Gentlemen, We Will Fight on the Marne
So first of all I have to apologize for this episode being a bit late and a bit shorter than usual. Some personal things have come up for me here at the Seminal Catastrophe Podcast global headquarters, and so I had to scale back my ambitions for this week’s episode. For the last two weeks we took a digression to discuss some general military terminology and theory that will be relevant for the rest of the series. Today, we return to the narrative, and specifically the narrative on the Western Front.
So what we’re going to do today is set all the pieces and players on the board in northern France for the climactic showdown in September of 1914 that will determine the fate of the war, and the fate of France itself. This climactic showdown will be remembered by history as the First Battle of the Marne. This battle indeed lends its name to this next arc, the fifth in our series: the Miracle on the Marne. My original intention for this week was to cover not only the setup to this First Battle of the Marne (and, yes, as you can tell from the name there will be another “Battle of the Marne”), as well as the initial breakout of combat that signaled the beginning of this enormous battle. Instead, due to the necessarily shorter nature of this episode, today we’re simply going to cover how the French and British leadership prepared for their desperate counterattack against the advancing German Armies, and where the various armies stood at the beginning of September that will determine where, how, and why the battle will unfold in the way that it did. Next week, we will talk about the true beginning of the battle on September 6, and the week after that we will see how the Allied Armies were ultimately able to secure a decisive yet incredibly costly victory, one that would largely set the stage for where the battle lines will be drawn for most of the rest of the war. And now that I think of it, that’s probably a better structure than my original intention. Art through adversity, right? Anyway, without further ado, let’s get started.
So I think to begin today we should go back a few days to catch up with the commander-in-chief of the French Army: General Joseph Joffre and his frantic attempts to reorganize his utterly battered and decimated forces. And when I say “decimated,” that’s not just a poetic use of the word. The French Army began the war with about 1.2-1.3 million soldiers deployed on the Western Front. By the end of August, they had lost something on the order of 300,000 total casualties, with nearly 100,000 of those being killed-in-action. So in just a month’s time, the French Army had lost something like 20 to 25% of its total strength as battle casualties. The British Expeditionary Force was little better off; out of around 80,000 men deployed to France at the beginning of August, by the end of the month they had lost more than 10,000 casualties, perhaps 12 to 15% of their total strength. The Allied Armies were, in a word, decimated. More than decimated, technically, and Joffre needed to scramble fast in order to cobble together some kind of a strategy to hold back the German advance on Paris.
Back in Episode 16: Retreat, we discussed some of the administrative and doctrinal reforms Joffre instituted in the days following the disaster of the Battle of the Frontiers. And, for the record, I have to make a correction about some of the battle casualties I listed during that battle. I had said that the French Army had suffered 300,000 casualties, of those at least 75,000 men killed, during the Battles of Lorraine and the Ardennes from August 21-24. However, those numbers really reflect the total French casualties for the month of August, 1914. During the battles of around August 16-24, the French sustained more like 140,000 casualties, with perhaps 40,000 or so of those killed. The reason for this confusion is that the term “The Battle of the Frontiers” is often used inconsistently in the historiography of the First World War. Sometimes it is used to describe the combined actions of the French offensive into Alsace-Lorraine and into the Ardennes Forest from around August 16-24, however just as often it is used to describe all the fighting on the Western Front the French participated in from the start of the war to the beginning of the First Battle of the Marne on September 6. So, sorry for that confusion, just wanted to clear that mistake up for the record.
Anyway, one of the reforms instituted by Joffre following these massive French defeats that I have not yet talked about was his formation of an entire new Army, cobbled together from new reservists, conscripts, and volunteers just now being mustered into uniform, as well as a few units from other existing French Armies that had been driven farther back than others. This new Army, which was dubbed the Sixth Army, was formally created on August 25, and would be assembled around the city of Amiens, to the far left of the Allied lines, farther left than even the British Expeditionary Force who had until this time held the far left of the Allied Armies. Joffre’s timetable called for this new force to be ready to advance and fight on September 2. This date was laced with deep emotional meaning for the French; September 2 was a date that was mourned in France, and celebrated in Germany, as “Sedan Day,” the anniversary of the formal surrender of the French Army after it was crushed during the Battle of Sedan during the Franco-Prussian War, 44 years previously.
Now who was to command this new French Sixth Army took some time for Joffre to decide. And it was fortunate, perhaps even decisive, that rather than immediately elevate a new general to command this Army, Joffre waited until the army was nearly formed to pick the perfect man for the job. That man was a one General Joseph Gallieni.
Gallieni had been born in 1849, and was thus sixty-five years old when the war broke out in 1914. Though hardly the oldest man to hold military command during the First World War, by 1914 Gallieni was suffering from what was probably prostate cancer (though diagnosed rather vaguely at the time simply as “prostatitis”). Before the war began Gallieni had already undergone two surgeries to treat this painful condition, and he would ultimately succumb to the tumor in mid 1916. Yet despite this quite painful and nearly debilitating condition, Gallieni was one of the fiercest and most competent generals in the entire French Army. In fact, he had such a well-respected reputation within the French Army that in 1911, when the French were in the process of deciding who should be the next commander-in-chief of the Army, Gallieni was the first man tapped for the job. However, he refused, citing his advanced age and the fact that he planned on retiring soon. This was how Joffre, who was not only lower in seniority but had actually served under Gallieni for years, became the “generalissimo” of the French Army.
Now Joffre’s eventual appointment of his former superior, Gallieni, as commander of the new Sixth Army would prove to be incredibly important not just because of Gallieni’s skill as a general, but because of what his job up until that point was. On August 25, the same day Joffre began assembling his new Sixth Army, Gallieni was made the military governor of Paris, and given near dictatorial powers to prepare the capital’s defense in case of a German siege. At first, Gallieni was given few resources to achieve this goal. The city had no significant entrenchments nor fortifications to speak of, though after the disaster of the Battle of the Frontiers the citizens of Paris had frantically begun to erect what defenses they could. Beyond that, no preparations to stockpile provisions for the city were in place, meaning that even if Gallieni was able to keep the Germans from simply storming the capital, they would run out of food and water in just a few weeks if not days. Plus, just defending Paris from attack would be extremely difficult, as not only were there few defensive works around the city, but Gallieni only had at his disposal a garrison of one cavalry division and three territorial divisions, a total of perhaps 50-60,000 men. Though certainly not a small force, those “territorial” divisions were made up exclusively of older veterans who had completed their service in the regular army a long time beforehand. The youngest of these soldiers were 35 years old, many of them were in their forties or even fifties, and these units were not assembled for retraining except in cases of war time. To put it bluntly, this force of old men hastily thrown into uniform would be little match against the German onslaught barreling towards them. As Gallieni later recalled, when he accepted the post of military governor of Paris, the French War Minister, quote, “[shook] my hands several times and even [kissed] me.” From this dramatic display, Gallieni was forced to conclude that, quote, “from the warmth of these demonstrations…the place I was succeeding to was not an enviable one.”
Meanwhile, as Gallieni did his best to prepare what defenses he could for Paris and Joffre began to cobble together his new Sixth Army, the rest of the French forces on the Western Front were engaged in a non-stop fighting retreat. These battered, demoralized, and exhausted units were ordered again and again to halt their retreat, turn around, fight the Germans pursuing them, only to immediately begin marching again once the German advance had been delayed. “The men drag themselves along,” a French captain of infantry later wrote, “their faces marked by a terrible exhaustion…They have just completed a two days’ march of 62 kilometers (about 38 miles) after a sharp rearguard action.”
This incessant, non-stop work forced upon these French soldiers, marching, fighting, then marching again all day long, was not only exhausting but deeply demoralizing. The Germans, of course, were becoming just as exhausted as their French enemies, but they at least could take some satisfaction from the fact that they were advancing. In short, they were winning. In the first days of September a German officer remembered his exhausted troops suddenly bursting with energy and excitement when they encountered a visible symbol of their success. Quote, “one of our battalions was marching wearily forward. All at once, while passing a crossroad, they discovered a signpost, on which they read: Paris, thirty-seven kilometers (twenty-three miles). It was the first signpost that had not been erased. On seeing it, the battalion was as though shaken up by an electric current. The word Paris, which they have just read, drives them crazy. Some of them embrace the wretched signpost, others dance around it. Cries, yells of enthusiasm, accompany these mad actions. This notice board has had a miraculous effect. Faces light up, weariness seems to disappear, the march is resumed, alert, cadenced, in spite of the abominable ground.”
The French soldiers, meanwhile, had to contend with the fact that every miserable, agonizing, exhausted step they took yielded more and more of their country to the German invaders. Despite their exhaustion and the brutal fights they again and again were forced to engage in, after each of these fights they once again had to turn around and allow the Germans to keep pressing forward. Officers began to hear their soldiers swapping tales of the government being cowards and the generals being fools; talks of mutiny began to circulate through the ranks. Morale in the French Army was dropping to dangerous levels.
This drop in morale was not just evident in the ranks of the French Army, but within the government itself. On September 2, Joffre sent word to the government leadership in Paris, led by President Raymond Poincaré, that the government ought to immediately evacuate the capital and relocate to the city of Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast. That night, full of quote “grief and humiliation” as Poincaré described it, the President, Prime Minister, and their entire cabinet fled Paris in secret to avoid causing a panic within the capital. Gallieni, newly appointed military governor of the city, met personally with the Minister of War to say goodbye. At this meeting the War Minister gave Gallieni final instructions on how he was to carry out his defense of Paris. Gallieni was told that he must defend Paris, quote, “à outrance,” which roughly translates from French into “to the death.”
“Do you understand, M. le Ministre, the significance of the words ‘à outrance?’” Gallieni replied to these instructions. “They mean destruction, ruins.” The War Minister simply repeated his instructions, “à outrance,” and left without another word. Gallieni later remembered that he felt, quote, “pretty well persuaded, myself, that I was remaining to be killed.” Resigned to his apparent fate, the next day Gallieni wrote a short message to the people of Paris which was posted on walls throughout the city the next day. “The Members of the Government of the Republic have left Paris to give a new impulse to the national defense. I have received a mandate to defend Paris against the invader. This mandate I shall carry out to the end.” It seemed as though the nightmare of siege, starvation, and surrender that Paris had endured at the end of the Franco-Prussian War would once again be imposed upon them.
Yet just as what chances for an Allied victory, or even just a delay of a catastrophic defeat, began to slip away, the French high command learned of a development on the German side that could change the tide of the war overnight. You see, over in the German leadership, there was some uncertainty as to where and how to land the final blow that would knock France out of the war once and for all. The Schlieffen Plan had called for the far-right wing of the German Armies, to sweep south after completing its march through Belgium. However this left open two basic possibilities for how to crush France once this move had been completed. The German First Army under General von Kluck, which held the very far end of the German right wing, could either march due south to take the capital of Paris, or could sweep south and east in order to surround all the French Armies from their left, and completely destroy them. General von Moltke, commander-in-chief of all German Armies, was a man famous for his pessimism and anxiety under pressure (Kaiser Wilhelm II had saddled him with the nickname “der trauige Julius,” which roughly translates to “gloomy Gus”). And so in the last days of August he vacillated constantly on whether or not the final move should be on Paris or on the French Armies. Fortunately for him, General von Kluck, commander of the German First Army, made the decision for him.
On August 31, von Kluck ordered his Army to change direction, rather than marching due south towards Paris, to sweep south and east in conjunction with the Second Army under General von Bülow to surround the battered French Fifth Army, and from there surround and destroy all Allied Armies on the Western Front. This left von Kluck’s right flank (maps attached to give you a sense of this) vulnerable to being attacked from a French garrison inside of Paris, but von Kluck dismissed this as a significant possibility. He believed, that only a small force of old-timers garrisoned Paris, and that he need only place a small force of his own to protect against being flanked by this Parisian garrison. And indeed, military governor of Paris General Gallieni did have at his disposal merely a small force of old-timers. Or at least, he did until September 2, Sedan Day. On that day, Joffre made perhaps the most crucial decision of his entire career when he assigned as commander for the new Sixth Army then being assembled General Gallieni, while maintaining his position as military governor of Paris. Thus, Gallieni would soon have at his disposal a force nearly as large as von Kluck’s First Army pointed directly at the German commander’s right flank (again, map attached to give a sense of this).
Then came the decisive moment of the First Act of the First World War. On September 3, the day after receiving command of the French Sixth Army, Gallieni was informed that French aircraft scouting the German advance had found that the German First Army was no longer marching directly towards Paris. Instead, it had turned to the south and east, and its vulnerable right flank was completely exposed to the forces then assembling in Paris. When looking over reports from their aerial reconnaissance, placing pins on the map to show the Germans new positions, two of Gallieni’s staff officers leapt up and cried out simultaneously, “They offer us their flank! They offer us their flank!” The pieces had fallen into place. If Gallieni could hit this German force where it was most vulnerable, than France might, despite everything, be saved.
This gave Joffre the chance to perhaps salvage the situation, yet he needed the cooperation of a man who had all but lost faith in the French Army, and had all but taken for granted that Paris and all of France would soon fall. That man was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force: Field Marshal Sir John French. If the British Expeditionary Force refused to cooperate with Joffre’s planned counterattack, or worse yet decided to evacuate the continent entirely, there would be little to no chance that the French could halt the German advance. True, the British Army in France was miniscule compared to the French and German Armies, comprising tens of thousands of soldiers rather than millions. But those few British divisions still guarded the vital French left flank which was in real danger of being surrounded and destroyed by the German First, Second, and Third Armies barreling into northern France after smashing through Belgium. Those few British soldiers would very likely be the difference between a French victory and a German one.
Joffre, despite his legendary ability to effect a calm and confident front in the face of utter disaster, still knew that if he failed to convince Sir John French that France was not yet beaten and to join in the counterattack against the Germans, then all would be lost. And in the last few days very troubling signs had emerged from the British high command indicating that they were seriously preparing for a withdrawal from France altogether. So, on September 5, just as Gallieni was putting the finishing touches on assembling his new Sixth Army, Joffre took a car more than 100 miles to meet personally with Sir John French at the British headquarters at Melun, a small town just a few miles outside of Paris.
The meeting began at 2 pm, with Field Marshal Sir John French seated at a small table in a château flanked by three of his staff officers, including his translator Sir Henry Wilson. Joffre stood alone, and prepared to give the most important speech of his life. Abandoning his characteristic stoicism and calm, Joffre launched into an impassioned plea for the British Army to stay and help save France from utter defeat and conquest. That the war could yet be won if only the British and French stayed side by side as allies and worked together. As Joffre later recounted:
“I Put my whole soul into the effort to convince the Field Marshal. I told him that the decisive moment had arrived and that we must not let it escape – we must go to battle with every man both of us had and free form all reservations. ‘So far as the French Army is concerned.’ I continued, ‘my orders are given and, whatever may happen, I intend to thrown my last Company into the balance to win a victory and save France. It is in her name that I come to you to ask for British assistance, and I urge it with all the power I have in me. I cannot believe that the British Army will refuse to do its share in this supreme crisis – history would severely judge your absence.’ Then, as I finished, carried away by my convictions and the gravity of the moment, I remember bringing down my fist on a table which stood at my elbow and crying, ‘Monsieur le Marshal, the honor of England is at stake!’”
Joffre’s plea for help paid off. Sir John French had been listening dispassionately to his aide Wilson translating for Joffre, as the French commander spoke no English and the British commander spoke only a very little bit of French. But when Joffre slammed his fist on the table, Sir John French started. A silence fell over the room as Sir John French’s face reddened, and soon his eyes began welling with tears. He began to try to use his rudimentary French to speak to Joffre but, quickly giving up, simply turned to Wilson and said, “Damn it, I can’t explain. Tell him we will do all we possibly can.”
The next day, Joffre returned to the temporary French headquarters at Châtillon-sur-Seine and brought news of the British agreement to cooperate in the planned counterattack. Looking at a map, Joffre observed that the furthest advance of the German Army had reached the River Marne, a tributary of the Seine River ending at Paris itself. Joffre then turned to his staff and said simply, “Gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne.”
And with that, the stage was set for one of the most consequential showdowns of the First World War.
We’re going to leave things here for now. Next week we will look at the opening action of what would be remembered by history as the Miracle on the Marne.
Hart, Peter. The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Meyer, G.J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.
Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1962.