From Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August:*
Through France as through Belgium the Germans left a blackened and defiled path as they passed. Villages were burned, civilians shot, homes looted and torn, horses ridden through rooms, artillery wagons dragged across gardens, latrines dug in the family burial plot of the Poincarés at Nubécourt. Kluck’s IInd Corps passing through Senlis, twenty-five miles from Paris, on September 2, shot the Mayor and six other civilian hostages. A stone marker, just outside the town on the edge of a field where they are buried, bears their names: EUGÈNE ODÈNE Mayor EMILE AUBERT Tanner JEAN BARBIER Carter LUCIEN COTTREAU Café waiter PIERRE DEWERDT Chauffeur J-B. ELYSÉE POMMIER Baker’s helper ARTHUR RÉGANT Stonecutter.
September 2 was a happy day for General von Hausen who found himself billeted in the Château of the Comte de Chabrillon at Thugny on the Aisne. Occupying the countess’ bedroom, the General was delighted to discover from examination of her visiting cards that she was née Comtesse de Lévy-Mirepois in her own right, which caused him to sleep with that much extra pleasure in her bed. After dining on pheasant obtained by his supply officers who organized a shoot in the park of the château, Hausen counted the countess’ table silver and left an inventory of it with an old man in the village. That night Moltke, who after a second look had developed qualms about the flank that Kluck’s inward wheel was exposing to Paris, issued a new General Order. As in the matter of the left wing, it showed his uncertain hand. It ratified Kluck’s turn by ordering the First and Second Armies to “drive the French armies in a southeast direction away from Paris.” At the same time it attempted to guard against a possible danger by ordering Kluck’s army to follow “in echelon behind the Second Army” and make itself “responsible for the flank protection of the Armies.” In echelon! To Kluck the insult was worse than putting him, as OHL had done before, under Bülow’s orders. The grim-visaged Attila with rifle in one hand and revolver in the other, the pace-setter of the right wing, was not going to stay behind anybody.
He issued his own orders to the First Army “to continue its advance over the Marne tomorrow [September 3] in order to drive the French southeastward.” He considered it sufficient for purposes of protecting the flank exposed to Paris to leave behind him his two weakest units: the IVth Reserve which was minus a brigade left back at Brussels and the 4th Cavalry Division which had suffered heavily in the fight against the British on September 1.R To halt the marching wing on the very threshold of victory seemed stark madness to the War Minister, General von Falkenhayn, who within two weeks was to be Moltke’s successor as Commander in Chief. “Only one thing is certain,” he wrote in his diary for September 5. “Our General Staff has completely lost its head. Schlieffen’s notes do not help any further so Moltke’s wits come to an end.”
It was not Moltke’s wits but German time that was running out. In the French troop movements Moltke correctly saw a danger developing upon his outer flank and took a proper and sensible measure to meet it. His Order had only one flaw: it was late. Even then it might have been in time had it not been for one man in a hurry—Gallieni. Reports of the Paris aviators, at daybreak on September 4, showed him it was “vital to act quickly.” The rear of Kluck’s curved march to the southeast presented a clear target to Maunoury’s Army and to the British if a joint attack could be launched in time. At 9:00 A.M., before obtaining Joffre’s consent, he sent preliminary orders to Maunoury: “My intention is to send your army forward in liaison with the English forces against the German flank. Make your arrangements at once so that your troops will be ready to march this afternoon as the start of a general movement eastward by the forces of the Paris camp.” As soon as he could Maunoury was to come to confer personally in Paris. Gallieni then set himself to obtain an “immediate and energetic” decision from Joffre.
Between them lay the remnants of an old relationship as commander and subordinate. Both were conscious of Gallieni’s official designation as Commander in Chief if anything happened to Joffre. Aware that Joffre resisted and resented his influence, Gallieni counted less on persuading him than on forcing his hand. To that end he had already called Poincaré in Bordeaux to say he thought there was a “good opening” for resuming the offensive at once. At 9:45 he put through a call to GQG, the first of a series of which he was later to say, “The real battle of the Marne was fought on the telephone.” General Clergerie conducted the conversation with Colonel Pont, Chief of Operations, as Gallieni would not talk to anyone less than Joffre and Joffre would not come to the phone. He had an aversion to the instrument and used to pretend he “did not understand the mechanism.” His real reason was that, like all men in high position, he had an eye on history and was afraid that things said over the telephone would be taken down without his being able to control the record. Clergerie explained the plan to launch the Sixth Army and all available forces of the Paris camp in an attack on Kluck’s flank, preferably north of the Marne, in which case contact could be made on September 6; alternatively on the south bank which would require a day’s delay to allow Maunoury to cross over. In either case Clergerie asked for an order to put the Sixth Army on the march that evening. He urged Gallieni’s belief that the moment had come to end the retreat and return the whole army to the offensive in combination with the Paris maneuver.
GQG was left to come to a decision. Contrary to GQG’s willingness to sacrifice the capital, Gallieni from the beginning was motivated by the conviction that Paris must be defended and held. He viewed the front from the point of view of Paris and with no direct knowledge of the situation of the field armies. He was determined to seize the opportunity Kluck’s swerve offered him, believing that his own move must and would precipitate a general offensive. It was a bold, even a rash, design, for without fully knowing the situation of the other armies he could not fairly judge the chances of success. Gallieni did not think there was a choice. It may be he had a great commander’s instinctive feel for his moment; it is more likely he felt France would not have another.
At 11:00 A.M. Maunoury arrived for briefing; no answer had yet come from Joffre. At noon Clergerie telephoned again. Meanwhile in the school at Bar-sur-Aube where GQG was installed, officers of the Operations staff, crowding in front of the wall map, animately discussed Gallieni’s proposal for a combined offensive. The terrible trampling of French military hopes in the past month had instilled caution in the hearts of some. Others were as fervent apostles of the offensive as ever and had an answer for every counsel of caution. Joffre was present, listening to their arguments recorded by his aide-decamp, Captain Muller. “Troops at the end of their strength? No matter, they are Frenchmen and tired of retreating. The moment they hear the order to advance they will forget their fatigue. A gap between the Armies of Foch and de Langle? It will be filled by the XXIst Corps coming from Dubail’s Army. Unpreparedness of the armies to attack? Ask the field commanders; you will see how they will answer. Cooperation of the English? Ah, that’s more serious. One cannot give their Commander orders; one has to negotiate, and time is short. But the important thing is to seize the occasion, for it is fugitive. Kluck can still repair his mistake, and the movements of the Sixth Army will certainly draw his attention to the dangers to which he has exposed himself.”
Without having contributed a word, Joffre went to consult Berthelot in his office and found him opposed to the plan. The Armies could not suddenly face about, he argued. They should complete the planned retreat to a strong defensive line and allow the Germans to penetrate more deeply into the net. Above all, the numerical superiority which was wanted could not be achieved until the two corps coming from the Lorraine front had time to come into position. Silent, astride a straw-bottomed chair facing Berthelot’s wall map, Joffre considered the problem. His plan for an ultimate return to the offensive had always included using the Sixth Army in an attack on the enemy’s right flank. Gallieni, however, was precipitating matters. Joffre wanted the extra day for the reinforcements to come up, for the Fifth Army to prepare, and for more time in which to secure the cooperation of the British. When Clergerie’s second call came through, he was told that the Commander in Chief preferred attack on the south bank of the Marne, and when Clergerie demurred about the delay he was told “the delay of a day will mean more forces available.” Joffre now faced the greater decision: whether to carry out the planned retreat to the Seine or seize the opportunity—and the risk—and face the enemy now.
The heat was overpowering. Joffre went outside and sat down in the shade of a weeping ash in the school playground. By nature an arbiter, he collected the opinions of others, sorted them, weighed the personal coefficient of the speaker, adjusted the scale, and eventually announced his verdict. The decision was always his. If it succeeded his would be the glory; if it failed he would be held responsible. In the problem now before him the fate of France was at stake. During the past thirty days the French Army had failed in the great task for which it had been preparing for the past thirty years. Its last chance to save France, to prove her again the France of 1792, was now. The invader was forty miles from where Joffre sat and barely twenty from the nearest French Army. Senlis and Creil, after Kluck’s Army had passed over, were in flames and the Mayor of Senlis dead. If the French turned now before the armies were ready—and failed?
The immediate requirement was to find out whether they could be made ready. As the Fifth Army was in a crucial position, Joffre sent a message to Franchet d’Esperey: “It may be advantageous to give battle tomorrow or the day after with all the forces of the Fifth Army in concert with the British and the mobile forces of Paris against the German First and Second Armies. Please advise whether your army is in a condition to do this with a chance of success. Reply immediately.” A similar query was sent to Foch who stood next to Franchet d’Esperey and opposite Bülow. Joffre continued to sit and think under the tree. For most of the afternoon the ponderous figure in black tunic, baggy red pants, and army-issue boots from which, to the despair of hisR aides, he had banished the affectation of spurs, remained silent and motionless.
Meanwhile Gallieni, taking Maunoury with him, left Paris at one o’clock to drive to British Headquarters at Melun on the Seine, twenty-five miles to the south. In response to his request for British support he had received a negative reply from Huguet who reported that Sir John French “adopts the counsels of prudence of his Chief of Staff,” Sir Archibald Murray, and would not join an offensive unless the French guaranteed defense of the lower Seine between the British and the sea. Driving past the lines of southbound cars fleeing Paris, the two French generals reached British Headquarters at three o’clock. Kilted sentinels presented arms smartly; soldiers were busily typing indoors; but neither the Field Marshal nor his principal officers could be found, and the Staff appeared “confounded” by the situation. After a prolonged search Murray was located. Sir John French, he said, was away inspecting the troops; he could give no idea when he was expected to return. Gallieni tried to explain his plan of attack and why British participation was “indispensable,” but he could feel all the while the Englishman’s “great reluctance to share our views.” Murray kept repeating that the BEF was under the formal orders of its Commander in Chief to rest, reorganize, and await reinforcements, and he could do nothing until his return. After more than two hours of discussion during which Sir John French still did not appear, Gallieni succeeded in persuading Murray to write down a summary of the plan of attack and proposals for joint British action which “he did not appear to understand very well.” Before leaving he secured a promise that Murray would notify him the moment his Chief returned.
At the same time another Anglo-French conference was taking place thirty-five miles up the Seine at Bray from which Sir John French was also absent. Anxious to repair the frayed relations left by Lanrezac, Franchet d’Esperey had arranged for a meeting with the Field Marshal at Bray at three o’clock. He wore for the occasion the ribbon of a Knight Commander of the Victorian Order. On reaching Bray his car was stopped by a French sentinel who reported an urgent message waiting for the General at the telegraph office. It was Joffre’s query about the coming battle. Studying it, Franchet d’Esperey strode up and down the street, waiting in growing impatience for the British. After fifteen minutes a Rolls-Royce drove up with an “enormous Highlander” next to the chauffeur, but instead of the florid little Field Marshal in the back seat, “a tall devil, very ugly with an intelligent, expressive face” emerged.
Wilson who was accompanied by the British Chief of Intelligence, Colonel Macdonogh. They had been delayed on the way when, seeing a Parisian lady in distress by the roadside, Wilson gallantly took time to provide gas for her car and maps for her chauffeur. The group retired to a room on the second floor of the Mairie with the Highlander posted as sentinel outside. Macdonogh lifted a heavy cloth to peer under the table, opened a door leading to an adjoining bedroom, looked under the bed, punched the quilt, opened the closet, and sounded the walls with his fist. Then, in answer to a question from Franchet d’Esperey about the situation of the British Army, he unfolded a map showing the exact positions, marked in blue arrows, of the enemy on his front and gave a masterly analysis of the movements of the German First and Second Armies. Franchet d’Esperey was impressed. “You are our ally—I shall keep no secrets from you,” he said, and read aloud Joffre’s proposal. “I am going to answer that my army is prepared to attack,” and, fixing his visitors with eyes of steel, “I hope you will not oblige us to do it alone. It is essential that you fill the space between the Fifth and Sixth Armies.” He then outlined a precise plan of action which he had worked out in his head in the brief quarter-hour since receiving the telegram. It was based on the assumption, arrived at independently, of attack by Maunoury’s Army north of the Marne on September 6. Wilson, concerting again with an energetic French general as he once had with Foch, readily agreed. Disposition of the two armies, the given line each was to reach by morning of September 6, and the direction of attack were decided.
Wilson warned there would be difficulty in obtaining consent from Sir John French and especially from Murray, but promised to do his best. He left for Melun while Franchet d’Esperey sent a report of their agreement to Joffre...