The Battles Of The Marne
At Marathon (490 B.C.) and at Salamis (480 B.C.) the Greeks defeated
the Persians and saved Europe for western civilization. Had the
Persians won, the history of Europe and of the world would be the story
of the civilization of the East instead of that of the West.
At Tours (732 A.D.) Charles Martel defeated the forces of the
Mohammedans, who had already conquered Spain, and saved Europe for
At the Marne (1914 and 1918) the French, the English, and (in the
second battle) the Americans, defeated the modern Huns and saved Europe
for democracy and from the rule of merciless brute force. The First
Battle of the Marne has been called the sixteenth decisive battle of
Before the First Battle of the Marne, September 5 to 10, 1914, the
German military machine had been winning, as never an army had won
before in the entire recorded history of the world. Its path had been
one of treachery, of atrocities, of savagery, but one of tremendous and
unparalleled victory. The Germans at home called it "the great times."
Brave little Belgium had been able to hold back the German hordes but
for a short time at LiÃ©ge and Namur, but, as future events proved, long
enough to make possible the decisive battles at the Marne. The Germans
had taken Brussels and Antwerp, had destroyed Louvain, had filled
themselves with outrage and murder, had drunk of blood and wine and
success until they were thoroughly intoxicated with the belief so
common to drunken brutes that no men in the world can stand against
them. The little Belgian army, "the contemptible little English army"
(as the Kaiser called it), and the magnificent French army had been
retreating day by day almost as fast as the Germans could advance. Soon
Paris and then all of France would be in German hands--and what a
glorious time they would have in the gayest and most beautiful capital
of the world. Although bodies of German cavalry raided the coast, the
German leaders, elated and intoxicated with thoughts of rich plunder
and dissipation, did not turn aside in force to follow the Belgian army
and to take the Channel ports of Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne, but
pushed on toward Paris. The French government, expecting a siege of the
city, moved to Bordeaux.
The main forces of the Germans had turned south from the coast towards
Paris with General von Kluck's army of about 200,000 men at the right
or west of the German line of advance. General von Kluck was
attempting to outflank the English army, that is, to throw part of his
forces around the extreme western end of the English army, which had to
keep retiring rapidly to avoid being encircled. The French army was
obliged to fall back to keep in touch with the British.
The English retired nearly one hundred miles without losing their
cheerfulness or their confidence. It was this turning movement on the
left that forced all the allies to retire. An English writer who was
with the army said that though the Germans constantly attacked with
reckless courage, yet the British and French retired slowly with their
faces to the foe, and showing the greatest heroism. The numbers of the
Germans were greater than those of the Allies, and the Germans gave
them no rest. Night and day they hammered away, coming on like great
waves. The gaps the English made were filled instantly. The German guns
played upon the Allies constantly. Their cavalry swept down upon them
recklessly. If the English had great losses, the Germans had greater.
The English fought with cool bravery. They never wavered an instant.
But the pressure upon them could not be resisted. Column after column,
squadron after squadron, mass after mass, the enemy came on like a
battering ram, crushing everything in its way. They swarmed on all
sides, even though shattered by shot and shell. Nothing but the
steadfast courage, the sheer pluck, the spirit, the soul of the
English soldiers saved the army from complete destruction.
"The enemy hung on to us like grim death," said a wounded soldier.
"They wanted us to retreat in a direction that would best suit their
plans. But we were not taking marching orders from them. We went our
own way at our own pace. We were retiring, not retreating."
Then on the fifth of September came General Joffre's appeal to the
defenders of civilization, and particularly to the French soldiers:
"The hour has come to hold our positions at any cost and to fight
rather than to retreat.... No longer must we look at the enemy over our
shoulders, for the time has come to put forth all our efforts in
attacking and defeating him."
A French writer has said of the retreat, which by order of General
Joffre had now come to an end, "Their bodies retreated, but never their
souls;" and he might have added of the German advance, "It was an
advance of bodies, not of souls." It was material might in men and guns
forcing back an army weaker in everything except soul and spirit. The
World War has shown over and over again, not only at the Marne but at a
hundred other places and in a hundred other ways, that soul and spirit
are the real conquerors and that God is not always, as Napoleon said,
on the side of the larger battalions.
The Germans had come on flushed with success and egotism, destroying
French property, looting, and dissipating. Their spirit was the spirit
they found in the French wine cellars, and as for soul, as civilized
people understand the word, they had none. They were an army of tired,
conquering brutes. Their morale was low because of their great success
and all that had accompanied it of feasts and slaughter. The morale of
the French was never higher. Every day and every hour they had been
compelled to retreat, giving up, giving up all that they loved even
better than life itself to these brutes, until the brain of the French
army said on the evening of September 5, 1914, "You have gone so far in
order that you may now stand successfully." And in the morning at dawn,
it was not only the bodies of the French soldiers that hurled
themselves against the invaders, but the souls of French men, the soul
of France; and all along the line from Verdun to Meaux, under the
gallant leadership of Manoury, Foch, Sarrail, Castelnau, and others,
the French armies held. If they had not held--not only held but
attacked--all of future history would be different.
General Foch, commander in chief at the Second Battle of the Marne,
inspired his troops in this first battle to supernatural bravery. He
knew they must not yield, so with his right broken, his left shattered,
he attacked with his center. It was that or retreat. His message to
the commander-in-chief, General Joffre, will never be forgotten.
"My left has been forced back, my right is routed. I shall attack with
The Germans could not put their souls into the battles as the French
soldiers did, and besides, the Germans were weakened by feasting and
dissipation. With the Huns it was the right of might; with the Allies
it was the might of right, and in the end the second always defeats the
Some one has well said:
"It is the law of good to protect and to build up. It is the law of
evil to destroy. It is in the very nature of good to lead men aright.
It is in the very nature of evil to lead men astray. Goodness makes for
wisdom. Badness is continually exercising poor judgment.
"Germany and Austria have made colossal mistakes in this war because of
their colossal violation of truth and justice. In brutally wronging
Serbia, they lost the friendship and support of Italy. In perpetrating
the monstrous crime against Belgium, they brought against them the
whole might of the British Empire. In breaking international law with
their reckless submarine warfare, they caused the United States to
enter the war on the side of the Allies."
It is said that the army of the German Crown Prince retreated before
the impetuous attack of the French and, because of this retreat, all
the other German armies were obliged to do likewise. It is more
probable, however, that the general retreat was due to General Joffre's
strategy. The Germans under General von Kluck were within about twenty
miles of Paris, near Meaux on the Marne, when suddenly they were struck
in the flank and rear by about twenty thousand fresh troops brought out
unexpectedly from Paris in motor trucks, taxis, limousines, and all
kinds of pleasure cars. Now the Germans, who had caused the retreat of
the French and British armies upon Paris by continually outflanking the
British, were in their turn outflanked and compelled to retreat, and
Paris was saved.
An English writer has said that although the Germans were outflanked
only in the west, yet the blow passed from one end of the German line
to the other, from Meaux to Verdun, just as the blow from the buffer of
the engine, when it is coupled to the train, passes from one truck to
another to the very end of the train.
The Germans in the next few days retreated from the Marne to the Aisne,
where they entrenched. Paris and France and Europe and the only world
worth living in were saved. The French government moved back to Paris.
Hall Caine in "Three Hundred and Sixty-five Days" says: "The soul of
France did not fail her. It heard the second approach of that monstrous
Prussian horde, which, like a broad, irresistible tide, sweeping across
one half of Europe, came down, down, down from Mons until the thunder
of its guns could again be heard on the boulevards. And then came the
great miracle! Just as the sea itself can rise no higher when it has
reached the top of the flood, so the mighty army of Germany had to stop
its advance thirty kilometres north of Paris; and when it stirred
again, it had to go back. And back and back it went before the armies
of France, Britain, and Belgium, until it reached a point at which it
could dig itself into the earth and hide in a long, serpentine trench
stretching from the Alps to the sea.
"Only then did the spirit of France draw breath for a moment, and the
next flash as of lightning showed her offering thanks and making
supplications before the white statue of Jeanne d'Arc in the apse of
the great cathedral of Notre Dame, sacred to innumerable memories. On
the Feast of St. Michael, ten thousand of the women of Paris were
kneeling under the dark vault, and on the broad space in the front of
the majestic faÃ§ade, praying for victory. It was a great and grandiose
scene, recalling the days when faith was strong and purer. Old and
young, rich and poor, every woman with some soul that was dear to her
in that inferno at the front--the Motherhood of France was there to
ask God for the triumph of the right.
"And in the spirit of that prayer the soul of France still lives."
Nearly four years later the Germans, with greatly increased forces in
France, due to the collapse of Russia, were again upon the Marne and
only about forty miles from Paris. French and English and Americans
were opposing them upon a line shaped like a great letter U, extending
south with Rheims at the top on the east, and Soissons at the top on
the west. The Marne River was at the curve at the bottom, and there
most of the Americans were stationed.
On July 15, 1918, the Germans began the offensive which was to result,
as they hoped, in the capture of Paris. They attacked on the Marne and
between the Marne and Rheims. At the end of the fourth day, they had
advanced about six miles, crossing the Marne and pushing back the
American troops. The Americans fought bravely and soon regained the
ground they had lost, although the French generals suggested that they
should not attempt to retake it. The American commander, however, sent
word to the French general, who was his superior officer, saying that
he did not feel able to follow the suggestion, for the American flag
had been compelled to retire. None of his soldiers, he said, would
understand this being allowed as long as they were able to attack. "We
are going to counter-attack," he added. They did so, and regained all
the ground lost.
It is clear now that the French generals knew the counter-attack was
unnecessary, and knew why. West of the line from Soissons to the Marne
is a great forest, and back of this General Foch, commander in chief of
all the allied armies, had been for several days gathering guns,
ammunition, tanks, and troops ready to strike the flank of the Germans,
when they should attack between Rheims and the Marne and attempt to
cross the Marne, as he knew they would in their desire to take Paris. A
terrible tempest passed over the region just before the Allied attack,
preventing the Germans from observing the advancing tanks and troops.
An English writer has said, "The storm which had covered the noise of
the final preparation of a number of tanks which led the assault, was
over. Not a sound was heard in the forest, though it was teeming with
men and horses. Then suddenly the appointed moment came when day broke.
There was a roar from all the guns, the whole front broke into activity
as men and tanks dashed forward. I suppose there has been nothing more
dramatic in the whole war than this scene on which the general looked
down from the top of a high perch in the forest on that quiet July
The Allies struck so unexpectedly that they captured hundreds of guns
and thousands of prisoners, and obliged the Germans to fall back
across the Marne, losing all the territory they had gained and much
more. The danger to Paris was again turned aside by the military genius
of General Foch and the bravery of the troops under his command.
It was the first great battle in which the Americans took part. They
showed themselves equal to the best of the Allies, and better than the
Germans. A London paper called the American counter-attack one of the
historical incidents of the whole war. All Europe, except Hunland, rang
with praises of the American troops.
* * * * *
In the history of the World War, most of the great land battles will be
named from rivers, the Marne, the Yser, the Somme, the Aisne, the
Ailette, the Ancre, the Bug, the Dneister, the Dunajec and the Piave. A
battle of the Rhine will probably be fought before German territory can
be invaded to any great extent.