First Marne

The First Battle of the Marne of 5-12 September 1914 was the momentous struggle in which the French repelled the German offensive and Paris (and France) was saved.  The Germans had advanced swiftly out of Belgium in the last week of August, in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan.  The French, in the traditional blue tunics and red trousers, retreated until, with Paris threatened and the government evacuated to Bordeaux, the combination of French fighting spirit and German exhaustion (and the generals’ blunders) stopped and turned the tide.  Although the battlefront stretched over a distance of 220 kms, from north of Paris to Verdun, the decisive confrontation took place on the right wing of the Germans.  German First Army fought French Sixth Army in the valley of the Ourcq, the Marne tributary north-west of Meaux, barely 30 kms from the edge of Paris.  The relatively small British Expeditionary Force fought in the Grand Morin valley between French Fifth Army and Sixth Army.  And German Second Army met Fifth Army in the Grand Morin and Petit Morin valleys, south-east of Meaux.[1]

On 2 September, the vanguard of General Alexander von Kluck’s First Army took the city of Senlis after a fierce battle and seemed poised to push on to Paris.  However, they then marched not south to Paris, nor south-west to go around Paris (as originally intended), but south-eastwards.  Kluck meant to exploit the gap in Allied lines created by the rapid retreat of the British Expeditionary Force on the left (western) side of French Fifth Army.[2]  James Shotwell, a frequent visitor to the area in 1919, reflected on both German barbarity at Senlis, where they burned a quarter of the city because they had been shot at by civilians, and the significance of Kluck’s decision: “It was from Senlis they swung toward the east on that flank movement which gave a chance for the troops from Paris to attack them at the side.”[3]  The change of direction exposed Kluck’s right flank to attack by French forces marching east from Paris.  General Joseph-Simon Galliéni, the new military governor of Paris, and Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre – later writers would debate which was first, and Hew Strachan has them coming to it “simultaneously” – saw the position as a great opportunity and determined to use newly assembled Sixth Army to make the eastwards thrust.  At the same time, Fifth Army under Franchet d’Espèrey and the BEF would advance from the south.  The Great Retreat was finally over.[4]

General Michel-Joseph Maunoury and Sixth Army advanced out of the Paris Entrenched Camp on the morning of 5 September, intending to reach a position north-east of Meaux and from there to attack Kluck’s right flank on the north bank of the Marne.  Almost five years later, on 8 June 1919, Shotwell’s party was guided along the eastwards path of Maunoury’s army by an officer who had fought in the battle and “could therefore give us a first-hand account of how they drove in on von Kluck’s extreme flank and forced him to turn around to meet them”.[5]  Sixth Army encountered General Hans von Gronau’s IV Reserve Corps, deployed to protect Kluck’s flank, and the first shots of the Battle of the Ourcq were fired by German cannon at about 1 o’clock on 5 September.  Shotwell recalled the first day when he looked across the fields towards the hamlet of Monthyon, “from which the first cannon of the Battle of the Marne was fired by the Germans at noon on September 5, 1914”.  These were the beet fields that the Moroccan brigade had charged across, “without so much cover as weeds”.  The German machine guns, “commanding the whole countryside”, inflicted heavy losses on the Moroccans (with over 1,200 casualties) before withdrawing eastwards to better positions on the Thérouanne.[6]

Although Shotwell found that the countryside had “recovered much of its normal character” and that the battle “left relatively few permanent traces,” the numerous graves were telling: the fields “are marked with graves, each with its little wooden cross and tag, and with a branch of palm stuck in at the head by the Society for the Memory of Fallen Soldiers”.[7]  Travelling between Dammartin and Meaux, Shotwell learnt about the ferocious fighting on 6 September and the following days:

Just as dawn was approaching they [the French] were entering these fields we were now in and received the first German shell fire as they advanced over the brow of a long slope toward the little village of Ossiery.  Here they pushed the Germans out, but their losses began to tell; and the graves still dot the little meadow down by the brook that runs through Ossiery.  It was nine o’clock on the sixth of September when they pushed through here, but still they kept on fighting, pushing across the fields where our little winding country road led us, through Brégy to the hamlet of Fosse-Martin…  There was a single spot … where two or three trees stood out above a little sand-bank.  This was the scene of hardest [sic] fighting on the flank of von Kluck’s army.  For five days they fought back and forth across these fields, and of the 2700 men who went in with Jirodaux only 610 and 7 officers were left at the close of the fighting…[8]  

Both sides suffered heavy casualties in the intense fighting.  Where units attacked across open fields, they were cut down by machine-gun fire, as happened, for example, to the 55th Reserve Division as it advanced through beet fields towards the German position at Varreddes (left).  This was the main pattern, French attack against German defence, but the positions were by no means fixed and many villages and farms changed hands more than once.[9]  Shotwell “went on to Chambry, which changed hands from French to Germans several times on the sixth and seventh of September.”[10]  He reflected on the juxtaposition of traditional, idyllic France – “a perfect mine of medieval art treasures in the old village churches and châteaux” – and the sense of desolation and shock and “universal dislocation” evident in the aftermath of battle:

Somehow the impression grew upon us all, so that we spoke of it, that they [the towns] were strangely silent.  There were very few people along the track of the whole cross-country run, and one felt almost as though in the presence of the silence of the battlefield after the fighting was over.  Even at the little town where we took lunch, Mareuil-sur-Ourcq, where they were having the first fête day in five years, the celebration was a very quiet affair, except for the children at the merry-go-round.

We turned across fields to follow a cow track which our Cadillac had difficulty in navigating until it came out on the fine national way leading into Luzarches.  This is a most lovely spot, with a beautiful château overlooking a gentle valley with avenues of trees along the roadside.  The Germans had got this far; Jirodaux’s friend and comrade was shot by Uhlans at the crossroads where we turned.  He was on scouting duty at the head of the French army and was cared for while dying by an old servant in a well-to-do house to which we turned, for Jirodaux wanted to find the old woman and see what had become of her during the rest of the war.  She had refused to let the Uhlans touch her soldier and dared them at the point of his revolver.  We found the house, but weeds were growing in the lawn and on paths.  It had been deserted for four years, and the family had gone no one knew where.  That is but one story of the universal dislocation of northern France.[11]

On 7 September, Kluck redeployed two army corps, which had been assisting the right wing of Second Army, to strengthen First Army against Maunoury’s advance.  “It was a last-minute, all-out gamble,” predicated on the idea that he could “deliver the final and fatal blow to Maunoury’s Sixth Army” before the Allies struck from the south.[12]  Next day, General Karl von Bülow (Second Army) ordered his right wing to retreat in response to the advance, begun on the 6th, by French Fifth Army and the BEF.  Second Army was much reduced and utterly exhausted after a month of hard fighting and marching; it needed, Bülow believed, to withdraw to a defensible line.  These movements combined to create a 50 kms gap between First Army and Second Army, this was spotted by aerial reconnaissance, and the French Fifth Army and the BEF moved to drive into the gap.  Progress was slowed by initially strong German resistance and the timidity and obduracy of Sir John French, an “old woman” (Haig), but Robert Doughty has argued that it was the British who made “the key advance into the gap”.  The French and British, the latter leading, reached and even crossed the Marne during 8-9 September.[13]

Sixth Army’s attack on Kluck’s right flank was reinforced on 7-8 September when Galliéni despatched reservists from Paris, some of them by taxi.  Only five soldiers could be fitted into each taxi, so, even with 1200 requisitioned taxis, the initiative was not of much military significance – Sixth Army had a total strength of 150,000 men – but it caught the popular imagination.  Shotwell included it (and overstated its dimensions and importance) as part of a well-observed point about the advantage to the French of the roads radiating out from Paris:

Dammartin is on a main trunk road leading north from Paris.  Just a word about these roads.  They spread out from Paris like spokes in a wheel and therefore furnished the army of defense with a quick way of reaching out to the circumference.  We had gone out on one of these roads running pretty straight to the north.  At Luzarches we crossed another.  At Survilliers we crossed a third.  At Dammartin a fourth.  But this last one is of more historic interest, as along it the “taxicab army” drove out from Paris on the eighth of September unloading some twelve thousand men near Nanteuil, a village still farther on beyond Dammartin, which gave the French enough weight at the extreme end of their line to alarm the Germans and force them back across the Marne.[14]

With reinforcements arriving from Belgium, and men returning from south of the Marne to face the enemy, Kluck and First Army had a prospect of success against Sixth Army, and Shotwell acknowledged that the French “almost gave way”:

The battle at this part of the line never lessened in intensity until the whole German army was extricated from the Marne, for if the French could have pierced von Kluck’s flank here, it would have meant more of a rout than actually took place. So when the Fifty-Sixth in which Jirodaux fought was reinforced by the “taxicab army” to its left, von Kluck brought back across the Marne heavy reserves and threw them against this little band of French, until on the ninth they almost gave way…[15]

It has been argued that one more push would have broken the French: they “had suffered heavy losses and were exhausted.  The German attack expected at dawn on 10 September would be enough to send Maunoury’s troops into headlong retreat, and Paris would be lost.”[16]  On the other hand, the French were now numerically superior, their artillery was highly effective, and the Germans, too, were exhausted.  Above all, the pressure from the south, from the BEF and France’s Fifth Army, with Second Army’s right wing outnumbered four to one and unable to fill the gap between it and First Army, broke the mental resistance of Bülow.  Convinced that the BEF’s imminent crossing of the Marne endangered his army – which, he may have said, had been “burnt to a cinder” – he decided to pull back his entire force, issuing this order to Second Army at 09.02 on 9 September.  First Army now faced encirclement.  Its Chief of Staff was ordered to withdraw by Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch, sent to assess the situation by the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke, and the latter personally ordered the retreat of all of his armies in the sector on 11 September.[17]

The struggle around the St. Gond Marshes, to the east of the Petit Morin contest between German Second Army and French Fifth Army (about 40 kms south-east of Meaux and the Ourcq), was an important component of the Battle of the Marne, for it held the key to the inability of Germany’s Third Army to move to assist endangered First Army and Second Army.  The marshes offered a natural barrier against a German advance.  Sixteen kilometres wide (east to west), they were passable only along four roads.  After the Germans swept the French out of the area north of the marshes on 6 September, Ferdinand Foch’s Ninth Army was deployed on the high ground to the south, guarding the roads (the southern exits).  The attack by Max von Hausen’s Third Army before dawn on 8 September was strikingly successful.  It eschewed a preliminary bombardment – indeed, it initially eschewed even rifle fire, beginning with a bayonet charge – in order to catch the French by surprise.  The Germans broke through, surging past the eastern end of the marshes to take the villages of Connantre and Fère-Champenoise; on the 9th, they captured Mont Août, south of the marshes, and, to the south-west of the marshes, they reached (and held for one afternoon) the castle and village of Mondemont.

This initiative, with its possible implications for the right flank of Fifth Army, seemed to threaten the French with defeat in the Battle of the Marne.  However, Foch, aware that the Germans were exhausted, overstretched and depleted, and benefiting from Franchet d’Espèrey’s despatch of two Fifth Army infantry divisions, now made the decision to attack, even if he might never have said the famous words, “Strong pressure on my right; my centre giving way; impossible to move; situation excellent; I am attacking.”[18]  He ordered the 42nd Division, already badly battered in the previous days’ fighting, to advance.  The officer, Colonel Réquin, who carried the attack order was Shotwell’s guide in May 1919:

Réquin pointed out the spot here where he found General [Paul François] Grossetti, the general of the Forty-second Division on the night of September 8, and awakened him with the orders from General Foch to take his Division out of the battle line and march at top speed across country to attack the Germans farther east.  Grossetti’s troops were in motion by dawn and at four o’clock in the afternoon had reached the heights along the French center, fourteen kilometres away.  This was after three days of continuous battle.

Then we turned east along the upland to the hill at the village of Mondemont which looks out over the battlefield of the Marshes of St. Gond and the low country beyond.  The château at Mondemont was the farthest point the Germans got, just on the edge of the hill, and was still in ruins…

… It was down the roadway next to the east and in plain sight across the fields that Grossetti’s troops came marching on the afternoon of the ninth.  An old peasant who had watched the battle that afternoon joined us here, and he gave a very vivid description of the marching columns and the distant bursting of shrapnel on the battleline…  [Below] in an open plain … Réquin said that this was where he saw the Forty-second go into action at six o’clock on the evening of the ninth, and that was perhaps the most important single action in the whole battle of the Marne…  By the next day the Forty-second had pushed on into the German center and the great retreat had begun.[19]

The 42nd Division, having had to move from the south-western to the south-eastern end of the marshes, did not begin the advance on Connantre until 18.00 on 9 September.  The idea that this was “the most important single action” in the Battle of the Marne overstated its importance, for it was Bülow’s Second Army’s retreat on 9 September which forced Hausen (Third Army) to pull back his right wing – “Bülow’s decision to retreat had compelled the German Third Army to withdraw and had opened the way for Foch”[20] – and meant that the French had only rearguard forces to overcome when they advanced on 9-10 September.  Indeed, on the evening of 9 September, they found “only a few men who were too seriously wounded to move”.[21]  Shotwell went on,

Of course, in following the fortunes of a single division this way one gives a false perspective of the whole, but the Forty-second was to the French army of the center what the Canadian troops were to the British [later in the war].[22]

Foch’s reputation was made by this battle, or legend, and Charles Seymour, who travelled through the area in May 1919, attributed the victory to the future marshal and drew interesting parallels with another military hero and another crisis in French history:

[The Châlons to Montmirail road] took us near the marsh of St.-Gond, from which Marshal Foch made his famous offensive in the Marne in 1914, and also where Napoleon fought his brilliant defensive campaign of 1814.  It is curious and extraordinarily affecting to pass in the same field the monument of a soldier killed in the German invasion of 1814 and not 50 yards from it one of a soldier killed in the German invasion of 1914.[23]

The Battle of the Marne saw the Germans defeated and driven back, but they were not routed; Shotwell’s word was “extricated”.  Their withdrawal from the Marne to the Aisne, over 60 kms to the north, was completed with few further losses, despite pressure from the Allies; both First Army and Second Army were safely across the Aisne by 13 September.  They dug in on the commanding heights of the north bank and held off the mid-September attacks by Fifth Army, Sixth Army and the BEF (the First Battle of the Aisne, 13-18 September 1914).  The Battle of the Marne was a battle of manoeuvre (Bewegungskrieg – war of movement), in the western parts discussed here, but it led directly to the Germans’ assumption of defensible positions (Stellungskrieg – position warfare) and, in turn, to more than three years of more or less static stalemate.  It was not until 1917 that the Allies made a sustained effort to break through on the Aisne, an offensive that ended in one of the great military disasters of the entire war.


[1] Elizabeth Greenhalgh, The French Army and the First World War (Cambridge, 2014), 47 – map, extract.

[2] Alexander von Kluck, The March on Paris and the Battle of the Marne, 1914 (London, 1920), 75-76, 82-85.  Ian Senior, Invasion 1914: The Schlieffen Plan to the Battle of the Marne (Oxford, 2012), 183-84, 202-4, 367.

[3] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 250, Diary, 6 April 1919.  The mayor and eight other civilians were shot by the Germans.

[4] Hew Strachan, The First World War, Volume 1: To Arms (Oxford, 2001), 251-52.  Robert A. Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005), 86-92, 96-97.

[5] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 360, Diary, 8 June 1919.

[6] Ibid., 235, Diary, 30 March 1919.  See also Ian Sumner, The First Battle of the Marne 1914: The French ‘miracle’ halts the Germans (Oxford, 2010), 31-34.  Senior, Invasion 1914, 218-21.

[7] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 235, Diary, 30 March 1919.

[8] Ibid., 362-63, Diary, 8 June 1919.  Shotwell also noted the graves when he passed this way in April.  “On the crest of the hill above were clusters of little crosses in the grain fields marking the point where the attacking French had been mown down on the last days of the battle of the Marne.”  Ibid., 246, Diary, 6 April 1919.

[9] Senior, Invasion 1914, 252-61.

[10] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 235, Diary, 30 March 1919.

[11] Ibid., 360-61, Diary, 8 June 1919.  Jirodaux was the French officer who guided Shotwell’s party.

[12] Holger H. Herwig, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World (New York, 2009), 250.  Anthony Clayton, Paths of Glory: The French Army 1914-18 (London, 2003), 55 (map).  Kluck, The March on Paris, 124.

[13] Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory, 94.  The fighting as the Allies advanced towards the Marne is known as the Battle of the Petit Morin.

[14] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 361-62, Diary, 8 June 1919.

[15] Ibid., 363, Diary, 8 June 1919.

[16] Sumner, The First Battle of the Marne 1914, 44.  Kluck, The March on Paris, 137, 139.  For a very positive outlook from General Hermann von Kuhl, Kluck’s Chief of Staff, see Herwig, The Marne, 1914, 281-82.

[17] Herwig has been very critical of the German generals, especially Bülow, Kluck and Moltke, and Colonel Hentsch, and of the poor communication between them.  Ibid., 274-86, 299-302, 312-13.

[18] Sumner, The First Battle of the Marne 1914, 55.  Herwig, The Marne, 1914 , 259.

[19] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 340-41, Diary, 25 May 1919.

[20] Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory, 95.

[21] Senior, Invasion 1914, 328.  Greenhalgh acknowledged Foch’s “daring shuttle of troops from his left to assist his right…, but it was only the withdrawal of German Third Army from his front in unwilling conformity with First and Second that saved his right and centre from annihilation.”  Greenhalgh, The French Army and the First World War, 48.

[22] Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference, 341, Diary, 25 May 1919.

[23] Letters from Charles Seymour, 239, Seymour to Mr and Mrs Thomas Watkins, 21 May 1919.