Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

From the Marne to Antwerp

The strategy of Joffre had then permitted the Germans to proceed as far as Paris. He had retreated in order to draw them into France, to compel them to extend their lines. Thus he made it as difficult as possible for them to maintain the attack and rendered its weight less every mile they proceeded away from Germany. It was just as if an open door, with the hinge at Verdun and the end of the door out on the Belgian frontier, had gradually shut as the Germans pushed, and finally closed tight on Paris. There was then a strong French line from Verdun to Paris, which General Joffre proposed to hold. As the Germans got further from their bases of supplies and reinforcements, they became fatigued with the rapid marching and fighting. They had no troops to put into the battle except those who had marched the whole distance. The French were continually receiving the aid of fresh troops of their own, which had seen no fighting, and, therefore, every mile the Germans advanced in France they became weaker and the French became stronger. They became more and more fatigued, while the French armies as a whole really remained fresh.

But General Joffre was counting in particular upon the great Russian attacks in East Prussia and Galicia. The Tsar had promised that his army should move west at all costs. That meant that German troops would have to be drawn from France to defend Prussia. The Russians launched a great cavalry attack the first week of August, which was extremely successful. It was indeed one of the most daring raids in history, but it could not maintain its ground and it was not until August 18 that a movement in force took place. This too was astonishingly successful. It swept the German forces out of East Prussia in a hurry and compelled the Kaiser to send for General Hindenburg, who had spent his life studying that territory, and to give him command of troops drawn from the army in France.

In two tremendous battles, Tannenberg, from August 26 to September 1, five whole days, and the Masurian Lakes, lasting from September 6 to 10, five more days, he defeated the first and second Russian armies, crushed, and then destroyed them. In the meantime, however, the third Russian army had made tremendous gains in Galicia, had captured Lemberg, and had already rendered perilous Hindenburg's position in the north. The victories elated the German people, but they weakened the German army in France to such an extent that Joffre was able to begin the battle of the Marne on September 6 with many more men than the Germans had to meet him, placed in a much better position, and in far superior condition.

Battle of Marne


What Joffre proposed to do, despite the tremendous scale on which the battle was fought, was particularly simple. He proposed to turn the German right flank and by driving it back compel the whole German line to retreat. He would thus relieve Paris from danger and continue the war on a field much more favorable to the French. The Germans had felt so sure of the superiority of their army and of the success of the drive on Paris that they had left a great area of unoccupied territory between their right wing and the coast. Their right wing was therefore unsupported and could be attacked anywhere along the line from Paris to Brussels. If the French could get in behind it, they would break the German formation. Only an army continually successful could maintain such a position. Of this overconfidence Joffre took advantage.

He now enveloped the German right wing with French and British troops, so that the Germans were between the blades of a pair of scissors. The French then attacked, and moved towards each other, thus closing the scissors, and the Germans barely got out from between in time to avoid being cut in two. Their right wing having been compelled to run, the German center was left unprotected, with the now victorious French and English on its flank and in danger of getting in behind it and attacking it in the rear. The German center, therefore, also had to retreat, and the rest of the German line, in order to avoid a similar fate, had to go back with it. They retreated many miles and intrenched themselves on the hills north of the river Aisne, which runs about parallel to the river Marne. The German army at the beginning of the battle was well south of the Marne and at its end was well north of the Aisne. Their loss in territory, therefore, was great.

Battle of Marne


One of the most picturesque and dramatic movements of the war was the daring charge of General Gallieni's army in Paris to the battle field of the Ourcq. As Von Kluck had continued his pressure upon the French left, he turned early in September southeast to separate Joffre from Paris and make the investment of the city a certainty. Gallieni saw the enemy escaping him and possibly overwhelming Joffre for want of the aid of the hundreds of thousands of men gathered in Paris for the expected siege. "If they do not come to us," he said, "we will go to them with all the force we can muster." He gathered all the taxicabs, automobiles, and motor omnibuses in Paris, thousands of them, loaded his army upon them and started for the battle front at fifty miles an hour, leaving Paris unguarded. Suddenly Von Kluck found a great army assailing his right along the Ourcq, where a couple of hours before there had been not a French soldier. Thus began the great victory of the Marne.

At another most critical moment of the battle, General Foch, in the center of the French line, was being assailed by tremendous forces, and received from Joffre the order to retreat. He believed he detected a weakening of the assault, saw a rift in the German line due to some error or misunderstood order, and instead of retreating ordered an attack. He pushed his army between two German armies, flanked them both, and the rout of the German center was complete. This was the turning point of the battle of the Marne and the decisive moment of the first years of the war. However great the credit due to Joffre, history will give the real credit for the victory to the judgment, initiative, and courage of Foch.

Battle of Marne


The Germans, however, were by no means safe. Their right wing was still a long distance from Brussels; and their reinforcements might still be flanked exactly as during the battle of the Marne. This General Joffre attempted. The Germans, in order to meet his movement, kept on extending their line toward Brussels. So day by day the chase went on to see whether the Germans could occupy certain territory before the French could get around their right wing. They succeeded, but had to extend the trench line all the way from the Aisne into Belgium. In order to have a secure base from which to protect the northern end of it, they proceeded to besiege Antwerp. They could not leave a strong fort like that in the possession of the Belgians, for the English navy might land a great army there and attack the German rear.

The fall of Antwerp was one of the surprises of the war. It had been fortified by talented engineers, and, while not considered the greatest fortress in Europe, was supposed to be able to resist for a considerable length of time any assault likely to be delivered. Only a prolonged siege could capture it, the Belgians had thought. But Antwerp fell, not in weeks, but in days (one might almost say in hours), after the first serious German assault. Here, for the first time, the Germans used one of their surprises—the 420 centimeter gun, the largest gun in the world, throwing an enormous shell filled with high explosives. One single shell was sufficient in most cases to destroy one of the Antwerp forts. Some were blown wide open; some were turned upside down. It was clear at once that every fort in Europe was worthless.

The final scenes at Antwerp were dramatic in the extreme. Great shells set fire to the city. The boom of the enormous cannon, the bursting of shells, the rain of explosives were continuous. Vast plumes of dense black smoke rose from great oil tanks burning along the river. And in the red glare of the burning city, under this great black pall, hundreds of thousands of people fled in boats down the river or on foot along its banks, carrying what little they could in their hands, but otherwise homeless, penniless, starving.

Battle of Marne


The Germans could not rest content with a line bent back from Paris to Antwerp and delivered in October and November their first great drive along the coast on Calais. They were eager now to do what they should have done before, occupy western France, shorten the trench line by many scores of miles, and deprive the British of the Channel ports as harbors in which to land their army and the great stream of men and equipment which must maintain it. All but a tiny little strip of Belgium fell into their hands but they did not reach Calais. The Channel ports were safe; the communications of the British army were safe; the submarines would not be able to assail Allied shipping from bases on the Channel itself.

The war now settled down in the west to a deadlock, and, with small changes, the trench line remained substantially the same until 1918. It will therefore be clear that the battle of the Marne did not win the war, for the war went on four years. But the battle was the turning point of the war, not so much because of the territory won from the Germans, but because of its moral effect upon the French and British nations. Everywhere the correspondents went after the battle they found the French quiet, silent, confident, talking about the "good news," les bonnes nouvelles. The legend of the power of the German army had been destroyed. It had seemed for six weeks as if the Germans could not be beaten; that they must infallibly win the war. But the moment the Germans had been beaten, the French and British became confident that, however long the war might last, they would in the end win it.