The Marne

This one, of course, I read as research for my posting on Léon Daudet’s The Napus.

Review: The Marne: The Battle That Saved Paris and Changed the Course of the First World War, Georges Blond, 1962.

It’s been noted by many that the Battle of the Marne is one of the pivotal battles of world history. The course of the war that broke three empires and greatly weakened another would have been very different if the German’s had been able to carry out the intended knockout blow of France using the Schlieffen Plan. Once that plan was foiled by the French Army, Germany went on defense for more than three years and the near stalemate on the Western Front ensured the war would continue far longer than most expected.

I doubt know how modern scholarship regards Blonde’s book since I’ve seen few references to it, but it succeeds in explaining why the battle played out the way it did and, more importantly, the experience of that battle for the opposing armies.

Using official records, memoirs, interviews with veterans, his own memories as an eight-year-old in Paris at the time, and soldiers’ accounts (many from journals and letters taken off dead French and German soldiers), he evokes the confusion and pain of the participants.

While one often hears of the French “cult of the offensive”, Blonde, quoting French military manuals, explains just how reckless it was. 

Everything must be sacrificed to ensure coming to grips with the enemy and creating in him a defensive mentality. 

“Implacable aggressiveness”, no matter what the enemy’s plans or actions, needed to be pursued.

When the war opened, France actually had intelligence on how many men Germany expected to mobilize, but they didn’t believe they would use reservists in their main attack.

By August 29th, the Germany Army was approaching Paris and moving all along the French border with Belgium and Germany. Some French soldiers had marched an average of 35 miles a day on no food and often only four hours of sleep in an unusually hot summer. That and their uniforms – meant for both winter and summer use – caused many to keel over from sunstroke and exhaustion. Its bright red trousers made ideal targets for German machine gunners, a weapon the French Army employed in much smaller numbers. They carried 68-pound packs during all this – and that didn’t include the kindling they were expected to also carry for a nightly fire. They were mostly expected to live off the land. And, when they stopped, they would often rewrap the linen strips around their feet.

The German soldiers didn’t even have that, marching with no socks or linen. But, at least, they were better supplied. Their uniforms were darker, less visible targets. Their officers turned a blind eye to their massive looting of French civilians. When they were finally pushed back, French soldiers noted the roads littered with champagne bottles.

The Battle of the Marne occurred from August 29th to September 10th of 1914. Blonde takes a close look at the command decisions made and the psychology of those who lead the armies.

Helmut von Moltke, dubbed the Younger in reference to his esteemed uncle who led forces in the Franco-Prussian war, commanded the German invasion. It was a job he didn’t want. He would have rather pursued his artistic interests, but his family history, Prussian origins, and the request of the Kaiser placed him there.

His opposite was Joseph Jaques Césaire Joffre, a taciturn man whose orders were sometimes so clipped and short as to be incomprehensible. Fortunately, he had a staff officer who spoke fluent Foche. His main strengths were imperturbability and a thorough knowledge of how to use railroads to move troops.

There were three important command decisions that shaped the battle. On August 30th, Moltke allowed the German forces on its extreme right, to change plans. They had to march the farthest and fastest of any armies in the German forces, an average of 30 miles. The Schlieffen Plan called for them to end up west of Paris. But, sensing an opportunity to destroy the bulk of the French forces, their commanders requested to go east of Paris. After all, the garrison at Paris could be mopped up later. Why pass up the opportunity to destroy the French Army?

This change in deployment was recognized by one General Galliéni, commander of the French Paris garrison. In particular, he noticed that the insubordination of General von Kluck, who moved his forces in front of other German forces rather than supporting them from behind, had left a gap in German lines, a gap that could be attacked.

Using intelligence, including some provided by early aerial reconnaissance, he convinced his one-time subordinate Joffre, a man he had mentored, that a counterattack was possible rather than retreating to a line on the Seine.

Convincing French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who was under secret orders not to waste his army supporting foolhardy French ventures, to support is covered in a scene of great drama.

Extensive coverage is given to Moltke’s decision to retreat north. Was it his? A subordinate’s who misinterpreted his orders?

The moral effects of the sudden decision to counterattack are shown. For me who had been marching in retreat for ten days, any alternative seemed better. They rallied to the new orders. Their enemy, also suffering from the grueling march of pursuit, was demoralized to find, far from victory in sight, their supposedly routed enemy was attacking.

Of course, Blond devotes a chapter to the use of Paris taxis to move troops to the front. We also follow the actions of the gallant Lieutenant Péguy, representative of the best of the French officer corps: indefatigable, solicitous of his men, and never taking cover under fire. We also follow General Lanrezac, relieved from command by Joffre for the mistake of being right one too many times in his predictions.

There are some problems. The maps are small and many of the places covered don’t show up on them though they do provide a big scale understanding of movements. Blonde could have tagged some of his scenes with times more often instead of making the reader go back a few pages to check the date.

But these don’t mar the book’s great strength of showing the human factors, the psychology of commanders and the suffering of individual soldiers, in the battle.

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