In short the Battle of the Marne was actually three separate but interrelated battles—one on the Ourcq, one on the “Deux Morins,” and one on the Marshes of St. Gond. While a German breakthrough in any of these places could easily have spelled disaster for France, the strategic pivot of the battle was always the confrontation on the Ourcq, where the German First Army posed a direct threat to Paris and the French Sixth Army, conversely, threatened to roll up the German right wing.
On September 7, von Kluck gambled everything on a decisive victory over French Sixth Army. After receiving reports that the BEF was advancing slowly toward the gap between First and Second Armies, shortly before noon he ordered two more corps to march north for an all-out attack on Sixth Army, in the hopes of crushing the French before the British were close enough to threaten the junction with Bülow’s Second Army.
Unfortunately for the Germans, von Kluck didn’t realize that the previous night Bülow had already ordered these corps (which Second Army currently shared First Army) to fall back along with his own right wing, as part his own effort to crush Foch’s Ninth Army on the St. Gond Marshes with assistance from Hausen’s Third Army. In other words the generals were pursuing two separate, conflicting plans, and Kluck’s order now superseded Bülow’s, so the two corps continued to their new destination. The result of these near-simultaneous moves, which both generals failed to communicate to each other, was a 30-mile gap in the German lines. In the days to come this gap would be their undoing.
In the near term, however, von Kluck’s gamble almost paid off: amid fierce fighting all along the Marne, on September 7 First Army sent Maunoury’s cavalry reeling back, and the situation looked grim for the Allies. Thus, Joffre and Gallieni focused all their efforts on strengthening Sixth Army on the Ourcq to defend against First Army’s attacks.
The Battle of the Marne was a close-run thing. It confirmed yet again the Elder Helmuth von Moltke’s famous counsel that no plan of operations “survives with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s major forces.” And it reified yet again Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that “war is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” Nothing about the Marne was preordained. Choice, chance, and contingency lurked at every corner.
Senior commanders on both sides did not at first understand the magnitude of the decision at the Marne. It seemed simply a temporary blip on the way to victory. The armies would be rested, reinforced, re-supplied, and soon again be on their way either to Berlin or to Paris. Below headquarters and army as well as corps commands, a million men on either side likewise had no inkling of what “the Marne” meant—except more endless marches, more baffling confusion, and more bloody slaughter. Future historian Marc Bloch, a sergeant with French 272d Infantry Regiment, on 9 September recalled marching down a “tortuously winding road” near Larzicourt on the Marne at night, oblivious to the fact that the great German assault had been blunted. “With anger in my heart, feeling the weight of the rifle I had never fired, and hearing the faltering footsteps of our half-sleeping men echo on the ground,” he drearily noted, “I could only consider myself one more among the inglorious vanquished who had never shed their blood in combat.”
The Battle of the Marne did not end the war. But if it was “tactically indecisive,” in the words of historian Hew Strachan, “strategically and operationally” it was a “truly decisive battle in the Napoleonic sense.” Germany had failed to achieve the victory promised in the Schlieffen-Moltke deployment plan; it now faced a two-front war of incalculable duration against overwhelming odds. A new school of German military historians5 goes so far as to suggest that Germany had lost the Great War by September 1914.
Still, “what if?” scenarios abound. What if Germany had not violated Belgium’s neutrality; would Britain still have entered the war? What if Helmuth von Moltke had not sought a double envelopment of the enemy in Alsace-Lorraine and in northern France; could at least half of the 331,000 soldiers on the left wing have helped the right wing to victory? What if he had not sent III and IX army corps to the east; could one of those have filled the famous gap between Second and First armies on the Marne, and the other helped Third Army break French Ninth Army’s fragile front at the Saint-Gond Marshes? What if the commanders of German First and Second armies had simply refused to follow Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch’s “recommendation” to retreat from the Marne; could German First and Second armies have held on the Ourcq and Marne rivers, with possibly war-ending results?
What if Joseph Joffre had not been the French commander in chief? What if he had been cashiered in late August after he had been soundly defeated in the Battle of the Frontiers and after his deployment Plan XVII had totally collapsed? What historian Sewell Tyng called Joffre’s “inscrutable, inarticulate calm,” his “placid, unsophisticated character,” and his “far-sighted, unsentimental, determined” leadership were among the major reasons why the French did not repeat their collapse of 1870–71. After the war, Marshal Ferdinand Foch paid due tribute. Immediately after the loss of the Battle of the Frontiers, Joffre had recognized that “the game had been poorly played.” He had broken off the campaign with every intention of resuming it as soon as he had “repaired the weaknesses discovered.” Once clear on “the enemy’s ultimate intentions” by marching across Belgium, Joffre had shifted forces from his right wing to his left, had cashiered general officers whom he found to be “not up to standard,” had orchestrated an orderly withdrawal behind the Marne and Seine rivers, had created Michel-Joseph Maunoury’s new “army of maneuver” in the west, and had launched his great attack between “the horns of Paris and Verdun” when he deemed the moment favorable. “When this moment arrived, he judiciously combined the offensive with the defensive after ordering an energetic about-face,” Foch opined. “By a magnificently planned stroke he dealt the invasion a mortal blow.” The contrast with the lethargic, doubting, distant, “physically and mentally broken” Younger Moltke need not be belabored.
What if French morale had cracked after the Battle of the Frontiers? Campaigns are not fought against lifeless bodies. The enemy reacts, innovates, surprises, and strikes back. Were it not for the “emotions” and the “passions” of the troops, Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, wars would not escalate and might not even have to be fought. “Comparative figures” of opposing strengths would suffice to decide the issue without having to resort to “the physical impact of the fighting forces.” Put differently, “a kind of war by algebra.” But in 1914, the French poilu surprised the Germans with what Moltke called his élan. “Just when it is on the point of being extinguished,” he wrote his wife at the height of the Battle of the Marne, it “flames up mightily.” Karl von Wenninger, the Bavarian military plenipotentiary at Imperial Headquarters, likewise expressed his surprise at the enemy’s tenacity. “Who would have expected of the French,” he wrote his father on 9 September, “that after 10 days of luckless battles a[nd] bolting in open flight they would attack for 3 days so desperately.” General Alexander von Kluck gave the adversary his full respect in 1918. “The reason that transcends all others” in explaining the German failure at the Marne, he informed a journalist, was “the extraordinary and peculiar aptitude of the French soldier to recover quickly.” Most soldiers “will let themselves be killed where they stand;” that, after all, was a “given” in all battle plans.
But that men who have retreated for ten days … that men who slept on the ground half dead with fatigue, should have the strength to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds, that is a thing upon which we never counted; that is a possibility that we never spoke about in our war academies.
Perhaps the greatest “what if?” scenario: What if Kluck’s First Army had indeed turned the left flank of Maunoury’s Sixth Army northeast of Paris? For most German military writers and the German official history of the war, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918, this was a “certainty.” Victory assured. End game. War over. But Moltke’s chief of operations, Gerhard Tappen, stated after the war that he was not so sure. He, the Gabriel ever trumpeting victory throughout August and early September 1914, conceded that even Kluck’s triumph at the Ourcq River would not have been “decisive” to the overall war effort. Given the dogged “tenacity” of the British and their “well known war aims,” the war would have dragged on. Even if thereafter First Army had pivoted on its left and squared off with the three army corps of the BEF and Louis Conneau’s cavalry corps, the end result likely would have been utter exhaustion for the armies on both sides. Stalemate. An honest appraisal from one not known for candor. And yet, did Kluck not owe it to both his troops and the nation to have fought the battle through to conclusion?
The campaign in the west in 1914 revealed two distinct command styles. Moltke was content to remain at Army Supreme Command headquarters far removed from the front—first in Koblenz and then in Luxembourg—and to give his field commanders great latitude in interpreting his General Directives. He chose not to exercise close control over them by way of telephones, automobiles, aircraft, or General Staff officers. After all, they had conducted the great annual prewar maneuvers and war games and as such could be counted on to execute his “thoughts.” Already, in peacetime, Moltke had let it be known that it sufficed for “Commanding Generals” simply to be “informed about the intentions of the High Command,” and that this could easily be accomplished “orally through the sending of an officer from the Headquarters.” The reality of war proved otherwise. Some commanders failed the ultimate test, war, mainly because of a lack of competence (Max von Hausen); some partly because of advanced age (Karl von Bülow); and others partly because of ill health (Helmuth von Moltke, Otto von Lauenstein).
General Moriz von Lyncker, chief of the Military Cabinet, struck at the heart of the matter on 13 September. “It is clear that during the advance into France the necessary tight leadership on the part of the Chief of the General Staff had been totally lacking.” The next day he convinced Wilhelm II to place Moltke on “sick leave.” But while more than thirty German generals were relieved of command of troops in 1914, there was no general “housecleaning” at the very top. Three army commanders were beyond reach, of course, because they were in line for future crowns: Wilhelm of Prussia led Fifth Army until August 1916, when he took command of Army Group Deutscher Kronprinz for the rest of the war; Rupprecht of Bavaria headed Sixth Army until August 1916, when he was given charge of Army Group Kronprinz Rupprecht until November 1918; and Albrecht of Württemberg stayed with Fourth Army until February 1917, when he assumed command of Army Group Herzog Albrecht for the duration.
Not even the two most controversial army commanders were sacked after the Battle of the Marne. Karl von Bülow, who had shown less than boldness first at the Sambre and then at the Marne, not only was promoted to the rank of field marshal in January 1915 and awarded the order Pour le Mérite, but was rewarded for his mediocre performance by (again) being given command of First Army and then of Seventh Army as well. He led Second Army until April 1915, when he was temporarily relieved of command due to a stroke. He was forced to retire two months later; his pleas to be reinstated fell on deaf ears. Alexander von Kluck, who had disobeyed Moltke’s orders and turned in southeast of Paris, commanded First Army until March 1915, when near Vailly-sur-Aisne he was severely injured in the leg by shrapnel. He turned seventy while recuperating and in October 1916 was retired. Max von Hausen was the only army commander relieved of duty, and that came about mainly due to a severe case of typhus. His desperate appeals to be reinstated also went unanswered.
After the Battle of the Marne, the German army of 1914 was gone forever. Its tidy division into federalist Baden, Bavarian, Prussian, Saxon, and Württemberg contingents ended, never to be revived. In the words of former Prussian war minister Karl von Einem, the new commander of Third Army, “The army totally loses its wartime separateness. Everything is moved about, divisions and brigades are thrown together. It is living from hand to mouth.” In short, a true “German” army fought the Great War for the next four years.
Joseph Joffre, on the other hand, played a highly active, indeed intense, role in French decision making. Apart from issuing a host of General Instructions, Special Instructions, and Special Orders, he showered his army commanders with hundreds of “personal and secret” memoranda, telephone calls, and individual orders. He used his driver and automobile to great advantage, constantly on the road to inspect, to order, to encourage, and, where necessary, to relieve. In fact, Joffre filled a park with so-called limogés.* These included, by his reckoning, two army, ten corps, and thirty-eight division commanders. Some (Charles Lanrezac) he fired because he considered them to be overly pessimistic or willing to challenge his orders; others (Pierre Ruffey) because he found them to be unnecessarily “nervous” and “imprudent” in their dealings with subordinates. He maintained in command a core of loyal and aggressive army commanders (Fernand de Langle de Cary, Yvon Dubail, Édouard de Castelnau), and he promoted several corps commanders (Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, Ferdinand Foch, Maurice Sarrail) who had “faith in their success” and who by “mastery of themselves” knew how to “impose their will on their subordinates and dominate events.” He never regretted his sometimes unjustified firings. He declined after the war to engage the “victims” in a war of memoirs.
Ironically, given the Elder Moltke’s strategic use of railways in 1866 and again in 1870–71, it was Joffre who in 1914 brilliantly used his Directorate of Railways and interior lines to great advantage. When by 24 August, he realized that he had lost the Battle of the Frontiers, that his concentration plan, XVII, lay in tatters, and that the Germans were indeed sweeping through Belgium, Joffre altered “the centre of gravity of his dispositions so as to achieve at last a substantial numerical superiority at the western extremity of the front which he had come to recognize as the decisive point.” As early as 26 August, he dissolved the ineffective Army of Alsace, reconstituted much of it as Frédéric Vautier’s VII Corps, and then sent it to reinforce the Entrenched Camp of Paris. Two days later, as the Battle of the Trouée de Charmes wound down, he dispatched Georges Levillain’s 6th Cavalry Division and Louis Comby’s 37th Infantry Division to the capital. And then he orchestrated a staggering transfer of forces from Lorraine to Greater Paris between 31 August and 2 September: from First Army, Edmond Legrand-Girarde’s XXI Corps; from Second Army, Louis Espinasse’s XV Corps, Pierre Dubois’s IX Corps, Justinien Lefèvre’s 18th ID, and Camille Grellet de la Deyte’s 10th Cavalry Division; and finally, from Third Army, Victor Boëlle’s IV Corps. The Younger Moltke, by contrast, eschewed major transfers of forces from his left to his right wing due to “technical” difficulties and downright “stodginess.”