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100 Years Ago This Week: The Battle of the Marne Changed the World

Photo shows a 17 cm SK L/40 i.R.L. (on wheeled carriage) in action : a 17 cm naval gun mounted on a wheeled carriage, used as a heavy field gun by Germany in World War I.

The Battle of the Marne: A world-changing conflict.

On this Labor Day of 2014 I’d like to reflect on something that happened across the Atlantic almost exactly 100 years ago which caused repercussions which shaped the world into which all of us were born. Most Americans nowadays haven’t even heard of it, perhaps because no American soldiers and few civilians were anywhere near it at the time, but I find such an attitude ignorant at best and pure hubris at worst.

Anyway, a hundred years ago this week, just four weeks after World War I began, six massive German armies had conquered all of Luxembourg, all of Belgium except for a tiny corner of it on the English channel, and most of France northeast of Paris. German troops in fact had crossed the Marne River in force and their lead elements could even see the Eiffel Tower. In spite of heretofore unprecedented casualties inflicted by the relatively new war technologies of accurate rifles, mobile artillery(usually pulled by horses), and rapid-firing machine guns, 100 years ago today the German Empire seemed poised to capture Paris and dictate terms to a bloodied and humiliated French nation, hold off the slowly mobilizing British Empire, and turn east to crush the Russians who had gone to war to defend their beleaguered Serbian allies in the Balkans.

I don’t have the space, and I’m sure most readers don’t have the time, to go over every little military historical detail that has been written and argued over by historians ever since. I recently read The Marne, 1914, by Holger Herwig, a Canadian of German descent who studied German records made available to Western historians after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic(East Germany) in 1989. I disagree with many of his conclusions about the quality of the decisions made by German, French, and British commanders, but he does seem to get most of his facts straight.

The Germans had been consistently shocked by two things since they launched their great crusade to knock France out of the war quickly. First, Belgian soldiers and then Belgian civilians had refused to meekly submit to superior German arms and had fought them tooth and nail. The sniping of civilians behind the lines led to fierce German reprisals where several thousand Belgian civilians were summarily executed and even more were deported by train to Germany. Those events fed Allied propaganda that would, three years later, help persuade President Woodrow Wilson to send America into the war on their side. Had it not been for the Battle of the Marne in 1914, however, there would have been no France to go to the aid of.

Basically, generals on both sides were totally surprised by the huge number of casualties suffered by both the Germans and the French. There is no exact count, but it is safe to say that both had already lost over a hundred thousand dead each and twice that many wounded or captured before the Battle of the Marne even began. It makes American losses in Indochina, some 58,000 dead, seem almost like pocket change. And there was worse to come.

Both Germans and French had marched hundreds of miles, on foot, over the previous four weeks, sometimes fighting major engagements every day for over a week at a time. The soldiers on both sides still capable of fighting were exhausted, sick, hungry, and yet somehow still determined. In fact, German officers, so confident in their detailed war plans and in the fighting superiority of the Teutonic Germans over the decadent wine-and-cheese-loving French, seemed to have a hard time believing that the ordinary French soldier still had any fight left in him. After all, the French really have no stomach for a fight. Everybody knew that. We even hear that today.

The Germans were wrong. The French leadership had totally miscalculated the German avenue of attack through Belgium and refused to even acknowledge the possibility until Brussels fell after a couple of weeks. They did, however, eventually realize their mistake and made a more-or-less orderly retreat which avoided encirclement and annihilation over about 300 miles from the Belgian border to the gates of Paris. Then, the French Army, only desultorily and maybe even reluctantly supported by a British Expeditionary Force which regarded its own survival as all-important, turned and made a stand.

The stand took place over a front several hundred miles long. German communications in particular were confused, slow, and incomplete, though the French had more than their share of the same. The French went all out. They mobilized another army and threw it into a gap between two of the exhausted French armies that had made the fighting retreat from Belgium. Several thousand Parisian taxi cabs were used to ferry reinforcements to the front, less than 20 miles away from Paris itself in places, and wounded back to hospitals, though most of the movements were in fact made by rail. While many of the wealthy and the government itself fled, most Parisians prepared to fight grimly on in a siege.

The siege never came. The French commander, Joseph Joffre, an old veteran of the lost Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71(as were most of the German commanders), ordered a counterattack all along the broad front. Many of the Germans were taken by surprise. Their troops grudgingly and slowly retreated, and both sides suffered yet more horrendous casualties. But the Germans had separated two of their armies in their initial pursuit of the French, and at least a 12 mile gap developed between them. Into this gap a couple of French army corps marched, followed by the British.

Debate has raged among military historians ever since, and the history of the Battle of the Marne is filled with “What if so-and-so had ordered this instead of that,” but ultimately the German Army commander-in-chief, Helmuth von Moltke, safe in his headquarters in Luxembourg, gave way to despair of a quick victory and ordered a general retreat to avoid the possibility of one of his own armies being encircled by the Allies and forced to surrender.  The Germans fell back a hundred miles or so beginning on September 8, dug in, and the trench warfare that was to dominate the Western Front for the next four years began.

As for the “What if’s,” I’ll only address a couple of them. If the French had collapsed instead of standing their ground and then counter-attacking, Paris would almost certainly have been besieged and probably fallen. The Central Powers would have won a quick but very costly victory, and there would have been no Treaty of Versailles, no Hitler, probably no Stalin. OTOH, if the exhausted French and wary British had moved more quickly and exploited their brief advantage during the Battle of the Marne to the max, it’s possible the German Army would have collapsed and the Allies would have won a quick victory, and the Kaiser would have probably at least abdicated in disgrace. Again, probably no Hitler or Stalin in that scenario, either.

Personally, I don’t think either the French or the German troops themselves could have done any more than they actually did at the time. Surviving diaries and letters from both sides attest to the horror of modern war, entire companies wiped out, exhaustion, hunger, fear, determination, fatalistic despondency. If there was any Great Mistake made, it was, IMHO, that the Germans underestimated the resolve and the courage of the ordinary French soldier, though from what I’ve read I never detected that the reverse was ever true.

What the Battle of the Marne actually did do was to insure that France would not fold quickly, gave the British more time to reinforce them, and guaranteed that millions more would die in a war that was never necessary, and the end of which planted the seeds for the even greater bloodbath of World War II and its aftermath. Still, when all’s said and done, it could have been worse in ways that we can only imagine. This post is already long enough, so I won’t speculate on those possibilities here.

I do think it is important to remember the desperate courage shown by ordinary Frenchmen and Belgians, which made it possible for America to rise into the power it became and the relative comfort that rise gave to most of us Americans, like it or not, no matter what our individual political beliefs may be. Of that particular result of World War I in reality, there is no doubt.

It’s also important to remember what I consider to be the Lesson of the Marne: Never, ever, underestimate your opponent in war. It’s a mistake that keeps being repeated, with horrible consequences. American commanders made it in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to cite a few more recent examples. And perhaps the best lesson of all is to never fight a war that you don’t absolutely have to fight.

So, just for this Labor Day, hoist a beer in remembrance of those ordinary French, and yes, German, souls who taught us those lessons with their lives, if only we would pay attention to what happened a century ago. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” or, as Mark Twain said, “History never repeats, but it often rhymes.”

Photo by Bundesarchiv released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.

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