Chapter 6 The Marne: Massacre and Miracle – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 6  The Marne: Massacre and Miracle

In This Chapter
  • French government in chaos
  • The defense and salvation of Paris
  • The Allies achieve strategic victory in the First Battle of the Marne
  • Trench warfare begins
  • The Western Front is deadlocked

We cannot know what depths of despair Papa Joffre felt after the loss of a third of a million men and the collapse of the offensive on which France had pinned its hopes. It is easier to imagine the elation Helmuth von Moltke must have experienced with the extent of the German victory. Barely a month into the war, and German armies were already thrust deep into the heartland of France.

Yet we must also realize that any elation was, to a large extent, unfounded. Moltke was headquartered far from a front that he had never visited firsthand. His lines of communication were stretched out and faulty. He believed that the Battle of Lorraine had been decisive. He believed that the Ardennes and Sambre had been decisive as well. He believed that the French Army was on the verge of destruction.

And, believing all this, Moltke began to depart from the Schlieffen Plan, opting to capitalize on what he believed were decisive victories instead of following through with Schlieffen’s strategy for the right wing—the armies of Kluck and of Bülow—which should have been used as hammer blows against the vulnerable flank and rear of the hard-pressed French Army.

This chapter tells how Moltke faltered and, in so doing, threw away victory in the Great War.

The Fortified Camp of Paris

If Joffre projected an air of calm in the face of disaster, the French government was in a frenzy. According to Minister of War Adolphe Messimy, the deputies (elected representatives) were in a “panic that painted a livid mask of fear upon their faces.” What they saw behind Joffre’s emotionless reports was the grim truth: The nation had been invaded, the Alsace had not been regained but, rather, irretrievably lost, and the army had been defeated.

They had even more to fear. Minister Messimy received a report from the chief military engineer, pointing out that Paris was utterly vulnerable to attack and siege. Before the war had begun, plans were laid to construct fortifications, including barricades and entrenchments, around the city. These were supposed to have been ready by August 25, but Joffre had been so persuasive that the French offensive would succeed that the deadline had been put off to September 15. Yet even this deadline was unrealistic. The fact is that authorities had been reluctant to begin the demolition necessary to construct entrenchments and to clear fields of fire: Houses had to be razed, and trees had to be felled. In many places, no orders to begin this demolition had been issued. With the Germans rapidly approaching, only about half of the preparations had been made, and this did not include provisioning the city for a siege. Provisioning had hardly begun at all.

Messimy summoned to his office General Joseph-Simon Gallieni, a 65-year-old veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, who could always be counted on for straight talk.

Gallieni reported to Messimy on August 25, “Briefly you may expect the German armies to be before the walls of Paris in 12 days. Is Paris ready to withstand a siege?”

Messimy admitted that it wasn’t, and then he immediately secured approval to appoint Gallieni as military governor of the menaced city. In the meantime, Joffre was actually ordering troops out of Paris to reinforce positions at the front.

The night he was appointed military governor, Gallieni declared to Messimy:

They do not want to defend Paris. In the eyes of our strategists Paris is a geographical expression—a town like any other. What do you give me to defend this immense place enclosing the heart and brain of France? A few Territorial (home-guard) divisions and one fine (colonial) division from Africa. That is nothing but a drop in the ocean. If Paris is not to suffer the fate of Liège and Namur, it must be covered for 100 kilometers around, and to cover it requires an army. Give me an army of three active corps and I will agree to become Governor of Paris; on this condition, formal and explicit, you can count on me for its defense.

The war minister gratefully embraced Gallieni and then set out to find him an army. In the French system of government at this time, it was General Joffre, not the minister of war, who wielded final authority over the army. Joffre would never be persuaded to release so many men to the defense of what he saw as a position in the “zone of the rear.”

In any case, Messimy had little time to bring about his powers of persuasion. As the defeated French armies continued to retreat, calls came demanding his resignation—the major industrial town of Lille, France, was declared an open city on August 27 and was abandoned to the Germans. Messimy’s refusal to resign forced the entire government—all of the ministers—to resign. The French premier, René Viviani, frantically reshuffled his cabinet, appointing five new ministers, including Étienne-Alexandre Millerand to replace Messimy as minister of war. As for Messimy, he resumed the military rank of major that he had held before his own appointment, and he joined the army at the front.

While the French government imploded, Joffre’s deputy, General Belin, dismissed Messimy’s order to send troops to Paris: “What does Paris matter!” he exclaimed. Millerand’s messenger was given a similar reply.

 Words of War An open city is one that is declared demilitarized during war and, by international law, is therefore immune from attack.

As long as Joffre persisted in thinking of Paris as occupying the “zone of the rear,” he would not be persuaded to part with frontline troops. In the meantime, Gallieni worked tirelessly to transform Paris, “the city of light,” into an armed camp. His purpose, however, was not to hunker down in Paris, which, as had been learned in 1871, could not stand up to a siege. Instead, he planned to use the city as a genuine military camp, a base of operations for battles that would be fought on the outskirts of the city.

 From the Front Among those who rushed to the defense of Paris was the former Captain—now Major—Alfred Dreyfus, the figure who had been at the center of the infamous “Dreyfus Case,” which tore France apart in the 1890s. Dreyfus had been wrongfully convicted of treason in 1894 and had been sent to Devil’s Island. A worldwide firestorm of protest, stirred by the radical novelist Emile Zola and others, ultimately freed Dreyfus, who was shown to have been the victim of trumped-up charges motivated by anti-Semitism. He then performed heroically as an officer of artillery.

Gallieni oversaw construction of a system of deep and narrow trenches on the far periphery of Paris, positions protected by earthen mounds, logs, and barbed wire, and manned by machine gunners. These trenches would interconnect strong artillery positions.

To the people of Paris, Gallieni was unsparingly frank. For while he had no faith in the French politicians, he had immense faith in the French people. Preparations were made for mass demolition of buildings to provide fields of fire, and bridges to impede German progress. Gallieni recruited bakers, butchers, and greengrocers to stockpile provisions, and farmers brought their cattle into the city to graze on the elegant Bois de Boulogne. In a rush to gather stores of ammunition, Gallieni pressed into service every transport vehicle available, including the city’s legion of taxicabs.

Moltke’s Unsure Hand

Moltke overestimated the finality of his army’s victories even as he doubted the ability of the army to continue its advance into France in strict accordance with the Schlieffen Plan. Stationed far from the front and plagued by poor communication, he was assailed by second thoughts. As the shadow of his glory-covered uncle and namesake, the total victor of the Franco-Prussian War, closed over him, Moltke’s hand became increasingly unsteady.

Moltke was also distracted by events on the Eastern Front. On August 25, he ordered the withdrawal of two German corps from the Western Front to reinforce the East. This strategic flinch would help bring about the failure of the German right flank and thereby contribute to the collapse of the Schlieffen Plan.

 From the Front The World War I “Tommy,” as the British soldier was familiarly called, marched to battle saddled with pack crammed with extra clothing, a rifle, 100 rounds of ammunition, entrenching tools, a greatcoat, bedroll, and rations totaling just under 60 pounds.

British Peril

At Le Cateau (August 25–27), the BEF fought off envelopment by the entire strength of Kluck’s army. On the 29th, Joffre at last ordered the French Fifth Army to the relief of the British. He directed that the army make a 90° turn back to the west to attack Kluck’s flank. This first French attack was futile, but General Louis Franchet d’Esperey swiftly led the I Corps of the Fifth Army up from a reserve position to attack Bülow’s Second Army at Guise. This move managed to check Bülow’s advance and was the very first French tactical victory in the Battle of the Frontiers. Bülow was forced to call on Kluck for help. How that general responded to this call would alter the course of the next four years.

Kluck Takes a Turn

In contrast to Moltke, the German chief of staff, Alexander von Kluck, the general of the First Army, was single-mindedly aggressive and never given to second thoughts. Impatient for victory, he wrote off the British as finished. Ignoring the French Sixth Army, which was assembling to the west—the extreme left of the French forces—he concluded that the Fifth Army was the extreme left flank of the French forces.

Unable to communicate with the distantly located Moltke, Kluck took it upon himself to abandon altogether the already compromised Schlieffen Plan. Schlieffen had instructed that the sleeve of the last man on the right should brush the English Channel so that the right wing of the German army would make a great sweeping movement of encirclement. Now, instead, Kluck turned his First Army, the German right wing, abruptly to the southeast to hit what he believed was the vulnerable left flank of the entire remainder of the French army.

The Front Is Paris

Joffre saw Kluck’s sudden turn as nothing less than a miracle. To this point, the French army had been rolled over by the juggernaut of the Schlieffen Plan. Suddenly, the entire German right wing was turning so that it would pass east of Paris instead of west and around the capital. How close was the German army? Just 30 miles outside the city of light.

Joffre now gave Gallieni everything he wanted, and more—an entire army. He ordered the Sixth Army—the force that constituted the true French left wing—to concentrate in the Paris area. This meant three things: first, that Joffre had to abandon his plan to take a defensive stand behind the Somme River and launch a counterattack; second, that the French Fifth Army would not be flanked and encircled as Kluck intended; and finally, that Paris was now at the war’s Western Front.

 From the Front Joffre was made aware of Kluck’s turn by reports from aerial reconnaissance. The first important use of airplanes in the war was not for fighting or bombing, but for observation.

Kitchener Intervenes

Just as Joffre was about to get a reprieve from the Germans, he had another crisis to face, this time from his British allies. Sir John French, commanding the BEF, wrote to Lord Horatio Kitchener, field marshal and secretary of state for war, essentially to tell him that he considered the French army beaten and was ready to return home. In the meantime, he intended to withdraw from the front—to desert the French in the hour of their greatest need, as Kitchener saw it, and in violation of the Triple Entente and treaties flowing from it.

After consulting with the cabinet, Kitchener set off for Paris, where he met with Premier Viviani, Joffre’s representatives, and Sir John French. Kitchener managed to persuade Sir John French to cooperate with Joffre and not to abandon him.

 Combatants Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum (1850–1916), was Britain’s foremost general at the beginning of the twentieth century. He had seen service as a volunteer in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), in North African colonial wars (1883–1898), and in the Great (Second) Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). He had been instrumental in defeating the forces of the anti-British insurgent Mahdi in the Sudan and then in forcing the surrender of the Boer guerrillas in South Africa.

Kitchener returned to England as a national hero in July 1902 and set about radically reorganizing the army during 1902–1909, molding it into an efficient colonial force. In 1909, he was promoted to field marshal, then became Viceroy of Egypt and the Sudan, where he served from 1911 to 1914.

Kitchener was back in England, on leave, when World War I broke out. With reluctance, he accepted an appointment in July 1914 as Secretary for War and called for full-scale mobilization, which included expansion of British industry as well as the creation of a vast conscripted army. Accustomed to taking full charge of all efforts, he refused to delegate authority and was soon swamped. Kitchener’s policies in the recruitment of the “Kitchener Army” in 1915–16 led to the sacrifice of many of Great Britain’s best and brightest citizens. In November 1915, the British Cabinet ended Kitchener’s strategic authority. Disgusted, Kitchener nevertheless remained a patriot and stayed on in the Cabinet. Dispatched on a mission to Russia, he perished when the cruiser H.M.S. Hampshire struck a mine and sank off the Orkney Islands on June 5, 1916.

Taxis to the Marne

The consequences of overextended lines of communication combined with sharply differing command personalities now began to derail the German advance.

The German Advance Falters

Worried that what he took to be the fleeing French forces would elude him, Kluck had driven his First Army with great speed far in advance of the Second Army. He was unaware of the buildup of the French Sixth Army in and around Paris. Back at headquarters, Moltke had learned of that buildup and, accordingly, ordered Kluck to protect the right flank of the Second Army. Yet, unaccountably, Moltke did not explain the reason for his order—namely, that the German Second Army was menaced by the French Sixth. Without this explanation, Kluck was aware only that following Moltke’s instructions would mean idling the First Army for two precious days. This, Kluck reasoned, would certainly allow the defeated French to escape final destruction. He therefore concluded that he could disregard the letter of Moltke’s order and still obey its intention by continuing to move south to assure that the French, whom he believed beaten and disorganized, were driven well to the southeast of Paris, where they could not menace the Second Army.

So Kluck departed even farther from the coordination demanded by the Schlieffen Plan. He marched across the Marne River, exposing his own right flank just east of Paris—where, unknown to him, the French Sixth Army had assembled.

Counterattack on the Marne

On September 4, Joffre issued his orders. The Sixth Army would attack eastward, toward Château-Thierry, just to the northeast of Paris; simultaneously, the BEF would move against Montmirail, farther east. The Fifth and Ninth armies would conform to these actions as the developing situation required. The Fourth Army would hold on along the Marne, well to east of these positions, ready to advance when ordered. The Third Army, stationed at the fortress of Verdun on the Meuse River, would strike westward. Properly coordinated, these attacks would result in the double envelopment of the German right wing.

Kluck’s turn had presented nothing less than an opportunity to save France.

Battle of the Ourcq

Under temporary command of Gallieni, the Sixth Army advanced from Paris to the Ourcq River, where Kluck had left exposed his right flank. A skilled German corps commander, General Hans von Gronau, acted quickly against this advance on September 5 and managed to extricate the German right wing from entrapment.

At first, Kluck, still operating on his conviction that the French were essentially finished, believed that the attack on his right was nothing more than a feint. But after the Battle of the Ourcq raged for two days, Kluck finally realized that although the French were badly battered, they were not a beaten army. He also realized that by having advanced south of the Marne, he was exposing his own force to destruction. Quickly, he reversed himself and pulled his troops back north of the river. Then, with his customary drive, he turned to the west and unleashed a series of savage counterattacks.

Paris Saved

The French were now sent reeling under Kluck’s pounding, and they fell back toward Paris during September 7–9. Once again, Gallieni leaped into action. He rushed to the Marne the last troops stationed within Paris proper, pressing into service a string of buses and, most famously, Paris taxicabs, which presented an incredible sight as they drove up to the front lines.

Victory—of Sorts

The German forces were very much intact and viable, but between Kluck’s First Army and Bülow’s Second was a 50- or 60-mile-wide gap. The BEF and the French Fifth Army (now under General Franchet d’Esperey, after the faltering Lanrezac had been relieved of command) penetrated this gap, striking at the flank of the German Second Army.

Southeast of this combined French and British action, the French Ninth Army, under General Ferdinand Foch, attacked at St.-Gond. Foch was battered by the other end of the German Second Army while the German Third Army struck at his right. On September 8, soldiers of the Third Army launched a spectacularly violent bayonet attack, which threw the French into confused panic. Foch nevertheless stood fast and ordered an immediate renewal of his attack. Stunned by this resilience, the Germans halted their advance.

 Voices of Battle “My center is giving way, my right is falling back, situation excellent, I attack.”

—Ferdinand Foch, message from St.-Gond, during the Battle of the Marne

Elsewhere along the lengthy Marne front, the fighting raged intensely, yet indecisively. At the river town of Vitry-le-François, the French Fourth Army of Langle de Cary slugged it out with the Duke of Württemberg’s Fourth Army and a portion of the Third. Farther east, in the Argonne Forest, the French Third Army (now commanded by Maurice Sarrail, who had replaced the ineffectual “fossil” Pierre de Ruffey) arrested the advance of the German Fifth Army led by Crown Prince Wilhelm. At Nancy and all along the Alsace frontier, the French First and Second armies held their ground, continuing to command the heights, despite successive attacks from the German Sixth and Seventh armies. Schlieffen had specifically warned against making such wasteful frontal attacks along this southerly portion of the frontier.

Moltke at last dispatched a staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, to inspect the front personally. What he saw was the German right flank being turned under pressure from the French Fifth Army. Bülow was commencing a retreat. Kluck, ever the aggressor, was making progress, but his left flank and rear were highly vulnerable to the BEF. Hentsch approved Bülow’s retreat and, acting on Moltke’s behalf, ordered the incorrigibly pugnacious Kluck to withdraw as well.

When these orders had been executed, Moltke realized that the grand German offensive had failed, and he ordered a general withdrawal to the Aisne River.

The End of Moltke

Although Helmuth von Moltke had never personally visited the front during the first weeks of the war, he was a casualty of battle nonetheless. Personally defeated by the failure of so promising a campaign, he voluntarily resigned executive responsibility for the German armies on September 14, turning over command to General Erich von Falkenhayn. He retained the title of chief of the General Staff until November 3 before he was reassigned to the post of deputy chief of staff in charge of rear-echelon affairs. It was a cruel slap, and Moltke fell into a profound depression. Within two years, he was dead of a heart attack, having lived quite long enough to witness the death and devastation caused by his failure to force a decision within the first month of the war.

Trenches on the Aisne

Erich von Falkenhayn was as self-assured as Moltke had been self-doubting. He immediately set about reviving the Schlieffen Plan, at least on a modest basis, by amassing strength on the right flank to attack the Allies’ left. This strategy resulted in what historians have called the “race to the sea”: a movement toward the North Sea coast as each army tried to outflank the other by moving progressively farther north and west. As the two armies maneuvered in this way, they dug into a series of trench lines that would come to characterize the war on the Western Front for the next four years.

The high ground that the Germans occupied just north of the Aisne River was a strong position. The German armies were deployed from west to east, beginning with the First Army (Kluck), the Seventh Army (under Josias von Heeringen), and the Second Army (Bülow); the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth German armies stretched from this point eastward to the Swiss frontier. Against the First, Seventh, and Second armies, beginning on September 14, Joffre hurled the Sixth Army (under Michel Joseph Maunoury), the BEF (with Sir John French commanding), and the Fifth Army (under d’Esperey). To the east, the French Ninth, Fourth, Third, Second, and First armies were positioned.

Despite the determination of massed Allied attacks, the German defenses were too strong and could not be breached. On September 18, Joffre called off the offensive.


In addition to heavy Allied casualties, Aisne created two results. First, it marked the transition from a war of movement to a static war of trench lines, the increasingly elaborate system of filthy ditches that the soldiers of the Western Front would call home for the next four years. Second, Aisne marked the start of the flanking and outflanking pattern that extended the trench lines northward in the so-called “race to the sea.”

 Voices of Battle “The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first 30 days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.”

—Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, 1962

By the beginning of October, the Allies reached the North Sea at Niuwpoort, Belgium. German forces drove the Belgian army out of Antwerp and sent it fleeing to the coast and then south from the coast to Ypres. The BEF took over the line from Ypres, Belgium, south to La Basée, France, while the seven French armies entrenched themselves from this point—which was now the Allies’ extreme left—all the way down to the Swiss border. This long line of entrenchments would be the Western Front.

 Words of War A salient is a battle line that projects into territory nominally held by the enemy.

On October 14, Falkenhayn sent his Fourth and Sixth armies against Ypres. The resulting battle was drawn out through the first three weeks of November.

The first phase was a German offensive that lasted nine days and was halted only by a massing of French reinforcements and the deliberate flooding of the Belgian front. Belgian troops opened the sluice gates of the dikes holding back the sea from the low country. By this time, however, 35 percent of the Belgian army had been lost.

On October 20, French General Foch hurled a vigorous counterattack against the Germans, but to no avail. Both sides were discovering that trench warfare greatly favored defenders and made offensive action extraordinarily costly. Foch called off his offensive on October 28, and Falkenhayn counterattacked—without decisive success. The heavy rains and snows that closed in by the middle of November brought the First Battle of Ypres to a close.

The BEF held Ypres and a salient extending from Ypres 6 miles into the German front. But this stand had come at a terrible cost. Dead, missing, or wounded were 2,368 British officers and 55,787 enlisted men—some 80 percent of the BEF committed in this region and the very flower of the British professional volunteer army. French casualties numbered perhaps 50,000, while the Germans had lost at least 130,000 men.

From the First 30 Days to the Next 5 Years

In the first three months of fighting, France had seen 380,000 men killed and about 600,000 wounded. German losses were only slightly less.

What had been purchased at this horrific price?

Ugly scars in the earth: a system of trenches, long, undulating, dug-in defenses extending from the North Sea down to the Swiss border. In Flanders, the “low country,” the trenches were shallow, always filling with stagnant groundwater. Farther south, where the soil and elevation were more favorable, trenches were dug deep and included elaborate tunnels, dugouts, and covered “galleries.”

Following the wisdom of military engineers, the trench-makers zigzagged their trench lines so that the enemy could not get a clear line of fire down the length of any given trench. Nevertheless, trenches were vulnerable to hits by explosive artillery shell (which might bury any number of men alive) and to attacks by poison gas (which, heavier than air, collected and concentrated in the trenches). They also were breeding grounds for myriad diseases and for vermin, were cold and wet, and were productive of general subhuman misery.

Neither side had planned to dig trenches. In fact, the high command of both sides was horrified by them. They came about in part because the armies possessed better defensive weapons, machine guns and artillery, than offensive weapons—chiefly, the rifle. The defensive weapons were most effectively used from the cover provided by the trenches.

But the trenches also were the result of naked, primitive instinct. To survive a ceaseless rain of fire, the human animal started to dig. Members of a civilization who had erected the great cathedrals and other towering monuments of human achievement now desperately scratched and burrowed into the mud, where they lived and died for four years.

The Least You Need to Know
  • The speed and extent of the German invasion of France threw the French government into panic and collapse, but General Joffre, while guilty of many disastrous errors, kept his battered army intact and functioning.
  • A combination of poor communication and the self-doubting nature of Helmuth von Moltke brought about departures from the Schlieffen Plan that forfeited Germany’s chance for a quick victory.
  • The First Battle of the Marne was a strategic victory for the Allies, but it hardened the Western Front into a static line of opposing trenches, from which the combatants would engage in futile slaughter for the next four years.