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.


  1. In 1914 the French 'poilu' surprised the German's with what Moltke called his elan. "Just when it is on the point of being extinguished", he wrote to his wife at the height of the battle of the Marne, it "flames up mightily." Karl von Wenninger, the Bavarian military plenipotentiary at Imperial Headquarters, likewise expressed his surprise at the enemy's tenacity. "Who would have expected the French that after ten days of luckless battle and bolting into open flight they would attack for 3 days so desperately." General Alexander von Kluck gave the adversary his full respect in 1918. "The reason that transcends all others", in explaining the German failure at the Marne, was "the extraordinary and peculiar aptitude of the French soldier to recover quickly." Most soldiers "will let themselves be killed where they stand"; that, after all, was a "given" in all battle plans.

    "But that men who had retreated for ten days...that men who had slept on the ground half dead with fatigue, should have found the strength to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds, that is a thing upon which we never counted; that is a possibility that we never spoke about in our war academies."

    Likewise, to the German soldiers at the sharp end of the stick, the order to retreat (September 10) seemed grotesque. They did not feel like a beaten army, though described by Headquarters as nothing but "cinders." George Wichura, whose 5th ID for days had valiantly held up the advance of the BEF and French cavalry corps between Monbertoin and Montreuil-aux-Lions was "decimated" by the order. At the Third Army the order to retreat arrived like a "bolt of thunder." The commander of the 133dRIR "saw many men cry, the tears rolled down their cheeks; other simply expressed amazement." Oskar von Hutier, commanding 1st Guard Division, reply to the order was "Have they all gone crazy?" Colonel Finckenstein of the Kaiser Alexander Guard Regiment recorded that the order to retreat "hit us like a blow of a club. Our brave troops had to give up the bloody victory only so recently achieved and to surrender to the enemy. That aroused bitter feelings." Captain Bloem of the 12th Brandenburg Grenadiers dismissed the French "Victory of the Marne" as an utter fraud. He and the men of B Company took solace in draining 90 bottles of claret in four hours. Only hope in a new offensive brought some relief.

  2. The greatest losers by far, of course, were the people and land of Belgium. The country lay in ruins. Villages had been reduced to rubble and ashes. Hundreds of civilians had been summarily executed for reportedly firing on German troops, and tens of thousands had been forcefully deported to Germany. A sea of refugees flowed endlessly away from the fighting fronts. Giant shell craters pock-marked the landscape. Bridges, canals, railroad tracks and telegraph wires had been destroyed. Crops rotted in the fields. The bloated and blasted corpses of horses and cows were left in the sun. Ever onward the German "gray machine of death" rolled, wrote American correspondent for "Collier's Weekly" Will Irwin. Irwin's most lasting memory was a prosaic one: "And over it all lay the smell of which I never heard mentioned in any book on war- the smell of a half-million unbathed men, the stench of a menagerie raised to the nth power. That smell lay for days over every town through which the German's passed"

    Surprisingly, most of the atrocities ended when the German Army passed over the border into France, though the allied press continued to suggest otherwise.

  3. Archives, including many personal correspondences, thought lost in the Allied bombing of Potsdam in 1945, were actually removed by the Soviets at the end of World War II but then returned in 1990, and used by the author in this book.

    Holger H. Herwig is a professor of history at Calgary University and Canada Research Chair in the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. "The Marne, 1914" was published by Random House in 2009.