The Magazine

September 1914

Before the trenches

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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When the moment came, in early August, the French attacked. The drums pounded, the banners flew, and the soldiers sang the Marseillaise. They were cut down by the thousands in what came to be known as the Battles of the Frontiers. The numbers are appalling—some 250,000 French casualties—and the individual stories tragic. General Foch had a son and a son-in-law, both cavalry lieutenants, killed on the same day. When one of his contemporaries, General Castleneau, was informed that his son had been killed, his staff was silent for a moment. Then, the general said, “Gentlemen, we will continue.”

In the Battles of the Frontiers, the French had attacked the weaker section of the German line, the portion that Schlieffen saw as the anvil against which the hammer of his right wing would fall, crushing the French Army. But the armies on what was the left of the German line were so successful in defense that Moltke, in violation of the Schlieffen plan, put them over into offensive action against their weakened enemy. He may have been seduced by the vision of a true Cannae or, more prosaically, lacked the will to resist the pleas of his subordinates that they be allowed to attack.

For the French, whose attack had been decisively broken, it was now time to learn to fight on the defensive, and for their leaders to find a way of preventing a retreat from turning into a rout. The French Army had lost the battle—several of them, in fact—but not the war. But there had to be a new plan and, above all, there had to be strong leadership. Otherwise, the massive right wing of the German Army would swing around the French left, perhaps sweeping up Paris along the way, and win the war according to the plan and the 40-day timetable. 

The new plan for the French Army was obvious enough and dictated by events. It must break contact and withdraw until it could establish a new, shorter, stabilized line, one that would allow it to reinforce along what military theorists call “internal lines.” And then it would wait for an opportunity to counterattack the enemy, whose lines would be long and much weakened.

As for leadership, the French were under the command of General Joseph Joffre, as unlikely a national savior as it is possible to imagine. Joffre was a large man with an ample belly. “Portly” would have been the charitable description. He was no intellectual or military theorist. He was given to silences, and when he did speak, what came out of his mouth was enigmatic if not inarticulate. There was a famous story told about him which had a colonel of artillery coming to Joffre with some urgent matter. The man spoke passionately and Joffre listened calmly. Then he stood, patted the man on the shoulder, and said, “You always loved your guns. That’s excellent.”

Douglas Haig once wondered, in a letter, if Joffre even knew how to read a map. Most likely he did and knew that his job didn’t require skills of that sort. What it did require was absolute mastery of his command and of himself. Stonewall Jackson once said to a panicky subordinate, “Do not take counsel of your fears.” Joffre, who had more than enough reason, after the Battles of the Frontiers, to give in to his, never did. He was also merciless in dealing with subordinates who, in his estimation, lacked sufficient will. In the first few weeks after the Germans crossed into France, he relieved 2 of 5 army commanders; 10 of 20 corps commanders, and 42 of 74 division commanders.

When he wasn’t visiting his various commands and dealing with this necessary business, he drew up orders for the continuation of the long retreat. He went to bed early and slept long hours. He also ate regularly and well, and absolutely nothing interfered with his meals.

But if Joffre had the authority and the will to deal ruthlessly with his countrymen, he was powerless when it came to the nations upon which France depended for its survival, Russia and Great Britain.

The Russian front was far away and utterly independent. But if the czar’s armies could push the Germans and compel them to shift resources to that front, it could slow down the ponderous German advance into France just enough. And at first, the news was good. The Germans retreated ahead of a Russian offensive, so much that their general in command was relieved. The new team consisted of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenberg, who was mostly a figurehead, and General Erich Ludendorff, who was quite the other thing—able, energetic, and brutal. Within days of assuming their duties, the new leaders secured a victory of colossal proportions in the Battle of Tannenberg. The Germans destroyed Russia’s 2nd Army, inflicting almost 80,000 casualties and taking some 90,000 prisoners in the process. When the magnitude of his defeat became apparent, Russian general Alexander Samsonov went off into the forest and shot himself in the head.

But prior to Tannenberg, the situation on the Eastern front had appeared uncertain enough to trouble Moltke, who may have been excessively concerned by the prospect of Russian boots on Prussian soil. So he ordered reinforcements sent east, with the units to be taken from those that had been committed to the invasion of France. This, by definition, weakened the right, in violation of Schlieffen’s dying order. Ludendorff had told headquarters that he did not need the additional men. But they went anyway, and their absence on the Western front contributed much to the deliverance of France.

Joffre may have been unaware of how much events in Russia would bear on the crisis in France. He had more immediate concerns with that other nation on whom France was depending, and the British were a problem. One that might very well be fatal.

The British Expeditionary Force was a small unit made up, when it landed in France, of four infantry divisions and one cavalry division, organized into two corps. This force was positioned on the French left, which, as it turned out, was perhaps the most critical point on the line. The British faced the German 1st Army, of 14 divisions, commanded by Alexander von Kluck, and the Tommies took some pleasure in singing, while on the march, a little ditty that (cleaned up a bit) went:

Kaiser Bill is feeling ill,
The Crown Prince, he’s gone barmy.
We don’t give a cluck for old von Fluck
And all his bleeding army.

The fight against Kluck’s superior numbers was another, deadly serious, thing. The BEF’s soldiers were professionals, many of them veterans of the colonial wars, and they knew how to shoot and to hold a defensive position. They did this, most conspicuously at Mons, where their disciplined, rapid, and well-aimed rifle fire had the Germans thinking they were facing machine gunners. The fight slowed Kluck down. But not much. And while the battle was a credit to British arms, the commander of the BEF saw it as something else.

Field Marshal John French felt as if he and his men had been hung out on their own, against superior enemy forces, by their ally. France’s 5th Army, positioned to the right of the BEF, had been in some of the heaviest combat during the Battles of the Frontiers. It had taken frightful casualties and its commanding general, Charles Lanrezac, had believed from the beginning of hostilities that he was in danger of being overrun by superior German numbers. He was correct, but his own superiors, including Joffre, did not agree. Lanrezac’s withdrawals were, in Joffre’s estimation, premature at best, and evidence of a lack of offensive spirit at worst. In the eyes of John French, they were a betrayal. He and his men had, he believed, been abandoned.

So while, in the late days of August, he was in retreat like the French units, his intention was not necessarily to stop in a few days, when a new line could be established, and then resume the offensive. Field Marshal French intended for the BEF to withdraw much further and, perhaps, even to leave the continent. He needed time to rest and reorganize, and he had come to distrust Frenchmen in general and to hate Lanrezac in particular.

High-level staff meetings and a face-to-face encounter between the British field marshal and the French general did nothing to repair the breach and, indeed, may have widened it.

It would have been catastrophic for the British to leave the fight, and Lord Herbert Kitchener, the war secretary, at his office back in London understood this when he read a cable from the field marshal suggesting that he might do so. Kitchener took a fast cruiser across the channel and met the next morning, in Paris, with the field marshal. He made it clear that the British government did not believe the BEF, under any circumstances, should quit the fight. The field marshal should continue to conform with the movements of French forces.

But Kitchener gave Field Marshal French an out by adding that “you will be the judge” when it came to where, precisely, the BEF should be in the line. It could not, of course, have been otherwise.

John French was a sulky, prickly, proud man who might well have resented being called in by Kitchener in the first place. He was probably in over his head, and he would soon be relieved by Haig. But for now, as the retreat slowed and developments on the German side began to make Joffre’s planned counterattack appear possible, he continued to insist on the independence of his command and his men’s need to retreat, rest, and resupply. He remained uncooperative, and thus the presence of the BEF in any counterattack was .  .  . uncertain.

While Field Marshal French dithered, other generals moved. In Paris, the military governor Joseph Gallieni had been preparing the city against the arrival of Kluck’s army. This included urging the government to leave for Bordeaux, which it did on September 2. The city had already become a target for some of history’s first air raids. On August 30, a German Taube flew over the city and dropped a bomb that killed two civilians. It returned for the next few days, precisely at six in the evening, the hour of the apéritif, to drop a bomb or two and add to the sense of crisis that loomed over the city.

Gallieni designated bridges for destruction and also the Eiffel Tower, to deny the enemy its use for radio transmissions. He also went about assembling forces of his own, scraping together whatever units he could. Joffre was not willing to give him the three corps that he insisted he needed to mount a proper defense of Paris, but Gallieni knew how to get things done, and he found troops, though not as many as he wanted.

Gallieni had been Joffre’s superior officer at one time in their careers. He had, in fact, been in line for the job that became Joffre’s and was clearly the more dynamic of the two men. But pleading age and ill-health, he had resigned from the army. He had been called back in the crisis and given the assignment of saving Paris. He had no higher ambitions, and he held politicians in contempt. His place in the chain of command and, indeed, in the political structure was ad hoc and unclear. He was shrewd and decisive and a wild card in the battle for France. The closer Kluck came to Paris, the better prepared and more determined Gallieni became to defend the city and, if possible, to strike.

Kluck provided the opportunity. As he continued his march across France, Kluck maneuvered his army so that it would pass to the east of Paris. His objective was not the city but the French 5th Army, which had been Lanrezac’s until he had been relieved by Joffre and replaced by General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey. In Kluck’s mind, the 5th was a beaten foe, and by moving his army around its left, he could accomplish its encirclement and destruction.

There were two weaknesses with this plan. One took the form of intelligence; the other of tactics. Kluck believed he was pursuing a beaten foe, and it was true that the 5th Army had suffered grievously at the battle of Charleroi and been in retreat ever since—more than two weeks—fighting as it withdrew. But the unit had lost neither cohesion nor its will to fight. For this, credit belonged to the toughness of the French soldier and the firmness of the French Army’s top command, especially Joffre. There was no panic. Joffre, Gallieni, and the poilus they commanded were waiting for their moment.

As Kluck wrote after the war, his miscalculation in this regard came down to underestimating the 

extraordinary and peculiar aptitude of the French soldier to recover quickly. That men will let themselves be killed where they stand, that is a well-known thing and counted on in every plan of battle. But that men who have retreated for ten days, sleeping on the ground and half dead with fatigue, should be able to take up their rifles and attack when the bugle sounds, is a thing upon which we never counted. It was a possibility not studied in our war academy.

Kluck erred tactically when he began his move east and across the Marne River. When he did this, he exposed his own right flank to Paris and the forces that Gallieni had been able to accumulate there. This included a hastily assembled army, the 6th, of which Gallieni was in nominal command. But Joffre remained in overall command and so, in theory, could overrule any order from Gallieni. But in this uncertain command structure, the prior senior status Gallieni had held over Joffre and the man’s energy and moral force allowed him to force Joffre’s hand and order the counterattack when Joffre might have wanted to wait another day or more.

From ground contacts and observation from airplanes, the French saw their opportunity, and Gallieni was first to seize it. If the newly formed French 6th Army and the forces he had assembled in Paris could attack from the west against Kluck’s flank, and if the BEF could be counted on to take its place in the line .  .  . but there was the rub.

As late as the afternoon before the counterattack was to begin, Field Marshal French was still determined to keep the British force out of the battle and, in fact, to put more space between it and Joffre’s new line. This might save the BEF, but it would almost certainly doom the counterattack.

At this point, it was up to Joffre to convince Field Marshal French to turn the BEF around, take its place in line between the 5th and 6th Armies of France, and, if things went well, turn back the German offensive—even, if things went very well, defeat the Germans in a major battle, encircling them as they had threatened to encircle the armies of France, and win the war. But the BEF had to be there, and someone had to change its commander’s mind. His own government, in the form of Kitchener, had done what it could, and still the field marshal was not persuaded.

It fell to Joffre, who understood intuitively and completely what had to be done. So he ordered up a car and a driver and set out from his headquarters to those of Field Marshal French over 100 miles away. After the obligatory stop for a good lunch, Joffre reached his destination at about two in the afternoon, on September 5. In the morning, the battle would begin, and the British were far back of the proposed line. Much—not to say everything—depended on how things went in this meeting. In Barbara Tuchman’s telling, it went something like this:

Field Marshal French was expecting Joffre and waited with his staff to hear what he had to say. Which, for once, was quite a lot. And he spoke with passion of how “the supreme moment” had arrived.

At stake in the coming battle were “the lives of all French people, the soil of France, the future of Europe.”

He could not believe, Joffre said, that “the British Army will refuse to do its share in this supreme crisis.”

Pounding a table, he concluded, “Monsieur le Maréchal, the honor of England is at stake!”

At this point, the Field Marshal’s eyes began to fill. He did not speak French and probably had not made out more than a word or two of what Joffre had just said. But he plainly understood. To one of his staff who could translate, he said, “Damn it, I can’t explain. Tell him we will do all we possibly can.”

The officer looked at Joffre and said, simply, “The field marshal says, ‘Yes.’ ”

And so, at the moment of maximum peril, in what was shaping up to be the decisive battle in the greatest war in modern history, the issue was decided in a personal encounter between two inarticulate generals who did not speak each other’s language. 

With the British in the offensive, if not yet in line, all was ready. Joffre returned to his headquarters and announced to his staff: “Gentlemen, we will fight on the Marne.”

The order went out to the armies, including a passage that made things utterly plain: “A unit which finds it impossible to advance must, regardless of cost, hold its ground and be killed on the spot rather than fall back. In the present circumstances no failure will be tolerated.”

On the German side, there appeared an unlikely player whose contribution did much to determine the outcome of the Battle of the Marne and, thus, the war. This was a colonel from Moltke’s staff who had come to Kluck’s headquarters to observe and report back. But in the German system, he also had considerable authority and could issue recommendations that might as well have been orders. Colonel Richard Hentsch wanted Kluck, whose army had crossed the Marne, to begin a withdrawal to protect its exposed right flank and to tighten up the German lines, which had become overextended. Kluck would need to recross the Marne.

The order may have come at precisely the worst possible time for the Germans. And if Kluck, who had been disregarding Moltke’s instructions with some frequency, had refused this one, which came from a mere colonel, after all, and continued his pursuit, the Battle of the Marne might have turned out differently.

But the French Army and the BEF attacked as the Germans were withdrawing. The BEF advanced into a gap between the German 1st and 2nd Armies, threatening to envelop Kluck—even, perhaps, on both flanks, thus accomplishing what Hannibal had at Cannae and what Schlieffen held up as the sine qua non of generalship.

But the Marne was not that tidy. It was, in fact, several battles across miles of front with all of the usual chaos of war in play. It went, almost, the way Foch, who was fighting in the center of the line, put it in an order he never sent but that became, nevertheless, immortal: “My center is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.”

And as he attacked, the Germans retreated, with the French and the British in pursuit, looking for the enemy’s exposed right flank the way it had grappled for their left. This was the “Race to the Sea,” which ended in stalemate and trenches. The war that I. S. Bloch had predicted had come to pass. Moltke, who had run the war as though he were a kind of chairman of the board, suffered an emotional breakdown with the failure of the Schlieffen plan. A better prophet than general, he wrote to his wife: “Things have not gone well. The fighting east of Paris has not gone in our favor, and we shall have to pay for the damage we have done.”

Actually, the world paid, and is still paying, for the damage done. And the world had already paid dearly. As awful as the years in the trenches were, they were not as bloody as those few months when armies fought in the open. No year matched 1914 for ferocity, and when it was over, there cannot have been many who still thanked Providence for the favor of being born into those times.

Hitler, perhaps. But, then, the war made him.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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