Anglo-French on Offensive; Germans Driven Back Across Strategic River
Special to The Great War Project
(8-9 September) By this date a century ago, the confidence of the French and British forces at the battle for the Marne is growing.
They are on the offensive.
One British senior officer writes home: “The tide of invasion seems to have ebbed…One is inclined to think that they [the Germans] have shot their bolt and spent their strength.”
In many parts of the battle on these days, the “front-line” ebbed back and forth for miles. The French fall back, but the Germans fail to comprehend just how far back. Then the Germans do the same. A succession of revolving doors as one historian puts it. It was so confusing, writes historian Max Hastings, that “there were several episodes in which entire French regiments broke and fled.”
There is a moment on September 8th, writes Hastings, “when the fate of the Western Front hung by a threat.”
But the Germans do not realize this and are vulnerable. The British and the French counterattack.
The Germans are exhausted. In their retreat, they take hostages from French villages. In one, Varreddes on the north bank of the Marne, they seize twenty elderly villagers, according to historian Martin Gilbert. “Three escaped,” Gilbert writes. “Seven were murdered on the march.”
Two in their seventies collapse from exhaustion and are shot at point black range, Gilbert reports.
The French command orders a counter-attack. “The situation is therefore excellent,” declares French General Ferdinand Foch on September 8th.
In response the Germans panic. Foch appeals to his troops with these words:
“I ask each one of you to draw upon the last spark of energy which in its moments of supreme trial has never been denied to our race.”
“The disorder in the enemy’s ranks is the forerunner of victory.”
Still there are moments when the French must fall back.
But the British and the French prevail, and on this day September 9th a century ago, the Germans are driven back across the Marne. “Never again,” Gilbert writes, “were they to get so near to the French capital.”
Until the summer of 1940.
For now, the French government prepares to return to Paris.
The Germans contemplate their failures. Historians agree, the plan – it is known as the Schlieffen Plan — was to deliver a knock-out blow to the French early in the war and then turn “all their military strength against Russia.” That plan is now in tatters.
“The war of rapid victories had become a strategy of the past,” writes Gilbert. “Germany was going to have to fight simultaneously, and with constant danger, in both east and west.”
After the Marne, all the belligerent powers – but especially the Germans — realize their initial assumptions about this war are all wrong.