BATTLE OF THE MARNE - SEPTEMBER 1914
Image: A Russian soldier ready to face the enemy.
On 4th September 1914 the New York Times carried the news that Russian troops were passing through Britain on their way to the Western Front. It was said that they had arrived by ship in the North of Scotland still kicking snow off their boots! There was corroboration from Carlisle where Russian soldiers were heard demanding vodka when their train stopped on their way south. When the German High Command heard these stories they quickly deduced that – if true – this could spell military disaster for them on the western front. Coincidences seemed to further corroborate the story and the German war plan was changed beyond recognition.
The Russians are Coming!
By 1st September the German advance was stuttering. Their lines of supply were becoming more and more stretched and around 80,000 soldiers had to be drawn away from the fighting to protect essential railways and roads through Belgium and France. Their army was heavily dependent on horse power and to keep the wagons rolling, they needed millions of tons of fodder and lorry loads of horseshoes and nails - but these were now in short supply. Many German units had not been fed for 3 days and after a month of marching (for some this was around 400 miles) and fighting, men and animals were starving and in a state of collapse.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 1st September 1914
As they dragged themselves towards Paris, down dusty roads in oppressive heat, the exhausted and unshaven Tommies of the B.E.F. were in a desperate state. At least there was the periodic reassurance of distant booms from the rear as the Royal Engineers destroyed key bridges over the River Marne to further delay the enemy. On the positive side, there was a perceptible slowing in the pace of the German advance. Instead of resting for 5 minutes each hour, British units had more frequent and longer periods of recovery. When one unit was rested on the estate of Baron de Rothschild, the Tommies could not resist a dip in his pool. Of necessity they had to take turns at plunging in, and when the last lot emerged from the water it was completely black!
Oh for a Rest and a Wash!
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 4th September 1914
GERMAN ARMY IN CHAOS
On 9th September 1914, Helmuth von Moltke – head of the German army – broke under the strain of war. Moltke had been a key instigator of the conflict but after only 38 days of fighting, he was close to collapse. The strain was clear to colleagues as he paced his office while whistling anxiously through his teeth. Alternatively, he would sit with his head in his hands and wrote numerous despairing letters to his wife. Meanwhile his armies were engaged in a desperate struggle with French and British forces in the Battle of the Marne. The weather had broken and along a 300 mile front, his hungry and exhausted troops were in a chaotic state. Moltke constantly complained of the lack of information from the front but it was only on 11th September that he ventured forward to take stock of the situation.
German Commander Has Nervous Breakdown
Through their binoculars Germans officers could see the Eiffel Tower - only a dozen or so miles away. The Schlieffen plan had brought them tantalisingly close to victory but their war plan had been abandoned the previous week. Spooked by stories of Russian intervention and stressed by shortages, the German Generals had begun to improvise. They wheeled and manoeuvred their troops as they sought to crush the Allied armies defending the sovereignty of France. Moltke was on his way forward and the order he was about to give might be inevitable but it was not what the German commanders in the field wanted to hear.
German Army Within Sight of Eiffel Tower
Image: Kaiser Wilhelm and Helmuth von Moltke in happier days.
On 14th September 1914, Helmuth von Moltke was sacked as army chief. The Kaiser had no option as the emotionally wrecked commander had announced that the war was already lost! Helmuth was the son of a famous military commander and became head of the German Army largely due to family connections. Officially he left his post due to ill health but it was not until 3rd November that the German public was informed of his retirement. There were other ‘casualties’ of the failure of the Schlieffen plan as 33 lesser-known elderly generals were also relieved of their commands.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 14th September 1914
Kaiser Told 'Sir, We Have Lost the War'
In September 1914, bemusement, anger and grief were the most frequently expressed emotions in German letters home from the front. The great angst of the enemy was revealed to the British public by war correspondent Sir Philip Gibb who was following behind the British army. He collected hundreds of unfinished / unposted letters from amongst the loot and discarded kit abandoned by retreating German troops. Much of their angst stemmed from the fact that they had come so close to success and this helped fuel the post war claims by the Nazis that the German army of 14-18 was undefeated in the field.
German Letters Reveal Despair
SOLDIERS HEAD INTO BATTLE
Image: French troops in action only 12 miles from the site of Disneyland, Paris.
The Battle of the Marne (6th – 12th September) was the greatest battle yet fought. It involved 12 armies (5 German, 6 French, 1 British) or 2.5 million soldiers and in less than a week 500,000 were killed or wounded in fighting that stretched over a front of 300 miles – roughly the distance from London to Edinburgh. At 13,000, British losses were relatively slight but the contribution of the B.E.F. proved significant.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 6th September 1914
The Greatest Battle in History
Image: A Renault taxi, survivor of the Marne.
On 7th September 1914, with the Battle of the Marne at a critical point, around 600 taxis (plus additional vehicles) rushed soldiers of General Gallieni’s Paris garrison to the front, tipping the balance in France’s favour.
Through the night of the 6th – 7th September French soldiers were assembled at a designated railway siding and loaded into vehicles – five men plus kit in each. The journey was quite comfortable for those in commandeered limousines, and quick for those in racing cars, but for the soldiers in the taxis it was hair-raising. Impelled by the urgent nature of their orders many taxi drivers drove as fast as their vehicles
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 7th September 1914
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 10th September 1914
Image: German prisoners from the Battle of the Marne.
On 11th September 1914, Moltke (the German army chief) ordered trenches to be dug on the high ground overlooking the River Aisne. The German army was about to retreat 40 miles to defensive positions. The Battle of the Marne was over and France was saved. Relieved at last to be marching in the right direction, British and French soldiers were amazed at the miles of broken glass on the roads. The masses of smashed bottles forced motor vehicles, horses and men to divert onto fields and tracks. At first this was thought to be a strategic ploy by the Germans to slow the Allied advance but it was more likely the detritus of a defeated army. Soon smashed bottles were replaced by discarded full ones, as well as paintings, ornaments and other loot that was too heavy or awkward to carry.
France is Saved - German Army in Retreat
Image: The aftermath of the Battle of the Marne –Some of the 150,000 dead bodies await disposal.
The stench of death was all pervasive as the British and French advanced from the Marne during these hot September days. Horses that were killed in the early fighting lay bloated beneath writhing crusts of bluebottles, while carrion crows pecked at the rotting flesh. French peasants seemed to be everywhere gathering British and French dead for burial. German bodies were heaped on straw and doused with petrol to create smouldering pyres that sent plumes of smoke wafting skywards. It is claimed that this primitive form of cremation left nothing but dust but each spring, after ploughing, it only takes a shower of rain to make the fields of the Marne valley sparkle as human teeth glisten in the sunlight.
The British Army Advance
Image: Soldiers of the Scottish Rifles re- cross the River Marne in pursuit of the retreating Germans.
As the British advanced, the airmen of the Royal Flying Corps directed them to viable river crossings. Of course, not all the bridges were intact as many had been blown up by the Royal Engineers (R.E.) during the retreat from Mons. The R.E. showed that they were skilled at construction as well as destruction and with great resourcefulness they created a 72 yard (66m) long bridge across the Marne using the various boats, barges, pontoons, barrels and wooden planks that could be found along the river bank. With advance guards in position on the ‘German’ side, the B.E.F. flowed across in ‘a ceaseless stream’.
would allow but, in darkness and without lights, this was not without risk. Not all the drivers were sober as only 20 had declined the offer of wine before setting off - there was no drinking water available.