British and Germans Exhausted; Paris the Prize

Special to The Great War Project

(2-3 September) On this day September 3 a century ago, on the Western Front the German army is just 25 miles from Paris.

German soldiers at the Marne, September 1914

German soldiers at the Marne, September 1914

For the British Expeditionary Force and the French army, it’s been thirteen days of grueling retreat covering 150 miles. They reach the Marne River on September 2 and cross the river this day, “blowing up the bridges behind them,” according to historian Martin Gilbert.

The British soldiers are exhausted, having fought constant rearguard actions. Just as the British withdraw, the Germans advance. Writes one British officer in his diary, “I would never have believed that men could have been so tired and so hungry and yet lived.”

Another officer describes the British troops this way: “Physically weak from long marches and mentally weak from the continual strain of never being out of reach of the enemy’s guns. It is scarcely surprising that under these conditions traces of panic and losses of self-control occurred.”

The German army must cross much more territory, invading Belgium from Germany first, then fighting through Belgium to the French border and then further toward Paris. The German supply lines are stretched and breaking down. “With time and distance,” marching on foot, carrying heavy packs with weapons and ammunition, “the impetus of their attack begins to wane.”

Despite the Germans’ problems, the mood in Paris turns desperate.

French reservists in Paris,  September 1914

French reservists in Paris, September 1914

Among the measures taken in the capital, the local Military Governor orders the Eiffel Tower to be rigged with explosives – for possible destruction. It’s the transmission tower for military radio communications and the French do not want it to fall into German hands.

On this same day, September 3rd, in the naval war in the North Sea, a new weapon claims its first victim. The German submarine U-21 sinks the British cruiser HMS Pathfinder, the first such British victim of a torpedo in this war.

Nearly 260 British sailors drown.

This is a new kind of warfare. The Germans intend to use submarine attacks on surface ships to “impede the war effort and demoralize the countries whose ships were being sunk.” The submarine war is meant to wreak havoc on Allied seaborne supplies.

Also on this day, the British mount their first air attack on the Germans. It takes place on a cluster of German soldiers near the France-Belgian border. Other British air attacks take place on German motor patrols. These attacks are considered successful in harassing the movement of German forces.

The first journalist in the Great War is seized a century ago. Arthur Moore, the correspondent of The Times is captured by a German cavalry patrol.

He is released after a few days of captivity, unharmed.

There is one positive development for the allies. In news from the Eastern Front, where just a few days earlier at Tannenberg, the Germans demolished a Russian army, another battle takes place, at what used to be called Lemberg, but is now a century later called Lviv in Western Ukraine.

On September 3rd a century ago, the Russian army forces the Austrians to withdraw to Cracow, in Austrian territory in Poland, far to the west.

One other notable development now: New Zealand is holding commemorations to mark the occupation of Samoa.

An expeditionary force of 1400 troops captures the German Pacific colony without a fight just a few day earlier. It is New Zealand’s first military action of the war.



  1. David Norton
    September 3, 2014 at 5:02 PM

    I believe HMS Pathfinder was sunk on 5 September. Here’s a link to an article about the wreck as it rests now:

  2. Mike Shuster
    September 3, 2014 at 5:12 PM

    David, thank you for the comment. Gilbert has the sinking occurring on September 3. Your citation for September 5 is much more detailed.

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