Saturday, March 20, 2010
The Marne, 1914 by Holger H. Herwig
The Battle of the Marne* was a close run thing. It confirmed yet again the Elder Helmut von Molkte's counsel that no plan of operations "survives with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's major forces." And it reified yet again Carl von Clausewitz's dictum that "war is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty." Nothing about the Marne was preordained. Choice, chance, and contingency lurked at every corner.
The Battle of the Marne did not end the war. But if it was "tactically indecisive", in the words of historian Hew Stracha, "strategically and operationally" it was a "truly decisive battle in the Napoleonic sense." Germany failed to achieve the victory promised in the Schlieffen-Moltke deployment plan; it now faced a two-front war of incalculable duration against overwhelming odds. A new school of German military historians goes so far as to suggest that Germany had lost the Great War by September 1914.
Many senior commanders on both sides did not at first hand understand the magnitude of the decision at the Marne. It seemed simply a temporary blip on the way to victory. The armies would be rested, reinforced, resupplied, and soon again be on their way to either Berlin or Paris. Below headquarters and army as well as corps commands, a million men on either side likewise had little inkling of what "the Marne" meant- except more endless marches, more baffling confusion, and more bloody slaughter.
The carnage was frightful. Although the French army published no formal casualty lists, its official history set losses for August at 206,515 and for September at 213,445. The chapel of the Ecole speciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, before its destruction in World War II, had only one single entry for its dead of the first year of the war: "The Class of 1914". In terms of natural resources and industrial production, France lost 64 percent of its iron, 62 percent of its steel, and 50 percent of its coal. The Germany army likewise published no official figures for the Marne. But according to its ten-day casualty reports, the armies in the west sustained 99,079 casualties between 1 and 10 September.
Artillery ruled the battlefield. The German 105mm and 150mm howitzers and the lighter 77mm guns ripped men and horses alike to shreds of flesh and deposited their remains as mounds of pulp. The French 75s, dubbed "black butchers" by the Germans, filled the air with shrieking shrapnel that exploded above the enemy and drenched those below with thousands of iron balls. For weeks, "crude, stinking, crowded ambulance wagons' jostled the wounded back to barns and churches hastily converted into field hospitals, where unfortunates lay for hours "in a cloud of flies drinking their blood. For days the common soldier of 1914 ate nothing, drank nothing, ever washed or had their bandages changed. The living moved on, a mass of stinking humanity advancing through a reeking foul air of dead and dying cattle and mutilated horses to fight another battle, another day."
The Battle of the Marne did not, of course, dictate another four years of murderous warfare. If anything, it prefigured the resilience of the European militaries and societies to endure horrendous sacrifices. To be sure, some historians have suggested that Chancellor Theobald von Bethman Hollweg's infamous "war aims program" of 9 September*, at the very height of the struggle at the Marne, committed Germany to push on to victory regardless of cost. But there were those at Imperial headquarters who fully understood that the time had come in the fall of 1914 to end the Great Folly.
Field Marshall Gottlieb von Haeseler, activated for field duty at the tender age of seventy-eight, advised Wilhelm II to shealth the sword. "It seems to me that the moment has come which we must try to end the war." The kaiser refused his advice. Moltke's successor, Erich von Falkenhayn, by 19 November had reached the same conclusion. Victory lay beyond reach. It would be "impossible", he lectured Bethmann Hollweg, to "beat" the Allied armies "to the point where we can come to a decent peace." By continuing the war, Germany "would run the danger of slowly exhausting ourselves." The chancellor rejected the counsel.
It began at the Marne in 1914. It ended at Versailles in 1919. In between, about sixty million young men had been mobilized, ten million killed, and twenty million wounded. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, the great tragedy of the Marne is that it was strategically indecisive. Had German First Army destroyed French Sixth Army east of Paris; had the French Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Army driven through the gap between the German First and Second Army expeditiously; had the French Fifth Army pursued German Second Army more energetically beyond the Marne; then perhaps the world would have been spared the greater catastrophe that was to follow in 1939-45.
* This actually includes the Battle of the Frontiers: the German invasion of Belgium and France, a series of battles ending in the static, entrenched positions north-west of Paris in September 1914- a stalemate.
* German domination of Central Europe "for all imaginable time", annexation of Luxembourg, reduction of France to second-rate powers, "vassal" status for Belgium and the Netherlands, and a German colonial empire in Central Africa.