On this Labor Day of 2014 I’d like to reflect on something that happened across the Atlantic almost exactly 100 years ago which caused repercussions which shaped the world into which all of us were born. Most Americans nowadays haven’t even heard of it, perhaps because no American soldiers and few civilians were anywhere near it at the time, but I find such an attitude ignorant at best and pure hubris at worst.
Anyway, a hundred years ago this week, just four weeks after World War I began, six massive German armies had conquered all of Luxembourg, all of Belgium except for a tiny corner of it on the English channel, and most of France northeast of Paris. German troops in fact had crossed the Marne River in force and their lead elements could even see the Eiffel Tower. In spite of heretofore unprecedented casualties inflicted by the relatively new war technologies of accurate rifles, mobile artillery(usually pulled by horses), and rapid-firing machine guns, 100 years ago today the German Empire seemed poised to capture Paris and dictate terms to a bloodied and humiliated French nation, hold off the slowly mobilizing British Empire, and turn east to crush the Russians who had gone to war to defend their beleaguered Serbian allies in the Balkans.
I don’t have the space, and I’m sure most readers don’t have the time, to go over every little military historical detail that has been written and argued over by historians ever since. I recently read The Marne, 1914, by Holger Herwig, a Canadian of German descent who studied German records made available to Western historians after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic(East Germany) in 1989. I disagree with many of his conclusions about the quality of the decisions made by German, French, and British commanders, but he does seem to get most of his facts straight.
The Germans had been consistently shocked by two things since they launched their great crusade to knock France out of the war quickly. First, Belgian soldiers and then Belgian civilians had refused to meekly submit to superior German arms and had fought them tooth and nail. The sniping of civilians behind the lines led to fierce German reprisals where several thousand Belgian civilians were summarily executed and even more were deported by train to Germany. Those events fed Allied propaganda that would, three years later, help persuade President Woodrow Wilson to send America into the war on their side. Had it not been for the Battle of the Marne in 1914, however, there would have been no France to go to the aid of.
Basically, generals on both sides were totally surprised by the huge number of casualties suffered by both the Germans and the French. There is no exact count, but it is safe to say that both had already lost over a hundred thousand dead each and twice that many wounded or captured before the Battle of the Marne even began. It makes American losses in Indochina, some 58,000 dead, seem almost like pocket change. And there was worse to come.
Both Germans and French had marched hundreds of miles, on foot, over the previous four weeks, sometimes fighting major engagements every day for over a week at a time. The soldiers on both sides still capable of fighting were exhausted, sick, hungry, and yet somehow still determined. In fact, German officers, so confident in their detailed war plans and in the fighting superiority of the Teutonic Germans over the decadent wine-and-cheese-loving French, seemed to have a hard time believing that the ordinary French soldier still had any fight left in him. After all, the French really have no stomach for a fight. Everybody knew that. We even hear that today.
The Germans were wrong. The French leadership had totally miscalculated the German avenue of attack through Belgium and refused to even acknowledge the possibility until Brussels fell after a couple of weeks. They did, however, eventually realize their mistake and made a more-or-less orderly retreat which avoided encirclement and annihilation over about 300 miles from the Belgian border to the gates of Paris. Then, the French Army, only desultorily and maybe even reluctantly supported by a British Expeditionary Force which regarded its own survival as all-important, turned and made a stand.
The stand took place over a front several hundred miles long. German communications in particular were confused, slow, and incomplete, though the French had more than their share of the same. The French went all out. They mobilized another army and threw it into a gap between two of the exhausted French armies that had made the fighting retreat from Belgium. Several thousand Parisian taxi cabs were used to ferry reinforcements to the front, less than 20 miles away from Paris itself in places, and wounded back to hospitals, though most of the movements were in fact made by rail. While many of the wealthy and the government itself fled, most Parisians prepared to fight grimly on in a siege.