The Battle of France
Last week we set the stage for what would be one of the most important events of the entire First World War: The First Battle of the Marne. With Germany incredibly close to securing victory on the Western Front, or at the very least all but taking France out of the fight permanently, if the Allies could not score a victory here in early September 1914, Germany would in all likelihood be able to achieve their goal in winning the war in just a few months. True, even if France was defeated, Great Britain would still pose an enormous threat, as would happen during the Second World War. Britain had the most powerful navy in the world, and would almost certainly be able to prevent any German attempt to invade the British Isles. Plus, though Russia had been dealt two enormous defeats by the Germans in the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, they were far from conquered and would still stand poised to try to defeat Germany on the Eastern Front. And though the war between Germany and Russia had gone uniformly against the Russians, their battles against Austria-Hungary (which we will cover soon, I promise), had yielded decisive Russian victories. So France being defeated here in September of 1914 would by no means have ended the war right away. But it would still leave Germany in the most powerful position of any of the belligerents, and defeating her without French help would be a monumental task that would very likely be beyond the power of Russia and Great Britain. While they might not be completely defeated, they would have little chance of defeating Germany and would probably have to negotiate a peace with them that would leave Germany the de facto master of Western and Central Europe. Now whether or not this would have been such a bad thing in the grand scheme of things we will explore at the end of this arc. But regardless, this was France’s last chance to save herself from total, utter, final defeat.
The German war plans, the famous Schlieffen Plan, had called for the French Armies to have been smashed by the fortieth day after mobilization began. This did not mean that France had to have totally capitulated by then, but her armies needed to have been so massively and completely defeated and routed that she would be unable to resist the German Armies now occupying the northern part of the country. This would allow most of the German Armies on the Western Front to be transferred to the Eastern Front to fight the Russians in concert with Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary. And while up until this point the Germans had achieved massive success on all fronts and in virtually every battle they had fought, the window for this planned victory had become incredibly narrow. September 6 was the 37th day after mobilization, and while the French and British Armies were on the retreat, they had not yet been decisively defeated. True, the German Eighth Army under Hindenburg and Ludendorff had achieved smashing successes against the Russians in the Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, this German force was nowhere near strong enough to invade Russian territory, and the Austro-Hungarian Armies had suffered massive defeats against the Russians. General von Moltke, the German commander-in-chief, was becoming increasingly worried that if he did not crush the French Armies soon, the dream of a six-week German victory would be lost.
Meanwhile over on the French side, French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre was preparing his forces for their desperate counterattack to drive the Germans back, perhaps out of France and Belgium altogether. On September 5, the day before this attack was scheduled to begin, Joffre transmitted a message to all French Armies to steel themselves for the grim task they were about to undertake:
“Now, as the battle is joined on which the safety of the country depends, everyone must be reminded that this is no longer the time for looking back. Every effort must be made to attack and throw back the enemy. A unit which finds it impossible to advance must, regardless of the cost, hold its ground and be killed on the spot rather than fall back. In the present circumstances no failure will be tolerated.”
The First Battle of the Marne was about to begin.
Official history reports that the First Battle of the Marne began on the morning of September 6, 1914. Joffre’s plan was to launch his new Sixth Army, commanded by his old superior General Gallieni, on the now exposed right flank of the German First Army under General von Kluck. However the day before, September 5, one of Kluck’s Corps commanders who held the rear of the advance, realized that this new French force was poised to attack von Kluck’s right flank, and so on his own initiative moved his Corps south towards the River Ourcq, which the French would have to cross in order to launch their attack upon von Kluck. This German Corps then launched a surprise attack on the forward units of the French Sixth Army, inflicting significant casualties and forcing it to fall back.
This action did not do anything more than delay the French attack on von Kluck’s right flank, however it gave von Kluck sufficient warning that he was in danger of being flanked. So, he maneuvered one of his other Corps, then holding the center of his advance, to the west and south on his right flank, now facing Paris and the French Sixth Army poised to attack him. Thus, when that French Sixth Army began its attack on von Kluck’s First Army on September 6, they found themselves facing much stronger resistance than they expected, and not only failed to break through von Kluck’s lines but were in fact driven back south of the River Ourcq when von Kluck launched a well-timed counterattack. The French once again suffered massive casualties and were forced to fall back. It seemed at this point that Joffre’s plan to smash von Kluck’s right flank, thus forcing it to retreat and exposing the right flank of all the German Armies on the Western front, had failed.
While this carnage was unfolding just north of Paris, all other French Armies on the Western Front had halted their general retreat, turned around, and launched themselves at the German forces opposing them. Most writing on this battle focuses on the fighting on the north and west of the line, which is to say the fighting just outside of Paris, as it was here that the most crucial action took place. Whichever side prevailed on this sector of the front would almost certainly claim victory in this battle. If the French and British prevailed, all German Armies on the Western Front would be vulnerable to a massive flanking attack and be forced back. If the Germans prevailed, this same situation would be forced on the Allied Armies and Paris would fall to the Germans. However, while this sector of the battle was probably the most important in terms of the outcome of the battle and the war itself, it was far from the only area where serious fighting took place. Indeed, while the quote unquote “First Battle of the Marne” mostly just refers to the fighting near Paris, in reality the battle raged from just north of Paris all the way down to the border with Switzerland, with millions of soldiers launching themselves at one another in a sustained combat that dwarfed even the massive clashes of August. Where once the war had been defined by one or two French or German Armies attacking, then falling back, only for another battle to erupt later, now the entire Western Front erupted into a single massive battle where thousands were cut down every moment, day after day, along a front of more than 200 miles long. As historian Eric Dorn Brose writes, quote, “What has come to be known as the Battle of the Marne should really be thought of as the Battle of France, for altogether fifty-six Allied and forty-three and a half German divisions engaged one another in a titanic struggle in a line stretching from Paris to the Eastern Frontier.”
The sudden, simultaneous French attacks along the entirety of the Front caught the German commanders quite by surprise, with their troops suffering huge numbers of casualties and either being forced to halt and dig in or fall back, the first time German troops in significant numbers had been forced to fall back for at least a few weeks. Nevertheless, these attacks were launched by utterly exhausted soldiers, men who had been marching and fighting virtually nonstop for nearly five weeks, and these exhausted, filthy, and hungry men were cut down by the thousands by German rifle, machine gun, and artillery fire. A French cavalrymen later remembered of those feverish battles, quote, “For my part I preserve only a confused and burning recollection of the days of 6th and 7th September. The heat was suffocating. The exhausted troops, covered with a layer of black dust sticking to their sweat, looked like devils. The tired horses, no longer off-saddled, had large open sores on their backs. The heat was burning, thirst intolerable…we knew nothing, and we continued our march as in a dream, under the scorching sun, gnawed by hunger, parched with thirst, and so exhausted by fatigue that I could see my comrades stiffen in the saddle to keep themselves from falling.” This French cavalrymen could at least reserve some of his strength by virtue of mostly marching and fighting on horseback, a luxury not afforded to the infantry, many of whom were observed literally falling asleep on the march or in the heat of battle, so high was their exhaustion. Though, of course, the exhaustion of the infantryman was matched, if not perhaps even exceeded, by the horses.
And as a side note, we should remember that throughout the battles we’ve discussed thus far, and in all of the battles we will discuss throughout the series, there are horses everywhere. Literally millions of horses were sent off to war in 1914, and many more millions would be requisitioned as the war went on. Remember, not only was cavalry still the only large scale armed force that could move around the battlefield faster than a man on foot, but trucks and automobiles were at this point a relatively new invention, and none of the armies had more than a few hundred of them. Thus virtually all supply carts, ammunition wagons, and artillery carriages were pulled by draft horses. These animals would suffer enormously in the war, millions of them would be killed either by bullets or shrapnel, or simply collapse from exhaustion and die on the side of the road with their flanks bleeding profusely from open sores. One of these days, I plan to make a supplemental on the role and plight of horses in the First World War, as it is one of the great under-covered aspects of the conflict.
Anyway, though the Germans were for the most part shocked that they were now coming under sustained and simultaneous attack by the French, whom they supposed were all but done for as a fighting force, the exhaustion of the men compelled to launch themselves at German rifle and machine gun fire precluded these attacks from pushing the Germans back more than a few miles in any one sector. The German advance was indeed halted, causing a great deal of alarm in the German high command, yet they had not been turned back. And every minute the French spent in this desperate effort to halt the Germans, hundreds of their soldiers were killed or wounded.
On the 8th of September, after two solid days of constant fighting along the entirety of the Front, several German commanders detected a new weakness in the French Armies. The attacks were being launched with fewer men, prefaced by shorter and shorter artillery barrages, and were pushed back with fewer and fewer German casualties. The French, it seemed, were running out of ammunition, men, and morale. This renewed offensive may have just spent what little resistance the French Army had left.
Such was the opinion of General von Hausen, commander of the German Third Army just to the south and east of General von Kluck’s First Army. We haven’t talked much about von Hausen (and with good reason, he’s frankly not that important a figure in the story), but in his book on the First World War historian John Keegan notes that Hausen was known for being a fairly cautious commander, and one who was often more deferential to the opinions of his superiors than most German generals, who had a reputation for aggressiveness and individual initiative. Mostly, this was probably just a matter of Hausen’s own personality, however Keegan notes that this may also have been a result of the fact that von Hausen was one of the only high-ranking members of the German Army to be of Saxon, rather than Prussian origin. For the record, Saxony is a traditional region in central Germany, with its two largest cities being Leipzig and Dresden, that had long been under the domination of Prussia even before the unification of Germany in 1871. Keegan suggests that Hausen’s habit of deference to his superiors and his colleagues might in part have stemmed from his Saxon background, and the fact that virtually all other high-ranking German Generals came from Prussia. I point all this out just as a way to highlight that while Germany was now a fully unified country, the old distinctions, rivalries, and relationships within and among the various old German Kingdoms was still a potent force in German politics.
Anyway, despite having a reputation for caution in his generalship, rarely making any moves unless such moves had been approved by other, Prussian, Generals, as the battle raged von Hausen decided to seize the initiative and attempt to regain the German victory that the sudden French counterattack seemed to have threatened. In the early morning hours of September 8, before sunrise, von Hausen ordered a surprise attack on the French forces opposing them under cover of darkness. Several German divisions advanced silently through some marshlands, which the French had believed to be impenetrable, and without warning launched a mass bayonet charge across a few hundred yards of open ground on French forces recuperating from the previous two days’ fighting. Completely caught by surprise, these French forces fled in a mass rout, retreating for more than three miles before halting and being reorganized. This attack, which pushed an entire French Army off the River Marne itself, threatened to open a hole in the Allied lines, which would allow the Germans to move in and surround both wings of the Allied Armies.
Now the French Army who was caught in this surprise attack was another new force assembled by Joffre in the last few days, just like the Sixth Army we discussed last week attacking from Paris. This new Army was dubbed the Ninth Army, and commanding it had been elevated a highly aggressive general we briefly met back in Episode 14: The Battle of the Frontiers. This man was named General Ferdinand Foch, a man who is about to loom very large in our story, and who would ultimately become one of the two or three most important military leaders on the Allied side during the First World War.
Foch was born in 1851 in a town in southwestern France about 30 miles north of the Pyrenes Mountains. He long desired to become an officer in the French Army, at that time still under the regime of Emperor Napoleon III, and in 1869 at the age of 18 he began studying for the entrance exams for the École Polytechnique, the most prestigious military academy in France at the time and is to this day one of France’s most prestigious universities. However, as we know, in 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out and young Ferdinand Foch found himself caught up in the events of that calamity. At the time he was enrolled in a Catholic college in the city of Metz, which was garrisoned by the French Army when the war broke out and would eventually be besieged as the war started to really go south for France. Foch fled the city and headed to Paris, where he enlisted with a regiment of infantry that never saw service and was disbanded when the war ended in 1871.
With this taste of the military career he had long desired, Foch redoubled his efforts to enroll in the École Polytechnique, which he successfully achieved at the end of 1871. In his memoirs Foch notes that his education at the École in Paris took place in quote “a Paris whose ruins were still smoking from the fires lit by the Commune,” and it is fair to say that from the very beginning of his life as a soldier Foch was consumed by an unquenchable desire to restore France’s honor after the humiliation and destruction it had suffered during the Franco-Prussian War. Foch would eventually get his wish, though at a cost far higher than he could have ever imagined. After finishing his schooling in Paris Foch was commissioned as a lieutenant of artillery in 1874, and form that point forward he rose steadily up the ranks of the military hierarchy. In 1907 Foch was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General and given command of the French War College, a post he would hold for four years, and finally in 1913 he was promoted to the rank of Major General and given command of the XXth Corps in the Second Army under General de Castelnau, based in the city of Nancy.
Throughout his career Foch garnered a reputation for himself as being one of the fiercest and most boisterous officers in the entire French Army, a man whose unshakable belief in the power of the offensive was matched by his fiery personality. Yet he was not a one note military theorist, and believed that not only should a general be able to adapt on the fly and never bind himself to strongly to a battle plan made beforehand, but also that overall tactical doctrine for the army ought to be constantly refined and updated. He emphasized one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s famous military maxims, that “an army should alter its tactics every ten years,” and before the war this was an area he worried the Germans were far stronger than the French.
When the war began Foch quickly became a war hero, achieving one of the few out and out French successes in the disastrous month of August, 1914, when his XX Corps successfully held the vital city of Nancy from falling to a German attack. Yet, as we noted back in Episode 14 when we first introduced Foch, what satisfaction Foch might take from this fantastic defense was shattered when he learned that his son-in-law and his only son were killed in that battle.
Nevertheless, French commander-in-chief Joffre instantly recognized that the fiery General Foch had proved himself to be one of the most capable officers in the army, and so promoted him to command the new Ninth Army then being assembled a bit east of Paris. As the Battle of the Marne opened up on September 6, Foch launched his forces in an attempted double pincer attack on von Hausen’s German Third Army, trying to hit both flanks of the German forces by having his own forces sweep around both sides of a series of marshlands around St. Gond, some 115 kilometers or about 70 miles east of Paris itself. These attacks failed however, and shortly thereafter in the predawn hours of September 8 von Hausen launched his own counterattack that sent most of Foch’s Ninth Army fleeing in panic after suffering atrocious levels of casualties.
And this is where we get to one of Foch’s most famous, if likely apocryphal, stories from the First Battle of the Marne, the battle in which Foch first lay the real groundwork for his reputation as one of France’s great military heroes. In the midst of this ferocious German attack, in which both the center and right of his army was forced back with high casualties, Foch is alleged to have radioed back to Joffre, quote, “My center is giving way, my right is in retreat. Situation excellent, I attack.”
Now, unfortunately for people like me who love quotes like this, in all likelihood Foch never actually said this. I don’t know exactly who to blame for first making up this quote, but I suspect a lot of the blame for its continued popularity rests with Winston Churchill who, in his book on the First World War published in 1923, happily passes the line along attributing it to Foch without ever citing where it came from. Regardless, while this tale of Foch’s theatrical analysis of his military situation is likely apocryphal, it does capture the spirit of his style as a general. Seeing huge numbers of his troops falling back in panic, he instantly concluded that the best way to reverse this situation was to send what forces he had that were still holding fast to the attack, in order to drive off the Germans who were by now exhausting themselves. And while Foch’s eagerness to launch his forces into the attack in virtually every circumstance did cost many of his men their lives, what distinguishes Foch from so many of the generals of the First World War known mostly for launching pointless frontal attacks that cost thousands of lives and gained nothing in return, Foch was actually quite proficient and skilled in terms of which units he would send to attack which parts of the enemy army, and thus his attacks were often quite successful.
As the French and German troops just to the east of Paris exerted what little energy they had left, attacking and fighting and dying by the thousands with their uniforms in rags, their boots in tatters, and their stomachs more often than not empty, Foch did his utmost to boost the morale of his soldiers to outlast the Germans for just a little bit longer. If they could continue to fight longer than the Germans could, they would be victorious. “Attack, whatever happens!” he said in an official order that is actually well sourced, “The Germans are at the extreme limit of their efforts. Victory will come to the side that outlasts the other!”
Now the cold fact of the matter is that this stirring call to fight would not result merely in a glorious victory. In the immediate term it would simply force the French to spend more of their lives than they had already spent, while forcing the Germans to spend a comparable number of lives in return. And of course we must ask ourselves, what exactly was the point of this heroic stand? What were these young men fighting for? Sure, the French were fighting to defend their country from invasion and occupation, but if we zoom out a bit and recall the circumstances that led to this war breaking out, I mean…what was the point of it all? As we have explored in previous episodes, this war mostly broke out because the great European states had become so heavily armed and were so crowded on such a tiny continent that they had formed into mutually antagonistic alliance blocs formed for no other reason than to oppose the other one. When you boil down the reasons most leaders of most of these countries cited as the justification for launching this war, it really comes down to a fear of the power of the other side, not really any serious quarrels with one another. And so how noble or praiseworthy can such appalling sacrifices be when the reason for all this sacrifice was so relatively insignificant? These are questions that have no real answers. I have my opinions, which I’m sure you can at least somewhat deduce, but historians will continue to debate these questions in perpetuity. Yet whatever the rightness or wrongness of asking for so much death, suffering, and trauma among so many people for this conflict, in pure military terms, one point remains true about Foch’s point that “victory will come to the side that outlasts the other.” He was right.
At this point, September 8, 1914, it was pretty clear to everybody involved, at least among the various military leaderships, that a huge turning point in the war was about to occur. Fighting at this intensity, with the soldiers already so exhausted and with these many lives being lost, could not continue for much longer. Sooner or later, one side or the other would break and be forced back. For Germany that meant bracing themselves for a long two-front war, the worst nightmare of German military planners for the last two generations. For France, that meant utter and complete defeat. And at this point, it really looked like it could go either way.
And with that, I don’t think I can resist the temptation to end this episode on a cliffhanger. Though of course, throughout this episode you might have been asking yourselves: where are the British in all of this? Well, next week, we will find out, and see how the miniscule British Expeditionary Force managed to play perhaps the most decisive role at this, the end of the beginning, of the First World War.
Brose, Eric Dorn. A History of the Great War: World War One and the International Crisis of the Twentieth Century. London: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Churchill, Winston. The World Crisis: 1911-1918, Vol. I. London: Odham's Press Limited, 1938.
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.