German Lines Crumbling; Time to Chase the Germans

Special to The Great War Project

(6-7 September) The tide of battle at the Marne is shifting. On these days a century ago, the forces of France and Britain stop their retreat, steel their positions, and turn their retreat into attack.

“It was an inspiring thought,” writes one British officer, “that the time had now come to chase the German.”

British forces under fire, Battle of the Marne, September 1914

British forces under fire, Battle of the Marne, September 1914

The shift in battle surprises the Germans.

But the armies are so colossal, death awaits many on both sides, and often the cruel irony is that fresh troops will fall in the first moments of their arrival at the front.

Writes one officer of the fighting, “this cutting off of a young officer just as he came to realize the dearest ambition of a soldier’s life – to go into action in defense of his country – impressed his comrades with a deep sense of tragedy.”

For some this is a difficult psychological circumstance to overcome. “Later one’s resolution had to be steeled against this,” he writes, “as against the other losses.”

Other losses are enormous. This is a battlefield that counts more than 2,000,000 troops.

But it is a static battlefield, observes historian Max Hastings.

“The armies of 1914 were equipped to inflict appalling human and material destruction upon their enemies,” he writes, “but the technology of movement lagged.” As does the ability to communicate rapidly on the battlefield.

By this day, September 7th a century ago, some of the German units are turned and pulling back..

The German Kaiser chooses this day to visit the battle zone.

Fearful of capture, the Kaiser quickly removes himself from the fight.

According to the official German history of the war, the French artillery guns have a powerful effect on the Germans, everywhere unexpected. “September 7th is the worst day so far for troops,” writes the historian.

Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German General Staff

Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German General Staff

Even Germany’s top general, Helmuth von Moltke, the architect of Germany’s war plan, is aware of just how devastating the slaughter is in the first month of war.

He writes to his wife on September 7th a century ago, “Terror often overcomes me when I think of this, and the feeling I have is that I must answer for this horror.”

Historian Martin Gilbert notes that Britain continues to ship more and more troops to France. The Germans cannot stop them.

All the while from Washington, President Woodrow Wilson and his closest advisers track the developments in Europe with an uneasy eye. Wilson declares America will pursue a policy of neutrality.

The first problem to confront the White House is the question of war loans. Wilson initially defines neutrality as, no loans to any belligerent powers.

That policy quickly breaks down and is “quietly set aside,” writes historian Arthur Link, because it threatens America’s trade.

The policy that emerges as “neutral” – freedom to lend to any belligerent power — is hardly “impartial.” Given that nearly a third of all Americans are foreign born, the issue is crucial because “there is a threat,” Link writes, “that the immigrant millions would forget their loyalty to their adopted flag and espouse the cause of their homelands” with violence.