Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Decisive Battles: First Marne, 1914

First Marne Date: 5-12 September, 1914Forces Engaged: Allied: Primarily the French 6th Army, 7 reserve divisions, approximately 90,000-140,000 troops of all arms under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury and the British Expeditionary Force* (BEF), 6 infantry and 1 cavalry division - roughly 80,000 all ranks - under Field Marshal Sir John French. Later the French Fifth Army (Lanzarac; later d'Esperey) and the Ninth Army (Foch) joined in the attack on the German 2nd Army; the Fifth included 11 divisions (240,000 all arms) and the Ninth, 12 (about 250,000). Total engaged approximately 650,000 troops under the overall command of General Joseph Joffre.

Central Powers: Two Imperial German field armies: 1st, under von Kluck; 15 divisions (approximately 250,000 all arms) and 2nd, under von Bülow; 12 divisions (approximately 200,000 all arms), a total of roughly 450-500,000, nominally commanded by His Imperial Majesty Wilhelm II Hohenzollern but effectively under the command of Chief of the Imperial General Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Younger.

*Note - The 1914 BEF was a truly unique organization in British military history, and perhaps in military history as a whole. Tiny, insular, professional...nearly all the units contained were long-service regular troops, from the ordinary "county" units like the Manchester Regiment to the prestigious Brigade of Guards. Even the private soldiers often had years of experience. The British Army has probably never seen the like, before or since. But that's for later in the story.

The Campaign: To recount the opening moves of World War I you could write a book; in fact, several people have. But to really get a grasp of why the German, French and British forces met on the plain of the Marne in September 1914 you really have to go back about forty-five years.

Western Europe was among perhaps the bloodiest regions on Earth going back to Roman times. In particular the French, call them Gauls, Franks, the inhabitants of the polity centered around the Seine valley rode out across most of western, central and southern Europe between the fall of Rome and the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. Before you snark the modern French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys you might pause to consider that for something like 13 centuries they were the Huns of Europe, killing, looting, raping and pillaging from the Pyrenees to the Elbe, from the Strait of Messina to the Baltic.

Among the peoples the French bitchslapped along the way were the residents of what were then called "The Germanies", the hodge-podge of feudal states, episcopal satrapies, electorships, free cities, robber barons, peasant uprisings and pushbutton motels that occupied central Europe. Pounded flat by French troops whether marching at the behest of Bourbons or Bonaparte, the German peoples had little love for their old enemies at the moment the winter of 1812 broke the hammer of the Grand Army and provoked the typically-blockheaded Hohenzollern rulers of Prussia to take arms against a sea of Frenchmen and by opposing, carve out a kingdom in eastern Germany.

The Prussians proceeded to benefit from two bits of luck: first, that the coalition that defeated Napoleon regarded them as fairly harmless, and in so doing did nothing to prevent Prussian hegemony in northern Germany; and second, that early in August, 1814 Karl von Bismarck and his young wife Wilhelmine had nothing better to do than fool around. The product of that evening was the man who unified Germany and, although he was violently opposed to the idea, in many ways helped to set her moving towards the meeting on the Marne in the first week in September, 1914.

Prussia was busy with its neighbors in the first half of the 19th Century, and France had internal troubles and the ass-whipping of 1814-1815 to keep it occupied, but by the third quarter of the period both sides were eyeing each other nastily. France, restlessly ruled by the nephew of the original Napoleon, was itching for a fight with the ambitious upcomer Prussia, whose defeat of the old order in the form of Austria in 1866 set the stage for the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.This little fracas, too, has birthed entire volumes. But the Cliff's Notes version is that the Prussian state and army showed that modern war needed more than red pants and audace. Rapid mobilization, efficient railways, modern artillery and professional command and control quickly overcame the French Army. Republic superseded Empire but the defeat and humiliation - especially the punitive Treaty of Frankfurt - animated France with a hatred and enmity towards the newly formed "Germany" that the Prussian conquest of Paris in 1815 had never engendered.

Give him credit: Bismarck is said to have disliked the Treaty, fought against the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, and warned that making a permanent enemy of France was bad juju for Germany. However, his fear of social liberalization overcame his common sense and his influence on the young Crown Prince Wilhelm couldn't have been worse. As a result when his protege finally put on the Imperial Crown as Wilhelm II in 1888 it took him less than three years to force the Iron Chancellor out and replace him with a series of functionaries he intended to ignore. Bismark, dying in 1898, is famously quoted as predicting a German disaster as shattering as Jena within twenty years.

The diplomatic and political history of Franco-German relations between 1888 and 1914 are far beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice to say that Bismarck's tutelage of the now-Kaiser as an army-mad autocrat, coupled with the man's own innate limitations and his navy fixation did a lot to drive the Western powers towards the war. The web of mutual and secret military treaties didn't help, either. But we all know most of that. One event that isn't as well understood should be introduced: the "Entente cordiale" of 1904.

This agreement, principally intended to prevent yet another Anglo-French war in the lees of the war scare of that year (France and Britain had nearly been pulled into war by treaty obligations, France to her ally Russia, the Brits to theirs, Japan), was pretty much just a deal to settle colonial differences.

But the French, who now felt that they had another backer against the Germans, proceeded to act as if they did. And the German leadership - particularly the Kaiser - felt angered and betrayed by the English "treachery".

It was about this time that Wilhelm asked his Chief of Imperial General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen, to devise a plan to defeat the Entente, working from the assumption that a war would come with France attacking first from the west and the slower-mobilizing Russians later from the East. Wilhelm, and Schlieffen, wanted a military solution that would overwhelm and defeat the French quickly, allowing the German state to use it's interior lines and excellent rail system to shift forces east to defeat the Russians in turn.

Schlieffen presented this in the form of a memo to the Imperial circle in December, 1905. The initial outline of the "Schlieffen Plan" called for a scythe-sweep of the Imperial right through the low countries with a force of 37 divisions - almost 1,000,000 troops - while a token force of some 400,000 held the German left at the frontier around Metz. 10 divisions would hold off the Russians for the 30-40 days the plan considered essential for the converging right wing to encircle the French Army, which was assumed would lunge into the Ardennes, Alsace-Lorraine and the Vosges, bring it to a decisive engagement and destroy it; a recapitulation on a massive scale of the 1870 victory at Sedan.Perhaps no single operational concept devised between then and now had received so much scrutiny and been analyzed, critiqued and discussed as the Schlieffen Plan. Complicating the controversy is the documentary evidence; apparently the "Plan" was not devised as such by Schlieffen himself - that is, developed as a fully detailed war plan that included orders of battle, routes, timetables, and logistical support - but rather existed as a conceptual memo in 1905 that was slightly expanded by a codicil in 1906. The actual Plan, as effected in 1914, was substantially modified by Schlieffen's successor von Moltke. These modifications included weakening the swinging flank to hold ground on the left, as well as altering the passage through the Low Countries; the modifications of 1908-09 have been bitterly contested ever since.On the one hand is the...let's call them the "originalist" faction. Their motto would be Schlieffen's dying words: "Keep the right wing strong". According to the originalist interpretation, the failure of 1914 was the result of weakening the right wing hammer to prevent territorial losses in Alsace, of not transiting neutral Holland as Schlieffen had planned (causing bottlenecks in Belgium due to a lack of road and rail space and the loss of the Dutch rail net), and the transfer of three corps to the East.

In the other camp are the "skeptic" faction. This group, which includes some pretty well-respected military historians such as Liddell Hart and van Creveld, believes that the failure in the West had everything to do with the hard realities of time, space, men and material and that the Schlieffen plan, in whatever form you took it, was not capable of overcoming them. Van Creveld says:
"The prime factors would have been the inability of the railheads to keep up with the advance, the lack of fodder, and sheer exhaustion. In this sense, but no other, it is true to say that the Schlieffen Plan was logistically impracticable."
John Keegan's analysis of the plan criticizes it for its failure to perform a simple calculation; not enough roads were available in Belgium and northern France to permit the German forces to arrive on schedule and in sufficient force - they could do one or the other, not both. He also points out the Schlieffen Plan as a leading example of the mental dysfunction between military war planning and the political goals and perils military planning is supposed to solve; the Plan works only as a military solution to a war with France, while ignores that violating Belgian neutrality was the very thing most likely to bring in the British against Germany and make the war with France into a larger, less solvable conflict.

Whatever the latter-day opinions of the Schlieffen Plan - and I admit to being a skeptic - in its revised form it would carry the German troops over their start lines on 4 August. The German right caprioled through Belgium, although the Belgian Army made a surprisingly good showing, while the French obligingly rammed their Plan XVII wiener into the warp drive around the Verdun-Toul fortress line.

The Germans didn't realize it, but their plan had begun to unravel, prey to "friction" that attacks all warlike enterprise, within hours of crossing the frontiers. For one thing, the French Army was tactically crude, trapped in the silly cult of "elan" and relying on some sort of mystical Frenchiness to overrun entrenchments, machineguns and rapid-firing light artillery. The offensive in the southeast got stuck, and Rupprecht, commander of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies, forgot his role in his furor Bavaricus, demanded, and got, permission to counterattack and did, successfully driving back the French First and Second Armies. The Ardennes portion of Plan XVII met the same checks, and since by this time the German attacks in Belgium were becoming dangerously successful Joffre could not continue to prevent the movement of the Fifth Army westwards towards Paris.

Both plans were coming apart.

The final moves to set up the Miracle of the Marne were:

1. In late August and early September Von Kluck and von Bulow turned south and east. The Schlieffen Plan had always called for bypassing Paris to the west (memories of the siege of 1871 had made the Germans unwilling to repeat it) but for some reason (poor intelligence? Overconfidence?) the commanders of the German right concluded that they had enveloped all the dangerous French and British forces and could roll them up without looping around Paris. This was wrong, and by 3 September someone had figured this out.2. On 4 September 1914 Général Galliéni, Commander of the Army of Paris, informed Général Joffre that Von Kluck's 1st Army has isolated itself from Von Bülow’s 2nd Army, its flanks "hanging in air"; his air observers had seen the open country between them. Joffre send word to Galliéni's Sixth Army to attack the right flank of the German 1st Army - on 5 September. French, the commander of the BEF, was nearly all to pieces but the intervention of Joffre and Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War, managed to get him to agree to attack alongside the French Fifth Army into the hinge between the German 1st and 2nd Armies. The attack was set for 6 September.3. But at midday on 5 September the Sixth Army cav scouts contacted cavalry patrols from Gronau’s IV Reserve Corps near the Ourcq River. Gronau’s two divisions attacked and pushed Sixth Army's advance elements back on themselves. The Battle of the Marne had begun.

The Sources: As a 20th Century industrial military campaign the primary sources, including army records and state papers are exhaustively supplemented by diaries, memoirs, professional papers and staff rides as well as entire libraries of historical analysis are extant. There is no shortage of literature on the First Battle of the Marne. I should add that the Wikipedia entry discussing the Schleiffen Plan is surprisingly complete and incisive, and well worth reading on the subject if you haven't the time to chase down Liddell Hart, van Crevelt and David Fromkin.

The Engagement: Probably the simplest way to break down the Marne is day-by-day starting with the German attacks of September 5. And for the first time I cannot give more than an outline of the actual course of the fighting; too many soldiers spread over too vast an area make the detailed discussion of tactics, even grand tactics, nearly impossible.

5 SEP 1914

The day opened with a concerned von Moltke, dithering anxiously about his mobile HQ in Luxembourg, worrying about intel reports of French troops massing to Kluck's right in and around the environs of Paris. Added to this case of war nerves was his uncertainty about the whereabouts of Kluck's 1st Army. He knew it was out west somewhere...but where? Bulow's people had lost contact with the 1st Army left, and as far as Moltke knew it was just swanning around somewhere between 2nd Army and Paris. Early in September he ordered Kluck to close on von Bulow and "refuse" his right, becoming the Imperial Army's right flank and rear guard.This would'a been kinda hard for von Kluck, who at the time was out front of 2nd Army, crossing the Oise and Ourcq heading towards the Marne. By the morning of the 5th Moltke had had enough. He ordered both Kluck and von Bulow to halt and change their front from south to west, dig in and prepare a deliberate defense. What he didn't do was detail the disturbing news of French maneuver elements moving east out of Paris that had caused him so much anxiety. So, without any explanation of the order Kluck looked it over and basically wiped his ass with it. He dropped off Gronau's corps to cover his right flank and rear and kept pushing south, arriving at the St. Gond marshes near Chateau-Thierry on the evening of the 5th. Von Moltke? Fuck von Moltke...there was a war to win, and Kluck was just the boy to do it.

Meanwhile, Manoury's French Sixth Army was pushing northeast and east from Paris. His cavalry screen, pretty thin, tired and chopped up, met Gronau's recon elements on the nasty rough plateau around Brie (like the cheese). The French horsemen were unable to keep Gronau's own uhlans and dragoons from reporting that behind the French cavalry were infantry, and in force. Gronau sent a rocket off to Kluck screaming for support, backed off and dug in along the plateau. Sixth Army's lead elements deployed and began probing attacks to suss out the German positions.

Kluck, having finally received a staffer from Moltke and getting it through his head that not all was well on his right flank and rear, started moving his army back northwest. By morning of 6 September nearly all of 1st Army was on the roads heading west and northwest.

The Schlieffen Plan was officially done.6 SEP 1914

All the armies were moving during the day: the French Sixth attacking east and northeast into increasingly vicious German defenses; the German 1st piling into its new positions along the Ourcq; the French Fifth and the BEF pushing north into the gap opened between the German 1st and 2nd Armies, and even further east the French Ninth and Fourth Armies began to hold and even push back against the German right-center; their calvary is, again, outside the scope of our work.

The day can be summarized very simply for the BEF: marching. The BEF commander, French - confusing name, that - had been so demoralized by the losses at Mons and Le Cateau that he had withdrawn the British completely out of contact. The irony is that the casualties the BEF suffered in August 1914 would have made a British commander of 1916 or 1917 grin with pleasure. As mentioned above, the Old Contemptables of 1914 were a very different article - almost unlike any army before or since. Nearly entirely of long-service professionals, with even the private soldiers often having many years in service, the BEF had probably seen more war than any other army in Europe, but all of it the wrong kind. Colonial "wars" had made British officers insular and regimentalized. The British had learned nearly nothing from the American Civil, Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars; their logistics, command and control were crude, almost primitive, and their technical and tactical proficiency below even the bayonet-obsessed French. They had one great skill: marksmanship, and their rifle fire had shot entire German units flat at Mons and elsewhere. But French and the officers of his generation had little stomach for this new industrial warfare. The butchery of September, 1914, would begin the apprenticeship of an entirely new generation of British commanders whose callousness would become a byword and a hissing.

On the French left, Maunoury's Sixth Army flailed all day against the dug-in German positions on the plateau of Brie. Kluck, who really was a decisive and intelligent commander, had thoroughly recognized the danger from his right and had done a Patton-in-the-Bulge, wheeling his entire Army to his right, leaving a thin screen of cavalry and infantry outposts before the BEF and piled two of his army corps, IInd and IVth, into the Sixth Army as it filed up from Paris. Maunoury was no better than any of the other French generals at what we'd call today "C3I"; command, control, communication and intelligence. Mind you, with no radio and only rudimentary telephone, he couldn't do much more than issue general orders and hope for the best.But the result was a straggling struggle of a battle that was, in fact, really a sequence of battles, as individual French regiments, brigades and divisions attempted to storm into 1st Army's defenses, already hardening with wire, entrenchments and mutually supporting machineguns. Sixth Army managed to push Kluck's people back about 6 miles on a broad front north of Meaux, but with more landser arriving every hour, the going was slower and slower as night fell.

On the right, the French Fifth Army shouldered past von Bulow's right, taking high ground near Esterney and kicking open the weak scrim between the 2nd Army and Kluck's covering force.

7 SEP 1914

The 7th of September was a day of vicious hammering all along the lines of contact, what we would call the FEBA/FLOT: "Forward Edge of the Battle Area/Forward Line of Own Troops" - where the two sides exchange pleasantries. On the French left/German right, von Kluck threw another corps at Sixth Army; both sides exchanged ground, often for horrific losses, but the German advantages in heavy artillery, better command and control and more sensibly modern tactics began to tell. Here's a day in one small portion of the fight for the little village of Etrépilly that tells the story better than I can generalize it.

The German defenders (said to be a battalion or battalions from the IVth Corps that had arrived in the Etrépilly/Etavigny area the day before) had showed the German genius for rapid entrenchment that would become better known over the next year. They had dug in themselves and their machineguns, sited in light field artillery with heavier guns in defilade. The position was hasty and crude compared to the horrific trenches that would soon appear, but it was strong enough. For the next three days the French 63rd and 56th Divisions proceeded to smash themselves against it.Here's the story of as told in the Michelin guide to the battlefield published in 1921:
"The 350th Infantry did once make their way into the village on the morning of the 7th...but violent counter-attacks forced them back. They returned to the charge at night...(and) were greeted by the fire of a machinegun section, upon which two companies flung themselves with fixed bayonets. Two fieldpieces were taken." The French held on until 10pm, when German attacks drove them out again. "The 2nd (Zouave) Regiment, coming from Barcy, reached the village and carried it at the point of the bayonet. (NB: "Zouaves" were originally native troops from Algeria, first part of the "troupes de marine" in 1831. By 1914 zouave regiments, distinctive in their colorful "Algerian" bag-caps, short jackets, sashes and pantaloons, were mostly French colonials - the "pieds noirs", Frenchmen domiciled in North Africa.) "Their rush carried them as far as the cemetery; met there by a terrific fire from the machineguns that tried to keep the position along the walls of the cemetery, but in spite of their efforts, they had to abandon the plateau around, evacuate the village, and return to their trenches near Barcy. Lieutenant-Colonel Dubujadoux, the regiment's commander, was killed near the entrance under the west wall of the cemetery. Three quarters of the officers and half the effective force fell during this heroic charge."

Many of these young men still hold the ground they died for: they are buried in the little village cemetery once so fiercely fought over in the early autumn of 1914.Kluck must have sensed his chance to smash the Sixth Army; his troops pounded on it all day and into the evening.

The BEF did little against Kluck's weak blocking force.

On the right, d'Esperey's Fifth Army hammered forward against Bulow's right, crossing the river Grand Morin and further widening the gap between 1st and 2nd Armies. Von Bulow responded with energy, attacking on his left to try and break the hinge between d'Esperey and Foch's Ninth Army to his right. The attack was successful, but not decisive, and Bulow's gains on his left were offset by his setbacks on his right.

The night of 7th/8th September included one of the famous episodes of the First World War. Sensing that Sixth Army was exhausted, decimated and nearing collapse, General Gallieni rounded up the taxicabs of Paris and used them to shuttle 11,000 troops of the 7th Division from their railhead to the battle area.The episode has all the features of a good war story, so it has been made into a legend that today bears little resemblance to the historical fact. The facts are that the "Taxis of the Marne" didn't save France, and that the 7th Division was a tiny stone in the wall that Maunoury's Sixth held between Kluck and the French flank and Paris. But it was, and is, a great story and as such will live forever long after the warriors for the working day are forgotten.

8-9 SEP 1914

The Allied attacks continued: Sixth Army and the BEF closing in on both flanks of Kluck's 1st Army, Fifth Army bending back Bulow's right as 2nd Army continued to hammer Foch's Ninth Army.

The critical issue came late in the day on the 9th: Kluck turned his IXth Corps loose in a fierce attack on Manoury's left. The "hanging" flank was forced back and almost - but didn't quite - break. Kluck lost his chance to escape the envelopment through attack. Carefully, professionally as he did everything, his troops withdrew to the north and east, eventually recrossing the Ourcq on the night of the 9th/10th.To the east, von Bulow's 2nd and von Hausen's 3rd Armies put in a ferocious attack against Foch's men. The fighting was horrifying, nearly wrecking Ninth Army, but Foch and his troops - as Foch would do again - pulled one out of his ass. The French positions around Pleurs held, Foch committed one of his battered divisions, the 42nd, to counterattack. The Saxons of 3rd Army were not expecting attack; they believed that Ninth Army was on the ropes. Foch's gamble worked, and the French center held long enough for the danger to Kluck and Bulow to become unretrievable.

Allied troop spent a nervous night under arms between September 9th and 10th but when the sun rose the next day the German armies were moving off to the north. The German invasion plan of 1914 was over, and the next phase of the Great War had begun.

In fact, Moltke had collapsed; after a visit to his army commanders headquarters on September 11 he is said to have undergone a "nervous breakdown". His staff took over organizing the retirement to the positions 40 miles north, in the high ground beyond the Aisne River where they would remain for another four years.

The Miracle of the Marne was over; the Race to the Sea had begun, and the Great War, which was to have been "over by Christmas", had another four Christmases to run and millions more young men, old women, horses, dogs and every other living thing imaginable to kill before it would end; 16 million of them.

The Outcome: Grand Tactical Entente victory. The German invasion needed a decisive outcome within 30-60 days or the prospect of a war of attrition made the entire project unsound. Before the Marne - as we've discussed - the chances of a decisive German strategic victory were problematic; afterwards, impossible. Attrition, given no change in the balance of forces, could have resulted in a negotiated peace of exhaustion. As we know, that didn't happen. German shortsightedness, combined with British guile and the ties between the British and the United States, brought the U.S. into the war on the Allied side.Game over, thanks for playing, Your Serene Highness...

The Impact: The "Miracle of the Marne" is really a cautionary tale to all those, and those of us, who believe that military strategy is the pinnacle of the military art and that military plans can be crafted to achieve a perfect geopolitical result.

Both Plans - Schlieffen and XVII - were perfectly designed to produce the same result; a decisive battle in northeastern France. The problem was that both sides thought that their version was the perfect solution to beat the other, and one of them would have had to be wrong. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Moltke hadn't diddled with the original Schlieffen Plan; it would have been like one of those samurai movies where the duelists both attack at the same time with their "ultimate" strike. They stand, and stand, and suddenly one drops dead. Or both.

Whatever. It didn't happen, for all the reasons we've talked about.

The irony is that the world, taken all together, might have been better off HAD the Schlieffen Plan worked as advertised. Counterfactuals are troubling at best, but bear with me here.

Let's assume that Schlieffen actually DOES the hard nutwork and devises a plan capable of delivering 40-some divisions behind the Allied left some time within four to six weeks after the initial engagements. Moltke doesn't weaken the right, doesn't let Rupprecht attack on the left, the Russians don't mobilize as quickly as they did, and the Germans achieve a Sedan-like envelopment and decisive victory.Wilhelm had no further territorial ambitions in France. So it is probable that the result would have been a negotiated diktat, possibly snatching some French colonial possessions. But...the likelihood is that the French would have nurtured revanche well into the 20th Century. But whether this would have led to a different sort of WW2? Or a 20th Century of uneasy peace?

Hard to say.

But without the devastation of WW1, much of the rest of the past century, from Hitler to Stalin, communism and Nazism, death camps and gulags...all might have been much different. Better? Perhaps, perhaps not. But clearly very, very different.

In a sense, the Marne was the worst possible direction for history to take, short of Prinzip missing Franz Ferdinand altogether. It ensured years of dismal war, and wrecked or warped the societies, economies and polities it involved. Yes, Paris was saved, and France, from another humiliating defeat. But at what price?

The other caution here is that we always know less than we think we know. The political leaders and especially the general officers didn't really understand the war they were fighting at all. Despite seeing the effects of industrial war in 1861-1865, 1866 and 1870, they refused to believe that the combination of mass production, rifling, high explosive and repeating machinery could overcome "elan" and the glory of war.There's something really pathetic about the 1914 regiments marching out with their colors, their tawdry finery of helmet gilt and brass buttons covered with makeshift cloth covers or dulled with emery paper, the horses and bands and the flags waving those hapless souls off to Hell.


Decision on the Marne "saves" France, and ensures another four years of grinding war, with all the consequences. What else?

Another significant impact of the Marne, I think, is the collapse and relief of von Moltke. Not one of history's Great Captains but a reasonably humane officer, Moltke is replaced by Falkenhayn.

If that seems insignificant then you need to read about Verdun. Verdun was the "grave of France"; the horrible conditions, and the frightful dying, that the French poilu suffered there in 1916 were the direct antecedent of the Chemin de Dames mutinies of 1917. Verdun, if it was anyone's battle, was Falkenhayn's. He was sure that he could bleed the French Army out and cause France to sue for peace. It might have worked, too, had the U.S. not come in on the side of the Allies. But if you want to point a finger at someone for the horrors of WWI, Falkenhayn has to be right up there with Neville and Haig.

The What-Ifs: No "decisive battle" - certainly none in the 20th Century - has as many intriguing possibles as the Marne.

What if the Schlieffen Plan HAD worked? What if Moltke hadn't altered it? What if the German right hadn't come unraveled? What if Moltke had had the emotional stability of a Ludendorff and the tactical sense of a Hindenburg?

What if Joffre hadn't listened to Gallieni? What if French had been further gone than he was? What is Joffre hadn't replaced Lanzarac? What if Foch's army had broken? What if Bulow and Kluck had worked together better?

Touchline Tattles: I cannot think of a single odd, amusing or offbeat story to tell about the Marne.

It was a decisive battle, it had a part in changing the course of history, but it was, as Bill Sherman said, all hell and you cannot refine it.

The only stories I can think of are sad ones; young men marching off to war with eighty years of silly romantic stories in their heads, young women hoping and dreaming about them, and both of them pitched into the abyss their "leaders" dug for them. The soldiers of the Marne fought like mad Greek heroes, but there's nothing heroic here; just mud, blood, fear and death, and four long years of it and at the end, the foreboding that their children will do it all again in twenty years.

If there's any lightness here, it is only mockery.

For the dead, all wars are lost. It's hard for us to remember that, sometimes. Even when the dying comes for a cause, even when the cause is WORTH the dying for.

And the Marne wasn't really one of those; the result of a huge, pride-swollen, diplomatic stupidity, it was just another handful of days in one of history's most awful because it was one of its most pointless wars.

No, all I can find here is the silence of the dead.


Pluto said...

Phenomenal post, Chief.

The lesson I take from this story, which has been stated many times before, is that a war is usually decided before it has begun.

Kaiser Wilhelm II's astonishing ego managed to place the Germans in a no-win situation by simply creating too many enemies for even the formidable German war machine to defeat. Oddly enough, Hitler made the exact same mistake less than 30 years later. Dictators can rewrite the history books but this doesn't save them from history's lessons.

The sole saving grace for the Germans was the strategic and technical ineptness of their opponents. Gallieni seems to have been the only French/British leader who had a clue and he was very elderly and in bad health.

I do have one semi-funny story that emphasizes how exhausted the German solders were before the battle of the Marne started.

A German soldier had been carrying a water-cooled machine gun and ammunition (roughly 80 pounds plus his backpack of an additional 60+ pounds) across northern France as part of the German 1st army (which had the longest march). When the battle started he helped to entrench the gun and served as the loader.

He took a quick nap under the gun and woke up a day later covered in spent shell casings. The French had attacked in force and the gun had been firing continuously over his head without him noticing. His friends were quite surprised when he emerged alive because they had thought he'd been the first casualty but had been too busy to move him.

Pluto said...

P.S. - A good SF story about this time period is "The Chosen" by Drake and Stirling.

Skip over the war porn and you're going to find a great deal of information about how unwise assumptions and technological innovation drove politics and warfare from about 1890 to 1940.

Lee said...

Okay, John, all I can do is gawp in admiration that this interests anyone enough to ponder it this thoroughly and write about it with such relish, and wonder which professor assigned this report to you. I couldn't bring myself to read it all in its detail-rich glory, but you sure would have been a lot more interesting than Thurman Philoon for history classes. For God's sake, man, get yourself a free-lance newspaper column and replace Andy Rooney in the Trenton Times.

FDChief said...

Pluto: I agree; the only way for Germany to have "won" would have been to stay out.

Or possibly to have simply dug in around Metz and Strasburg and let the French exhaust themselves battering against the belts of wire and machineguns.

And I love the story. I agree - GIs (regardless of nationality) have to be able to sleep anywhere, anytime. Sleep is GOOD.

I'll try The Chose - I like the two authors generally, other than Stirling's priapic fascination with the porn aspects of war (and porn in fiction in general - I commented to my bride that it's not an S.M Stirling story until someone a) has kinky sex with someone, or b) is a lesbian, or c) revives a dying woman by employing his magical penis [if you think I'm joking read the next-to-last chapter of "The Peshawer Lancers"; I shit you not. Guy is kinda whack).

Lee: Ta. No assignment - pure love of the game. And as for getting published I enjoy blogging more, although an opportunity to retire poor ol' Andy would be a public service.

Serving Patriot said...

The sleeping soldier brings to mind this Owen poem:

Asleep (1917)
Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy
arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God's making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds' scimitars,
-Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!

FDChief said...

SP: Thank you for the Owen. For me the guy has always said everything that needs to be said about the utter madness that was WW1.

seydlitz89 said...


I like it. Very detailed and your analysis is difficult to argue with.

If I were to add anything it would only be that the strategic situation would have dictated a quite different course. The Schlieffen Plan was drawn up during a period of Russian weakness, immediately after the Russo-Japanese War, but by 1914 that situation had changed. It is interesting to note, that all the participants with the exclusion of Britain, who didn't have the army for it, started the war with an offensive based on a strategy of destruction.

The first question for Germany in 1914 should have been - who is the main enemy - Britain or France - and that answer should have dicated military planning, but with the understanding that a political solution might have the best chance of success, given the correlation of forces.

If we are arguing counter-factuals, I would question the whole utility of the turning movement through Belgium. The German Army lacked the operational mobility to make the Schlieffen Plan work, rather the whole campaign would have consisted of a series of operations reflecting the operational mobility of the attackers in 1914 . . . this of course giving the French plenty of time to react.

FDChief said...

seydlitz: That was one thing I commented on - that for all our "profession" of arms, we can be astonishingly unprofessional about intellectually accepting things we don't like. The combination of rifling, heavy artillery and the fuzed shell, machineguns, entrenchments and wire spelled the end of effective attacking warfare until the advent of the combat aircraft and the tank. But the "professionals" in all the Western nations either didn't or wouldn't accept that. The French were probably the worst, but the Brits had taken appalling casualties against modern rifle fire in South Africa a decade before and had learned almost nothing, too.

You objections to the Schlieffen Plan are similar to Crevelt's and mine - it just wasn't logistically feasible with the technology of 1914, and the geo-strategic problems incurred by violating Belgian neutrality outweighed the tactical gains. IMO the German Heer never really shook their problem of confusing grand tactical success with strategic victory - a lot of the same problems bit them in the ass 30 years later.

But for Germany to lose the war the Allies had to win it, and you have to had it to sheer French bloodymindedness, British cunning, American industrial productivity and Italian...well, I don't know what the Italians brought, but perhaps it was just bullet-absorbing.

Bad cess to all of them, IMO...

Lisa said...

I am very late to the reading, but it was so comprehensive, I was intimidated. It was excellent -- another tour de force.

As always, hugely entertaining and informative. I esp. enjoyed your considerations of how the rest of the 20th century might have gone differently but for this outcome.

"For the dead, all wars are lost." Truth.