rd Army Corps, which, despite having suffered an artillery bombardment defined as “monstrous”, defended themselves in the farms that had to be systematically conquered by the French 35th and 6th Divisions; at 11 p.m: 00, Montceaux-lès-Provins fell into the hands of the French troops.
At the same time the other attacks of the 5th Army developed slowly and with difficulty in front of the German resistance: the 1st Army Corps did not succeed in conquering Esternay, well defended by the German IX Corps of General Ferdinand von Quast, while the cavalry corps kept on defense without contributing to the offensive. Greater results were achieved by the 10th Army Corps of General Defforges that intervened on the extreme right, attacked the 10th German Reserve Corps of General Johannes von Eben and successfully reached the town of Charleville on the hills overlooking the Petit Morin river. Much easier was the advance of the British troops; the BEF marched on a terrain defended only by German rearguard units and by some cavalry units, after that the II and IV German Corps had abandoned their positions since the morning of September 6 on the orders of General von Kluck and were moving in forced marches to the Ourcq. In the evening the British vanguards reached without great difficulty the banks of the river Grand Morin, between Crécy-la-Chapelle and Choisy-en-Brie. The advance of the three British corps, which began more than twenty kilometers behind the line of departure planned by General Joffre, proceeded with great slowness and caution despite the limited enemy resistance; on the left the I Corps of General Douglas Haig, fearing to meet units of the I Corps of German cavalry, halted the advance until 15:30 allowing the German IV Corps to disengage undisturbed towards the Ourcq. The British found abandoned positions and suffered modest losses; General Franchet d”Esperey was very irritated by the British hesitation and urged a more rapid advance.
Despite the prudent British advance, General von Bülow was very worried; his forces were weakened and subject to increasing attacks, moreover the transfer of the IV Corps on the Ourcq front had dangerously exposed his right flank. Around midnight on September 6, the commander of the 2nd Army decided to have the III and IX Corps fall back north of Petit Morin, west of Montmirail, linking up on their left with the reserve X Corps. This retreat movement for about 15-20 kilometers widened the gap of about thirty kilometers in the German lines between the right wing of the 2nd Army and the left wing of the 1st Army covered only by the two German cavalry corps. The retreat maneuver was carried out with difficulty, under the pressure of the French and cost hard losses: in the farm Guebarrè a battalion of the X Corps of reserve of General von Eben was cut off and surrounded. The French refused to accept the surrender and destroyed the unit with a concentration of 75 mm artillery; 93 men were captured and 450 were killed.
The situation of the German deployment became even more difficult when at 10:00 a.m. of September 7, General von Kluck took the risky decision to withdraw from the Petit Morin front and to transfer on the Ourcq also the III Army Corps of General von Lochow and the IX Army Corps of General von Quast. This risky maneuver, made difficult by the fact that the two corps were fighting against the French and therefore had considerable problems to disengage before marching north, further widened the gap on the right of General von Bülow”s 2nd Army; this space almost devoid of German troops now measured over fifty kilometers through which the British expeditionary corps could advance almost undisturbed. General von Bülow learned with dismay that two more corps had left his front and tried to cover his right flank by bringing in General Karl von Einem”s VII Corps alongside the X Corps Reserve.
On September 7, General Franchet d”Esperey resumed the offensive; the French corps advanced methodically trying to maintain lateral contacts between the units and immediately noticed that the Germans were in full retreat. The main objective of the army was the town of Montmirail. The 10th Army Corps of General Defforges reached and overcame the Grand Morin meeting only the weak opposition of rearguards; on the right the 1st Army Corps of General Deligny finally occupied Esternay that had already been evacuated by the Germans, instead the 3rd Corps of General Hache had to face some units of the German IX Corps that had not been able to disengage in time. The 5th Division of General Charles Mangin and the 6th Division of General Philippe Pétain attacked, conquered the towns of Escardes and Courgivaux and reached the Grand Morin. During September 7 the BEF resumed its slow and hesitant advance towards the north; despite the evident signs of retreat, the British units marched all day almost without fighting and faced only weak cavalry units; the Grand Morin was finally passed. An attempt promoted by General Gallieni to cooperate with the British by advancing the 8th Division of General Lartigue south of Meaux was thwarted by the German machine guns of the 3rd Division of General von Trossel that inflicted hard losses from the northern bank of the Marne.
On September 8, the BEF finally made more progress and reached the Petit Morin which was passed after fighting at Sablonnières. After the cavalry found itself in difficulty, it was the infantry of the 4th and 5th Divisions that managed to cross the river. In the late afternoon the Germans fell back south of the Marne in the region of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. Despite these results, General Joffre was exasperated by the British slowness; in three days the BEF, despite having an overwhelming superiority of forces, had advanced in an almost free space of only 40 kilometers.
At the same time the French 5th Army of General Franchet d”Esperey resumed the offensive on all the line reaching important successes; while the 10th Army Corps of General Defforges deviated to the right to support the left flank of General Foch in difficulty in the Saint-Gond marshes, the 1st Army Corps marched from south towards Montmirail; the German artillery maintained an intense fire slowing down the advance. The French guns had difficulty in locating the position of the German howitzer batteries and could not suppress their fire, however the French resumed their advance and crossed the Petit Morin to the east of Montmirail. The German artillery also hampered with its continuous and effective intervention the advance in the center of General Deligny”s 3rd Army Corps; General Mangin”s 5th Division was the leading element of the corps but, because of the enemy cannon fire, it reached the southern bank of Petit Morin only in the evening and its first attempt to cross it was repulsed at 20:00.
The situation of the German 2nd Army became very critical due to the successes achieved in the west by the 18th Army Corps of General Maud”hury. In this very exposed sector, after the departure of the corps recalled by General von Kluck, the German defenses were entrusted to the VII Corps of General von Einem that occupied Montmirail with the 14th Division and covered its right flank at Marchais-en-Brie with the 13th Division. The attack of the two divisions of the French 18th Corps was preceded by a heavy night artillery bombardment; the French reached and overcame the Petit-Morin and at 12:00 p.m. with a violent assault routed the German defenses and attacked Marchais-en-Brie; the town fell in the evening after a final attack by the 36th Division of General Jouannic. The French conquest of Marchais-en-Brie was very important because it had allowed them to outflank the 2nd Army”s right flank, and Montmirail was now threatened from two directions. General von Bülow and his chief of staff, General Otto von Lauenstein, were very pessimistic and decided that a further retreat was inevitable. Montmirail was evacuated and General von Einem”s VII Corps and General von Eben”s X Reserve Corps fell back east to the Margny-Le Thoult line, further widening the gap between the 2nd Army”s right flank and the 1st Army”s left flank.
At 19:45 of September 8 Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, officer sent to the front by General von Moltke with full powers, arrived at the headquarters of the 2nd Army at Montmort Castle where he immediately spoke with General von Lauenstein and with the chief of operations, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Matthes. General von Lauenstein reported that the situation of the army was very serious; in the following meeting with General von Bülow, the latter spoke of a “serious and even dangerous” situation and complained harshly against the behavior of General von Kluck, whose lack of cooperation, according to him, had caused the widening of the gap between the two formations of the German right wing. During the meeting came the very bad news of the fall of Marchais-en-Brie and of the outflanking of the right flank; this news shook all present, the officers of the 2nd Army admitted that there were no reserves available, that the situation was “desperate” and that the army was “disintegrating”. For the first time, there was explicit talk of a general retreat. Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch remained calm, generally shared the assessments of the other officers and at 06:00 hours on September 9 left to reach the headquarters of the 1st Army to convince General von Kluck to stop the battle on the Ourcq. After his departure General von Bülow, very demoralized and completely convinced after the last reports that a real breakthrough was in progress in the gap where numerous advancing enemy columns were reported, at 09:02 on September 9 informed Generals von Kluck and von Hausen that the 2nd Army “began the general retreat”.
After the successes of September 8, General Franchet d”Esperey was very optimistic; he issued a proclamation to the troops in which he defined the enemy “in full retreat” and urged a “vigorous pursuit”. The French general was aware of the need to continue the offensive without delay; new orders were therefore communicated to the 5th Army formations to exploit the situation. While General Conneau”s cavalry corps would maintain links with the British on the left flank, the 18th and 1st Corps would march north toward Château-Thierry and Condé-en-Brie, while the 10th Corps on the right flank would head east to support General Foch whose 9th Army was fighting hard in the Saint-Gond marshes. To cross the Marne quickly, General Franchet d”Esperey had bridge crews brought forward.
In spite of the intentions of general Franchet d”Esperey, the French advance on September 9 developed along the whole front slowly and without succeeding to engage the Germans and to block their retreat. On the right wing the French operations were hindered by the difficulties of General Foch whose troops had suffered a failure at Mondement; the 1st Army Corps of General Deligny was therefore sent eastward towards Étoges hoping to hit the German 10th Army Corps from behind. The French advanced a few kilometers with little difficulty but were unable to intercept the Germans. Also the 3rd Army Corps of General Hache met little resistance; only weak rearguards hindered the advance in Margny at 4:00 p.m. and the French, after the intervention of the artillery, were able to reach the Marne and cross it in Dormans. In the meantime, at 12:00 p.m., on the left flank, the 18th Army Corps of General Maud”huy had taken position on the northern bank of the river after having freed Château-Thierry. The French cavalry showed little momentum during this phase and was unable to seriously hinder the German retreat.
The British expeditionary corps continued to advance with caution and slowness even on September 9; General French considered it dangerous to accelerate the march and, lacking precise information about the enemy forces present, preferred to proceed with great circumspection. Even the British cavalry did not carry out its pursuit duties and limited itself to maintaining connections with the French left flank. These hesitations favored the German retreat that developed in an orderly manner. At 05:30 the British I Corps of General Haig were already north of the Marne after having crossed the river without encountering resistance at Nogent-sur-Marne and Azy-sur-Marne but, despite the clear signs of the German retreat, the aerial identification of enemy columns north of Château-Thierry pushed General French to temporarily stop the advance of the I Corps at 15:30. To the west also the II Corps of General Smith-Dorrien crossed the Marne in the morning at Nanteuil-sur-Marne but was blocked until 18:00 by an improvised German formation under the command of General Kraewel. More difficulties were encountered further west by the III Army Corps of General William Pulteney that was opposed by machine gun fire and German artillery deployed on the northern bank of the Marne around La Fertè-sous-Juarre. After a few unsuccessful attempts the British crossed the river but were unable to advance further and were unable to launch the attack against the left flank and the rear of the German 1st Army, as insisted upon by General Maunoury.
Fighting in the marshes of Saint-Gond
General Joffre had been concerned since the end of August, while organizing his forces to launch the counteroffensive on the left wing, to maintain the cohesion of his right wing, which was hard pressed by the German 4th and 5th Armies. General Sarrail”s 3rd Army and General de Langle de Cary”s 4th Army were able to defend their ground and protect the Verdun stronghold, but the French commander-in-chief had been forced to form with improvised forces a new 9th Army, entrusted to General Ferdinand Foch to close the gap in the defenses that had been created between the 5th Army on the left and the 4th Army on the right. The 9th Army, formed mainly by the 9th Corps of General Pierre Dubois and the 11th Corps of General Joseph Eydoux, had to defend the area between the Brie plateau in the west, the impassable and almost impassable marshes of Saint-Gond (Marais de Saint-Gond) in the center and the Champagne plain in the east.
On the left of the 9th Army was deployed the 5th Army of General Franchet d”Esperey that on the morning of September 6 had started its offensive in direction of Montmirail; in front of General Foch were deployed the left wing of the 2nd Army of General von Bülow and the 3rd Army of General Max von Hausen that had received on September 5 the order from General von Moltke to continue to advance towards Troyes and Vendoeuvre. The fighting in this sector began in the west where a division of General Foch fought hard, together with the 10th Corps of General Defforges, without giving ground against the X Hanoverian Army Corps of General Albert Theodor Otto von Emmich; in the east, along the Somme-Soude river, the French 11th Corps had difficulty in organizing a solid defense and the troops of a part of the Prussian Guard Army Corps of General Karl von Plettenberg initially gained ground. In the center, the 9th Corps had reached the northern edge of the Saint-Gond swamps where it clashed head-on with other units of the Prussian Guard; after bitter fighting, in the afternoon the French fell back on the southern edge of the swamps. The French artillery intervened with great effectiveness and the Germans were stopped despite the intervention, in aid of the Guard, of the Saxons of the XII Army Corps of general Karl Ludwig d”Elsa.
In spite of the difficult fighting of September 6, General Foch intended to resume the attacks with maximum energy in order to support, according to General Joffre”s directives, the main offensive of the French left wing; his plans foresaw that the 11th Army Corps would advance on the right flank of the army towards the north and northwest, while in the center the 9th Corps would solidly block the Saint-Gond swamps before attacking in turn. The fighting, however, began on the left flank where the Germans of the 10th Corps attacked towards Soizy-aux-Bois and Sézanne.
During the morning violent fights broke out in Soizy-aux-Bois and in the surrounding woods; the Germans made some progress but the French of the 42nd Division, reinforced by the artillery of the 51st Reserve Division, counterattacked continuously and succeeded in holding them back six kilometers north of Sézanne. On the right the 19th German Division attacked towards Mondemont and the Allemant ridge, but in this sector was deployed the solid Moroccan Division of General Georges Louis Humbert, belonging to the 9th Army Corps, which held its positions in the western part of the Saint-Gond marshes. In the eastern part of the marshy terrain and along the Somme-Soude River, the Germans suffered a series of setbacks against General Eydoux”s French 11th Army Corps and were continuously targeted by French field artillery; the fire of the 75mm cannons frustrated every attack of the Prussian Guard and the Saxons of the 3rd Army of General von Hausen; the Germans, after a series of attacks and counterattacks, were pushed back to their starting positions and were not able to bypass the swamps nor to cross the Somme-Soude.
The German situation was becoming difficult; in the western sector of the marshes the troops of the 2nd Army of General von Bülow, the 10th Army Corps and the Army Corps of the Guard, stretched out on a long front with scarce connections with the army units deployed further west, were very weakened after having suffered the deadly fire of the French artillery that hindered every movement; the soldiers were exhausted after the long marches and the continuous battles. In the eastern sector of the swamps, the situation of General von Hausen”s 3rd Army appeared even more critical. General von Hausen had to disperse part of his forces in order to support the armies lined up on the flanks; he had therefore sent to the east, in support of the 4th Army, the XIX Corps of General Maximilian von Laffert, while part of the XII Corps of General d”Elsa had supported the attacks of the Prussian Guard to the west. The 3rd Army remained behind with reduced forces and during the day of September 7 had not made any progress; the Saxons had suffered all day long the fire of the French 75 mm cannons.
General von Hausen, commander of the 3rd Army, took an audacious initiative at 17:00 on September 7. Considering it essential to block the action of the French artillery batteries, he decided to regroup his forces and attack at dawn with a frontal bayonet assault on the central-eastern sector of the enemy array, considered weaker, trying to take the French by surprise and endanger the gun positions. The attack would have been directed on the left by General Hans von Kirchbach with part of the XII Reserve Army Corps, the XII and the XIX Saxon Army Corps; on the right they would have attacked, with the authorization of General von Bülow, the two divisions of the Prussian Guard Army Corps of General von Plettenberg. After being informed at 21:15, General von Moltke approved General von Hausen”s plan late in the evening.
The German attack was launched by surprise without artillery preparation at dawn on September 8; the soldiers advanced with bayonets in their barrels and unloaded rifles, trusting in the power of the mass impact. On the right the main attack was launched by the 2nd Guard Division, supported on the flank of the 1st Guard Division, while on the left the 32nd Saxon Division and the 23rd Saxon Reserve Division came under assault. The infantry advanced through the swampy terrain and achieved brilliant early success.
While the right wing of the French 9th Army risked to collapse, in the morning of September 8 on the left flank the French took the initiative against the German troops of the VII Corps of the 2nd Army that was already in great difficulty for the opening on its right wing and was about to begin the retreat; the 42nd Division and the combative Moroccan Division of General Georges Louis Humbert pushed back the enemy, reconquered Soizy-aux-Bois and Saint-Prix and reached at 0900 hours: 00 the Petit Morin in connection on the left with the 5th Army of General Franchet d”Esperey. But the French success was short-lived; after learning of the assault by the Guard and the Saxons, General von Emmich”s 10th Corps also went on the attack, regained the lost ground and continued towards Mondement. At first, the Moroccan division also had to retreat and surrender part of the Saint-Gond marshes. General Foch had to face a situation of great danger; on the right the 11th Corps was in full retreat, while the center of his lines was in a precarious position. During the course of the day he had unsuccessfully asked General de Langle de Cary for the support of his troops; at 9:20 p.m., however, General Franchet d”Esperey promised to send General Defforges” 10th Corps to help. Thanks to these reinforcements, Foch could withdraw the 42nd Division from the front line and redistribute his reserves; the Frenchman was determined to counterattack as he told General Joffre in his famous communiqué of the night.
In fact, because of the overall situation along the entire front, General von Bülow on the morning of September 9, after the visit of Lieutenant Colonel Hentsch, took the decision to begin the general retreat of his army. At first, however, in order to deceive the French and slow down their pursuit, the Germans resumed attacks that seemed to endanger the position of the 9th Army. The main fighting took place from dawn in the sectors of Mondement and Fère-Champenoise: with a surprise attack the Hanoverian soldiers of the 19th Division of the 10th Army Corps conquered Mondement, but the French counterattacked and in the afternoon the important tactical position was taken by the Moroccan division of General Humbert. On the left, the French 10th Army Corps, sent in aid by General Franchet d”Esperey, gained ground, overcame the Petit Morin and closely pressed the retreating Germans.
In the eastern sector of the Saint-Gond swamps also general von Hausen ordered new attacks with the help of troops of the XII Corps of reserve; the soldiers of the army corps of the Prussian Guard launched another assault with order and discipline, advancing south of Fère-Champenoise and succeeding in conquering the village of Connantre; the French fought hard to stop them and in the afternoon the artillery intervened with effectiveness: the soldiers of the Prussian Guard were exhausted and had suffered again heavy losses. On the left three Saxon divisions could not make much progress. In the meantime, General von Bülow started the retreat of his forces lined up on the right of the Saxons and at 17:00 the German infantry of the 2nd Army began to abandon the terrain conquered in the Saint-Gond marshes, leaving behind some rearguards.
While he was busy repelling the new German attacks, General Foch was trying to organize the general counter-offensive to regain the ground lost in the swamps; he finally completed the regrouping of his forces, concentrated seven divisions of the 9th and 11th Corps and also deployed his reserve 42nd Division, which had just completed the transfer march from the left wing to the right wing of the deployment. Initially planned for 17:15 on September 9, the counter-offensive was finally postponed to the following day. On the morning of September 10, the French were engaged only by scattered rearguards because the Germans were retreating on the whole line; in the late afternoon of September 9, General von Hausen had learned of the decisions of General von Bülow and had therefore ordered the retreat of a part of his army that risked to remain isolated. The French soldiers of general Foch were exhausted after days of continuous fighting and on September 10, slowed down by the rearguards and by the marshy terrain, they slowly advanced towards north reoccupying the positions but without being able to engage the main German troops in retreat.
German general retreat
During the battle General von Moltke and the OHL, established far behind in Luxembourg, were unable to maintain control of the armies in the field due to serious communication difficulties; the general was therefore not promptly informed of the situation and received only incomplete and unclear news that accentuated his basic pessimism. After learning of the gap opened between the 1st and 2nd Armies, General von Moltke showed signs of weakening morale; he himself spoke of “horrible tension” and “terrible difficulties”. On September 8, when precise reports from the two right wing armies had been lacking for two days, more confusing news arrived and the OHL became almost panic-stricken. General von Moltke then decided to send Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, head of the OHL”s information sector, to the headquarters of the various armies to clarify the situation and take the necessary measures. The lieutenant colonel received the precise authorization to order a retreat “if deemed indispensable” and had “full powers” to act at discretion with the authority of the chief of general staff.
Lieutenant Colonel Hentsch left the OHL at 10:00 a.m. on September 8 and began, accompanied by Captains König and Koeppen, his mission going initially to the headquarters of the 5th Army, reached at 13:00, and of the 4th Army, where he arrived at 15:15. The news he gathered about the situation of these two armies was reassuring: both were controlling the situation and planning new attacks. At 16:30 Lieutenant Colonel Hentsch moved to Châlons-sur-Marne where the headquarters of the 3rd Army was located; the officer spoke with the chief of staff, General Ernst von Hoeppner, who gave an optimistic picture of the situation. The lieutenant colonel was then able to communicate by radio to the OHL that the situation found at the front in these three armies was “completely favorable”.
Things changed in the evening when Hentsch reached the headquarters of the 2nd Army where he found a situation of discouragement and pessimism among the officers; the army was defined in “disintegration” and it was decided with the full consent of the officer to start the general retreat. Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch went in the morning of September 9 to Mareuil-sur-Ourcq, seat of the command post of the 1st Army, where he arrived at 11:30 a.m. and met immediately the chief of staff, General von Kuhl who seemed not too much worried. General von Kuhl did not hide the threat on the left flank of the army, but he affirmed that a decisive maneuver to bypass the French left flank was in progress; he considered “not tragic” the advance of the British that “always act with great slowness”.
Lieutenant Colonel Hentsch had very different information: he described the difficult situation of the other armies and said that the general retreat was already in progress, therefore also the 1st Army had to suspend the battle and retreat in turn towards Soissons and Fismes to connect with the 2nd Army. General von Kuhl initially protested but Hentsch said that the 2nd Army was breaking up, and by virtue of the “full authority” granted to him by General von Moltke he confirmed the order to retreat. In front of this disastrous news, general von Kuhl admitted that not even a victory on Ourcq would have been sufficient and agreed with the order of retreat that was communicated to general von Kluck that, although disappointed, accepted the decision. At 13:15 of September 9, general von Kluck gave order to the 1st Army to stop the attacks and begin to retreat “in direction of Soissons”, thus ending with a final failure the great advance on Paris.
While he was busy controlling the decisive battles on the Ourcq and the Marne, General Joffre also had to deal with the situation on the right wing where General Fernand de Langle de Cary”s 4th Army and General Maurice Sarrail”s 3rd Army had been engaged since September 6 in fierce fighting between Vitry-le-François and the Argonne against the German 4th and 5th Armies. The commander in chief expected that these two French armies would also participate in the general counter-offensive and was bringing in reinforcements from Lorraine, the XV and XXI Corps.
On the morning of September 6, General de Langle de Cary attacked after a violent general barrage of his artillery, but for three days bitter fighting followed without decisive results for either side. Duke Albrecht, commander of the German 4th Army, had been surprised by the unexpected French attack and had asked for the support of the left wing of the 3rd Army that had brought in the XIX Corps of General von Laffert. On September 9, Duke Albrecht tried to take the initiative but his attack ended in failure and General de Langle de Cary, reinforced by the arrival of the XXI Corps of General Émile Edmond Legrand-Girarde, could consolidate his positions and prepare new attacks in the direction of Vitry-le-François. The conduct of operations on the German side was also hampered by the poor collaboration between Duke Albrecht and Kronprinz Wilhelm, commander of the 5th Army, deployed further east.
On September 6 also General Sarrail, commander of the French 3rd Army, launched his offensive against the German 5th Army which in turn was moving to the attack towards south-east in direction of Bar-le-Duc. General Sarrail held positions south-west of the fortress of Verdun and intended to attack the German left flank but in reality a frontal clash took place that initially was unfavorable to the French. A division of the V Corps of the general Frédéric Henry Micheler, deployed to bar the Revigny opening, on the French left flank, was attacked and routed by the VI Corps of the general Kurt von Pritzelwitz; the intervention in aid of the XV Corps of the general Louis Espinasse succeeded to prevent the defeat and to block the enemy, but by September 8 the Germans gained a lot of ground.
In this phase, general Sarrail entered in contrast with general Joffre; the commander in chief criticized the direction of the operations and the presumed failure of some units, requesting to “re-establish the order, taking every necessary measure”; moreover, general Joffre, fearing a breakthrough through the Revigny passage, ordered the night of September 8th to general Sarrail to make the troops lined up on his right in contact with Verdun fall back. General Sarrail protested strongly against this order, and decided instead not to retreat and to defend at all costs the fortifications of Verdun; at the end the stronghold was defended fiercely and the French of the 3rd Army blocked the German offensive towards Revigny.
At 09:00 a.m. on September 10, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch arrived at the headquarters of the 5th Army in Varennes, coming from the command of the 1st Army where the general retreat of the German right wing had been definitively established. The officer explained the critical situation and the decisions that had been made, and then stated that the 5th Army also had to retreat; Kronprinz Wilhelm and his chief of staff, General Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, protested against these provisions and requested written orders directly from General von Moltke.
General von Moltke received Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch”s final report after the officer”s return to headquarters in Luxembourg at 12:40 a.m. on September 10; the chief of staff approved all the established dispositions and the right wing”s order to retreat; he had feared that the situation would be even more critical and was reassured by the news. It seemed that it was possible to organize an orderly retreat of the 1st and 2nd Armies that would allow the two formations to resume connections and close the gap. In spite of this cautious optimism, General von Moltke, whose physical and mental resistance was severely tested by the tension of the campaign, finally decided to personally go to the front to evaluate the situation.
General von Moltke, in company of Colonel Tappen and Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm von Dommes, reached the headquarters of the 5th Army where he had a lively confrontation with Kronprinz Wilhelm who appeared confident and contrasted the pessimistic considerations of the chief of staff, then visited the 3rd Army where he conferred with General von Hausen. The chief of staff judged very precarious the situation of the army that, scattered to east and west, “was no longer able to fight”. At 13:00 the general arrived at the command post of the 4th Army, where he found instead a still optimistic environment; some officers advised against a general retreat that would have depressed the morale of the troops. At this point a new pessimistic communication from General von Bülow arrived from the headquarters of the 2nd Army: the French were about to break through on the right flank and on the center of the 3rd Army. This bad news shocked General von Moltke who, fearing a collapse not only of the right flank but also of the center of the army, took “the most difficult decision of my life” and at 13:30 on September 11 ordered the general retreat of the entire army.
The orders for the general retreat stipulated that while the 1st Army would continue to fall back over the Aisne to Soissons and would regain contact with the 2nd Army, which in turn was retreating to Rheims and Thuizy, the other armies would fall back behind Vesle: the 3rd Army to Suippes, the 4th Army to Sainte-Menehould, and the 5th Army north of the Argonne and Verdun. General von Moltke, now completely demoralized, returned to OHL headquarters in Luxembourg at 2:00 p.m. on September 12. On September 14, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, disappointed and irritated by the defeat and alerted by his advisors to the nervous breakdown of the chief of staff, decided to dismiss him and assign the supreme command to the Minister of War, General Erich von Falkenhayn.
During the night of September 9, General Joffre issued his “Particular Instruction No. 20”; the commander in chief was optimistic and, faced with the signs of enemy retreat, envisioned a complex maneuver to turn the retreat into a rout and destroy the German right wing. According to this directive, the British expeditionary corps was to accelerate its march and attack “with maximum energy” the flank and rear of the German 2nd Army, which would be engaged in front by General Franchet d”Esperey”s 5th Army. At the same time, General Maunoury”s 6th Army would remain north of the Ourcq and would bypass, with the help of a cavalry corps, the German 1st Army. General Joffre informed the French government that he expected “decisive results.” At 2:00 p.m. on September 11, when it became evident that the entire German army was retreating, the general told War Minister Alexandre Millerand that “the Battle of the Marne has ended with an unquestionable victory,” but in his agenda to the troops he reiterated the importance of taking advantage of the favorable moment and “energetically” pursuing the enemy “without giving him respite.”
The Anglo-French armies had to advance on the whole front from Meaux to Châlons-sur-Marne; general Maunoury had to reach Soissons, the British of general French had to head on Fismes, the armies of generals Franchet d”Esperey and Foch would have marched on Reims and Châlons. The last phase of the battle of the Marne, characterized by the Anglo-French advance, continued for another four days: the effective action of the German rearguards slowed down the pursuit. The Allied march, led by exhausted troops and unable to advance quickly, was also hampered by the rains that fell from September 11, making the advance on muddy terrain very difficult. The commanders of the armies signaled these difficulties to general Joffre and requested to stop momentarily the operations to rest the troops; general Franchet d”Esperey pointed out that further attacks were impossible and that the German defenses were being reinforced; also general Foch communicated that the enemy was resisting with great tenacity. The German forces in retreat had been reinforced with troops transferred from Alsace and furthermore had taken position on the heights, tactically favorable, north of the Aisne river from where by September 12 they were able to block the advance of the Allied left wing.
Also in the central sector and on the right wing of the front the French progress was limited: general Foch succeeded, in spite of the muddy terrain of Champagne, to free Fère-Champenoise and to cross on September 11 the Marne at Châlons, but the armies of generals de Langle de Cary and Sarrail did not succeed to gain ground. General Joffre”s attempt to break through on the Aisne ended in failure on September 18, and the commander-in-chief had to admit with surprise that operations had stalled and that “there was no hope of reaching open ground.” In addition, the French army was going through a serious material crisis due to the shortage of artillery shells that forced General Joffre to order on September 21 to postpone further attacks and limit the consumption of ammunition.
The battle of the Marne decreed the failure of the Schlieffen plan and cancelled forever the possibility of a rapid German victory on the western front. Many controversies arose almost immediately among soldiers, experts and historians, on the causes and responsibilities of the negative outcome of the battle for the Germans. Some believed that the defeat was mainly due to the lack of leadership skills of General von Moltke, his insecurity and his pessimism; others – especially in German military circles – used Lieutenant-Colonel Hentsch as a scapegoat, blaming a simple lieutenant-colonel for having played a decisive role in influencing von Moltke”s order to retreat.
According to many historians, the most important mistakes on the German side were committed by General von Kluck who, on his own initiative, diverted the march southeast of Paris, did not stop the advance on September 2 and finally took the risky decision to concentrate all his forces on the Ourcq without worrying about maintaining the cohesion of the front. This maneuver created a wide gap between the 1st and 2nd Army through which the British could advance almost undisturbed, whose threatening penetration shook the morale of General von Bülow who, already in serious difficulty under the French attacks, decided the general retreat. The direct protagonists of the facts replied to these accusations: Lieutenant Colonel Hentsch affirmed to have faithfully executed the orders of the OHL and believed to have taken the correct decisions that obtained the complete approval of General von Moltke. General von Kluck until the end of his life maintained the opinion that, without the final retreat order, he would have been able to achieve victory in his sector and conquer Paris, even if he admitted that even this success would not have been sufficient in case of collapse of the German front on the Marne.
Many discussions arose also in the French camp to establish the merits of the victory and to identify the protagonists responsible for the most important decisions for the favorable outcome of the battle. General Joffre is still considered the main author of the success; in spite of serious strategic and tactical errors at the beginning, he succeeded, thanks to his resoluteness and his constant optimism, to control a very serious situation and to take back the initiative, overturning the destiny of the fighting. Other authors, however, have pointed out that it would have been General Gallieni the first to propose the counter-offensive and to request to accelerate the timing to seize the opportune moment and save Paris. Moreover, other generals (Foch, Maunoury, Franchet d”Esperey) made an important contribution to the victory with their determination and offensive spirit. In the British camp, General French did not show great leadership qualities and on the contrary he showed little determination and pessimism; only at the last moment he decided to participate in the counter-offensive. British troops contributed to the victory advancing almost without opposition and suffering few losses.
From a technical point of view, the French field artillery, equipped with the excellent 75 mm cannons, played a decisive role in the battle, firing a great number of bullets both to support the infantry attacks and to shatter the German assaults. The 75mm batteries demonstrated their great efficiency on the Marne: German troops described in their testimonies the precision and the firepower of these pieces and senior German officers affirmed that the French 75mm batteries “were superior to ours…also in their tactics and their firepower”.
From a strategic point of view, however, the French, lacking fresh troops and trained cavalry, were unable to exploit the favorable situation created by the German retreat. After the inconclusive outcome of the “race to the sea” began the war of position that would last until November 1918. According to the British historian, General Edmonds, however, the failure to exploit the victory of the Marne would also be attributable to the small number of British troops landed on the continent: the intervention on the German rear of at least part of the territorial forces remaining in Britain could, in his opinion, achieve decisive results and end the war with the Allied victory.
The surprising conclusion of the battle and the apparently inexplicable German retreat in front of Paris on the threshold of victory gave the French propaganda the opportunity to speak of a “miracle of the Marne”. It seems that it was Gallieni who first used this expression when in the early afternoon of September 9, Maunoury informed the general, who feared a final German attack against the Parisian fortified camp, that “the troops of Paris no longer have any enemy in front of them”; at that point the military governor of the capital is said to have said, “This is the miracle of the Marne!”
In remembrance of those who fell in the battle, the national monument of the victory of the Marne (Mondement-Montgivroux), the memorial of the battles of the Marne (Dormans, also dedicated to the victims of the second battle of the Marne) and the memorial of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre were erected after the war. Participants in one of the two battles of the Marne were given a specially created decoration, the Marne medal.